Musician and writer Greg Barbera has a rugby player's low center of gravity and gruff confidence. He's a real smart-ass, too, his sandpaper voice a square match for a perpetual facial scruff. Like his Chest Pains band mate Tim Ristau, a chatty former cabby who's as tall and lanky as Barbera is thickset, he's a master of the anecdote that always seems to contain some element of mischief. And beer.
Like the time he went to cover a Phish show for the now-defunct Spectator, planning to trade one of his free tickets for a fan's story. But Barbera, ever crafty, decided to sell a fan the ticket. "I had to buy beer!" he explains. He found a 19-year-old from Connecticut and sold her the ticket for $40, only to get busted when a ticket taker congratulated the pair on their free tickets. "'You sold me a free ticket?'" Barbera says, his voice reaching high in imitation. He didn't get his story, but he got his beer.
Barbera has always had that spirit. But it's only now, at age 39, that he's really living out his punk rock dreams. It only took him several careers, a family and a near-death experience to get here, to get a band called Chest Pains together. He sang in a high school punk band called Youth Terrorists. They recorded all their practices like Guided by Voices. But, after college, he moved to Los Angeles and started writing about music and culture for extreme sports magazines like Big Brother, Bikini and Magnet. He settled in North Carolina and freelanced for The Spectator, eventually becoming its music and managing editor, also running his zine Salt for Slugs.
In the summer of 2004, Barbera was in a rut. The Spectator had folded and he was a stay-at-home dad, working catering gigs to make ends meet, writing only when he could find the time. And there was that damn pollen, doing such a number on his sinuses that he went to a doctor who gave him more pseudoephedrine on top of all the Sudafed he'd already taken.
That night, he woke up with a knot in his chest, "speeding out," fingers a-tingle. At UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hospital, the staff kept saying he was too young to have a heart attack. They asked about his next of kin, injected him with dye, read his EKG, gave him blood tests: Pseudoephedrine-induced "heart cramp," they concluded.
It only took Barbera a couple of weeks to regain his physical health. But the mental scars, he says, took longer to heal. "I'd be playing soccer in the back yard with my kid," he remembers, "feel something in my chest, and be like, 'Am I going to pull a Fred Sanford?' It took me a couple years to really come to terms with being OK. My wife used to joke that I had post-traumatic stress disorder."
Barbera had given up writing to raise his sons, Spencer, 7, and Cole, 4. His wife, Marlene, works. He doesn't regret that decision, but—after the "heart cramp"—he did regret something: "You come out of something like that," he explains, "and you're like, 'I love music, why am I not in a band?' I always wanted to make a movie, publish a book and put out a record, and I'd done none of that. So I needed to get off my ass, because I could get hit by a truck tomorrow, and what would be left?"
In 2004, Lora Brooker was booking shows on the deck at Fowler's in Durham, where Barbera was bar backing. Winding down at the Federal after work, he was introduced to her husband, 39-year-old Tim Ristau, who'd just parted ways with the band Jett Rink. Barbera and Ristau quickly bonded over their experiences living in California (Barbera in L.A., Ristau in San Diego) and their mutual love for classic punk. Barbera saw his opening and took it.
"'Look,'" he recalls saying to Ristau, "'I have a guitar and bass. We can jam and see what happens.'"
What happened was that Barbera took up the bass, and guitarist Ristau called drummer Eric Hermann, 38, who moved to North Carolina from Colorado with his band The Fly Bitches just as Ristau arrived from Wisconsin. Self-described weirdos who showed up at the same time, they'd become fast friends, playing together in the proto-Jett Rink band Radiator Ron. Hermann, a Web programmer by day, has played in many local bands, including Grand Prix, Pleasant, Lud and Simple. "I called him because he plays those weird punk rock beats that only old guys understand," remembers Ristau.
He came over. And, united by their love of aggressive, no-nonsense punk music and DIY ideology, Chest Pains was born. Barbera's motivations for starting Chest Pains are clear: He almost died, and he always wanted to start a band. But put yourself in the shoes of Ristau and Hermann, who've been in bands forever: This guy who's never been in a real band shows up like, "Hey, I almost died, let's start a punk rock band." What would you do? What would your stake in it be?
Chest Pains, it turns out, let everyone enjoy the privilege of adulthood: to do whatever you want, fashionable or not. "Tim and I always loved playing with each other," says Hermann, "so when he asked me if I wanted to play in Chest Pains, I said, 'Fuck yeah!' I did the whole thing of going from punk rock to punk with a twist to indie rock, and I just wanted to play punk rock again."
Chest Pains plays punk rock at its most elemental, too—hard, fast, concise. Their entire self-released EP, Because Our Time is Limited and Valuable, has fewer distinct parts than one Fiery Furnaces song. It covers the classics: protest songs ("Kerry the Torch"), OD-ed Italian cyclists ("Il Pirata") and poking holes in stop signs with kung fu ("Stop Signs"). But the subject matter seems beside the point for this band. Their less-is-more aesthetic radiates conviction. You can hear their love for punk resonating through every rumbling bassline, ripped chord and tendon-popping howl.
"I met Greg and saw a chance to play the music I wanted to play. This being Greg's first band, he has some limitations that are kind of nice," says Ristau. "It sets us in a certain direction, and then we can fuck with it. We're old: The sounds we make have nothing to do with what we think anyone wants to hear, and that's the beauty of it."
Divorced from concerns of "making it" or meeting any expectations but their own, Chest Pains is more about camaraderie, says Barbera. He likens it to a dart league or softball team, one that—despite being casual—becomes more serious on its own momentum.
"You get together and play for a while, and then you've got to play other teams, and then you need shirts so you can tell the teams apart," he says. "But there's never any goal to tour or get signed. Our goals would be like, 'Maybe we'll play Raleigh!'"
Chest Pains release Because Our Time is Limited and Valuable at The Cave with The Loners and Tooth on Friday, Aug. 24, at 10 p.m.