It's a Monday night in Durham, and Nolan Smock is tired.
In recent weeks, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter has been sorting through the logistics of his January wedding to his bandmate Kathryn Jackson—KJ, as he calls her. Smock has been working shifts at Bull City Records. And now he's at the storage-unit practice space of his band, The Charming Youngsters, demoing new ideas. Some of these sketches may become songs on a solo release, or they may become Charming Youngsters tunes.
In the latter case, Smock had better hurry: Drummer Lloyd Newman will soon head to San Francisco for a five-month programming stint at Apple. It isn't necessarily a permanent move, but it will put the band on hold at least until the summer of 2016.
"Lloyd's packing up to go to San Francisco [for programming]. KJ's about to go to programming school," a drowsy Smock says. "I'm not doing anything except for kind of writing another album. I'm not totally unstable at the moment."
The band has survived worse and weirder circumstances, though, thanks to its formation in the churning wilderness of the same Greenville, North Carolina, underground that spawned Future Islands and Valient Thorr. Now a fully pragmatic band, they just issued their second LP, the terrific Middleweights, digital-only, with a vinyl release expected sometime next year. And rather than hit the road in support, the band is hitting the pause button for six months at least.
Middleweights might seem to have been delivered offhandedly, yet the LP represents remarkable growth. Previous albums overflowed with cute moments, playful songs about dinosaurs or sexually frustrated roosters. But the latest is the band at its fuzziest and most propulsive. With its blistering tempo and multiple pop-punk hooks, "Skinny Idiots" is a fun song, yes, but its air of nervousness and the aim the band takes at kids stuck too long in partying mode suggest that The Charming Youngsters aren't as lightweight as they once were.
"We're changing our name," Smock jokes, "to the Functioning Adults."
At the start, they really were youngsters. In 2007, when Smock arrived in Greenville to study photography at East Carolina University, he brought the name "Nolan Smock and the Charming Youngsters" with him. That identity was attached to little more than a collection of solo demos, guitar-and-Casio curios with infectious melodies. He'd been experimenting with home studio software, but college and photography became the focus—temporarily, anyway.
"The Spazz was like a light switch," he says, referring to the illegal music venue that was the beating heart of Greenville's underground. Inside the dilapidated storefront, Smock found a rich and shifting mélange of touring acts on the rise and locals with names like Blue Destroy, Lonnie Walker and Hot John Stockton.
The space's free-for-all atmosphere especially excited Smock. Many of the bands were unpracticed one-offs, seemingly random assemblages of local musicians playing free-form sets. These short-lived groups helped Smock abandon the idea that live music requires traditional concepts of practice and preparation.
Soon, Smock was hooked: He dropped out of ECU quickly enough to get his money back.
"That was my downfall in Greenville—dropping out of school for good times," he says.
He began playing bright-eyed pop at the Spazz and house shows with his drummer and roommate Eric Von Kopp. They were so unprepared they were forced to improvise. Von Kopp was a natural, while Smock was a little fussier. Eventually, he learned to embrace musical chaos.
"We kind of just played a bunch of grimy shows," Smock remembers. "That was such a huge growth, to go out there and not know what we were going to play at this party."
Newman was in Greenville, too, playing in local rock act Hot John Stockton with bassist Andrew Sean Koenig. Several nights a week, he'd show up at the Spazz or the beer store and show space 21 Eleven without checking to see who was playing.
"What I took out of the Greenville scene was a sense of adventure," he says.
When one of the main show houses in town came up for rent, Newman and Koenig moved in and renamed it "the Stockholm House." It already had a reputation for uncommon rowdiness, having figured strongly in Future Islands' early years. (Look closely, and you can spot Smock and Koenig in Future Islands' 2010 video for "Tin Man.") Knowing this history, Newman and Koenig happily took over the lease. They had no intention of getting their deposit back, says Newman, laughing at the memory.
"We hosted some bands that have gone on to big things," he says. "Future Islands basically broke the house. It was kind of scary—wall-to-wall people, inside and out."
Koenig and Newman soon joined The Charming Youngsters, with Von Kopp drumming and Newman playing guitar. (He took over on the drums just last year). They practiced at the 11th Street House. It was a quieter scene, Smock recalls, but there were still plenty of oddball moments, like an allegedly naked performance on the roof by The Love Language's Stu McLamb.
But it didn't last. Von Kopp, who split amicably from the band in 2014, is the only former member who remains in Greenville. Everyone else now lives in Raleigh or Durham.
"Places were closing, and people were leaving," Smock says. "It would be interesting to see that parallel universe, with The Charming Youngsters still in Greenville."
It was time to get out and grow up.
It's a Thursday night in Raleigh, and The Charming Youngsters are playing their last show until, at the earliest, summer of 2016.
It's mild out, but it's quite warm inside Neptunes. The crowd of three dozen people includes several Greenville expats. There's Billy Barnes, Ghostt Bllonde's chipper, animated drummer, who went to shows at the Spazz as a high-school kid. There's John Massengill, too, the singer and songwriter for country drifters Old Quarter.
The Charming Youngsters' new guitarist, Brandon Sowers, is another Greenville survivor. He isn't playing this show, because he's at home prepping to earn his realtor's license. The 32-year-old is expecting his first child in February. Smock and Jackson are getting married in a little over a month, and then they're taking a Mexico City honeymoon. Koenig isn't a planner (he'll play with whatever projects crop up in the interim, he says), while Newman just received confirmation of his extended-stay hotel in San Francisco.
"There's a possibility that this show is our final one ever, because we have no idea what's going to happen," Newman says. "At the same time, this could be the start of a much longer process."
There comes a time, Newman says, when musicians at all professional levels reach a crossroads. They wonder how much time and energy they can put into playing in a band. Sometimes bands break up. Some stick around forever. Others linger in limbo. So far, The Charming Youngsters' solution has been to not take anything too seriously. Maybe it's a fault, Newman admits.
"The band has been a pleasurable experience from day one," he says. "I don't think a lot of bands can say that."
Newman and the others will perhaps collaborate remotely while he's in San Francisco, but they may never record again. The band has outlasted worse impasses, anyway, such as the year Jackson and Smock broke up but didn't quit the band. Newman and Koenig endured some awkward, intimate practices.
"They grew up through that with us," Smock says. "Those dudes have really been through it."
If the Neptunes show is bittersweet for the players, it doesn't show until the end. At the start of "Walls," Smock mutters that it's their last live date for some time. The propulsive pop-rock obscures his words, which seem out of place for a band born of free-form house-show sets and cheerfully stubborn survival.
The set's end is an instrumental, the closing track to a Valentine's Day album Smock made for Jackson; her copy is the only one that exists. Smock says the song doesn't even have a permanent name. Still, the tune crackles with frayed energy and a mournful air. The performance is dynamic, emotive, raw and real. After the set, Smock admits they'd only loosely practiced the song, tacking it on to the set at the last minute.
For The Charming Youngsters, that finale felt more apt than a few words delivered through the din. It was an unplanned farewell—for now, at least.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Set times"