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Earning Their Degree 

The b-sides enrolled in the school of rock as kids and are studying harder than ever.

B-sides are rarely hits. Usually shoved to the face of a 45-record opposite the popular track, they were a singular glance into what the artist was doing when not pumping out smash singles. But for Chapel Hill's b-sides, the emphasis has always been on having fun and pushing their boundaries as performers rather than making hits. Considering their oldest member just became eligible to purchase alcohol, these bright young musicians come across as savvy vets, mostly because each of them has been involved in music since their early teens.

And it was during that halcyon period of youth that the band was brought together. Guitarist/vocalist Noah Smith's motive for wanting to assemble a group was particularly unusual. "I was at the School of the Arts in Winston Salem," he says. "For my senior thesis project we had absolute freedom to do whatever we wanted, and I felt that we'd never get the band started unless we had to, so I committed to doing a performance piece with the band, building a stage, writing songs, getting costumes together. So if I didn't get the band together, I was going to fail out of high school."

While most kids are getting in trouble for cranking up their amps way too loud in their parents' garage, here's a kid who's going to flunk if he doesn't rock. And while most bands experience the most humble of beginnings, the b-sides launched with a full on spectacle. "Our piece was about the instant gratification of television and how it sucks people in," says Smith. "We built a 30-foot-tall television set that we played inside of with lights and effects. It was our first show and it was a full-on rock concert. We got a huge sound studio from the film department and we recruited about 16 guys from the design and production school to help us build the set that we designed. We bought tons of TV dinners for the audience that we sort of halfway warmed up, just to get them in to the subject matter." Needless to say, Noah aced his thesis.

Attending that very show was a very impressed Ken Mosher, at the time enjoying the mercurial success of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Mosher was friends with Noah's mother, Pam, owner of Pittsboro vintage shop Beggars and Choosers, and had agreed to record the show. "He liked what we did so much that he offered to do our demos," says Smith. "At the time, our bass player was having trouble getting from Raleigh to Chapel Hill to record, so Ken sat in on bass and ending up staying with us until just recently. He's definitely been our guardian angel."

The band set out to record a few demos and seemingly weren't able to stop. The results were Two Beautiful Beaches, released in the spring of 2001, and Yes, Indeed, the b-sides, Quite, the former garnering praise in Billboard magazine. The bands' vocals shine and the arrangements run the gamut from simple, spare numbers to orchestral meanderings. They even haul out "Bohemian Rhapsody" live on occasion. "With the first two discs, we had really just started playing together, but people seemed to latch on to our idea pretty readily," says vocalist/guitarist Ari Picker. "Some of the songs are really accessible and some are a little more complex."

As with many bands, lineups often shift due to any number of reasons. At this point Mosher, along with the band's keyboardist and drummer, has amicably moved on to other projects. Picker and Smith have brought along brothers Joah Tunnel and Jonny Ace to fill in on bass and drums, respectively. These two siblings, originally from Swan Quarter, had spent the last eight years playing with their other brother, Stephen, in Vibrant Green. "I was 13 and Joah was 11 when we started playing," says Jonny. "We listened to stuff like U2, Everclear, Rush and Boston, all that kind of rock and roll stuff, but the B Sides are really different in that we try to focus on vocals and harmonies, more pop oriented stuff." Joah seems to be enjoying the stimulation provided by his new band mates. "In Vibrant Green, we were three brothers, so I guess you could say we had similar ideas to some degree," he says. "It's nice to have different people with their own input towards each song."

Choosing to earn a degree from "Rock and Roll University" rather than an accredited institution has been easy for this quartet. "Our parents have been completely supportive and come to our shows all the time," says Picker. And in addition to an ever-evolving palette of sounds, the band continues to explore the theatrical aspect of performance. "We try to be visually dynamic as well as musically dynamic," says Noah Smith. "We've tried to think of ways to keep the show different and interesting. We put a lot of energy into the band and we're serious about the music, but we don't want to take ourselves too seriously."

Due out next month is another full-length release that finds the band shifting gears in to more subdued material. "It's centered on the theme of leaving home, growing up, leaving childhood behind" says Picker. "It's called "the sad album." After that we're putting together a Christmas album. Imagine Danny Elfman meets a haunting doo-wop group from the '50s with string arrangements and a musical saw."

And while it's sort of an afterthought in their shows, the guys do figure they should put their pulpit to use and talk about subjects they feel strongly about, especially environmental issues. "We never want to preach to anyone, but we figure since we've usually got a whole group of people gathered together for a show, why not take the time to talk to them about something important? We don't sing about these topics, but we feel a responsibility as the people who are hopefully going to change things in the future. We're just trying to be good people, I guess."

So the classes roll on at "Rock and Roll U," and the members of the b-sides are eager attendees. With Professor Mosher on hiatus and their education in their own hands, will these bright students have what it takes to earn a degree? Will the band leave the cozy confines of Chapel Hill for a shot at the big time in one of America's metropolitan jungles? "I've always wondered about how important your location is in terms of making music," says Joah Tunnel. "It seems like if you're really creating good stuff you should be able to make it wherever you are. If you're in L.A. you might get bigger faster, but who's concerned with that?" So next time you're in a record store, steer clear of the "hits" rack and give some due attention to the b-sides. EndBlock

  • The b-sides enrolled in the school of rock as kids and are studying harder than ever.

More by Zach Hanner

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