THE STORY: Pipe took shape during the sweltering, beer-soaked Chapel Hill summer of 1991, remembers Mike Kenlan. He was pulling double duty with the fledgling four-piece—which pointed punk's blunt force up rock 'n' roll's upturned nose in quick jabs—and his own group Small, which later changed its name to Small 23 after another Small grumbled.
Small started to gain steam just as Pipe began recording and touring: A noisy pop band ultimately rising beyond Chapel Hill rock circles to some national renown, Small achieved a critical mass and signed to Alias Records. Kenlan was writing songs and singing for Small while playing guitar in Pipe. The bands issued a split-single together, and Kenlan played in both until 1993. But it just became too much.
"I was writing songs for both bands and was also in school full-time and working full-time," he remembers. Small went on to do three albums for Alias and tour Europe with Archers of Loaf and the States with bands like Versus and Polvo.
Clif Mann, of the Bad Checks and many other locals, assumed Kenlan's guitar duties. Then two injuries stunted Pipe's growth: Chuck Garrison, a veteran both of Small and Superchunk, broke his hand, cutting a '97 Pipe tour with New Bomb Turks short. Mann crushed a finger and had to leave. It looked like Pipe was a done deal.
But Pipe had always had such fun onstage. Just look at 'em: Singer Ron Liberti grins after getting konked in the head with an empty PBR (like he did at their recent Mergefest show). Bassist Dave Alworth, or "Dave I.T.," laughs at Liberti's onstage charm or when Kenlan puts his head down, leaning into his guitar when a song's chorus kicks open. Those good times with old friends lured Kenlan back in for a short stint in the late '90s: "Ron and I were talking and drinking beer at some bar, and he started saying 'We could play some shows...'"
Kenlan dryly jokes that Pipe's last official show was at Merge's 10th anniversary party in 1999. But here they are again, having played another Merge party last month after an original lineup reunion show at Local 506 in 2005 and one more show this weekend. Aren't the guys afraid of being seen as one of those bands that keeps reuniting endlessly?
"I think we've all had those thoughts about not being one of those bands," Kenlan says. "Personally, I don't worry about that perception. We're just out there doing it. Far as I can tell, we're still the same guys as we were."
A ROADSHOW MEMORY: Unlike some other Triangle bands of the time, Pipe got to share bills with punk legends, as when they toured with Bad Brains following their 1994 full-length debut, Six Days to Bellus. But there were also out-of-state jaunts with peers including Versus and local kin like Archers of Loaf. On a short East Coast trip with Polvo in 1992, Pipe was pumped off of a bill at The Middle East in Boston because Touch and Go post-punk heroes Girls Against Boys joined the show. They took the night off as a cue to party at the gig they were supposed to be playing: "Someone got a hold of some acid. We all took some, and we generally had a good time anyway," remembers Kenlan, laughing a little.
THREE ESSENTIAL TRACKS: "You're Soaking in It," from their 1993 single on Amish Records, is damn-near a sing-along anthem; "Ashtray," from a 2003 Merge single, tumbles and breaks open while Liberti barks, and the flip is a fire-breathing cover of Joy Division's "Warsaw"; and see "Chula," from 1997's Slowboy record on Merge, for pummeling riffs.
DAY JOBS: Kenlan works at Carr Amps in Pittsboro, wiring the innards of new amplifiers. Nearly everyone he works with is a guitarist once of or now in a local band. Garrison works in finance, while Alworth has been a chef in Triangle restaurants for years, including 411 West and now Watts Grocery. Liberti continues as a freelance graphic artist. Find his high poster art pasted on a telephone pole near you. —Chris Toenes
Pipe plays Broad Street Café in Durham Saturday, Aug. 15, at 10 p.m. The Dry Heathens open the $5 show. The band has no other shows scheduled but plans to play The Cave later this year.
THE STORY: Dave Brylawski is one of two guitarists in Polvo, not only one of the most heralded bands in the Merge Records archive but also in indie rock at large. But Brylawksi vividly remembers the day Erectus Monotone, the Raleigh quartet that bounced its pop tunes at oddball angles and paces, made his own band feel like a bunch of clumsy ingénues.
