⇒ Read also: Our review of Horror Vacui
When most longtime couples break up, they spend some time apart. They take a few months to cool off, to forget about those harsh last words, to find some new buddies and drink at a different bar. For John Booker and Rachel Hirsh, that wasn't really an option.
"I was like, 'Oh God, the next practice is going to be awkward,'" says Curtis Armstead. He plays guitar in I Was Totally Destroying It, the Chapel Hill power-pop band that Booker and Hirsh front. Quitting? Forgetting each other? No one was having that, at least not now.
The fresh-faced couple's two-year relationship, which extended to living and writing songs together for the popular five-piece, splintered in April. By then, they were months into finishing their second album, a thrilling, rambunctious, often bitter LP called Horror Vacui, to be released by Greyday Records next week.
So the record, much like its dogged creators, has proved to be something of a survivor, making it through fracturing relationships and the decision by local label Neckbeard Records to cut ties with the group in the spring. Within weeks of departing Neckbeard, IWTDI had signed with Greyday of Portland, Ore., and Horror Vacui had a firm Oct. 13 release date. For a band that issued its own debut just two years ago, the move was a major, definitive step forward.
Still, the tale is a mildly harrowing one for Booker and Hirsh, who will play their personal drama out in front of bandmates, friends, fans and anyone else who cares to listen. Booker calls the volatile time after the breakup "one of the most trying experiences of my life."
"Things were falling apart as everything was going along," Booker says as he sits on the porch of the Chapel Hill home the band uses each week for rehearsal space. "And the lyrics, posthumously, made us realize that's what we were singing about."
The songs, written as their relationship broke, served as something like couples therapy. And the rest of the band—longtime indie drummer James Hepler, bassist Joe Mazzitelli and Armstead—were the de facto counselors, sort of.
"If somebody left a sponge in the sink, something really trivial that would make me furious, I would go sit down," Hirsh says. "I would scribble something in a notebook. I would play a couple of chords and say, 'Here!'"
"It would serve as a timeline for who won what argument," chimes in Hepler.
This is the nature of I Was Totally Destroying It, a tightly knit, determined band of would-be rock stars whose incestuous forays make them seem more like a twisted version of the Waltons than bandmates. You get the sense that at the end of the day, they sit around a table, drink beers, eat meatloaf, joke about the neighbors, argue about who's washing the dishes and talk about their day. They're warm and unabashedly friendly. Hell, they even finish each other's sentences and refer to the band as a "marriage."
"The option of breaking up as a band was just never there," Hirsh says. "It wasn't possible. We kicked around the idea because, obviously, it was really hard to be around each other, but the input from these guys was, 'That just can't happen. We just can't do that, and both of you need to suck it up.'"
"And I own guns," adds Armstead, laughing.
Booker and Hirsh aren't the only ones in the band with mending hearts. Hepler's marriage crumbled last fall, and Armstead parted ways with his girlfriend in December. It's nothing new for bands to use creative and personal friction like this to hit it big. Fleetwood Mac turned it into singles gold with 1976's Rumours, and, more recently, rock chameleon Beck gave us all the sordid details in 2002's weary Sea Change. Couples split all the time. Ballads and fuck-yous are never very far behind. Breaking up, according to Hepler, "has fueled rock since its inception."
He would know something about rock history. At 35, he's the musical archivist of the group, a ferocious, open-mouthed drummer with a penchant for Billy Joel (his no-irony ringtone is "Just The Way You Are") who spends part of his time playing with Saddle Creek mainstays Sorry About Dresden and a Kinks cover band.
Armstead is the quiet, funny one, given to cryptic comments. Asked if he prefers Curt or Curtis, he opts for Coitus. Booker and Hirsh are the personalities, the creative forces that spat out the material for Horror Vacui and their debut. Mazzitelli is the peacemaker, the third—or seventh, depending on whom you ask—bassist. He claims to be the last, too, "unless they kill me."
As far as the band's unwieldy, would-be-metal name, Booker says it stems from an erratic brainstorming session with his previous band. Hepler's explanation is more fun, though.
"I was defending a woman's honor in a bar," he says. "He was armed with a knife, and I was just armed with my bare hands. I took care of the situation pretty readily. I totally destroyed that guy."
Fair enough. Either way, the band came together in January 2007, releasing a debut that fall. In concert, they've played sometimes to sparse crowds. Other times, they've performed for droves, once opening for Joan Jett and thousands of slavering fans.
Mention age around the band, and you'll get an earful. When a 30-something like Hepler conjures The Kinks and Big Star, 19-year-old Hirsh, the youngest, will call upon The Cure.
Hepler was going for Chapel Hill indie "gods" Superchunk. Booker and Hirsh were going for Canadian power-poppers The New Pornographers. "That didn't happen," Hirsh dryly cracks.
What comes out instead is loud, poppy rock that relies on big Weezer guitars, hooky choruses, Hepler's churning drums and Booker and Hirsh's loud-soft harmonies.
Booker calls it a "musical experiment," citing band members' interests in underground math rock, hard-core punk and, well, The Carpenters. (Hepler will fight you over this.) They moonlight as a U2 cover band, too.
"We're trying this thing that's more normal and accepted, the pop world," Booker says. "But for us, it's kind of a weird challenge we're taking on."
"It turns out that we write way better pop material than anything else," Hirsh adds.
Along the way, I Was Totally Destroying It picked up seemingly equal parts fans and detractors. The admirers speak highly of their exploits, but this self-professed "bitter pop band" seems to focus more on their adversaries.
"In all the criticisms, it's usually just based on, 'That's not my thing at all,'" Booker says. Hepler says the Chapel Hill music scene claims to love diversity, "just not that kind of diversity."
"Maybe we've found this one tiny niche of pop music that has something to piss everyone off," Mazzitelli says.
It all seems like a moot point to Booker, who promises he'd record songs if no one listened. Hence the stubborn determination of this crafty little pop band to thrive. You can trash their record. They can trash their relationships. Call them too poppy. Maybe even steal their amps, but I Was Totally Destroying It is still going to find a way to play their infectious brand of gut rock.
"I appreciate music when it's as devoid of pretense as possible," Booker says. "I just want to make catchy music that I think is good. I don't care if something's not hip or cool. I just want to make an album that I would listen to. People can never say what we really sound like, and that's cool. When we say we love Superchunk and a couple of other bands, still, we really don't sound like them."
So, you sound like yourselves?
"Thank God," Hirsh explodes.
I Was Totally Destroying It releases Horror Vacui with a show at Cat's Cradle Saturday, Oct. 10, with Lonnie Walker, Rat Jackson, Lake Inferior, Des Ark and magician Mike Casey. The $7-$10 show starts at 8:30 p.m.