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Murmurs from the '80s 

Tarheel filmmakers document their college soundtrack

It surely wasn't the first ambitious idea born over a couple of those big blue cups at He's Not Here on Franklin Street. It probably wasn't even the first one concocted by Mike Allen and Felix Dover, roommates during their undergrad years at UNC-Chapel Hill from 1982-86. But this one survived the light of the next day--and beyond. "We were discussing power pop, from Cheap Trick to Mayflies USA, and began to reflect on the rich tradition in North Carolina, especially during the '80s," recounts Dover. "We were also contemplating why none of our favorite local artists ever became really famous, because the music is just so darn good." Allen and Dover had also been trying to come up with an idea for a friend, Liz Malcolm, a producer for Charlotte-based Paradox Films with a strong interest in making a documentary. "Suddenly," says Dover, a pharmacist who works as a medical information specialist in RTP, "the lightbulb came on." Explains Allen, "We started wondering why no one had ever done a documentary on the North Carolina music scene, specifically the rock/power pop from Arrogance in the late '70s/early '80s up to Dillon Fence in the late '80s."

Allen, an associate creative director at a Raleigh ad agency, began hitting the phone lines and the Internet hard, contacting such scene heavyweights as Don Dixon and Mitch Easter. ("Turns out Mitch Easter had been listening to a lot of Cheap Trick lately as well, so we took that as a really good sign," Allen shares.)

It quickly became apparent that this was an idea born with wings. "It felt real from the moment we decided to move forward," Malcolm says. "But as all these musicians showed such interest and generosity with their time, it began to feel like something that was bigger than just the three of us and our interest in this subject. It became a necessary adventure."

It's one thing to trade e-mails; it's another to start talking face-to-face with a camera rolling. For Allen, reality--a very sweet reality in this case--hit the night of the very first interviews. "We covered the Jeff Hart & The Ruins show at King's--Tim Lee and Shalini were also on the bill--and we got interviews with Jeff, Tim, and Mitch the same night. I will never forget sitting there and thinking to myself, 'I can't believe I'm actually in the same building with Mitch Easter, much less interviewing him.'"

The couple of months since the He's Not Here summit have been a whirlwind of correspondence, interviews and concert taping. (Cameraman David Salmon and Judith Smith, locater/coordinator/scheduler extraordinaire, complete the team for the project.) In addition to talking with Dixon, Easter, Hart and Lee, the crew has sat down with Jamie Hoover, Jon Wurster, Jeffrey Dean Foster, Treva Spontaine, Chris Stamey, Rod Abernathy and a half-dozen others, including members of The Woods and Hobex, to record their impressions of the scene. They are also set to tape an upcoming '80s-redux triple-bill of Arrogance, The Woods and The Hanks, a gathering that Malcolm describes as "symbolic of this branch of the N.C. music community and its staying power and current relevance."

For Allen and Dover, the North Carolina Music Project has meant both the resurfacing of musical memories two decades old and the acquiring of wonderful new ones. Allen fondly recalls a benefit show in Raleigh that featured REM, Dixon, The Connells, and The Pressure Boys, while Dover has a vivid memory of riding around the UNC campus listening to REM's Murmur on his Walkman, enjoying it even more with the knowledge that it was recorded in North Carolina and produced by two local guys. Now, thanks to a recent tour of Easter's Kernersville studio, they've seen, among many other precious music-geek artifacts, the 16-track machine used for Murmur. An acoustic rendering of "Battleship Chains" at the conclusion of a Woods interview is also one for the scrapbook.

At this early point in the project, the plan is pretty basic: Shoot as much footage as possible and continue to do so for the next year or two. "We already have an embarrassment of riches, both in the time people like Dixon and Mitch have given to us, and in the amount of footage, music, photos, ticket stubs, posters, etc. that people have volunteered to let us film for the story," says Allen. Thus far, all expenses have come out of their own pockets, so fundraising is something that the team is starting to focus on--ideally, aided by a nonprofit status.

And then there's the business of what to do with all these riches when the camera is shut off for the last time. In addition to bringing together the new footage with donated '80s footage to form a definitive, not to mention damn lengthy, look at the era, Allen, Dover and Malcolm are considering a distilled document. "We'd like to have an under-two-hour version that we could screen somewhere, hopefully followed by a show featuring some of the bands we've covered," offers Dover. "This feature-length version should go to film festivals and get as much exposure for these musicians as possible," adds Malcolm. "We want to document this scene for posterity, while people are still around and still playing great music, and I would hope as many existing fans can see it as possible." That's something well worth toasting with a big blue cup.

Arrogance, The Woods, and The Hanks play Cat's Cradle on Saturday, Aug. 14. Music starts at 8 p.m.

  • Tarheel filmmakers document their college soundtrack

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