Highs, lows, hard work and PBRs | MUSIC: Rock & Roll Quarterly | Indy Week
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Highs, lows, hard work and PBRs 

Being a rock musician in the Triangle isn't glamorous. But if it's what you love, you can't do anything else. Just ask the band Velvet.

Progress doesn't come without its tumbles. Sitting in front of the bar at the Orange County Social Club, a musicians' dive in Carrboro, guitarist Jay Manley, his wife, bassist Jane Francis, and drummer Zsolt David--collectively known as Velvet--are celebrating David's recent arrival to the band. With a tumultuous period of their lives behind them, and the promise of a fresh start in front of them, one celebratory glass of wine becomes two and multiplies from there.

Eventually the three form a huddle at the bar, proclaiming how happy they are with David's arrival, and how things are finally starting to move in Velvet's direction again.

Then Francis starts to slip backward, and takes Manley and David along with her, barstools and all. With the three prostrate, backs on the floor, conversation in the bar stops. Even the jukebox stops playing.

"Velvet went down," Manley says, laughing.

Falling down in the middle of a bar is a first, but chaos seems to find its way to Velvet's members no matter where they go. Francis and Manley left Wilmington's tourist cycles in 2001 for a place with more interest in local music, better chances of success and a wider audience for their Jon-Brion-laced power pop. They chose Carrboro.

"We wanted to go where more stuff was going on for the band," Manley says. "At the time, we weren't thinking New York-Los Angeles-Nashville, but we wanted to go somewhere."

"We had already put some footprints here, a few people already knew us, and it made planning easier," Francis adds.

The pair doesn't regret coming to the Triangle. The move enabled them to meet and work with Let's Active founder and regional music guru Mitch Easter, who is producing the band's second album. And it brought them together with more musicians than populate a tourist town like Wilmington. But progress has been slower than Manley and Francis would have liked, and the two are in the process of regaining their momentum.

Getting psyched, falling down, and getting up again. That's the way it is for rock bands trying to make it.

It's hard to know exactly how many aspiring musicians there are in the Triangle. But they're not hard to find. There's that group of similarly dressed musicians you see squeezed into a car full of equipment racing down U.S. 15-501. And there's the flock of vans--easily identified as bandmobiles by their condition--nestled into too-tight parking spaces, gathered tribe-like around clubs in the evenings and dispersed throughout the area during the day.

At The Cave in Chapel Hill, one of the Triangle's most prolific local music venues, about 50 local bands play in a roughly six-week rotation, says Mouse Mock, the club's owner. That's about 200 musicians right there. While some clubs showcase fewer local bands and a few feature more, Mock says that's a fair average for most of the dozens of clubs in the area.

Multiply that times jazz clubs, party bands and classical musicians playing at coffeehouses, and local music becomes more than a Triangle novelty. It starts to look like an industry that's attracting musicians from across the state, and beyond.

The bands that filter in and out of The Cave's bulky, worn wooden door vary in almost every way conceivable: how they operate; what their goals are (assuming there's a goal in mind); and above all else, why they're playing. So far as Mock is concerned, there's only one element that links bands together.

"PBR." he says. "It's the biggest constant I've seen." Beyond an affinity for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, he says, all bets are off.

But one other thing unites many of them--their ambitions. For musicians who want to make recordings and performances their sole source of income--"to make it," as loaded a term as that might be--there are several constants: hard work, dull day jobs, and the incredible high of a successful night's show--all surrounded by a heap of struggle.

Watching Manley and Francis at work and play for the weeks leading up to their fall off the barstools is like watching a screwball comedy masquerading as a rock 'n' roll documentary. They somehow strike the balance between earnestness and being childlike without being childish.

As the pair decide what equipment to take for a last-minute gig at the Nightlight (Chapel Hill's Skylight Exchange by day), a quick look around their apartment reveals a band that takes its music and itself very seriously. Buddhist paraphernalia, CDs and LPs are gathered around the stereo and cableless TV. Atop a door-side table is a stack of CDs from a Let's Active tribute album they contributed a track to, and a somewhat unsettling, wedding-portrait-sized photo of a lemur from a Duke Primate Center benefit they organized in Durham last summer.

Once they finish getting geared out, pumped up and ready to play the first show with their new band-mate David, also the drummer for Glory Fountain, the pair gets dressed in their rock couture--Manley in jeans and a thick sky-blue button-down, Francis in an simple black shirt and skirt. They bid farewell to their two cats and head to the Nightlight to work on their craft.

Events are slow on the uptake at the Nightlight.

The Bark, The Bite, a Gainesville, Fla.,-based band touring the coast, is the first to arrive. Milling about the seating surrounded by Nightlight's stock of used books, Manley and Francis arrive and shortly start bringing in equipment. They commence a two-hour stretch of waiting for either direction from the management or for the show's kickoff at 10 p.m., whichever comes first.

