Behind the Curtain | MUSIC: Rock & Roll Quarterly | Indy Week
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Behind the Curtain 

There he was at the end of the yellow brick road--the Wizard of Oz--a man who would have preferred to stay hidden behind his curtain. How had he engineered so much with so little? The same could be asked of the following folks, who help in multiple ways to create the lush, diverse landscape of the Triangle music scene.

Mr. Lady: Music Label

If you ask the question "Who makes up the local landscape in music?", there's no overlooking Mr. Lady--the queer/feminist label out of Durham. As a team who arrived with already established ties to big names such as Indigo Girl Amy Ray, producer Chris Stamey and the dyke music scene at large, owners Tammy Rae Carland and Kaia Wilson are not just interesting campers in the backdrop, but two women who are literally redrawing the map.

After pit stops in Portland and New York and a brief stint in Indiana, the two came to Durham in '97 so Carland could take a teaching position as an art professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Wilson, who had toured with bands such as Team Dresch and Adickdid, came south with the seedlings of another band in her head. By the time that band--The Butchies, with Melissa York and Alison Martlew--got their boots wet, Wilson and Carland had pooled their business skills and begun to produce, distribute and market a wider sample of lesbian/feminist music and video.

Four years later with a much bigger project on their hands than they ever imagined, they don't transmit any sense of glory. Or regret. Instead there's sort of a 'middle road' streak in their demeanor--a cross between implicit excitement about the work of representing queer and feminist artists, and that muted weariness of longtime activists. Mr. Lady, they will tell you, is a political business, first. Giving women, and especially lesbian women, visibility is why they exist. They also undermine the usual profit-over-people mantra of the music business by refusing to sign their artists, issue contracts, or take more than 50 percent of their share. In fact, with Mr. Lady just now breaking even after its first four years, the label seems distinctly nonprofit, and could probably win an honorary 501(c)(3) status for its work so far.

The finance question is moot, though, when you realize just what it is that they're doing. And this is the part where I wish someone would steal that alleged new Butchies' prop--the bullhorn--to wake up the Triangle communities. Hello? Mr. Lady is putting Durham on the map. How? By recording out-of-town and irrefutably kick-ass bands like New York-based Le Tigre.

By creating a landing pad for big flyers like their friends in Sleater-Kinney. By promoting national and international tours for The Butchies--Durham's queercore ambassadors of a sort--who then go on to bring the best acts home. By circulating the art and video of women of different ages and backgrounds. By creating a CD of the spoken-word team Sister Spit (appropriately named Greatest Spits). And by nurturing young, new voices like those of Rubeo and Tami Hart who, if not recorded on Mr. Lady, could've turned to the very meager handful of other feminist labels in existence.

It's this last example that reminds me of a refrain from Carland's manifesto-cum-liner notes: "I'm thru being cool. Punk is an aesthetic; feminism is a political practice." The way those two sentences sit together seems an important key to what drives Mr. Lady. Nifty trappings of stardom aside, the label acts as a lighthouse for queer youth--by offering friendship, their music, their outness. While the queer youth community has been the label's greatest local supporters (Mr. Lady gets plenty of recognition out of town, interestingly enough), Carland and Wilson have in turn been role models that not only support the home turf but create links to the wider queer communities throughout the United States and Europe.

That international clout is real, though Carland and Wilson don't seem to be swayed to pack their bags anytime soon. Despite the occasional display of homophobia from locals, or the fact that--surprise, surprise--the indie music scene here is pretty much all-male, the pair sees this region as "not bad." As Wilson explains, if they were in Portland or New York, there would be a glutted market for what they do. At least here in a smaller town, they can make an impact. Oh, and of course--own big dogs.


Cheetie Kumar: Musician/Manager

Seeing Cherry Valence's Cheetie Kumar in action over the years in various capacities--band manager, musician, tastemaker--it's fascinating to discover that the Pittsburgh, Pa.- born scenester spent her first eight years in India Her father had brought some "Western" music from the States (The Beatles Yesterday and Today), but it wasn't until her sister procured an Indian pressing of Deep Purple's Fireball that she got a glimpse of what was going on in rock in the '70s. "I used to stare at that album cover for hours," she says.

