On a Monday morning, the audience of the rock musician Erik Sugg is attentive and enthusiastic, shouting along to his words and dancing around to his guitar strums.
It's the ideal response for someone who has been playing in bands for two decades, especially one who is releasing the debut LP from his heavy metal band, Demon Eye, in only a few days. Except today, the crowd of 60 comes clad mostly in sleek, black yoga pants and fluffy, animal-print onesies.
In a wide and well-lit room of a Raleigh library, Sugg sits on his knees, ankles tucked beneath his thighs and a six-string acoustic guitar in his hands. Behind him, lyrics detailing the actions of a fabled itsy bitsy spider and the marching orders of happily bouncing babies flash from a slide show projected against a wall. His audience consists of about 40 mothers on maternity leave, grandparents on babysitting duty and caretakers on assignment sitting on steps or chairs. They hold infants, or at least keep them within comfortable crawling distance. Strollers and diaper bags abound, as do voices, echoing Sugg's every chorus and answering his every question. The parents sing, and the babies squeal.
Nearly 10 times a week, Sugg, one of Cameron Village Regional Library's several kid-centric librarians, leads groups of infants and toddlers through a morning mix of songs and stories. His long, chestnut hair and faded MC5 T-shirt strike a sharp contrast to the surrounding youthful exuberance. While reading aloud from Peek-a-Zoo, Sugg unfolds each page to reveal the face of another animal playing hide-and-seek. He urges the children to imitate the beasts—the monkey, the bear, the seal. When he reaches the lion, he shouts, "Let me hear you roar!"
He sounds a little like a young Ozzy Osbourne.
"That's my most steady gig these days," says Sugg, smiling and squinting as he steps outside of the library and into the mid-morning sunlight.
This engagement is the surprising epilogue to the decade or so Sugg spent in vans with bands running down the dream of rock 'n' roll stardom. After college in Richmond, Sugg played in Dragstrip Syndicate, garage blasters who flirted with record deals when their sound was in vogue. Those contracts—and Dragstrip Syndicate's fortune—never materialized. Sugg enumerates Dragstrip Syndicate's near-hits and misses, such as acts that opened for him and never returned the favor after landing their own lucky breaks, or labels that folded too soon.
"Resentment was a big thing for me. I was angry at old bandmates, record label situations. I felt there was a chance we could have had that we blew somehow," says Sugg.
Sugg moved to Raleigh and married his wife, Robin, but he lived a double life for a time, commuting north to Virginia to tour with Dragstrip Syndicate, to ride out its last hopes. When that band broke up, he perceived the situation, in part, as his fault and failure. He played with other acts locally, but he says he gave in to depression and alcohol. Four years ago, he quit drinking and found a new diversion—a cover band called Corvette Summer that specialized in the hard rock of the '70s he'd long loved.
"Let's go out and play all the songs we wish we heard," bassist Paul Walz remembers, summarizing their call to action.
Sugg could identify with the members, not only because of their shared taste for Iron Maiden, Rainbow and Black Sabbath but also because of their career experiences. They each remember spells of believing that their bands would propel them, if not toward arenas and tarmacs, then at least to lives as full-time musicians. In the early '90s, for instance, drummer Bill Eagen and bassist Walz chased Nirvana's popular bloom with Goodnight My Love, a grunge quartet they thought had the songs to earn a real audience. After that dream died, Eagen and Walz shifted toward blues-rock and relocated to North Carolina. And in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., guitarist Larry Burlison played in a pop-punk group that he assumed was ready-made for the masses.
"I thought we were going to be the next big thing," says Burlison, who was in his early 20s when that band formed and floundered. He didn't join a band for another six years. "When I was younger, every band made me feel that way."
Corvette Summer had no plans to write its own material. But in the fall of 2011, Sugg headed west on a solitary camping trip, taking his dog, Alice, and an acoustic guitar. He built a fire and settled into a campsite for the next few days. He'd come to think through some of his adult worries, and he left with new riffs he'd picked out in the dark, sitting by the fire.
"It was really kind of creepy, and I took advantage of the atmosphere," says Sugg, laughing. "I said, 'If this music is something you want, this is the perfect environment for it.'"
He had the perfect environment back at home, too: His bandmates immediately welcomed the new tunes. The music they wrote together became a natural extension of the music they'd learned. They became Demon Eye.
The new band represents a sort of heavy metal harbor, then, tucked unfashionably away from the idea of turning pro, conjuring buzz, making it big. Each member is a fully qualified adult: Walz and Eagen are both 42, and Sugg and Burlison are not far behind. Sugg is the only member without children.
That newfound comfort—with one another, with modest ambitions, with domestic balance—radiates from beneath Demon Eye's darkness. These are righteous, relentless rock tunes, with riffs that seem expertly cut from the grooves of old gatefold LPs with seeds still stuck in the creases. "Secret Sect" charges and lifts like a Black Sabbath epic, while the devilish lurch of "From Beyond" backlights midnight invitations with a full moon.
The influences are as iconic as they are apparent, fitting for a band named for a Deep Purple tune. Whereas young groups often shirk comparisons to obvious forebears, Walz says that's one of the things he loves about Demon Eye—making music that's worthy of being linked to his heroes.
"There are bands out there who are changing the dynamics of heavy music on a regular basis. I try to keep an open ear for that," says Sugg. "But at the same time, this is what we like, and we have a good time doing it. That's worth sticking with."
Besides, story time comes tomorrow morning, and the kids will be waiting.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sweet relief"