After having worked all day, the wait borders on torture. Manley spent his morning and midday number-crunching for the Vacuum Cleaner Hospital in Chapel Hill, and then headed back home in the pair's only van to teach guitar lessons to his manager's daughter, strangers with varying degrees of seriousness, and people he met through the lemur benefit. Francis had already taken the bus to and from Southpoint mall, where she's the manager of Light Years, a trendy boutique. She's surprised at how well she's taken to her role as store manager, since it's a far cry from the waitressing jobs she's traditionally taken. She's amused that she acts as the staff's big sister, and that she's actually spending time after work compiling a staff handbook for them.

Rather than drain her energy, Francis' nine-to-five-and-then-some marathon made her punchier as the waiting drew on, as if trying to channel all her typical chaotic energy. Without other, like-minded musicians to talk and network with, Manley kept going back outside for cigarettes.

"This is why musicians take drugs, I understand it completely," Francis says. "There's all this buildup before a show, then you play and it's great, and then it's over just as quickly. You want that feeling onstage to keep going."

The only relief from the wait is a call from a booking manager the pair haven't spoken to in years, who tracked them down to ask Francis to play an upcoming show. Francis is grateful for the potential gig, but mystified at the sudden reappearance.

Once David and the other bands arrive, the pace picks up. Neither Francis nor Manley are thrilled that the Nightlight's manager wasn't hooking up a PA for vocals, and denied Manley's offer of his own sound equipment. During set up, one of the other bands--almost all of whose members are in their early 20s, asks Manley, 32, what Velvet sounds like.

"We sound like Chapel Hill in 1983," both he and Francis, 34, explain. Their statement is followed by blank stares.

One of the other bands tries to change the order--Velvet was scheduled to play second--and Manley refuses because of money he spent advertising not only the show but the bands' lineup. Then the same band tells Francis that they're giving all their share of the door to The Bark, The Bite, and implies Velvet should do the same. Francis asks to be reimbursed for the money they spent on fliers, and reluctantly agrees to donate their share.

While Francis isn't opposed to donating their share of the door, and has in the past, she's frustrated at the way the situation was handled. "It's unprofessional É we wouldn't go to Gainesville and expect other bands to give us their money. You tour and you might not make any money; that's the life! This kind of thing happens all the time."

Manley isn't pleased with the situation either but shrugs it off as a "hippie love thing," and bears in mind what type of venue Nightlight is. "The beautiful part of this thing is it's kind of a co-op and less of a club," he said. "Here you just come, plug in your stuff and play, and that's cool."

But it's also disconcerting to a band used to clubs. The show starts 45 minutes late, and when Velvet is up it doesn't become one of their better performances. Still recovering from the departure of drummer Doug Edmunds and second guitarist Kevin Campbell, Manley is still adjusting to being the only guitarist. The show is David's first outing with the band, and his pacing is more in Glory Fountain's slower vein than Velvet's comparatively rock-oriented feel. Francis' vocals are washed out from the lack of amplification, and there's an audible error in "Juggernaut," a song on the band's in-the-works album.

Nevertheless, Francis, Manley and the roughly 50-person crowd seem mostly pleased. Oddly, Velvet's audience is literally split down the middle of the club--there's a clear division between the post-collegiate hipsters there specifically to hear Velvet and collegiate indie rockers there for the other bands. The hipsters are satisfied, and the band holds the indie rockers' attention.

But the crowd alone is telling of the night in general; there was no drama or in-fighting at the show, the crowd was entertained, and The Bark, The Bite was paid. But the evening felt like an awkward but polite war between Chapel Hill 1983 and Chapel Hill 2003, and there wasn't a clear winner.

The pair is about $6,000 away from completing their second album and then shopping it around. Produced by Easter, Velvet's newest songs all speak to the exquisite frustration that occurs when banging your head against the wall.

Many of the album's songs were written during the transition from Velvet's departure from Wilmington and entry into the Triangle, but many of the same frustrations and doubts creep into Manley and Francis' minds.

The band's networking has come slowly but surely for a band new to the area, as has drawing a regular crowd. Francis likens advertising shows through fliers to studying for one test and not studying for another, and making the same grade on both. But some minor victories have been won. Velvet's first album, Where are the People, is stocked in local record stores. Some of their music has been played in small independent films, and MTV expressed interest in using some songs in its programming. Several labels have expressed interest in signing them, the most recent being the Australian label that released the Let's Active tribute.

But as soon as they moved to Carrboro, the pair wondered if they were only chasing the ghost of Triangle music past, and wouldn't be better off traveling someplace else.

