Renée Mendoza and Brian Haran had been dating for about three months when he first head-butted someone. A bar that sold expensive sandwiches near his Greensboro apartment was going out of business, so the watering hole sold its remaining liquor to the local kids for pocket change. Haran is a Scotch fan, and he'd been paying a quarter per drink since early in the afternoon.
Haran had been swigging brown liquor for half a day when a young drinker with spiky blonde hair knocked Haran's glass out of his hand. He'd just moved to Greensboro from New York, and, as he admits now, his generally genteel disposition wasn't yet established. He followed the offender outside and slammed his skull into the boy's own. Haran wiped the blood from his face and slapped him.
"I instantly broke into tears: 'OK, this guy is totally creepy. What have I gotten myself into?'" says Mendoza, now smiling as she tells the story. "I walked all the way home by myself. I woke up in a pile of vomit that had eaten the varnish off the floor. That's how we rolled for a long time. We partied really hard."
But not anymore: Haran and Mendoza left Greensboro a year ago and moved into a small house on several acres in the tiny Alamance County community of Eli Whitney. Together they own Fret Sounds, a guitar-repair and guitar-making shop in downtown Graham, about equidistant from Durham and Greensboro. Three weeks ago, they celebrated their second wedding anniversary. Instead of a fancy dinner, they had band practice in the studio and rehearsal space attached to their shop.
Songs for Other People, the second album by their band Filthybird, is an arduously made, exquisitely written record. Complex and confident, its existence is a testament to Mendoza and Haran's maturity and perseverance, as band mates and as partners. Nothing about their path as a couple or as collaborators has been predictable or easy. On tape and in practice, though, it's working.
"Everything we could, we put back into this music," says Mendoza, leaning against the workbench where Haran makes people's guitars sound better. "Everything except what we needed to live."
The Pinebox, as Haran and Mendoza still call the house where they first lived together, is a charming, timber-frame two-story rental. Whitewashed in the middle, the exterior of the attic they shared is painted green, its gray roof slanting at harsh angles. Sandwiched by one edge of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro campus, a bright new pharmacy and a modest complex of condominiums, The Pinebox is surrounded by a fortress of tall, interlocking oaks and holly trees. On a muggy October afternoon, with a rainbow barely visible in the distance, the seclusion of the wraparound front porch suggests a strange sanctuary.
Filthybird was born in the attic. But The Pinebox wasn't always conducive to creativity or a new relationship. Downstairs, in a space shared by four or five renters, there was always a party. Mendoza and Haran, who lived there together for three years, both drank too much. They fought all the time, she remembers.
"It was the after-the-bars-close house," Haran says, his bright voice suddenly bedraggled, echoing the memories of late nights and wasted mornings.
"I lived in a place where I didn't know when I was going to open the door and someone was going to be sitting there with a needle in their arm," says Mendoza. "But it was my house, and I was paying for it. Again, it was, 'What have I gotten myself into?'"
Haran and Mendoza met in 2004, a month after his move from New York City. He'd heard good things about her electronic band, Ashrae Fax, so he went with his few new friends to see them at a local club on Valentine's Day. He liked her voice and introduced himself after the show; he just wanted to make music together, he insists.
She'd heard about this new hotshot recording engineer who'd moved from New York. She was skeptical, then frightened. His mannerisms seemed brusque, he was tall, and he wore only black. A few days later, he asked if he could download some software at her apartment. Then he asked her on a date. They've been together ever since.
"I didn't really know a lot of people, and I knew her immediately," he says. "I just felt comfort. I felt connection."
"I remember him saying that he felt more comfortable in my apartment than he'd felt anywhere since he was a kid, in his mom's house," says Mendoza, a calm storyteller who grins at her favorite memories. "He was coming from a really hard time in New York, and he'd left because things got really heavy. I think I just offered friendship and a safe place to be."
Indeed, Mendoza and Haran both fled to North Carolina from dire situations. Mendoza's parents were Texas musicians, in and out of a series of psychedelic '70s rock bands that flirted with legitimate success. The lifestyle took its toll, though, turning Mendoza's father into a drug dealer and her mother into a heavy user. He got arrested and spent several years in prison; in order to keep Mendoza and her twin sister, Sarah, she left. When her mom followed a new husband to North Carolina, the state of Texas called it kidnapping.
"My earliest memories of her as a single mom are her working two jobs and playing gigs at night to put food on the table. She did the best she could, kept writing," says Mendoza. "One day, she just said, 'I can't do this anymore' and became really religious. I felt like I had lost everything I really understood at a very young age."
