A washboard hangs on the wall. There's a saw nearby, sitting among vintage amps, a drum set, congas, a piano, a saxophone, a trumpet, a trombone, guitars and ukuleles. There's a stand-up bass leaning against a wall, a gift from a grandmother, close to a banjo rescued from a dumpster.
"Most of this stuff was either given to us or we found it," says Kym Register, one half of Durham duo Midtown Dickens, sitting on an orange and white couch here in their self-made creative paradise on Crafton Street. Skeletal black typewriters perch on end tables, ready to capture any free-floating thoughts.
And there are plenty of those: "This is so funny. I feel like we're in marriage counseling or something ... like we're going to paint a little sunset and walk away into it hand in hand," says Register, sitting across from a disturbingly realistic fake rooster sitting on a coffee table that she picked up at a gift shop in the mountains that "sold a bunch of Jesus shit."
Casually, and with humor: That's how Midtown Dickens works. After all, that's how it started. Register and Catherine Edgerton--best friends, roommates, bandmates--met when they were 16, immediately bonding over an enthusiasm for Janis Joplin. They started playing songs together soon, taken with the acoustics of a parking garage on Rosemary Street and excited by songs sung on streets corners and at open mics.
"Before I met Kym, I knew four chords on the guitar and 'Turkey in the Straw' on the harmonica. That's it," says Edgerton.
Register's relationship with Edgerton has been reciprocally important: "I've always loved music, but I never felt like it was complete, and I was never satisfied with anything I ever wrote and never played out until I met Catherine. I feel like without her, I can't play music. She allows me to be less critical and stressed out about it. I can't imagine doing this with anyone else."
They've been around music since they were kids, though: Edgerton's father is adored Southern author Clyde Edgerton, who, in addition to being a novelist, has always been a bluegrass musician. During her childhood, Thursday nights meant a front-porch, old-time picking session.
"It was almost like growing up bilingual because I was blessed to never have to learn how to harmonize or learn music theory in order to play music. I doubted myself for a long time," she says. "When I finally got up the guts to start playing out, I found it was already in my back pocket."
Register's grandfather performed at the Grand Ol' Opry. He gave her his first guitar when she was 14. She promptly painted a daisy on its body with Wite-Out.
Such a carefree association with music has been essential to Midtown Dickens. Borrowing cues from their anti-folk antecedents, they're not obsessed with perfection of technique as much as they are purity of feeling: If a chord is botched or if a playful lyric forgotten, they simply look at each other, laugh and keep playing. What's better, the audience laughs with them.
"We get the best response when we're just being ourselves, playing around onstage. When we're all serious and like, 'Hey--this is a show,' it doesn't work," says Register.
"I think it's refreshing to people. It's refreshing to us. No one in the world can claim they've never made a mistake," Edgerton adds. "For me, in every area of my life right now, there's pressure to do things right. The coolest thing is that we can get onstage and not do it right and get a good response for that."
Spontaneity is a key element in the creation of a Midtown Dickens song. Songs are grown organically out of whatever is happening in the moment, whether it's agonizing over what to do with their lives when they'd rather be at a Bulls game eating hot dogs, or hanging out in their socks and underwear playing Tetris on the couch. Both have a natural affinity for song structure and storytelling, and their music keeps both the ear and the heart interested.
That easy feeling and inviting charm have earned Midtown a fast local audience: Though they've only been playing as a band for just over a year, they've already played places like Cat's Cradle and Local 506, sharing the stage with friends from The Moaners and Maxwell/Mosher to The Future Kings of Nowhere and The Dirty Little Heaters.
Register says, though, that they're most excited about their friends and connections with Durham bands and venues. She says it's a music scene with deep roots and on the rise. "Right now, there's just this buzz of excitement, and it's putting this glow over Durham," she says. "Durham is like one of those capsules you throw into water and suddenly it turns into this big, spongy dinosaur."
Midtown Dickens has several shows coming up: Bickett Gallery on Friday, Sept. 22 at 9 p.m., Open Eye Café for the Carrboro Music Festival on Sunday, Sept. 24 at 3 p.m., and at both Durham Pride and a Joe & Jo's after-party with The Moaners on Saturday, Sept. 30. For more, see www.myspace.com/midtowndickens.