Now, their frustrations and doubts are more mixed than they were regarding Wilmington. On one hand, Manley says they feel adrift amid the endless stream of band listings. The area's "kind of on its low point, that it's kind of done," Manley says. "But it can come back. There are so many things to do here that people can only go to so much on any given night."

Francis adds, "Maybe it's Winston, maybe it's Nashville, maybe it's not here."

Their frustrations are also personal and have little to do with the state of music in Chapel Hill. The pair came to the area along with guitarist Kevin Campbell, also from Wilmington. After gaining and losing several drummers, the line-up stabilized with Manley, Francis, Campbell and drummer Doug Edmunds.

Initially, everyone was pleased with the lineup. After having cycled through many drummers, both Francis and Manley felt Edmunds most understood the band. But Edmunds' schedule--working at UNC-Chapel Hill and also raising a family--didn't permit regular gigging, and Campbell was reluctant to play constantly. After the four recorded most of the second album, conflicts reached critical mass and Edmunds left the band at the beginning of the year, and Campbell shortly thereafter.

Velvet consisted of Francis and Manley, and the departures were a crippling blow to the pair's morale, more so than in crises past. "It was like having these devils on my shoulder saying, 'You can't do it! You can't do it!' " Francis says. "Losing your momentum the first couple of times is OK. After the ninth or 10th time, it does wear on you."

But Velvet was scheduled to play at Chicago's International Pop Overthrow (IPO) in March. So far as Francis and Manley were concerned, passing up the opportunity was unthinkable. They hired Ryan Senft to play in Edmund's stead and aimed toward IPO like a pop-infused locomotive.

"We had IPO, we had a goal," Francis says, still speaking of it with a steely voice months after the show. "We did not look any other way. We focused on that goal to bring us out of that spiral, and that gave us enough propulsion to slap us out of it," Then Francis' voice loses its weight and she smiles wryly, adding, "But you do find yourself in the bar a whole lot more."

With IPO behind them, Velvet is getting back on its feet. They hired David, who lives a similar lifestyle as Francis and Manley, and are slowly retooling their 30-song repertoire. Their aim at this point is clear. "Our goal is not to conquer Chapel Hill, it's just to get our name out there," Manley says. "Sure, it'd be nice, but I just want to live on my records and tour." Or as Francis jokes, they're not afraid of commercial success, but she'd eventually like to be signed by a major label and then immediately dropped by a major label.

Beyond the logistics of their plans, there's also the simple fact that the couple doesn't want to do anything else, and are willing to leave their future up to hard work and faith. "People quit because they can. I can't. If I could, I would, because it's insane," Francis says. "I wake up every day and I'm a musician. I feel like a fucking Frankenstein every day. I can't not do it."

While Manley has Fridays off from the Vacuum Cleaner Hospital, Francis wakes up bleary-eyed and ventures to Light Years. They both take time to recover from the night before, not from the show, but the late-night revelry that ensued with friends, which began at a restaurant beside the Nightlight and ended with dancing in someone's kitchen until 5 a.m.

The next day the band ventures to Winston-Salem to participate in the Let's Active tribute album's release party, a day-long festival split between an outdoor street festival and The Basement, Winston's equivalent of Go! Studios. Perhaps it's having Mitch Easter watching and playing with them for one song, but the band seems more energetic and confident. David has progressed considerably from the Nightlight show and the band keeps the crowd enthralled even after following Easter's current band, Fiendish Minstrels. But they make the same mistake in "Juggernaut."

Still, the band is gaining energy from the Basement show, and Francis and Manley replace "We will play IPO" with "We will finish the record" as their mantra. They begin a flurry of emails securing shows for the next few months. They also start securing bands for the second lemur benefit in October, although unlike the first, they have top Triangle music real estate this time--a Saturday night booking at the Cat's Cradle.

How long Velvet remains in the Triangle remains to be seen. Manley expresses interest in going to California; Francis, a dedicated East Coaster, favors Nashville or New York. But they agree that even if the record is finished, they haven't finished what they set out to do in the Triangle.

Amid planning for the future, they take another last-minute gig, this time at Go! Studios. Francis and David both leave work with little in-between time, although Francis makes some and walks into Go! sporting a shorter haircut. She wanders around the mostly empty space, managing her chaotic energy level while David grabs a beer and wolfs down some food, happy he's found the time to eat at all.

In a way, the trio's doubts really haven't gone anywhere before and during their performance. They are still gelling with a new bandmate slowly but surely, worrying about the album, trying to get back on their feet and wondering where the hell else they should go, if anywhere. But in another way, they're working again, not for anyone else but Velvet. The drummer is promising and things seem like they might work out this time. Whether they will keep going in spite of their doubts, no one can say for certain.

But as they tear through the set list established a week before at the Nightlight, Manley, Francis and David start tackling "Juggernaut" again.

And this time they nail it. EndBlock

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