Haran was born in New York City and raised just outside of Queens by parents who loved records; he doesn't remember a moment in his childhood home without music. "That's all I ever wanted when I was a little kid—my own records," he beams.
When Haran decided he wanted to play guitar as a teenager, his dad—a do-it-yourself, Mr. Fixit sort—took him hunting in the city's thrift stores. They settled on a broken guitar and repaired it themselves. Haran spent the next decade kicking around a series of rock bands as a guitarist and an occasional singer; finally, he found himself in a cheap, three-story punk house for musicians and artists in the South Bronx. Trying to be both an adult and a musician in the city proved nearly impossible. After hard living and a bad breakup, he knew he had to go somewhere.
Greensboro might not have been the best choice, really. Mendoza, who moved to the Gate City when she was 8, describes the city's youth as a culture of layabouts, hooked on cheap rent and smoking crack. She dropped out of high school and began a decade-long bout with alcoholism at 16. Just before she met Haran, she was close to quitting her last band and giving up music entirely. But Haran arrived just in time. He was the first person to take the quiet songs she'd squirreled away seriously. Their eccentricity—chords, structures, ideas—stunned him. He encouraged her to keep writing, to keep recording.
One night during a snowstorm, she crawled into his attic apartment in The Pinebox. She played a winding, Joni Mitchell-like tune called "Circa's Song to Herself." In her old bands, she'd been used to manipulating her vocals; hearing herself sing for the first time, especially into the fancy microphone of this New Yorker, she cried from shock.
"I told him, 'You have to stop recording me right now. I need a minute.' I got down on my knees and cried for a little bit," she says. "My voice is harsh at times, and when I heard it for the first time, it really upset me. It was so in my face. I couldn't hide from it."
By the next day, Haran had added guitars, drums and bass to the song. They kept making music together and soon started building Filthybird. Their first album, Southern Skies, was recorded in the attic and released in 2007, the same year Haran asked Mendoza to be his wife.
"I really hesitated. I'd never seen a marriage work, so why try?" remembers Mendoza, who took Haran's last name after the wedding. "That year before the wedding, I really dug deep. It was incredible—we got really close and learned how to communicate a lot better. It was transformational."
The genesis of Songs for Other People was just as knotty as the start of Haran and Mendoza's relationship. Ultimately, it's just as fulfilling. A comfortably strange album, Songs for Other People feels familiar and odd, with pop and vaguely country songs that bend in ways you'd never expect. The rhythms move in unpredictable patterns, and the chords shift with a logic best dubbed internal. Mendoza's as prone to write about love ("Portraits") as she is James Joyce ("Stephen Dedalus"), and conventional song structures seem, to her, like heresy. Haran's production is warm, inviting and specific, capturing her voice with a perfect majesty.
Before recording began, Haran and Mendoza attended a seminar about promotions at Chapel Hill rock club Local 506. Their first album suffered from a lack of significant publicity, and they wanted to ensure that they understood the music press, no matter the label that released the next record. When the seminar was over, Haran cornered Martin Hall, a longtime publicist at Merge Records, and asked if his band should consider devoting money to press before the new album was even done. Hall put him in his musicians-make-music place
"He was like, 'If there's something that can make this record one tiny bit better, do it,'" says Haran. He was stunned by the simplicity and power of that idea. "That's sort of where I went."
"We took that one thing he said, and we just sat on that," echoes Mendoza. "Until it was the best thing we could make with what we had, we weren't done."
Mike Duehring isn't an original member of Filthybird, but, aside from the band's husband-and-wife core, he's the only person to have played on both albums. On tour more than two years ago, Mendoza told him she had about a dozen songs written for the next album, which she'd already named. He figured they'd be in the studio the next week. But the songs kept changing, and people kept moving. In the end, the album required three starts and six recording locations, spread over two counties.
"We made a conscious decision to change our approach to the way we wrote," he says.
That cost Filthybird more than time, though: Longtime drummer Shawn Smith had always preferred heavy, steady, straightforward timekeeping, eliding dynamics and subtlety for the simplicity of the rock beat. For this LP, even that proved difficult. The second time they tried to record the drums, Duehring scribbled something onto a note and passed it to Haran.
"He wrote, 'We can't use this. It's a waste of the songs. We're undermining our record if we use these drums,'" remembers Mendoza. Smith was dropping the beats and adding less than a drum machine might've allowed. They needed finesse. "I said that this record couldn't be done unless we got another drummer."
