Vomiting is fine tonight. The air of this Wilmington dive bar is thick and busy with plenty of other things: It's hard to smell the salt, but it's easy to feel it. This bar—two long, concrete-floored rooms that tee into a shorter one—is five miles from where the Cape Fear cuts through the city and five miles from where the waters of the Atlantic cut between the mainland and Wrightsville Beach. Cigarette smoke stains the air.
So when, in the far room, a band's lead singer wearing a faded black New Orleans Saints T-shirt and a cap that reads "Ask me about my personal hell" backs away from his microphone, almost no one notices. He turns his back to the crowd, just to the right of his bass amplifiers and speaker cabinets. The guitarist and drummer roll on, but he buckles slightly at the waist as he opens his mouth. For the first time in 30 minutes, he's not screaming. It's too smoky to smell. The euphoric crowd makes it too hard to see. And the band, even with its bass player losing his guts four feet from the pounding drummer, makes it too loud to hear.
"I used to fight it when I would feel it, and it would ruin the rest of the set. But now I just do it. I start thinking about mayonnaise and pubic hair and shit and do it."
The man goes back to the microphone, opens his mouth, screams. This move is called the puke 'n' rally. This band is called Weedeater. Somehow, they've been making music for 13 years.
Weedeater plays stoner rock—or weed metal, as they prefer—of extremes: They can be fleet and pummeling, vomiting frontman "Dixie" Dave Collins howling in a resin-and-brown-liquor-stained voice that hits like the midpoint between a cough and a bark. His bass chug is tremendous, and the cymbal-heavy drumming of Keith "Keko" Kirkum—a squat, pale-eyed man with short dreadlocks and a face red from competitive deep-sea fishing—is relentless. Lanky guitar player Dave "Shep" Shepherd buzzes with a fuzzy wall of sound from a floor-left stack of amplifiers as tall as he is.
But then they slow down, way down, into a primordial, stewed sludge that rattles chest cavities to hypnotic effect. It's swollen and rapturous, sort of like walking stoned into a house of mirrors wearing big headphones.
That explains what's happening right now: As the night's second band starts, Weedeater heads out of a side door into the August heat, fraternally waving at the first band, Mud Jug, instrumental metal friends from Fayetteville. Mud Jug's standing between Weedeater's tour bus (an old church van) and a sedan. Almost rhetorically, one of them shouts, "Hey, Dave, want some weed?"
Five minutes later, Dave returns to his own band and climbs into a car. Weedeater starts talking about its 13-year history, about the little house in nearby Hampstead where they've written three albums, about playing a loud set just to climb in the van (where they most often sleep) and listen to John Prine. Southern boys all around, they play dirty, crusty heavy metal but listen to country. Dave sings along to Charley Pride, and one of his prized possessions is an old Martin guitar his father left him. Keko, the drummer who looks a bit like a Viking but mostly like a teddy bear, is soft-spoken, mild-mannered and gentle. During the conversation, he looks up and asks—politely, like he's offering iced lemonade on a Sunday afternoon—"Hey man, do you do blow?"
Everybody laughs and everybody keeps talking. Keko pulls a plastic pouch from his pocket and lifts one end open, putting a bump of cocaine on a short, silver spatula. He raises it to his nose, inhales it, and refills. He swivels in his seat and holds the spatula up to Dave's nose. Shep has to be in court Monday morning for a DUI hearing. He passes.
"If anyone has any cocaine they'd like to share after the show, come find us," Dave offers in that perpetually gruff come-on midway during Weedeater's set an hour later. "We'll do some off of our new CD. It's happened before."
Tonight's crowd is small, and that's the way Weedeater wanted it. This is a last-minute show. Shep lives a block away and managed to work a shift at the seafood restaurant where he and Keko cook before showing up. The bartender says he is a regular, but Keko—who got married a year ago—isn't so much these days. "We love playing at home because it's homeboys, and it's humbling," says Dave after the show. "Nobody comes out except the people we know."
And they know this bar very well, it seems. All of the gear will spend the night in the back room. They'll get it when they feel like it. Keko—covered in sweat, his blue jeans temporarily discolored by big bands of water running down his femurs—sits in front of a beige box fan, holding his drenched black shirt away from his chest to let the air in. Dave, something of a socialite who likes talking to people and giving them multiple nicknames, is taking his time loading his gear. But his girlfriend, Laura, had lower back surgery six days ago, and she's limping and tired. This is her first day off of the cane. She prods Dave, says it's time to go home.
"OK, I'm dying anyway," he says, wiping the sweat from his forehead, leaning in to put his arm around her.
"You're dying?" she says, exaggerating her doubt. She's been on several national tours with the band. "I've been up since 9:30 yesterday. At least you had a nap-time today."