When the Kumars moved to the Bronx, Cheetie turned to music to ease the process of assimilation. "Music was the only constant in my life: my source of privacy, fantasy, hope, familiarity and most of all, my teacher of all things American and cool," she recalls. Her life changed forever when she heard the Pretenders' first album, and she went through the Ramones and Blondie before discovering harder rock. At 13, she bugged her parents for a guitar; they relented and got her an acoustic. "I learned some chords and the intro to "Stairway to Heaven," but nothing else I played sounded like what I listened to--I needed an electric guitar for that." It didn't happen. "Too loud, too expensive and not in the realm of what my parents saw for their daughter," she remembers.

College found her at UMASS (Amherst, Mass.), working for the concert committee and DJing all four years. After graduation, she and a friend moved to Raleigh "on little more than a whim." Almost immediately, she was asked to manage bands--Finger was her first--before moving to a management company. On her own, she managed Motocaster and Dish through their major label signings. Kumar met her like-minded musician boyfriend Paul (co-owner of King's), bought a bass, and became a full-on rock chick. These days, she plays guitar and tours in the garage-y, highly regarded Cherry Valence (currently in the studio).

Gender and rock? "It's a non-issue. I never think of myself as a 'girl in a band,' so it never occurs to me that other people might think of me that way," she asserts. "Anyone doing something they really want to do knows that this need doesn't distinguish by gender." Amen.


Andy Parnell: Jukebox Hero

"The '50 Seeburgs were way ahead of their time. My favorite is the '56 Seeburg VL200. Most people like the '40s Wurlitzers with the round top and bubble lights. But the VL is the ultimate."

Andy Parnell isn't talkin' hot cars or cool software. He's talking about jukeboxes. Parnell's the best jukebox repairman in the state, with a six-month waiting list of job orders. He's 23 years old.

"I remember when I was growing up in High Point helping my dad in the garage on a Seeburg B when I was 5. I obviously wasn't much help but I enjoyed it," Parnell says, and smiles. A recent N.C. State graduate, Parnell has always had a spare room nearby to tinker on his machines. On his own jukeboxes (he keeps "around 10 in the house, mostly Seeburgs and Wurlitzers"), he likes to play old R&B, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson, more 78s than 45s. "I buy records all the time, but not to collect them. When I buy one, it's to put on a jukebox."

Asked for a cool, jukebox urban-legend-type story, he told the tale a friend of his dad's related to him one day. This guy bought a huge warehouse in downtown Winston-Salem to convert into a pool table factory. It had been a jukebox supplier and repair shop, with large overhead rails and pulleys. Outside, he noticed a high row of windows in a corner that he never remembered seeing inside. One day he decided to investigate. Turns out that, behind a false wall and stacks of jukebox repair parts and boxes of old records, there was an entire room of slot machines hidden away for decades.

On a recent '59 Wurlitzer repair, Parnell helped a client find original parts (the silver wrap-around grill, a 6-inch "W" face plate and retro decals) from jukebox meccas in Chicago and California. He simply went online, and did the deals by e-mail. He spray-painted all the original colors on the components and hung them on his clothesline to dry.

"Mostly people find me by word of mouth. I learned so much from the older guys. Now they call me with some of the stuff they know's going to take a lot of work." Parnell is known for the pride he takes in his repair jobs, especially the rebuilds. While return house calls are rarely needed, he said customers e-mail him with problems. (Tone arms hung up? "Move the bound-up wire on the back of the tone-arm mechanism.") On older machines, it is rocket science.

What's he listening to right now? "The old stuff, the 78s. I don't think I would want to hear the Backstreet Boys on one of my jukeboxes."


Casey Burns: Poster Designer

Casey Burns is one of the most frequently shown artists in Chapel Hill but, because his work tends to be taped to windows, stapled to telephone poles and bus stops, it is also the most ephemeral, and the most often stolen. As poster designer for Cat's Cradle, he cranks out more than 200 flyers and approximately 50 screen-printed posters per year.

His office, in the back of the Cradle near a pool table, is a cramped, windowless custodian's closet, taller than it is wide or long, with a bare 60-watt bulb that dangles above. It serves its purpose, though, isolating him from club noise while he spends hours with Quark and Photoshop. For inspiration and air, Burns often works out on the rear loading dock of the Carrboro nightclub.

