Mike Webster's morning has been full of meetings. Just after noon on a Monday, though, the multimedia developer is fairly certain his only son, Duncan, is home asleep. That's fine with Mike.
"I was in a band when I was a kid, yeah," explains Mike, 53. He grew up playing guitar in Wilson, N.C. "But Wilson is pretty much the armpit of the nation as far as music goes. So it's kind of vicarious for me, watching Duncan, if he makes any level of success. It's fun to watch."
Last night, Duncan's rock trio, Hammer No More the Fingers, returned from its first extended tour. In the two weeks away from their shared hometown, Duncan, guitarist Joe Hall and drummer Jeff Stickley headed north as far as New York and as far south as Birmingham, Ala. On Saturday, they played a party at Hall's sister's house. Early Sunday afternoon, they crammed the white Honda CR-V Mike lent them full of amps, guitars and drums, climbed inside, and made the nine-hour trek up Interstate 85 back to Durham. "I was just telling a friend of mine about that," says Mike, laughing. "It looks like a clown car with them and all of their stuff in it. They just spill right out of it."
It's a good thing they're used to one another: Hall and Stickley became friends at elementary school. Hall and Duncan became friends at Durham School of the Arts. Finally, in high school, the triumvirate connected, starting the tongue-in-cheek metal quartet Dead by Dawn. College and life pulled the band apart.
But a few years later, a pep talk from Mike pulled them back together. Looking for Bruce—Hammer's fantastic debut electric romp, to be released this weekend during a Hammer-curated mini-festival in Durham called Viking Storm—finally finds the reunion paying its first big returns.
Before Hammer No More the Fingers hit a local stage, Mike told the trio of affable, still very boyish friends he wanted to talk about its future. For largely unknown musicians heading into the second half of their 20s, hearing as much from elders might be a nightmare. Worried about things like future incomes and grandchildren, some parents might wonder when their kids will stop playing music and get, you know, a real job.
But that's not what Mike said: Duncan's musical abilities had surprised him since his son was 9. On a dare of sorts, Mike promised to help Duncan buy a guitar if he could learn to play Nirvana's "Come As You Are" on his old axe. Duncan learned the tune. Mike bought the guitar. Duncan formed Slippery Chicken.
"They started playing, and it was this outside gig. They wrote their songs and stuff and could actually play them. A kid from a fraternity was watching them, and he wanted them to play a frat party," says Mike, admitting with mock defeat that the show never happened. One bandmom didn't think kids and kegs would mix very well. "I thought that would have been a great gig. My wife was all into it, too."
Mike became a bandparent, driving the young musicians to regional gigs, as far east as some guy's garage in Goldsboro and as far west as a tiny club in Greensboro. But the kids were busy studying and playing sports—soccer, tennis and track—so music was just a minor hobby.
"There was never a time when we broke up or played a last show. We never stopped playing, but we never really knew what to do," says Duncan, explaining the demise of all of his teenage bands. After high school, he started another band with Hall, The Droogies, but that fell apart for many of the same reasons. Eventually, he left Durham to take his chances in New York. "We never knew how to promote ourselves, and we never had any direction."
In New York, he'd gotten to know one of the industry's most iconoclastic success stories, Patti Smith, and that changed his outlook. Not long after moving to New York, Duncan met Jesse Smith, the singer's only daughter. "Moved in on a weekend/ the first time that I met you," Duncan says of the relationship in "Shutterbug," a song he and Smith sang in Mumu Worthy, the band they soon started. The roommates began dating and eventually turned Mumu Worthy into a trio, opening for the elder Smith during her annual year-end stand at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom in December 2005. But the relationship ended, and with it, Mumu Worthy. Duncan came home, unsure whether he would regroup and return to New York or settle down in North Carolina. But his New York encounters had taught him he liked playing music—and that it was serious work.
"I learned a lot of music business stuff that I didn't know before," says Duncan. "Just that you have to play and keep playing, and play as many shows as you can and meet people. Have a game plan of what to do."
Hall invited Duncan to play with an instrumental quartet he'd been leading while attending University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, but they both admit it never fit. Stickley graduated from East Carolina University just in time, and suddenly it all made sense: They'd write tight, chiseled rock songs with a bulbous rhythm section, clear lead vocals and harmonies, and Hall's electric riffs. This time, they'd have a business plan, too.
"When Duncan came back from New York, Mike sat us down and we talked about business," remembers Hall. "He said, 'Someone has to make money in the music industry and you guys write good songs. I think you guys can do it.'"
So Duncan, Stickley and Hall followed Dad's advice and hatched a plan. They picked which towns they'd visit first and most often. They picked a studio where they'd record a demo. Duncan camped out on the Internet, booking shows and making contacts with a latticework of like-minded bands up and down the East Coast. And, of course, they wrote songs, often reinventing parts they'd written in those childhood bands. The outro of a Dead by Dawn song became the outro for "Fall Down, Play Dead," a mid-album highlight on Looking for Bruce. Hammer turned "Shutterbug"—the cute little keyboard pop ditty Webster wrote in New York with Jesse Smith—into a gnarly, defiant jolt and the album's first single. This may be the last chance they have to make a band their life, says Duncan, so—if they still like songs they did a decade ago—now's the chance to let the world hear them.
"All the bands we played in previously were doing it just for fun, and finally we had our shit together enough so that, when we had pretty good stuff from back in the day that no one heard because we were just playing it for our high school friends, why not use it?" says Hall. "If we still think it's good at this point, then we figured it's probably pretty good."
Another part of the plan was finding a label. Kyle Miller, who co-owns the local imprint Churchkey Records, helped Hammer with that aspect. After the imprint that released the band's first EP in 2007 folded, Miller offered the band a list of several dozen labels it should approach with its next record. Suddenly, Miller realized he wanted the band on his roster. Together, he figured, they could grow. They were three young musicians starving to hit the road full-time. His was a small label taking its time to aim for national attention. Miller hired a strong promotional team—print publicity, online marketing, radio promotions—and the band, as promised, crammed into the CR-V.
"They're very young, and it's not their last chance if they don't want it to be," says Miller. "But they want this to be the one that works, in that they don't want to be in another band. If they could retire in 30 years as Hammer No More the Fingers, that would be what they wanted. They want this band to be the one."
Mike Webster likes that possibility, too, enough to loan not only one but two cars to the band (Hall now owns the Chevy Blazer in which the band once toured, which the Webster family once owned) and to spend this weekend with his wife, Candy, building a miniature Viking ship. Miniature might be an understatement: About 16 feet long and 8 feet high, the Websters designed the ship so it will wrap around the drum riser during this weekend's Viking Storm festival.
The boys don't know it exists yet. He wishes they'd wake up so he could show them.