When Ben Carr, the frontman of the Carrboro three-piece Last Year's Men, was still 17, he would drive to Durham on Tuesdays and Thursdays for classes at Durham Technical Community College. After three years at East Chapel Hill High School, he knew he needed to get his diploma as soon as possible. Carr had wanted to be a touring musician since he was 12, when he played in punk bands and wore metal-spiked denim jackets. College was a distant backup plan; he was ready to get on the road.
"I always felt at home playing music. I decided, if I want to do this, I should just go out and try to do it," he says. "If I ended up going to school, I wouldn't be able to pursue this full-time. I didn't want to go work a normal job, at least not for a while."
At Durham Tech, he'd not only be able to complete high school six months early, but he'd also spend the next several months taking college courses while his former peers signed yearbooks and turned tassels. But what happened outside the classes in Durham was perhaps more important for Carr's immediate future than anything that happened in his classes. Chaz Martenstein, who owns Bull City Records on Perry Street in Durham, first met Carr two years ago. Carr was 16, playing in the pop-punk band The Begin-Agains; Martenstein even released the band's CD-R on his record label. Between classes at Durham Tech, Carr would just show up, sit on the shop's couch and listen.
"He'd sit over in the corner and work on his computer while I was at the counter doing my usual knock-around thing," remembers Martenstein of last spring. "It was fun because I had a captive audience. I forced him to listen to stuff."
That stuff happened to be the area of Martenstein's expertise: garage rock—primitive, primal, distorted rock 'n' roll that gets straight to the point and straight to the hook. One day, Martenstein put on Love & Curses, the new record by The Reigning Sound, a Memphis band living in Asheville, which mixes electric grit and sweaty soul in perfectly tempered two-minute bursts. For Carr, that LP pretty much made possible his band's addictive little debut, Sunny Down Snuff.
"I said, 'Oh, shit, what is this?' He gave me a copy, and I went home and listened to it a bunch," Carr, now 18, remembers. "From there, I started diving more into rock 'n' roll. Without Chaz, [Last Year's Men] wouldn't be around."
Those sorts of influential, community-based learning experiences have, so far, defined the brief, productive career of Last Year's Men: guitarist, singer and songwriter Carr; guitarist Geoff Schilling and drummer Ian Rose. Schilling, the oldest member, is 22. Rose, the youngest, is a 17-year-old senior at East Chapel Hill. From listening and writing to recording and releasing their music, the trio's undeniable talent has been bolstered and goaded by a fraternity of older musicians simply interested in seeing the kids succeed.
"A lot of older guys around here never got a lot of breaks, so when there's some young kids, you wanna help them out a little bit," says Dan McGee, the frontman of his own trio, Spider Bags. He produced Last Year's Men's debut, though he's referring not only to himself but also to veteran area sound engineers Nick Petersen and Andy Magowan. They donated time, flexibility and space to record the band. "Everyone likes the idea of 'Hey, young kids wanna make a rock 'n' roll record," McGee continues.
Through Spider Bags and his previous band, DC Snipers, McGee is a recording veteran, too. But he'd never produced another band's music—or even entertained the idea very much—until the band's label, Churchkey Records, handed him a set of demos the band had recorded by itself. He'd heard about Carr around town, essentially as the kid who liked the same kind of music he made. He was drawn to the two guitars and to Ben's urgent voice but especially to the songwriting. Even now, a year later, he can name all the tunes on the demo and explain how they hit him. He calls "Beware" a combination of "everything that's good about rock 'n' roll."
But he had his hesitations.
"I was like, 'If I meet this kid, and he's a fucking prick, well, I'll tell him good luck," says McGee. "He knows that he's got a little bit of talent, but it's not to the point where he's angry about it. When I was his age, I was real negative. He's a good kid."
That's immediately apparent about Carr and, really, his entire band. The rail-thin Carr, with arms so thin they suggest twigs, sports a goofy, unrestrained grin and wide, brown eyes that glow, as if always straining to experience as much of the world as possible. For an 18-year-old now into his second record deal, Carr seems more motivated to work than entitled to get. Only two months after Carr and Rose founded Last Year's Men, for instance, they booked a nine-show tour in a minivan, playing clubs and towns they barely knew existed. The bulk of the songs were written after the tour was booked. Likewise, entering the studio, they barely knew anything about recording, so they let McGee serve as a mentor and a guide. He knew the sounds they wanted. They simply played and trusted. Sunny Down Snuff suggests the strategy worked.
"When we were in this empty space recording this onto tape, we got those really basic tracks back, and I thought, 'This could be a really bad record, or it could be OK,'" Carr says. "It was a pretty cool feeling getting the records in our hand and listening to the finished product on vinyl."
"I never thought it would sound that good," says Schilling, beaming.
Indeed, youth, modesty and enthusiasm don't necessarily yield a good record, and Carr's Men have made a pretty great one. Though its antecedents, like The Reigning Sound and The Oblivians, are abundantly clear and something from which Carr doesn't shy at all, Sunny Down Snuff sounds supremely fresh and eager. Garage rock is often the domain of misanthropes and miscreants, and, true to form, troubles abound in Carr's teenage universe. Lucky pennies oxidize, girls cheat and friends die. "Baby you can't get up once you fall down/ That's the one thing that I've learned," Carr chants during "Old Letter," an ingenious little epic where the lone, lonely verse is bookmarked by a refrain that lasts for a minute and proselytizes stupid perseverance.
But the whole affair—from Rose's clattering, unsophisticated drums to the hazy little guitar squiggles Carr and Schilling love to squeeze between their songs' simple chords—runs with wide-open esprit. Carr sings these songs like they're the first rock songs ever written, a combination of nervous energy and frontman aplomb putting every verse and chorus in italics. When he sings, "I walk around this city without a heart to lose," he just sounds happy to have a microphone.
"The way I'd promote The Begin-Agains' shows was to say, 'If this kid's writing this stuff at 16, it's going to be amazing when he gets older and comes into his own,'" says Martenstein, who used to put that band on bills at his record store and across town at the DIY space Bull City Headquarters. Just two years later, the progression—and, still, the possibilities—are astounding.
"He's come into his songwriting. He's found his own voice, by discovering other voices," says Martenstein. "If he's 18 and just discovering this stuff now, he's got worlds ahead of him."