Kirk Ross lives on the outskirts of Chapel Hill in a brick house with electric blue trim. Fallen leaves and wild foliage cloak the front yard, and two leftover jack-o-lanterns flank the door like decaying sentinels. Overlooking the woodsy backyard is an elevated deck, where a bloodhound named Gracie pads amiably around a moldering wicker chair, a houseplant growing up through its seat. The house feels cozy, a little funky and very lived-in.
When he isn't busy running The Carrboro Citizen, Ross is a guitarist, singer and songwriter for Lud, the long-running Chapel Hill rock institution that's just released it's fifth LP, the aptly titled V. This is Lud's first foray into digital recording (only two songs here were recorded to tape), but they're an analog band at heart.
Self-released vinyl is their preferred format. The CD version, released by Fractured Discs, separates the two sides, as on an LP. The core tracks were played live, straight through. It's also Lud's first time using an outside producer. Brian Paulson recorded and produced the album at the Music Loft in Durham, freeing up guitarist/ singer Bryon Settle, who usually mans the boards, to focus on his soaring leads.
Despite these firsts, the album—which encompasses vintage indie rock, classic rock, funk, punk, even Krautrock—feels cozy, a little funky and very lived-in, too.
That lived-in feel is no coincidence, as Lud's been plugging away for two decades. The band formed when Ross and Settle retreated upstairs at a party to tinker with Settle's old Fostex four-track. Settle had recently left the band Pressure Boys, while Ross had burned out on bands before moving here from Bloomington, Ind.
"A girl brought me [to Chapel Hill]," Ross says, "and the promise of an actual job. Any job. I came from the recessionary Midwest of 1985. North Carolina fed and educated me, and I love it for that."
Settle, who grew up in Carrboro, was a bachelor, although he would get married and have a son shortly after Lud finally formed. The beginnings were goofy and casual: "We'd get as many people as we knew together and just make sounds," Settle remembers. "It was the essence of jamming."
After doing some improv gigs as the Cryptic Guitar Ensemble, Ross and Settle warmed up to the idea of being in a gigging band again and decided to form one for fun. They played regularly at The Cave, Local 506 and the now-defunct Hardback Café. Instead of recruiting a bass player, Ross played guitar through two amps, one with the bass cranked. They kept it casual, something that persists even now.
"We have some primary rules, because we never want to feel like we're forcing it," says Ross. "No one ever comes back from the beach to play a gig. We don't play if there's a late Carolina basketball game. We tend not to travel; we used to joke at the Yellow House that Carrboro was an out-of-town gig, because we had to go through two stoplights."
Ross stresses that the band works hard when they play music, they just don't play it as often as some younger bands in town. "Right now," he says, "it's like a muscle car you get out every month or so to drive it, and go, 'Wow, this thing can really move.'"
"The Barracuda of the rock world," Settle adds.
The Yellow House is a legendary Chapel Hill music spot that Settle turned into a rehearsal space and recording studio long ago. Bands like Pipe, the Chicken Wire Gang, Spatula, Nashville Pussy, Trailer Bride, Tift Merritt and, of course, Lud practiced there. The house had a leaky old tin roof, and Hurricane Fran came through in 1996, right after they'd done some upgrades. Settle recalls being up on the roof, even as Fran raged, trying to shore it up.
By 2000, it had fallen into disrepair, and Settle was burned out on being a businessman. He moved his recording equipment into a barn in his back yard (the two songs recorded to tape on V, "3 am" and "Tribute to German Jam Bands of the Late 1960s and Early 1970s," were recorded there). The Yellow House was demolished. Now, the site is Mama Dip's parking lot.
Around the same time, Lee Waters (currently of Work Clothes, then of Panzer and Cobra Kahn) joined the band as a drummer, becoming Lud's longest-standing member besides Ross and Settle. Lud's lineup on V is rounded out by Anthony Lener, Jill Christensen, Mark Simonsen and Sara Bell (of Regina Hexaphone), who has made guest appearances with Lud since day one. She's now an official member. Almost everyone sings, too. The playing is as tight as the mood is relaxed.
Like albums by Yo La Tengo, V is full of music-geek references. "I always quote from musical history," explains Ross, pointing to T. Rex references and the whole lot of German bands. "There's also a Stevie Wonder couplet at the beginning of 'Several Million Light Years from Now': People keep dying/ Power keeps lying."
So V has a timeless sound, but as that Wonder couplet implies, it's also timely, fraught with economic anxiety and political protest. The title track is a lean rocker ending with the line "It was a pretty good summer for Francis Picabia." Ross explains, "I'd gone to the Dada exhibit in D.C., and as I was coming out, there was a big Darfur protest and a big war protest. During the rise of fascism in Europe, Picabia was very successful in playing off of that in his art." "Song for Someone's Dad" is about a friend's father who works as a military contractor in Afghanistan.
But it's a fun album, too. "Those Stupid Bastards Poisoned the Town" is Ross' latest attempt to write a great two-chord rock song, a lifelong endeavor. "Tribute to German Jam Bands..." is a rollicking homage to Kraftwerk and Can. "We have 30-minute versions of that song," says Ross. "It's almost a one-note song, but there's a sense of anticipation, because you know another note's coming eventually. There's nothing more relaxing than sitting there behind a really good beat and playing one note, and Bryon just gets to fly over that shit. I think I write a lot of stuff so Bryon can do that at some point in the song."
That's the way Lud works: No plans, just enthusiasms. The band hopes to record another great, low-key record after V is released, or when they get around to it. They'll show it off around town, just like they've always done, and keep working on their new YouTube show, Cooking with Lud, and Ross will keeping make Lud videos with iMovie. Absent the make-or-break pressures that afflict young bands, they can afford to take it slow and take the long view on local music.
"To me," says Settle, "local music just waxes and wanes. Growing up around here in the late '70s and early '80s, there were a zillion bands and the whole punk rock thing was happening. Then R.E.M. came out and everyone wanted to sound like R.E.M., except me. It was exciting, and it was much like it is right now."
Indeed, as other bands rise and fall at an astonishing clip, Lud—then as now—remains.
Lud throws a release party for V Saturday, Nov. 22, at 10 p.m. at The Cave.