The Water Callers
(with Randy Whitt & the Grits and Puritan Rodeo Show)
Friday, Nov. 17, 10 p.m.
Wetlands, Chapel Hill
Saturday, Dec. 9
Broad Street Cafe, Durham
When Jason Fagg first played a church with his acoustic duo The Water Callers, he says he feared he would "burst into flames." The Water Callers—Fagg and Bart Matthews—are walking contradictions. Their performances revel in mixing the sacred and the profane: Setlists come filled with traditional gospel songs, but "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is prone to be followed by the word "fuck." Who are these hard-to-peg Durham potty mouths who like to sing about Jesus, anyway?
"How we comport ourselves does not necessarily jive with the music that we play," says Matthews. "If we were good boys that stood up there and did our Jesus thing, that's not really interesting. Maybe the music would be pretty, but it wouldn't be interesting."
At this point, it's normative to expect something interesting from Fagg. The Water Callers, whose 10-song EP The Finest of Wheat will be released in December, is one of Fagg's five active bands, and none of them remotely resemble each other. He is the crazed yet competent percussionist behind the femme-fatale-fronted The Cassandra Project ("The Distant City," which Jason wrote, was aired on a recent episode of CSI: New York). He is a raging political warrior and vocalist in The Ugglians, a fiery, funny-but-poignant punk band. And he collaborates with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Foley (also in The Cassandra Project), in Snuggle Factor 10, their fun, over-the-top, pop and hip-hop project that aims "not to take itself too seriously." He's also an occasional drummer in The Physics of Meaning.
Fagg is a budding actor and soundtrack man, too: He'll play Matthews' brother in I and I, a docudrama directed by Josh Gibson, and the Callers' song "Durhamite" will be featured in Durham: A Self-Portrait. Fagg is also the photographer for Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, and he does freelance design projects for local bands.
"He's everywhere," says friend and Ugglian bandmate Robert Stromberg.
Foley tries to explain such ubiquity: "I think he can't help himself. He sees the potential for how great a project can be. That's probably why he's always in a million different bands at once."
As far as anyone knows, Fagg is just one person. But we can't be sure.
"As a kid, I would ask adults, 'What brought you from when you were a kid to where you are now?'" remembers Fagg. "Those adults would tell their stories with a hint of regret, as if they weren't doing what they imagined or hoped they would be doing. You got the sense there were opportunities and chances they didn't take. I knew I didn't want to have those sorts of regrets."
In 2004, Fagg was juggling multiple band practices and sometimes playing two or three gigs each night—all after a day of filing paperwork in UNC's Financial Aid department. He was working too much to enjoy it. Fagg had dreamed of going on tour his entire life, and in 2004, one of his acts, International Orange—a bustling pop band with former Ben Folds Five bassist Robert Sledge and The Old Ceremony frontman Django Haskins—had that chance. He quit his day job, which he had held for six years. He hit the road with International Orange, but then they broke up unexpectedly. He was in a lurch.
"Here I was, I had sort of thrown all my chips in on this band, and for about a year or more, I was pretty destitute," says Fagg, adding that his friends were even concerned with how skinny he had become. He managed to stay afloat by taking occasional odd jobs in construction. Now, he's working two jobs, one at a frame shop and the other as an arts event organizer. But, more than ever, he's committed himself to patching together some sort of creative life, no matter how many sides he has to add to his proverbial coin, no matter how many hats he has to wear.
The Water Callers is yet another piece of that happenstance plan: Fagg, already bogged down with so many other projects, was reluctant to add another band to his list, but when they finally got together, the music instantly took on momentum and he knew it was something he had to do. It brought something else out of him.
"Bart's been a big inspiration to me because he's a really talented songwriter," says Fagg.
Matthews, who tends to play the straight man to Fagg's foul-mouthed clown, continues: "When I thought about doing music with Jason, I knew we'd probably get along because he played so many different styles of music. I also thought he had an amazing voice."
While Matthews was in college at Duke, he knew Fagg as the drummer in The Cody Cods and International Orange. They moved in similar social circles, but they never knew of their musical simpatico until some spontaneous jamming at a small dinner party with friends in the spring of 2005. A portion of their chemistry was a result of similar pasts: They grew with traditional roots and gospel music, both of their parents heavily involved in church music ("I would fall asleep to the sound of both of my parents practicing," says Matthews). They were middle school and high school orchestra or chorus geeks (Matthews directed the high school chorus and played violin; Fagg went All-State as a percussionist in the orchestra and was chosen for governors school as well). They were biology majors at Duke. And, perhaps most importantly, they both have all-over-the-map musical tastes.
"We both have really quick ears, and we both learn really fast," explains Matthews. "We just met two or three times, and we instantly had about 10 songs learned."
They now have 60 completed songs. In fact, they say they need to actively restrain themselves from creating too many. With Jason's considerable talents beginning to receive more public recognition, it seems fitting that in The Water Callers, he comes out from behind the drum kit and shines as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. His creative life seems to be coming together, even if the payoff is moderate. That's copasetic: "My idea of 'making it' as a musician isn't about being on MTV or being famous," says Fagg. "It's about being able to be creative and have a modest home and a family and be able to eat and pay my bills relatively on time. That, to me, is my dream."