It's after midnight on a hot Friday night in June, a mile outside of Chapel Hill and remarkably quiet for being so close to campus. Impenetrably dark woods surround the duplex, the house's outside lights casting hyper-extended shadows of four people moving between the basement door and the burgundy conversion van in the driveway. Chapel Hill rock 'n' roll quintet Roman Candle has been still long enough. It's time to go somewhere.
Bassist Jeff Crawford and guitarist Nick Jaeger pile amps into a closed-top, 8-foot trailer hitched to the van, talking about tomorrow's drive as they step in, turn around and jump out. Front man Skip Matheny and his wife, keyboardist Timshel Matheny, tote black guitar cases and bags of cords out of the basement, stacking them 3 feet in front of the trailer before turning to grab another load.
Tomorrow, Skip, Timshel and Logan Matheny, Skip's younger brother and the band's drummer, will leave, driving west to Wilkesboro to visit the boys' parents and to run sound at the Heritage Festival, a Wilkesboro celebration of the town's history. The celebration isn't much of a haul from Wilkseboro Baptist Church, the sprawling brick complex right on Main Street in the mountain town where they grew up. Their dad was the music minister there and the band teacher at their high school. This is where the Matheny boys keep their hearts.
But they'll leave when the show is over and drive the van five hours south to Atlanta with their parents and Skip and Timshel's 16-month-old son. Jaeger and Crawford will already be waiting in the hotel. They'll play two concerts for the biggest rock radio station in Atlanta. They'll turn around and come home, having driven 864 miles to play rock for three hours. But to them, it's worth it.
For three years, music industry executives have agreed that Roman Candle is one of the best, most complete American rock bands to surface in a decade. Skip writes engrossingly vivid short stories in one verse, and Logan's rhythmic range--packing love for DJ Shadow, Radiohead and The Rolling Stones in one kit--turns Skip's scripts into moving pictures. Crawford gets Logan's rhythmic tendencies and meets them square on. Timshel's keyboard lines and Jaeger's guitar leads marry taste and technique. But for the past three years, their second album, The Wee Hours Revue, has been locked in a music industry stranglehold. At last, it's free.
On June 20, The Wee Hours Revue will be released by V2 Records, the New York-based label founded by Virgin Records president Richard Branson after he sold out to EMI in 1992. Their labelmates will include The White Stripes, Rickie Lee Jones and Gang of Four. As independent record companies go, this is a big deal, and it could make the band very famous. After all, Roman Candle is better at what they do--writing imaginative pop songs and building them into captivating four-minute Southern-air epics with the unleashed spirit of The Replacements and unorthodox intuition of Wilco--than any other "band on the verge" in memory. Things could get very busy, very soon.
Reaching this point has been like running a gauntlet: In 2001, all-star NFL defensive end Trevor Pryce heard Roman Candle online and founded a record label to release their first album, Says Pop. Critics agreed it was an indie treasure. Rolling Stone wrote Roman Candle was a Chapel Hill "band on the rise" long before almost anybody in the Triangle had actually heard them.
Pryce put the industry's new buzz band on the auction block, selling it all to the Disney-owned Hollywood Records. Hollywood gave the band a big budget and let them loose with Chapel Hill producer Chris Stamey. Per the label's request, they re-recorded Says Pop, turned it in and waited. Nearly two years and well over $500,000 later, Hollywood dropped Roman Candle.
But V2, interested in Roman Candle from the beginning, bought the rights. Now, almost three years after recording the second version of an album written and recorded during college, The Wee Hours Revue is ready to find its home in record stores.
There's still some doubt. The band hasn't yet seen a finished copy of The Wee Hours Revue. But, tonight, that's secondary: The band just wants some rest. They're chipper as always, but they're tired. Timshel seems anxious to get home and put her toddler son, Jude--sleeping upstairs--to bed. Skip constantly reassures himself they've not forgotten anything.
That changes when they find out a finished copy of the album is in their driveway, stuffed inside a padded-envelope press kit from V2. Fatigue is forgotten. Skip, bending over to stack an amp in front of the trailer, looks up, semi-shocked, mouth agape: "You have it? Here?"
The rest of the band turns around. All of a sudden, Roman Candle sparks, three years of potential energy delivered in an instant of excitement.
Jaeger bubbles, a kid on Christmas morning: "This is a big deal. This is a very big deal."
Timshel smiles, beckons: "Bring it here, bring it into the light."
Skip's eyes get wider: "OK, let's see it."
The music industry has never been exactly scrupulous, or exactly logical or legal in its choice of strategies for profit. Payola--paying radio stations with cash or lavish gifts in exchange for radio play--is as old as the business itself, and reviews in magazines often come only after a record label secures a sizable advertising deal. Artistically important music has, more often than not, been mismanaged or ignored by financially important companies.
But corporate misdirection seems to have only increased in the past decade, the advent and ascension of new technologies like the Internet and satellite radio unsettling the old guard, a few companies scraping harder for every ounce of an ever-limited market. Four conglomerates--Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, EMI Group and Warner Music Group--now own and distribute 85 percent of America's music, even though they're often left foundering in the tide of the digital marketplace.
