The 89th issue of Marvel Comics' Strange Tales is released in 1961. It features the discovery of an ancient manuscript detailing the history of Fin Fang Foom, an intelligent, powerful dragon from the alien world Kakaranathara. The story of Fin Fang Foom evolves in the Iron Man series: Foom and other Kakaranatharans leaves their home world in search of other planets to conquer, crashing their ship in China. They use their shape-shifting powers to assume human form, save for Foom, who is lulled to sleep with a special herb. Before long, the slumbering dragon awakens.
Names have power. Fin Fang Foom, Chapel Hill's preeminent post-rock band, named themselves after Marvel Comics' giant green dragon on a lark. They had no way of knowing that the story of Fin Fang Foom would become a fitting, even empowering metaphor for their struggles. This is a story of adventure, tragedy and redemption. It's the story of how, in a town where bands are lucky to last a year under ideal conditions, this group has managed to persevere through their 20s, weathering trials and travails, becoming a local institution.
But, in 1996, all of this was still ahead of them. Substitute "Jacksonville" for "Kakaranathara," "Chapel Hill" for "ancient China." And so our story begins. As Jacksonville, Fla., teenagers, Michael Triplett and Eddie Sanchez played in a shoegaze band called Flaw, then split off to form what would become Fin Fang Foom with Eric Puestow. Puestow left for college, and Peter Enriquez joined up. For the first time, Fin Fang Foom felt like a solid unit. They bought their first touring van and started recording a 7-inch single. Then, tragedy.
"In Jacksonville, there are a lot of hollowed-out trees beside the roads," says Triplett. "You can't tell that they're hollow until storms come and they fall. One of these fell onto a car Peter was riding in and crushed the back half, where he was sitting. It was this terrible, drawn-out experience, and he ended up passing away."
In the blink of an eye, everything changed. Not only had Triplett and Sanchez lost one of their best friends, they'd lost the person who they felt was their first real drummer. No one would have blamed them for calling it quits. But they continued.
"When Peter passed," says Sanchez, "everyone got together and chipped in, and we put out the 7-inch ourselves to honor his memory." They decided to keep Fin Fang Foom as further testament: "I felt like it would keep Peter alive, in a certain way," says Triplett.
Sanchez and Triplett had known drummer Mike Glass since 1989. They'd met at Einstein's, a defunct underage club in Jackson Beach where touring indie bands would play. When Enriquez passed, Glass was playing in a band called Deep Root. Occasionally, he would jam with Fin Fang Foom. After the release of the 7-inch, Fin Fang Foom didn't do much publicly for about a year. That's when Glass's relationship with Deep Root soured. Three days after the band broke up, he became part of Fin Fang Foom.
"It was a challenge. The time signatures in Foom were different than what I was used to with Deep Root," Glass says, understating it all. Though Fin Fang Foom has developed into a sinewy post-rock beast, they started out as a textbook math-rock band, daunting meters and all. "A lot of stuff had gone down: Peter died, and that same summer we knew two other people who passed away. It was just a weird time, and I think we were all on the same page because of it: 'Yeah, let's tour, get the fuck out of here.'"
Fin Fang Foom first encountered Chapel Hill while touring the East Coast the summer of 1998. They liked the Southern hospitality.
"We would play at [the now-defunct] Lizard and Snake, and we were always taken good care of while we were here," Triplett recalls. "Kevin [Clark, Lizard and Snake booking agent] always hooked us up. We stayed at his old house on Greensboro Street for awhile when we first moved here."
They also found a new indie rock scene, or something like one. "It was kind of dying down when we got here," Sanchez remembers. "Polvo had just played their last show. Smearcase broke up. El Sucio moved away. Lizard and Snake was closing down."
Still, Chapel Hill had its advantages.
"We liked that there was a good club network, good college radio, a solid weekly, and it's a good touring base for the East Coast," Triplett says. "Jacksonville is getting better, but it just didn't have the same sense of community. Still, it took us awhile to get started. We had to get jobs and pay our bills before we could get back on the road."
