There's something addictive about those VH1 Where Are They Now episodes: Each segment usually contains crash-and-burn tales of drugs, bottoming out, comebacks and cosmetic surgery. Reality is far more mundane. People move, continue their education, become parents, learn computer skills and assimilate into the "mainstream." Yet the Triangle has produced its share of notable rock 'n' roll alumni. Yes, that is former Sex Police bassist Norwood Cheek in that wacky Volkswagen commercial, and Ben Folds does have the clout to get former Enterprise captain Bill Shatner to guest on his Fear of Pop album. And, thanks to the Squirrel Nut Zippers' gold record, everyone knows where Metal Flake Mother's Jimbo Mathis and Teasing the Korean's Tom Maxwell--Pittsboro's king of calypso swing and Chinese opera--ended up.
With bands like the Sneakers, H-Bombs, Butchwax, Th' Cigaretz, dBs and Let's Active paving the way for original, non-Duane-and-Gregg-style Southern music, the early '80s to mid-'90s exploded to create our N.C. rock universe: COC, Bad Checks, The Accelerators, Ugly Americans, Pressure Boys, Johnny Quest, Zen Frisbee, Dillon Fence, Finger, Vanilla Trainwreck, What Peggy Wants/Teasing the Korean, Snatches of Pink, Metal Flake Mother, Eight or Nine Feet and scores of others. The Southern "scene"--even in its punk heyday--had a sense of humor and quirkiness that went with the climate: perfect for group houses, couch surfin', cheap practice spaces (no heat required!) and low-overhead clubs. A generation of bands fronted by precocious kids weaned on punk and New Wave (many the offspring of local academics) thrived like kudzu at all-night parties where people played music, drank warm beer and cross-pollinated, musically and otherwise.
Oral histories abound: Tales of the Zen Frisbee house and their original van are legion. At various times, each Pressure Boy contemplated killing their drummer, Rob Ladd. (Frontman John Plymale nailed him once with a full jar of peanut butter.) True eccentrics emerged: "Dexter" Romweber created his Hasil Adkins/Link Wray persona and moved to a Cramps-ified shack behind his family home that he dubbed "The Mausoleum." Metal Flake Mother's Randy Ward lived in a tree house for a spell, and Wwax/Orifice's Wayne Taylor waged a mayoral campaign six years back in Raleigh. Needless to say, the "suits" discovered that the Triangle musicians were just a little too odd to be pigeonholed and marketed. (C'mon guys, just put on the flannel shirt for this one photo shoot....)
Where are they now, you ask? Read on.
Archers of Loaf: Leader Eric Bachmann recently released his third solo record, this time under the name Crooked Fingers. He's based in Atlanta and does the wandering minstrel thing. Guitarist Eric Johnson works at the Birdie Boutique in Durham. (He left the last Archers' tour early 'cuz the birdies missed him.) Bassist Matt Gentling is a mountain climbing enthusiast and lives and works in Asheville, where he has a band of his own, Track Rabbits. Drummer Mark Price works in the Chapel Hill bicycle trade and plays drums and xylophone in Panzer. A live Archers album (culled from the last two Cradle shows) is in the works.
Dillon Fence: They rocked the college party circuit for years before venturing into the studio (for Mammoth Records). Singer-guitarist Greg Humphreys continues in a more soulful vein with Hobex, now a seven-piece R&B review. Drummer Scott Carle (the Bad Checks) is now in Collapsis. Guitarist Kent Alphin lives in Wilmington and works with autistic adults. Bassist Chris Goode attends med school in Baltimore and just had his first child.
Motocaster/Eight Or Nine Feet: The "buzz" was heavy on former Eight or Nine Feet guitarist Bo Taylor, who turned around with a Nirvana/Cream-esque power trio originally called Motorola (Motorola wasn't amused). With a signing frenzy the likes of which this area had never seen, these dudes were wined and dined by the majors, eventually signing to Jimmy Iovine's Interscope Records. (Taylor co-signed to the same label as a member of Dish.) They made two albums (the second unreleased) before calling it quits. Taylor, half of the brilliantly dumbass rock duo Bandway, now makes classy custom-crafted furniture and cabinets. As for the rest of Eight or Nine Feet: Brian Sliwa (also in Motocaster) is about to graduate from N.C. State. Singer-guitarist Chris Eselgroth has a child and has been a graphic designer at Mammoth Records for years. Ian Shreier (drums) owns a recording studio in Raleigh. Motocaster drummer and self-proclaimed "wild man of rock" Jon Heames teaches bass and guitar at Harry's guitar shop and plays in The Stream.