Trends have only become more fickle, and major record companies are increasingly becoming step-behind dimwits, more focused on short-term benefits than long-term investments through artist development. It's easiest to secure a record deal (and to sell records) on the heels of some gimmick, like a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster or an American Idol victory. Idol runner-up Bo Bice doesn't compare with Skip Matheny, but Matheny's sales numbers--a few thousand albums sold from a suitcase--can't compare with Bice's gold plaques.
"We'd be doing so good if we would've had our own reality show all along," says Logan, Roman Candle's drummer and studio whiz.
"Or what about a talk show?" Timshel snaps back, referencing Hollywood Records' most recent projects--two Regis Philbin albums since 2004.
Ideally, The Wee Hours Revue would have been released on Hollywood in 2004; instead, the album and Roman Candle itself became helpless flotsam swept into a sea following a currency-driven gravity. If Roman Candle's story were a work of fiction, it would read like a collaboration between Stephen Crane and Mark Twain, a realist's dose of hard times played out by characters with the wit, wisdom and wherewithal to survive with a smile.
Imagine: Trevor Pryce--then, a 6-foot-5, 286-pound, four-time Pro-Bowler for the Denver Broncos--decides to start a label. He finds Roman Candle on garageband.com, sends them an e-mail, and then ships them thousands of dollars in recording equipment to finish their debut, recorded in their parents' basement in Wilkesboro. After losing in the first round of the playoffs in the 2001 season, he flies to Charlotte, the entire family picking him up in one car. He spends eight days with the band, watching as they record. They are two innocent brothers who love playing music together and the marvel of a guy who enjoys their sound and wants to help.
"It was a stroke of luck. It wasn't genius," says Pryce, who calls them "my favorite rock band in the whole world."
"When I sat down and decided I wanted to start a record label, I had no idea I would find a band like Roman Candle," he says. "I took a chance on them, and they took a chance on me. Someone would have discovered them, either way."
V2 showed interest first, pinpointing Stamey--who has worked with Whiskeytown, Bob Mould, Yo La Tengo and country upstart Thad Cockrell--as the guy to make their new record a success. But Hollywood Records offered Pryce the more lucrative deal and an enormous expense account for the record, and he couldn't refuse. Hollywood liked Stamey, too. He had seen the band play twice, had them over for lunch, and offered to work with them, even help them find a lawyer. Stamey and Roman Candle began recording a reworked version of Says Pop in April 2003. Every day for two months, they worked 14 hours in the studio. By October, the record was mixed. They were a young band with a record coming out on a major label.
"Roman Candle was the band of the moment, and everyone wanted to sign them, not just Hollywood Records," Stamey says. "Hollywood Records is a special case label, too. They sell a lot of records of certain kinds, but they don't have a strong identity because they have Disney looming over them." He adds that he tried to explain they would never see money from the high figure Hollywood was offering.
Skip and Timshel moved to Oregon before mixing began, spending several months with Timshel's parents in Portland. Skip tore ligaments in his knee in a boating accident, which halted the band's kinetic live show. The band was waiting on a release date, their main contact at Hollywood always assuring them he would hear something from label president Bob Cavallo soon.
"What they say is, well, they don't say anything, for years," Skip says. "They say, 'Yeah, we're going to get together with Bob, we're going to figure this thing out. But Bob's out, he's playing a lot of golf these days.'" Cavallo's two-month Christmas vacation continued to delay the release, Skip adds.
Before Cavallo finally agreed to release the record, he wanted to see the band play live in California, even after everyone who worked for him had seen Roman Candle and unanimously approved. Perhaps he was concerned about Skip's recovering knee, which prohibited him from landing his prototypical coda leaps. They practiced in a space lent by The Wallflowers, and Timshel--several months pregnant and fearful that might slow the release further still--wore a coat during their 20-minute West Coast showcase. The band's trip to Los Angeles cost the label $10,000.
Almost a year later, Cavallo decided to drop the band, two years after he had agreed The Walt Disney Company should pay for its music. Six months of contract wrangling followed.
In January, Pryce bought the masters for Roman Candle's The Wee Hours Revue from Hollywood Records for a mere $50,000. V2 immediately bought the rights from Pryce for $300,000, and then signed the band directly to the label. Pryce says the record would have been out for two years if V2 had offered that initially. Oh, the rocky life.
"You try to fall in love, you try to get control/ You try to find a little bit of that in rock 'n' roll," Skip sings at the end of the second verse on "Something Left to Say," the rangy gem that opens The Wee Hours Revue.
For three years Roman Candle relegated control to rock 'n' roll. It's tossed them around, tried to forget them, sold them out more than once. It's ignored their place as people and the exigencies of life--babies, busted knees, bad day jobs--for commercial convenience, and no one has ever apologized. By now, this band should hate music. But Roman Candle--from Skip and Logan right down to Crawford, the band's newest member and third bass player--is obsessed with rock 'n' roll--hearing it, making it, talking about it.
