Reunions of the family and school sort mostly suffer their own nostalgia. People talk longingly about the good old days (a futile if necessary human instinct) and lament the present through a bent lens of regret (what they could've been, etc.). But, hey, look how bald Freddy is, right?
Come the Freak On, a reunion festival born out of early-'90s Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla. bedrooms that produced many skewed pop songs, doesn't look only to its past: Instead, the festival—which comes to Chapel Hill for the first time ever this weekend, thanks mostly to connections with Chapel Hill's The Kingsbury Manx—exists as a reason for old friends to gather and to collaborate. New bands are invited, and one-offs form in an instant. It's still a gathering rooted the past, but it takes aim for the future.
The festival draws first from a strong historical base, Screw Music Forever, the little label that became a large umbrella for sharing music and visual art in Florida in the early '90s. Co-founded by members of the band Home and Tim Kearly, Screw Music Forever released records by its founders and friends—Home, Dumbwaiters, Meringue, Pee Shy and Leels among the most nationally prominent. Any band was welcome to use the brand Screw Music Forever, and those that did often helped each other release singles and organize shows. Their visual artist friends created cover art and flyers, and other associates recorded the music or brought their projections to roll at shows as the bands played.
While the slacker motif of indie rock hung heavy in the air in those early days, these Floridians were extremely prolific, producing music in bursts, on the fly and on the cheap. "I think it was the opening of [Tampa's] Blue Chair Record Store that started to make the area really congeal," remembers Eric Morrison of Home, which released its sixteenth album in 2006. The store hosted live shows and served as a nexus for locals. "It was right around this time that Home began putting out our first eight albums on cheap dubbed cassettes and selling them in a cookie jar at the Blue Chair."
After eight albums, Home jumped to Sony's Relativity Records for IX. Home's homemade, off-the-cuff pop—which often buries a hook within false endings and jazzy affectations—lured fellow experimenters like Dave Fridmann, The Flaming Lips producer and former Mercury Rev member who worked on several records with Home. Jason Lytle, better known as the man behind psych-pop project Grandaddy, is another rabid fan.
"On a CD with futuristickish yet cheap-spun artwork that I came across in 1996, the extended credits cited words like 'ensembles,' 'synthesizers,' 'pianos,' 'viruses,' 'codes,' 'flutes,' etc., all alongside one another written in junky handwriting," Lytle remembers of the band's album Elf: GulfBoreWaltz. "Then I listened. I felt I had found my lost brothers from birth or something. I mean, it actually fucked me up, but in the best possible sense."
Indeed, the band's aesthetic took roots all over the place. Bill Taylor, of Chapel Hill's The Kingsbury Manx, says that when he was first forming his band, it mirrored Home's interests. "There were rocking, challenging songs that were fun and weird at the same time," he said. "They even put a 20-minute track on the record [Home IX] that consists of them walking out of the house and driving around. Just from listening to that conversation, they felt like kindred spirits to us, guys we could hang out with. Weirdly enough, that was true."
Clarque Blomquist, whose band, Gossamer, worked within the SMF scene, joined The Manx after moving to Carrboro in 1998. One major connection was a shared love for Home. Blomquist says his years in Florida were a heady, if tumultuous, time. Those were the years when folks were lazily using the term "lo-fi" to describe some type of marketable sound, while it merely referred to the simple recording method employed by SMF regulars.
"It seemed to me that something really special was going on: a new breed of weird, arty bands with affection for psychedelic music and classic rock, and a totally D.I.Y. sensibility about recording and putting out their own music," says Blomquist, who still plays in The Manx and in Waumiss with his wife, Caroline. "It was refreshing, and I was inspired."
Of course, all things eventually end: Home transplanted to New York in 1996, as did Tom Roe, who ran the Blue Chair back in Tampa. The circle of SMF friends is now split from Baltimore to New York and Gainesville to Chapel Hill. SMF webmaster and label honcho Tim Kearly was a member of Dumbwaiters and now plays in Errant Strike. Kearly lives in Baltimore, where he's joined in Errant Strike by members of the the co-ed duo Wye Oak, which released its Merge Records debut earlier this year. They're now part of the very extended family.
Just as the scene splintered across the country in the '90s, its members began using the Internet to continue making music together from a distance. By 1998, the scattered scene was mostly back in touch online. In Florida, the musicians had embraced examples of the old European salon method of sharing work. That level of energy continues today, often through sharing work digitally. A recent post on the Screw Music Forever site, for example, reads, "This song needs vocals. (01-nocturne). Can someone do a vocal track for the 2nd half of this song? Preesh!"
"We were now a bunch of digital representatives of the old scene," says Kearly. "That was fun, but not enough."
So, naturally, they made plans to get together and play in real-time: Roe had found a new performance space and set up a low power FM station. In 2000, he convinced his Florida friends to gather in New York for the weekend. When some of them were reluctant to make the trek with their new projects, they needed some prodding. They were told to "come the freak on."
When the bands play in Chapel Hill this weekend, it will mark the fourth Come the Freak On, which survives because it's the living arm of a bunch of good-natured folks from Florida who still want to make music together. It keeps the energy high. In fact, Morrison says the festival's most memorable moments are often unplanned, as when every member of Home was suddenly unable to attend the last installment, so a group of attendees from other bands got up and played with him—that is, the moments that do more than celebrate the past.
"The festival stays exciting and fun for me because not only do the codgers from back in the day come out," he says, "but it (very thankfully) avoids feeling like a high-school reunion because of new bands and artists that continue to flow into the process."
It's sort of like taking your kids to your class reunion, and caring more about them than that cute girl you almost kissed as a freshman.
The Come the Freak On Festival happens Friday, Sept. 26, and Saturday, Sept. 27, at Nightlight in Chapel Hill. Flexxehawke, Wye Oak, Kingsbury Manx, Errant Strike, Home, Masik, Waumiss, Warmingtons, Impossible Arms, Thruster, Leels and Disbelief St. are among the scheduled performers. Doors open at 9 p.m. each night, and the cover is $8. Andrew Deutsch of Home plays solo along with Eric Morrison's alter-ego, Jimmy Winchell, at a festival warm-up show at Milltown Thursday, Sept. 25 at 9 p.m.