Just about twilight of a recent Wednesday he brought out his pens and sketchpads and sat on a folding chair, beneath a netless basketball goal, to begin working up a poster for the Cradle's Halloween show, featuring reggae legend Burning Spear. Rapping his pen and scanning the urban jungle tableau surrounding him--stick fence, auto junkyard, kudzu colonies creeping up the security lights, bikers bobbing along the Libba Cotten bikeway, the blue glass of the power plant and its brick smokestacks--he waited for an idea to hit.

A couple years ago Burns grew bored with the conventional style of poster design which features either photographs of musicians or images lifted from CD and album cover art. Taking it for granted that his audience, mostly people born after 1970, has an innate, almost subconscious comprehension of semiotics, he'll often use disconnected images on his flyers. He plucks from the random utilities that surround him: light bulbs, water meters, telephone poles, mops, electrical sockets, a folding chair, combination locks.

Because they tend to advertise more well-known acts, the screen-printed posters are a little different. The face of Burning Spear is so recognizable that Burns feels compelled to get his image on the poster. He doesn't like to lift his pen much while sketching, so the drawing of Winston he produced while the evening dimness set in has that vibrant sloppiness of the ink styles of comic book artists like Will Eisner, or local artists Kent Williams and George Pratt.

About the time Burns was putting together his design, a rock band arrived and was banging out an achingly loud sound check. Ignoring the noise, employees shuffled around the cavernous bar carrying cases of beer and amplifiers. As the hours passed and the hall filled up, Burns was in his office on his Macintosh.

At 11:45 p.m. he was waiting for the pool table to open up so he could set out his layered designs and prepare to get them into one image. At 2:40 a.m., with the place dark and empty he dragged out his light table and began registering his color separations. It would be a four-color poster, three inks on a black background with Winston leaping out of the rasta flag. At some point late in the night he hit a wall, as the poster paper would not be available until the store opened in the morning.

The next day he was back in by noon. Near the pool table he'd set up a veneer folding table that he customized for off-contact screen-printing, and several silk-screens stretched through 4-foot frames leaned against a wall. A negative image of the Winston drawing rose through the mesh. Burns poured ink onto the screen and, when he ran a squeegee over the silk, the ink filtered through to the posterboard. On the pool table he laid one down to dry, popped his spine, stretched his hamstrings, then bent over his table to wet another poster. Because each poster is made by hand and must be run through three times, the process is laborious and taxes his back. About that moment, an English rock band oozed in. Playful, scruffy and scuffed from the road, they started cutting up while Burns stretched, rubbed his eyes and got back to work.


Greg Bell: Festival Coordinator

To most audiences a musician is a stage presence yoked by a guitar, who stands behind monitors and microphones only to vanish backstage embraced in waves of applause. But that musician is a myth conceived somewhere in Music City or Rodeo Drive. Greg Bell never vanishes. Whether cradling his accordion on the sidewalk outside Pepper's Pizza or raising money for Greenpeace, he has always been a fixture of the local community.

"The music scene in the Triangle is so vital because musicians have to do other things to support themselves besides playing music," says Bell, a Chapel Hill native. For Bell, music is more interesting when it springs from a diversity of lifestyles. Between stints playing in the Chicken Wire Gang and working as technical director for musical and dramatic productions, he has helped coordinate campaigns for North Carolina politicians and nonprofit organizations to support his family. The artistic and the political have run through his life like parallel passions never fated to cross.

Now, as the coordinator for the Festival for the Eno, Bell has finally seen his two life forces intersect. Put on every Independence Day weekend by the Eno River Association, the three-day Durham festival features live music and crafts to raise awareness about conservation and the Eno River.

"Musicians play for less because they understand that they are helping the environmental effort in exchange for exposure in a wonderful, friendly venue," Bell says. Last summer 40,000 fans from as far away as New York attended the festival to hear national figures like Ralph Stanley and Dar Williams. What they ultimately experienced, though, was a bill that mixed such big names with local acts including Trailer Bride, Countdown Quartet and Steep Canyon Rangers.

Although his current position allows him enough free time to pursue his musical and theatrical interests, Bell does not consider the Festival for the Eno to be just another political side project: "The festival is a work of performance art, an installation piece promoting the environment, indigenous cultures, music and the river itself."


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