The best friends tell you when you're doing the worst things. For the last decade or so, Mike Dillon and Christopher Hutcherson-Riddle have been just that—close friends and collaborators in several bands, namely Gross Ghost and Motor Skills. But at first, they actually weren't friends at all. Sure, they were from the same coastal North Carolina town of Manteo, remembered meeting as elementary-school students in a town park, and eventually shaped the rhythm section of the same Brit rock four-piece, Komakino. But that didn't mean they liked each other.
"He thought I was totally an asshole," remembers Dillon, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a restaurant booth with Hutcherson-Riddle a decade later. "And I thought he was, too."
That's part of the reason, it seems, that Dillon—who'd joined the band on bass much later, largely to help the quartet record in Raleigh—never told Hutcherson-Riddle about the plagiaristic tendencies of Komakino, who'd borrowed their name from a Joy Division single. A self-described Anglophile, Dillon obsessed over cuts from across the sea, memorizing records by and recording minutiae of Oasis and New Order, Buzzcocks and Blur. When he listened to Komakino's new numbers, he recognized the riffs and structures as those of songs he already liked. Trouble is, he didn't bother telling Hutcherson-Riddle.
"My bandmate would go listen to the most obscure Manic Street Preachers B-side, and just take it. And I'm oblivious, just playing my drums in the background," explains Hutcherson-Riddle, Dillon grinning mischievously to his left. "Mike knew, so when he finally told me one day, I was devastated. I thought all the stuff was great."
Komakino relocated from Manteo to Raleigh toward the end of its run, playing sporadically at local clubs and bringing Dillon along to add bass in the studio. Dillon slept on Hutcherson-Riddle's couch when he arrived, and the forced proximity fostered steady friendship. They liked a lot of the same bands, and their personalities complemented each other's in unpredictable ways. Organized and managed, Hutcherson-Riddle is the Type A to Dillon's affable, erratic and scattered B. Today, Dillon's button-up shirt is actually half-unbuttoned, exposing his chest near his sternum. He slouches deep in the booth. Hutcherson-Riddle, however, sits upright, hands folded on the table, an olive green undershirt exposed beneath his own button-up. "We were," Dillon explains, "kind of like The Odd Couple."
Still, they started writing music together in the late '90s. They've yet to stop.
It hasn't always been a glamorous relationship. For years, they toiled in the dance-rock trio Spader, attempting to capitalize on another imported trend led by terse units like Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys. With Dillon on guitar and Hutcherson-Riddle still on drums, they'd recruited bassist Justin May to join the band. But May had held a steady, lucrative job in the luxury automobile business since finishing high school and purchased his first home when most people are just finishing college. He wasn't looking to lose money on the road for two months at the time, struggling to get 10 people at a gig while fretting over the mortgage back home. So Spader stayed local, but with a quickly fading fad of a sound and a fickle potential audience, the trio soon wore itself out.
"We ground really hard in Raleigh with Spader, I think, and you can get bitter on a place if you felt like you put a lot of work into a place and no one responded," explains Hutcherson-Riddle. "We felt like we were beating a dead horse with Spader, at the end of it."
When Spader called it quits, May and Hutcherson-Riddle regrouped in a short-lived project that practiced a lot but never played in front of many people. Dillon returned back east to be with his mother. His father had died unexpectedly, and he'd taken the news hard. He wasn't sure if he cared about playing music anymore and for a few months, he settled into a doldrum.
"The Bojangles that opened up was the biggest news of the year," says Dillon, who perpetually bookends serious remarks with the same doses of levity he adds to his songs. "I was there for seven or eight months, watching A&E a lot, drinking a 40, and going to bed."
While Dillon was in the east, Hutcherson-Riddle had moved to Chapel Hill. He urged Dillon to join him. At the end of Spader, he'd gravitated more toward electronic music, creating a stylistic schism with Dillon's more garage-rock predilection. With Spader done, he'd started to focus on drum machines, looping software and keyboards, slowly building beats that had yet to find a home. When Dillon finally returned, he saw the Triangle with revitalized eyes; unlike the small town he'd called home, there were shows every night, friends who wanted to make music and conversation, and bands that he could join. He started writing songs with the multi-instrumentalist Tre Acklen and began conjuring ways to use Hutcherson-Riddle's beats.
Those tunes with Acklen quickly turned into Gross Ghost, a band that Hutcherson-Riddle soon joined on drums; the hooks Dillon sang over Hutcherson-Riddle's electronic pieces spawned Motor Skills. They didn't try to fuse the bands, even if a loose cast of auxiliary members occasionally played in both.
"We'd really learned our lesson from Spader," explains Hutcherson-Riddle. "The fact that I was going more toward dance music and that Mike was getting frustrated with it was taxing on our relationship. Once we started hanging out again, we didn't want that to ever happen again."
Generally, when a young band breaks up because its principals are moving in stylistically opposite directions, each piece picks up their own impulses, writes new songs, finds new players and starts a new band. Remember that Steve Marriott left Small Faces to form Humble Pie. Locally, DeYarmond Edison's unsteady mix of nebulous outré sound and heartland rock splintered into the very popular love-and-lonely songs of Bon Iver and the much more far-flung expanses of Megafaun.
That's mostly what happened with Dillon and Hutcherson-Riddle, too, except that each of them became a pivotal part of the other's fresh outfit—supporting and backing one another without overriding each other or feeling any pressure to fuse their ideals or aesthetics. That relationship recently yielded two of the best records to be released in the area this year, both by the two bands they share—Gross Ghost and Motor Skills. Recorded in alternating spells, Gross Ghost's Brer Rabbit and Motor Skills' Moving Island essentially pull apart the halves that used to be Spader and make them better. Motor Skills' electronic pop slinks in dark, sophisticated corners, Dillon curling melodies around Hutcherson-Riddle's twisting templates. Gross Ghost fuzzes its way through sidewinding numbers ripped from the garage and into the light of day. Here, the synthesis by separation works.
In Motor Skills, Hutcherson-Riddle builds the beats, the basic structure, some keyboard chords and maybe a few guitar lines. Dillon shapes the vocal melody and, on record, sings it. He also gives Hutcherson-Riddle an absolute veto over those ideas. With these songs, Dillon says, he's able to take a step back and write from other people's perspectives—that is, analyze life rather than simply chronicle or criticize it, as he tends to do in Gross Ghost. He says having two bands enables both parallel, distinct thought processes, which not only keeps both of them from burning out but also makes them push both bands to get better. It's a mutually competitive and cooperative edge.
"We build each other up. Whether it's my band, or his band, or our bands, we get each other excited, and we get each other motivated," says Dillon. "How many other friends can you say you've been friends with for 10-plus years, and you're still on the same page?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Separate skills."