"We recorded a demo for Cor-Crane Secret before signing to Merge. We were really psyched, so we took it over to Andy Freeburn and Jennifer Walker's house: 'We gotta play you the new Polvo demo,'" Brylawski remembers of that day in 1991. Erectus Monotone was in the middle of an early practice with its second drummer, Mike Meadows. Polvo waited on the porch. "That was the first we'd ever heard them play with Mike Meadows, and we were blown away, like, 'Oh my god.' They came out, and we're like, 'No, we're not playing you the demo.'"
"We were starting to get somewhere," says Andy Freeburn, reflecting on Erectus Monotone just before the quartet—guitarists and vocalists Kevin Collins and Freeburn, bassist and vocalist Jennifer Walker (now Walker-Barwick) and a succession of four drummers—broke up in 1993. After all, their first Merge release that wasn't a 7" record, Close Up, would be released in a month. Their new drummer, Brian Quast, was energetic and excited and, as Freeburn puts it, knew the songs better than he did. The band printed hundreds of flyers for a tour with Polvo. There would even be guaranteed payouts at the shows. "$1,000 a night for a college gig? Hell, I would go on the road and do that now, but in 1993, that was great."
But Collins wanted to continue his education, and, in hindsight, Freeburn admits that he didn't let cooler heads prevail. He got mad, broke the band up and spent the next 16 years largely estranged from the band. Walker and Freeburn broke up around the same time as Erectus Monotone, and Walker soon started dating Ben Barwick, who she later joined in fellow Merge act Ashley Stove before they married. Collins and Freeburn never bothered working out their disagreement. All of the drummers went on to different bands. Freeburn never expected Erectus Monotone to play again, but then Merge—who released everything by the band, save one 7"—asked them for a 20th anniversary present.
"For the first couple of weeks, it was kind of awkward, but now it's a blessing," says Freeburn, noting that Collins, who now fronts Double Negative, was using decade-old guitar strings when they began rehearsals. "We've dropped all of that nonsense. It's all smiles onstage. It did wonders for my spirit."
A ROADSHOW MEMORY: Things didn't end so well with Mike Meadows, that second drummer. After a show at Chicago's legendary The Lounge Ax in 1991, Meadows and Freeburn started arguing. "He's a big dude, and I knew I couldn't win," says Freeburn. "I was laughing at him, and he kept repeatedly kicking me in the head. Jennifer had enough and pulled him off of me. We threw his drums out of the van and left." The band played the next three weeks of the tour sans drummer, and—on nights when they'd tell the story to crowds—they mysteriously sold more merchandise.
THREE ESSENTIAL TRACKS: "Old New," from 1991's Cathode Gumshoe, lands a hook, guitar drama and rhythm shifts within 104 seconds and never sounds rushed; "Anything's Fine," from a 1992 split 7" with Polvo called El Cid, combines Erectus' tunefulness with Polvo's signature guitar unrest; one of the longest and most complex Erectus tunes, "My First Harmony," from 1993's Close Up, emphasizes the band's vocal and instrumental versatility and its tendency for tension by charging ahead only to fall behind.
DAY JOBS: Freeburn works as an electrician these days and is building two more bands, including The New Awful. Quast drums in a reunited Polvo and with Urge Overkill, and—when he's off the road—also works construction. Collins has three children and works as a software developer. After the band, Walker-Barwick played bass in Ashley Stove and worked at Research Triangle Institute. She now raises two children, ages 4 and 6. —Grayson Currin
Erectus Monotone plays Tir Na Nog in Raleigh Thursday, Aug. 13, at 10 p.m. The Loners and Rocket Cottage open the free show. It will be the band's second and last show in 16 years—for now, anyway.
Correction (Aug. 12, 2009): The print version of this story indicated Close Up was the first non-7" release by Erectus Monotone. That was Erector Set.