In the annals of any successful indie label, you'll find those seminal early recordings that point toward prominence. Too often overlooked, though, are the unheralded, low-digit catalog entries that might have been just as character-defining—vinyl or cassette evidence of a thriving DIY aesthetic, often from one-and-done bands that soon slid into obscurity.
For Merge, Pure—bassist/ singer Steve Dunnington, guitarist Martin Beeler and drummer Danni Iosello—counts among the latter. A trio of noisemakers who swept down from a very unlikely Asheville scene, Pure briefly added its buzz to North Carolina's vibrant early-'90s indie underground with "Ballard," aka MRG013. "Ballard" made for a mature and promising start, especially considering Pure was a 19-year-old songwriter (Dunnington) and two 20-year olds when the band formed in 1989. After another year of gigging, Pure was never heard from again.
"Everyone who saw them was pretty blown away, and people loved the single," says Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan. "Then they just kind of disappeared back into the mountains."
Today, "Ballard" sounds crafted from the same elements that inspired much of Merge's early roster: roiling guitars, shifting tempos and an aversion to verse-verse-chorus songwriting and trad-pop narratives. Pure's sound, however, developed in something of a vacuum.
"We were absolutely not tapped into anything," says Iosello, now living in Marshall, N.C., just north of Asheville, and drumming in Sin Ropas. "We just formed a sound that felt right to us then, and it wasn't until later that people said, 'Oh, you guys sound like the Melvins' or, 'You guys kind of sound like Slint.' We'd never heard of these bands."
Iosello and Beeler met, like so many other acts of the era, through an independent record store, in Asheville. Beeler's sister clerked there and had read Iosello's reviews in Maximum Rock & Roll. They joined forces with Dunnington, eventually building a Pure repertoire that ran to 16 songs. "Everyone wanted the same thing musically somehow," Iosello remembers.
But that thing didn't exactly make Pure hometown heroes. This was the era before The Orange Peel and The Grey Eagle in Asheville, when even the weekend streets of the sleepy mountain burg were empty by 11 p.m. The few venues in town catered to "touchy-feely singer-songwriters and cover bands," says Dunington. Iosello tried hosting house shows in the loft she lived in, but she'd be lucky to get 10 teenagers to show up. When Pure played the town's Bele Chere arts festival, a soundman pulled the plug after four songs.
It was only when they toured the region, Beeler says, that they experienced the "vibrancy" of any scene. "But then it was back to the mountain and our splendid isolation."
And so Pure took real pride in its name's Dostoevskian overtones about trying to live life uncorrupted, which fit the general Our Band Could Be Your Life template during that pre-Internet era. Bands swapped cassettes and opening slots for the chance to play anywhere and—just maybe—get signed to one of the fledgling indie labels sprouting in every college town. Pure was no different, landing gigs at the 40-Watt in Athens and the Cat's Cradle through word-of-mouth and cassette tapes.
But the balance between band dreams and real life eventually faltered. In 1992, Dunnington balked at more touring, deciding instead that his schooling at the University of North Carolina-Asheville was the priority. Pure even passed up a chance to open for a Bleach-era Nirvana in Charlotte because Dunnington had a calculus exam he couldn't miss. That decision paid off for him. Shortly after graduation, Dunnington's academic achievements earned him a spot at the Asheville-based lab of electronic audio pioneer Bob Moog. He's now a product designer who still sometimes plays music with locals.
Iosello and Beeler briefly moved to her Chicago hometown, a "duo looking for a trio," as she puts it. A new band didn't happen, and that was it for their collaboration. Iosello came back to North Carolina, earned her degree and returned to Chicago, playing briefly in Califone and eventually marrying guitarist Tim Hurley before forming Sin Ropas. Again, she came to the North Carolina mountains. Beeler played "droney, noisy stuff" with the Knoxville band Or in the mid- and late-90s. He currently lives in Brooklyn.
But now, after nearly 20 years apart, the trio has discovered that they still get a rush playing together—enough that they've scheduled a couple of extra shows (Asheville and Knoxville) beyond the XX Merge reunion. As Beeler says: "Playing with Danni and Steve probably ruined me for playing in a real song-oriented band with anyone else." Welcome back.
John Schacht is a freelance writer living in Charlotte, where he edits the magazine Shuffle.