The band found a practice space on the old Highway 86 with improvised soundproofing (much to the chagrin of their country neighbors) and set about establishing themselves in a scene that seemed to have fled as soon as they arrived. Their shows were reasonably attended, but Sanchez had no illusions.
"It's always hard to tell how you're doing," he says, "because you're playing with somebody else, and you're not sure who people are there to see."
This changed in 2001 with Fin Fang Foom's first LP, Texture, Structure, and the Condition of Moods, released on Lovitt Records.
"That's when things started picking up," recalls Triplett. "We started touring more at that point, which is what we wanted. It was our first record that had a publicist. Right before it came out, we went to Europe for a month, then came back and did the West Coast. It was great."
Their second LP on Lovitt, 2003's prophetically titled With the Gift Comes the Curse, improved on the template the band established on Texture, diminishing jerky time-shifts in favor of glacial, darkly melodic post-rock. Foom's growth was continuing apace, and it seemed like nothing would derail them.
That's when Triplett got sick.
In Iron Man, Vol. 1, No. 275, Tony Stark unexpectedly ignites an explosion that destroyed Foom and his brethren. While Foom's body is decimated, his spirit survives and comes to rest in a small dragon statue in a curio shop.
"It was 2004," says Triplett. "At that point, we were talking to a label who wanted to put out this EP and bring us to Japan. Out of the blue, I woke up one morning feeling a little sick. Six hours later, I walked over to Mike's and said, 'I think I need to go to the doctor.' It hit me in a day. I didn't think anything of it except 'flu,' but I went to the doctor, and he thought I might have spinal meningitis. He said, 'This could kill you, we have to deal with it immediately.' He hooked me up to an I.V. and gave me a spinal tap right there in the office. I was expecting to maybe get a prescription and go home."
But the doctor was right; Triplett did have spinal meningitis. He had walked to Glass' that morning and thrown up. Now—in the hospital, weeks later—there was concern that he would never walk again, and his condition continued to deteriorate.
"With spinal meningitis, it's common that people will get encephalitis, which I did. My left lung collapsed, and I went on a respirator. I was in a coma for about a week. After three and a half weeks of this, I came to. It was like a crazy dream. I woke up and realized I couldn't move my lower extremities."
In Iron Man, Vol. 3, No. 16, a young man named Billy Yuan becomes enthralled by the statue where Foom's spirit is imprisoned. He steals it from the shop. Foom possesses Yuan's body, transforming him into a raging reptile. Iron Man defeats Yuan, but thousands of lizards swarm from the sewer grate, merging together around Yuan's body and restore Foom—seemingly impossible to destroy—to his original form.
This was the second time Fin Fang Foom had been visited by calamity, and the second time they would triumph over it. "When I got discharged from the hospital," Triplett says, "there was amazing community support. The benefit shows were incredible."
After a period of recuperation in Florida, Triplett returned in 2005—walking, talking, wholly undamaged—and the band picked up where it had left off. Besides some of Fin Fang Foom's sharpest compositions to date, the Native Tongue EP features broad, brooding strokes of cello from new member Cynthia Main. Main added cello parts to completed songs for the EP, but she's working directly with the band on their new LP.
Later this year, they'll tour Japan. They'll take a new member and friend with them. They'll have a new album ready. They're healthy and more excited than ever about playing together.
"We were bonded together through these trials," Glass says, "and we still have a blast playing together. Every time we write a new batch of songs, we feel like they're the best we've ever done."
"You're jamming with your friends like, 'Whatever, I'll see you in the morning,'" says Triplett. "But life is short. You have to appreciate it. After I was sick, everything slowed down a bit. You realize how quickly all this stuff can go away. I feel really lucky, in a way, that I had the opportunity to have all these people care for me and tell me how they feel. In a way, I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Fin Fang Foom will release the Native Tongue EP at Local 506 Friday, Jan. 19. Kerbloki and Bellafea open the free show at 10 p.m.