Emotional pop punk—or emo, if you must—is not a genre loaded with masterpieces.
But Blankface, a teenaged Chapel Hill quartet that existed for less than two years at the start of the second half of the '90s, yielded a body of work that stubbornly persists two decades later, at least for the group's core believers. A Blankface zealot since I was a high-school student, I have long taken the band's popularity for granted.
But the small size of two recent reissues, which almost collect the band's entire catalogue, suggest I am not alone in my obliviousness. They were only gigantic for about a year and a half in roughly two pockets of the Piedmont, approximately 90 miles apart from one another.
It has been nearly two decades since Blankface unboxed its only full-length album, A Better Day, at Chapel Hill's Lizard and Snake Cafe. They depleted the run of a thousand CDs within months. In January, Charlotte's MKT Records honored Blankface's adolescent hymnal of yesteryear, reissuing it with a run of 300 pieces of vinyl. And just 200 will be privy to the album's previously unreleased four-song addendum, issued on colored 7-inch late last year by the Durham label Ideas.
With Braid tours scheduled and Mineral box sets assembled, we may be in the midst of an "emo revival," but bands such as my beloved Blankface show just how limited the reach of such acts could be before the Internet pushed their songs so far and wide. Decommissioned in 1998 without so much as a Myspace page to deactivate, Blankface boasts a legacy that has been forced to exist largely offline.
That never made them matter less to listeners like me.
Blankface formed in 1996 at Hillsborough's Orange High School. Mitchell Marlow and Al Jacob received their first off-brand axes in fourth grade. After gleaning the riff of Iron Maiden's "Wasted Years" from a patient employee at Durham's South Square Mall, they formed and folded several distorted high school projects.
Their sophomore combo, Fun Box, counted Jared Draughon as a fan. A year younger, Draughon finally met Marlow in Orange's jazz ensemble. A shared love of melodic punk led to after-school songwriting and, eventually, a four-song demo. The card stock inserts included Marlow's home address and the parenthetical declaration: "We will play anywhere."
Meanwhile, Jacob was playing bass with another band, The Scaries. He informed Marlow that one of the group's guitarists, Sean Husick, played drums. Despite forgetting his cymbals at the audition, Husick was in. Jacob came along, too.
"Even at 17, Jared and Mitch were so pro," recalls Husick from his home in Raleigh. "They'd come in, and they'd have all these parts worked out. Mitch would play the bass line with his thumb while picking out the melody on the high strings. He'd sit in his room with a 4-track and come up with all of these songs. All I had to do was play drums to it."
Blankface's output favored an emerging strain of poppier punk rock. Chapel Hill was not a city of choruses, but each Blankface song invoked fist pumping, finger pointing and lyric shouting.
Coursing through Marshall stacks, the dueling guitar parts utilized unconventional chords and distorted counterpoint. Sounding somehow younger than 17, Draughon's voice was sweet, yet strident. Marlow's spot-on harmonies accentuated the catchiest of Jared's introspective prose.
Donning cargo shorts and T-shirts, Blankface did not reflect the musical or cultural aesthetic of Chapel Hill's old guard. They did not necessarily stand for anything and were more likely to plug their equipment into a generator at the skate park than in the back of the socialist bookstore.
"We figured Chapel Hill's not going to be into us," recalls Marlow. "We were definitely the younger band, and the people who liked it were younger. We represented the next class of kids."
Farther down Interstate 40, music scenes with less baggage embraced the group, initiating lasting friendships with Winston-Salem's Codeseven and High Point's Pest. Their fans became Blankface fans, too.
When school let out for the summer of 1997, Blankface booked time at Raleigh's Osceola Recording Studios, a high-end facility rumored to have manufactured the Roseanne theme.
"The engineers were all older guys," says Marlow. "They had polo shirts with the studio's logo on them."
Tracked over the course of 50 expensive hours in Osceola, A Better Day added heft to the group's emotional songbook, allowing these new fans the ability to memorize lyrics between shows.
Soon after the sessions, however, the Draughon family moved to Huntsville, Alabama. Beginning his senior year in relative anonymity, Draughon recorded on a 4-track, using the drum sounds available on a battery-powered keyboard. The quartet reconvened at Winston-Salem's ElectroMagnetic Radiation Recorders on Valentine's Day, 1998, to track the songs dispatched from exile. Blankface was suddenly slower and more deliberate, with alternate tunings allowing for more powerful chords.
Engineer Doug Williams crammed the band, their equipment and himself into his 400-square-foot live room. They played the rhythm tracks, overdubbed the vocals, and mixed four songs—"To Be Continued," "Whisper," "Bus Stop," "Pretend"—in less than six hours. The sessions with Williams cost the band a mere $200, but captured an urgency that had been lost inside the air-conditioned confines of Osceola.
"I barely even talked to them on the phone ahead of time," remembers Williams. "We set a date, and they showed up. They were gone a few hours later. Whatever happened with these songs came off of the CD-R that they left with."
The band duplicated the four songs on cassettes and passed them to friends and strangers on a brief tour up the East Coast. Blankface didn't have time to do more with them.
Blankface's final show in August 1998 filled the Cat's Cradle to capacity. By the time I arrived for freshman orientation at UNC-Chapel Hill later that month, Draughon had already left for Utah. He had been raised in the Church of Latter Day Saints, so his missionary trip was inevitable.
Still, I soon made the 25-minute drive from Chapel Hill to Marlow's Hillsborough home to duplicate the ElectroMagnetic master using the CD burner I'd received as a high school graduation present. I reasoned I should obtain a copy of these final transmissions before they, like the members themselves, disappeared. Husick soon left for Chicago with the post-punk band Milemarker, while Marlow and Jacob enrolled in Manhattan's School of Audio Engineering.
After completing his two-year missionary trip in Italy, Draughon reunited with Marlow in Brooklyn, formulating songs for a new outfit, Classic Case. The band toured frequently, becoming perennial openers for a rotating cast of fashionable acts of assorted -cores. Classic Case could fill Raleigh's The Brewery, but they never returned to Winston-Salem and only once to Chapel Hill. During a set at Go! Rehearsal in late 2003, the band only mentioned that two members were from the area.
Eventually, each Blankface member returned to North Carolina; a reunion show over Thanksgiving break in 2008 put a few hundred familiar faces in Local 506. Meanwhile, footage from a 2010 Greensboro performance showed that, though Blankface's fans had aged, they hadn't forgotten the words.
Draughon eventually made his way to Winston-Salem, where he's initiated the solo project, Must Be The Holy Ghost. Since 2006, Jacob has run Chapel Hill's Warrior Sound Studio. His business partner, Marlow, lives in Los Angeles, where recent contributions to Ironman 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Sons Of Anarchy have made updating his résumé incessant and impressive.
When Husick, a graphic designer by trade, got the itch to start releasing music again, the orphaned ElectroMagnetic songs were a logical place to start. He reconfigured the cassette's improvised cover art and secured a fresh print of a snapshot from that Lizard and Snake album-release show, which had once been color-copied, hand-cut and crammed into cassette cases. A fan since high school, High Point native Anthony Sanders felt A Better Day deserved the same on his MKT label.
Together, the projects have rattled the Blankface choir, and new converts don't seem out of the question.
"Blankface was way ahead of their time. I feel their music blows away 90 percent of today's pop-punk-emo bands," Sanders raves. "I'm stoked to see where it goes."
For old fans like me, I know exactly where this goes: I immediately preordered A Better Day, not long after retiring my Clinton-era CD-R of the ElectroMagnetic sessions in favor of a grey-pink 7-inch upgrade. Two decades later, these local, personal masterpieces go back into rotation.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Local spirits."