Their basement practice space is too small, one wall lined with guitars hanging below cutout portraits of rock stars and ripped-up covers of Rolling Stone. A picture of Outkast hangs in a closet.
Skip and Logan talk about Oasis B-sides with the unfettered exuberance of 15-year-old boys. Logan bemoans a toy hammer belonging to his young nephew Jude, saying it should make some gnarly noise when slammed on a table. The people who live here and the people who make Roman Candle special still love rock.
"The one thing that never got tainted, luckily, is what happens when we get together to write music," Skip says. "We didn't get together and say, 'Well, anything we do is going to be sitting on the shelf at Hollywood Records' because it was so discouraging. Even when we thought that was the truth of what was going to happen."
Skip's sitting outside of The Grey Eagle Tavern in Asheville with the rest of the band after an opening set, listening through the club walls on a Sunday evening as friend Seth Kauffman hosts his CD release party for an empty room. By this point, a Roman Candle stop in Asheville should invite a crowd, even though this is their first show in the city itself.
But no one is discouraged: Everything sounded great, the quintet in tip-top shape and finally locked in and ready to hit the road full-force behind The Wee Hours Revue. They even recorded a track this afternoon in the studio of their parents' house, the same place they've been recording for half a decade.
Luckily, Roman Candle always managed to stay productive, even with their record and their band name bogged in contractual swamp. Since finishing The Wee Hours Revue, they've written a concept album called Love Songs for an Empty Room and, at this point, the debut's follow-up lacks only lyrics.
"It got to the point where everybody was like, 'Forget about it,'" Jaeger says. "If we thought about the record coming out, it would drive us insane. So we started working on new songs. But getting over that hurdle where time had its way with us was frustrating. It was something none of us expected."
Keegan DeWitt was worried that the record would never come out, too, that Roman Candle had lost its powder. As Timshel's brother, DeWitt watched the band progress from the start, even playing guitar with them while still in high school. He moved from Portland to New York to attend acting school, and he would see the band--mixing and mastering the record, playing shows--every few weeks. He refers to that period as romantic. Then things stalled.
"A lot of us thought the momentum was dead, and my mom even asked me if I ever thought the band would really do anything," DeWitt remembers. "I think we all thought maybe Roman Candle had run its course."
But friends like DeWitt, Stamey and Cockrell helped salvage their spirit. Last year, DeWitt decided to move, but Skip insisted he let him record some of DeWitt's songs before he left. DeWitt, together with Roman Candle under the name The Sparrows, sorted through 150 DeWitt originals. They cut 10 in Wilkesboro in mom and dad's house, and they've played New York and Chapel Hill together.
Roman Candle has recorded with Stamey again since the Wee Hours sessions, too. In fact, he's blown away by the band, recruiting Logan and Skip to back him on his new solo album. Stamey helped stage a two-night residency at The Speakeasy in Carrboro in 2004, Roman Candle splitting and sharing songs with Cockrell as Stamey recorded it all. Their contractual difficulties with Hollywood prohibited the release of those songs. Regardless, it was a welcome distraction.
"When you're in a situation where you're waiting, it has to be about more than the record coming out," Timshel says. "So, in spite of ourselves, we've grown as artists and spiritually and as a family."
Brady Brock started working with Roman Candle one month after they signed to V2. He'd been the head of publicity at Artemis Records, but Artemis' parent company bought V2 in November. He's now a product manager for five bands on the label, essentially making him their label manager. He helps decide what promotions will work best, what venues they should play and when. Today, he's giddy about the band's chances.
"What's so great about this record is that it has gone through so much and it has this backlog of stories and difficulties, but it survived," he says, noting that V2 left the version it bought essentially untouched before releasing it. "A lot of bands and records in that period of time and in those circumstances wouldn't have made it. But Roman Candle did."
Brock is right. Bands, more often than not, are four buddies who like the same music. The record-label lashing Roman Candle has endured would put most bands on the infamous could-have-been-famous roster in half the time. But these aren't casual acquaintances; this band's sound is at once wholly fresh and thoroughly developed, and they're a close cadre. Roman Candle is, after all, two brothers, one brother's wife and two more guys who, at this point, consider themselves part of the family. When Logan and Skip's dad talks about Crawford and Jaeger, he says, "I love them." He means it.
"When we go to Wilkesboro and we're hanging out up there, we're part of the family. Their dad is just like, 'C'mon, I just cooked a meal. Sit down. What do you need?'" says Jaeger, sitting in the band's usual booth at its usual nook of an East Franklin Street hangout, Linda's. "And they tell us we're part of the family."
Tonight, Logan missed band practice. His girlfriend has been out of town for a week, so he took the night off for a date. But he shows up at the Chapel Hill hangout, a big, anxious smile stretched across his face.
"You guys have a copy of the record?"
Jaeger grins back, says his goodbyes, and leads Logan outside.
"Are you ready for this?"
Logan--big brown eyes beaming above the boyish smile he can't control--answers yes. The envelope is opened. Logan just stares at the cover, holding it close to his face in both hands.
He's the final member of the band to be a kid on Christmas morning: "Oh, man. It's finally going to happen. I really can't believe this."
It's time to go.