Johnny Quest: The Quest were almost history after their legendary '94 van accident near the "peachoid" in Gaffney, S.C. Drummer Steve Hill, after numerous operations and a near-amputation for a compound leg fracture, now plays in Hobex. Bill Ladd (Rob's brother) moved to Wilmington and reinvented himself as a pedal steel player with The Burnley Brothers. No longer playing music, Ladd is an engineer in a manufacturing plant. Original drummer Peyton Reed (now an Los Angeles filmmaker) has directed episodes for HBO comedy series Mr. Show and Comedy Central's Upright Citizen's Brigade and made rock videos for The Connells and Superchunk as well. Vocalist Joe Farmer is back in Raleigh after a stint in Los Angeles.
Metal Flake Mother: Unquestionably one of the most eccentric and revered '90s-era bands (Their '91 album Beyond the Java Sea is a desert island pick). Ben Clarke, plucked at 13 to play with '80s punkers A Number of Things (featuring Chunk frontman Mac McCaughan and Sex Police sound guy Steve Aiken) evolved into a strikingly original songwriter with MFM. Ben went on to play in Family Dollar Pharaohs (founded by ex-MFM Randy Ward), which evolved into the Venus Flytrap Girls (the last band of SNZ horn player and former Pressure Boy Stacy Guess, who died of a heroin overdose in '98). After Stacy died, Ben quit playing and sold all his guitars; he now does computer programming. Drummer-singer Jimbo Mathis founded Squirrel Nut Zippers and Knockdown Society. He's also a new father. Randy Ward now builds furniture. Quince Marcum went to drama school in New York; he's a struggling actor who tends bar. (Hey, it worked for Bruce Willis.)
Pressure Boys and Sex Police: The South, that bastion of shagdom, inventor of beach music, has had a bitchin' frat rock party scene since Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts went on their first Panty Raid. The Sex Police, Pressure Boys and Johnny Quest--besides sharing a few members--embodied this funky, party sound. SP guitarist-vocalist John Plymale joined Wes Lachot at Overdub Lane studio and is a successful engineer-producer in his own right (The Meat Puppets, Superchunk and Far Too Jones). Johnny Quest co-founder and bassist Jack Campbell owned Poindexter Records (1985- 1998), providing flexible jobs for a crop of musicians over the years. Campbell currently lives in New York, works for ASCAP and is about to co-produce his first film. Filmmaker and local rock video pioneer Norwood Cheek now does his "Flicker" film project in Los Angeles. Cheek has a script in the works and a newfound career as a commercial actor (Reel.com, Sony digital cameras and Fox Sports, to name a few). "The opportunity is palpable out here," he says excitedly. PB/SP trumpeter J Weidenhouse is a full-fledged Zipper. Drummer Rob Ladd moved to Los Angeles early on and became a topnotch session man. He's now married, a father and recently played with Vonda Shepherd and Meredith Brooks. You can hear him on a couple tracks of Alanis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill and see him backing up Don Henley on his recent VH1 Storytellers episode. Brian Settle ran Yellow Recording for years and recorded tons of cool albums for Pipe and the like. He lives in Hillsborough and plays in Lud. Saxophonist Greg Stafford practices law in Pittsboro.
Snatches of Pink/Clarissa: Before the Black Crowes, this big-haired trio played Exile on Main Street-style, down and dirty rock 'n' roll. Known for using eyeliner, Aqua Net and more bandannas than Axl, they put out albums on then-R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt's Dog Gone label and later Caroline. Rechristened Clarissa, they made two albums with Mammoth. Leader Mike Rank may look the ruffian, but he's actually an art collector and reflective sort. Sara Romweber (from the original Let's Active trio) works at the Music Explorium in Carrboro and makes puppets. Bassist Andy Macmillan managed Pepper's Pizza for years before opening the Lizard & Snake Cafe. The now shaved-headed Andy still resides in Chapel Hill; he mixes sound, tour manages and does carpentry. Rank and Romweber carry on as two-fourths of Snatches of Pink.
