Sarah Fuller didn't set out to be a songwriter. Unlike the other members of her See Gulls, she had only been in one other group when she launched this band. And in that last outfit, she alternated between the fun of performance and the anxiety of evaluating it.
"I cried after every show," Fuller says. "A lot of times, it wasn't that enjoyable."
She was in The Big Picture, an energetic, dance-conjuring Durham band. It was a big band—she has to list the members to get a head count—and Fuller was off to the side, adding another texture. It wasn't stage fright that wrecked her, but self-criticism. But that's reversed in See Gulls, where she's the primary songwriter. Her tunes are take-no-prisoners, pop-punk scorchers. The self-doubt has vanished. These are her songs, her emotions, her mistakes. "When it's your own," Fuller says, "you can own it."
See Gulls' nine-track debut, You Can't See Me, is due March 24 on Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records, but the band has already started to earn high praise. NPR critic Lars Gotrich included them in his list of recommendations for Hopscotch 2014, calling See Gulls "a ramshackle Breeders on a permanent kiss-off." The quick acclaim computes, as See Gulls' other members have been in an embarrassing variety of notable local bands. Fuller's songwriting and singing suggest she's of the same caliber. Most important, the See Gulls vocalist and songwriter is enjoying herself: "It's the most fun thing I have in my life."
In this Band Map, we deconstruct how See Gulls, whose members have been spread among so many acts, converged.
Maria Albani, drums
When Maria Albani, 40, joined PLEASANT in 1999, she'd never played an instrument. But bass interested her, so she gave it a try. Soon thereafter, she met Shirlé Hale and David Koslowski at a party, and they asked her to join their band GERTY, a kinetic rock group. She said yes.
More bands followed: She co-founded TENNIS AND THE MENNONITES near the tail end of Gerty and played bass with Jenks Miller and Heather McEntire in their '50s pop-tinted precursor to Mount Moriah, UN DEUX TROIX. She moved to Toronto after her marriage to a bandmate in Pleasant disintegrated. The band didn't survive the divorce.
But she was soon back in the Triangle, playing bass in one of her favorite local bands, SCHOONER, and writing quirky, counterintuitive pop as ORGANOS. She started drumming in HOSPITAL SMOKERS, a proect with her partner and Schooner leader Reid Johnson. Now, with SEE GULLS, she applies her creativity and energy to peppy, surprisingly heavy percussion.
vocals & guitar
Fuller, 32, didn't start writing songs until she was 26. She'd played guitar since she was a teen, mostly covering Jewel and the Beatles. When she did start writing, she didn't aim to release her songs; for years, they simply lived in the memory of an old cell phone.
But then came THE BIG PICTURE, which ultimately made the stage a less frightening place to be. That confidence now drives See Gulls.
Leah Gibson, bass
Primarily a cellist, Gibson, 28, started playing in orchestras at age 10. She quit at 22 in order to tour with LOST IN THE TREES, a dense chamber-pop outfit set to call it quits later this month. Like the handful of other rock-friendly cellists around the Triangle, Gibson has lent her strings to plenty of projects—BOWERBIRDS, Chris Stamey's BIG STAR orchestra, HINDUGRASS, and briefly, THE BIG PICTURE. Last year, she returned to her roots by joining THE DURHAM SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA.
And starting in 2010, there was FREE STEAK, RAINBOW NERD and then PRYPYAT—the assorted names that her project with boyfriend Duncan Webster used before they settled on BEAUTY WORLD. "It started as a fun, silly thing, then we decided to do it more seriously," Gibson says. They learned to collaborate, and she has integrated an analog synthesizer and sequencer. When original See Gulls guitarist Jacki Huntington moved to New York, Webster, who had been playing bass in the band, shifted to the guitar. He suggested that Gibson take his spot behind the bass.
Duncan Webster, guitar
Webster, 31, started his first band when he was in fourth grade at Durham's E.K. Powe Elementary. The lineup of Slippery Chicken endured through high school and college, with the band even meeting Dave Thomas of Wendy's at one point. Some members went on to start The Beast and Webster's best-known band, HAMMER No More the Fingers. And then he left Durham.
"In January 2005, after my 21st birthday, I moved to New York City by my lonesome," he says. There he formed MUMU WORTHY with Patti Smith's daughter, Jesse. They opened for Smith, and even played alongside Flea in her backup band. They broke up, and Webster eventually returned to Durham, heartbroken but already playing with two childhood friends in Hammer No More the Fingers. That project has now lasted eight years. He's in BEAUTY WORLD with Gibson, and the two lend their practiced communication to See Gulls, too.
See Gulls plays with Crushed Out and Naked Naps at The Pour House Thursday, Dec. 4. Tickets for the 9 p.m. show cost $5. See the-pour-house.com.