Dave wheels his equipment into the back. They get ready to go home.
Two weeks later, Dave walks out of his front door wearing overalls hemmed near the knees, a black Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt and a camouflage hat with a David Allan Coe patch across the forehead. It's bright and hot, but Dave is right at home. His dad was an industrial worker who moved the family from South Carolina when Dave was 3 to work at a DuPont plant outside of Wilmington. Dave's been living in this brick ranch house with Laura for a year. They share a dim room that opens onto a parched grass lawn.
"All of the stuff is still in the back room at 42nd Street, the bar where we played," Dave says, laughing. "Or at least we hope it's there."
Indeed, not much has changed for Weedeater since that last show. The equipment is still at the bar, and Dave's friend reports that the tour van (the band's third) is parked outside of the seafood restaurant where Keko and Shep work. Shep is in jail, serving part of that DUI charge, until 6 p.m. tonight. This is a rare break for Weedeater, who's completed two full-length national tours—including stops at South by Southwest—already this year. Dave laughs when he admits that the band's now gone on three national tours in a row without a driver's license between the members.
One thing has changed, though: Weedeater is selling records, even at home. Its third, God Luck and Good Speed, has sold more than any other Weedeater album. Part of that is circumstance. They've been a band for 13 years and three albums, but this is Weedeater's first record for Southern Lord, a label that's often associated with the term "hipster metal" simply because their bands have had success in indie rock and avant-garde circles. Right now, Southern Lord—started by members of two ultimately heavy acts, Khanate and Sunn O)))—sells.
But it's not all fortuity: God Luck and Good Speed is a record very much for right now. It's angry and daring, intelligent and dynamic. Most notable, though, is the streak of real Southern grit shot through its center, sort of like Hank Williams Jr. joining his son in a heavier metal band and singing about hard times again. Dave resented the nickname Dixie when a booking agent at CBGB's called him that because of his accent a decade ago, but he's not shy about his Southern heritage. There's a desolate banjo-and-bass song (borrowed from Dave's other band with Shep, Barstühl) at the end of God Luck's first half. A cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Back My Bullets" sits squarely in the middle of side two. Full of contradictions rooted in heritage and a progressive worldview, Dave's something of a new Southern rebel.
An old Crown Victoria from a Florida police unit sits in Dave's driveway. The black spray paint covering it has turned gray. It was baby blue until Dave got in some trouble. On the way home, he bought black paint, painted the car and shaved his dreadlocks. A Confederate battle flag hangs on a wall of the bedroom he and Laura share, and a Confederate flag coaster sits on their nightstand beside a bowl of sunflower seeds.
Neither Dave nor Weedeater are that simple, though: On the way out of town, headed toward the little house in Hampstead where Weedeater writes, Dave tells the story of an old live oak tree in a grove where Highway 17 splits outside of Wilmington.
"They used to use it for lynching," he says, mentioning the heritage group that successfully fought to save the tree when construction crews planned to cut it down. That's wrong, he says. "I mean, sure, the tree never did anything to anybody. It was there before they lynched anyone. But they've cut down all the other trees on this street. Cut down that one. That's fucked up."
The old Weedeater house is slightly dilapidated but standing. A developer will soon tear it down to make way for a subdivision, but—for now—it sits beside a children's skate park and a creek on land owned by an early NASCAR driver's relative. In the room where Weedeater plans to write its fourth album, the walls are plastered with years of flyers for shows across the country. Two bass cabinets and two bass heads Dave has fried over the last decade are in the corner. Poker chips rest on an oblong table, and a rattlesnake skin hangs from one wall. The mantle used to be lined with empty Evan Williams bottles, the walls covered with deer heads.
Dave and Laura sit on a bench on the front porch. Laura says she only likes dreadlocks on black men. Dave chuckles at that, saying he's glad he cut them. He explains the song "Weedmonkey," which he dedicates to Laura every time she's at a show. Truth be told, "Weedmonkey"—God Luck's seven-minute opus written as two songs that happened to be in the same key—refers to prostitutes who have sex in tall weeds. Laura has her turn laughing now. Dave read about weedmonkeys in a lexicon of Southern culture, but, for Weedeater, the whore isn't a woman: "It's about this twisted government that's about to lose its goddamned power."
Less than a mile from the Weedeater house, the car pulls into a convenience store parking lot. Dave gets out and buys a beer, a 22-ounce canned Coors tallboy. He slides into the backseat. He slips his beer into a koozy, pops the top and glances at the side of the koozy. He's already made one joke about it today: "I'm not completely worthless. I can be used as a bad example," it says.
The car pulls back onto Highway 17, and he takes a swig. If only things were that simple.
Weedeater plays Local 506 Saturday, Sept. 1, at 10 p.m. with Caltrop and The Curtains of Night. Tickets are $8.