Teasing the Korean (a.k.a. What Peggy Wants): The core of both bands was vocalist John Ensslin and drummer Tom Maxwell. What Peggy Wants released Death of a Sailor on Moist/Baited Breath two weeks before the label went bankrupt and the owners unceremoniously blew town. The band featured the Bowie/Peter Murphy-esque stylings of Ensslin, who looked pretty glam in his eyeliner and blond/red/brown mop. No longer a Zipper, Maxwell is poised for a solo career. Bassist Jeff Taylor works in computers in RTP and has two children. Guitarist Tim Roven has a successful Web design (Blue Hyper Media) company in New York. Ensslin recently joined Weaver Street Realty (he'll be mainly at the Pittsboro office) and plays in Marat with Mike Rank, Dez White and Marvin Levi.
Ugly Americans: This punk-hardcore group featured a mohawked Danny Hooligan (Hooley) along with Chris Eubanks and Simon Bob Sinister. Hooley attends N.C.C.U. (journalism) and writes for The News & Observer. (He's their world music critic and does layout.) Eubanks, who played in Bicentennial Quarters, is a computer guy and Shark Quest member. Singer Simon Bob is thought to be involved in film and living in Los Angeles.
Vanilla Trainwreck: Singer-guitarist Greg Elkins produces and engineers in Raleigh (he's worked with Ashley Stove, Whiskeytown, Hazeldine) and has a new band, Daddy. Guitarist Ken Bowers lives in New York and is an urban planner. Bassist Greg Eades lives in Raleigh and plays in band called A Dozen Swing. Original drummer Chris Jones works for The N & O.
The Veldt: Once described as "U2 meets Otis Redding," the core group was comprised of drummer Marvin Levi and the inscrutably named Chavis twins Danny and Daniel. They were poised to be huge (catching a bit of the Living Color hype) and landed a deal with Capitol. As black guys influenced by the Cocteau Twins and PIL (they toured with Jesus and Mary Chain and the Twins), they never found a niche. Marvin currently plays in Marat and is working with COC drummer Reed Mullin, Dez White, producer John Custer and Mikey Ross in a new group called Brown. Danny and Daniel are in New York doing Japanimation. Onetime bassist Dave Burris now plays in Jolene and lives in Los Angeles.
Zen Frisbee: There were several versions of Zen Frisbee (Original, Classic, Extra Crispy) from the mid-'80s until last year, but the main characters were Kevin Dixon (later joined by younger brother Laird), Brian Walker and drummer Chuck Garrison. Kevin--an instantly recognizable cartoonist and caricaturist--did the Zen Frisbee newsletter with Brian (an irreverent, surreal and often awesomely bratty little manifesto). Their '94 Flavor Contra album, I'm as Mad as Faust, still stands the test of time. (Then drummer Clint Curtis did the actor thing and moved to Los Angeles--Kevin says you can see him get killed by a giant octopus in some movie.) Laird's art can be seen in local bars and he's designed a famously surreal chess set. Kevin now directs Rainbow Soccer and plans to get into computer graphics (designing games). Brian, a casualty of the slacker lifestyle, is laying low. Andrew Maltbie, amid rumors of drugs and tawdry livin', left town for Boone with his wife and baby. Laird is the driving force behind Shark Quest.
Pipe/Small: Graphic artist and poster god Ron Liberti (Pipe frontman) silk-screens furniture with Cliff Mann. Ron has worked on films, plays in Clok Lok and is opening a gallery. Bassist Dave I.T. (Allsworth), who lived in Seattle for several years, is the executive chef at Acme and a father. Chuck Garrison still drums with everyone and works at a bond trading house. Cliff has a label in the works and still plays with his brother Robyn in the Bad Checks. Pipe guitarist-Small founder Mike Kenlan is married and manages a print shop in Chapel Hill. Where's Matt?
Polvo: Polvo, with their odd tunings and Middle Eastern flavor, often sounded like their instruments were melting. Dave Brylawski, after working at a New York ethnomusical archive for a year, is finishing his master's in social work at Columbia. He claims to have gambled away his Polvo money. Ash Bowie still lives in Boston (he's been with Helium) and has a solo record coming out. Steve Popson co-runs Kings, Raleigh's stylin' music club, and Eddie Watkins recently became a father.
Apologies to all the bands we could not cover in this brief listing, and thanks to the ones who called, wrote and e-mailed their updates in to us.