They fired Smith and hired Otto Hauser, a New York drummer who has worked with Devendra Banhart, James Jackson Toth, Bert Jansch and a dozen other songwriters given to quiet, intricate recordings. After having heard only demos, Hauser arrived with music charts. He'd arranged several options for every song.
The parts he played pushed the band harder than they'd ever been pushed. Duerhing reconsidered the way he played bass, easing into pockets more and massaging every note for more nuance. Mendoza admits that she can be controlling about her songs. Her ideas for arrangement generally dictate how the band builds them. But with Hauser, the band discovered that simply trying new things could reinvent their sound. Before Hauser arrived, for instance, "Leaving Trail" was an indie rock drifter; on the record, it moves like a shifty Latin waltz, Mendoza sighing weepy notes of resignation into empty valleys of rhythm. Those three minutes are among the record's smartest and most poignant.
"We went through a really hard time with the band where Brian and I didn't want to have a band anymore," says Mendoza, who has since expanded Filthybird to a five-piece. Jim Bob Aiken, who helped record the album, now plays drums; Sanders Trippe, an old friend and formerly of Vetiver, plays second guitar. "The simplicity of me being able to write a song, bring it to him, record it and be done with it had been lost. It was affecting the music, and it was affecting our relationship."
Tonight, Mendoza arrives after dusk at Fret Sounds. She's worked all day in Durham, but they have work to do here tonight. Haran walks down the street to buy pizza, a six-pack of pale ale and a bottle of wine. There's a small loft in the back of the shop, and, tonight, they'll both work here until they fall asleep. Haran's busy enough to need repair help in the shop, but the business isn't profitable enough to hire anyone. She keeps track of the paperwork and is slowly helping him organize all of the tools and parts.
Mendoza and Haran have a patient way with each other, laughing at the embarrassing stories the other shares. Haran smiles knowingly when Mendoza talks about her trepidation with her songwriting and music theory, and she still teases his burly appearance and thick New York skin. They share the same strange pronunciations of certain words (saying ambient as if the first syllable were part of the word "bomb," for instance), and he knows what to order on the pizza without instruction. Succinctly, they're two 31-year-olds who live, work and make music together—and they're still completely in love.
While Filthybird recorded Songs for Other People, Haran built electric basses for Roscoe Guitars in Greensboro. The job paid well, but, in such a small company, he knew that he'd advanced about as much as he ever would. Meanwhile, Mendoza worked at a computer store full-time and lectured about physics full-time at Elon University for nearly two years. (Despite her teenage troubles, Mendoza earned a degree in physics from Guilford and is now applying to graduate schools.) Each cent they could spare went into the album—paying Hauser for his drums, buying new studio gear, renting and improving whatever space they were using as a makeshift studio.
They squandered no time, either: After work, they'd head into the studio, looking to make at least one thing better. Haran had two hernias surgically repaired, meaning he had to miss a week of work. The night before his surgery, he carted every amp and guitar he could find into his bedroom and wired the place like a studio. He spent so much of that time recording the album's guitar parts in bed in his underwear, the wounds refused to heal.
"He's supposed to be sleeping in bed, and I come home from work, and he's been moving amps with two cut hernias," says Mendoza. "Finally, I laid into him."
After starts, pauses, restarts, funding issues and label troubles, Songs for Other People was released via Chapel Hill's Holidays for Quince Records on Oct. 19, eight days after the couple's two-year wedding anniversary. They've played a handful of shows behind the album, and it has steadily garnered favorable reviews around the country.
Mendoza no longer teaches and is working part-time in technical support at a Durham computer store; Haran spends every day working for himself at Fret Sounds, which opened in March. This summer, their vacation consisted of a single day at the beach.
Mendoza often reflects about the responsibility of their position. She's been frustrated by irresponsible artists her entire life, from her parents' own drug-addled marriage to all the talented people she saw waste away at The Pinebox. But they've made it out healthy, happy and married—some redemption, as she sees it, for the faded star of her mother's talent. Filthybird named its first album, Southern Skies, for one of her mom's bands. Just now, Brian suggests they take the tribute one step further and cover a song by that band, a twisted folk beauty called "A Better Time."
"That's my favorite. We gotta start covering that," he says, standing behind the counter, smiling back at Mendoza.
"I know all the chords. I just have to remember the order," she replies. She pauses. "I was learning it the night you head-butted that guy."
They lock eyes and laugh. A better time, after all.