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As regional underground music scenes across America were thriving in the '80s, a massive sea change hit—the early '90s brought Nirvana's commercial breakthrough, inadvertently shining a light on DIY music everywhere. The “grunge movement” exploded while I was attending Chapel Hill High School, and our town was declared the "Next Seattle" in a long line of Next Seattles. (Among them: Austin, Tex., and the scene surrounding University of Texas, as well as Athens, Ga. and the University of Georgia.)
But Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina, was special in the manner specific to college towns filled with progressive ideas, open-minded artists, and energetic young minds eager to soak it all in. It was fertile ground to launch one of American independent music’s greatest local scenes, and with bands like Archers of Loaf, Superchunk, and Squirrel Nut Zippers, it became just that. Hell, it was too great to ignore—even the local news tried to sort out the phenomenon.
But before the '90s grunge media frenzy, Chapel Hill had a reputation as an underground music mecca. Bands like Fugazi and Guided by Voices constantly passed through, establishing a connection with the music community over time and influencing the scene with each visit. Just as the town entered its true artistic peak, Sonic Youth penned its classic tribute song to the place, “Chapel Hill,” on their seventh studio album, 1992’s Dirty. (More on that in the first issue of the new CREEM Magazine, coming Sept. 15. Subscribe now.)
The history of Chapel Hill, and North Carolina independent music in general, is rich and complex, which makes it challenging to navigate. Here’s what you need to know.
An example of Chapel Hill’s music scene in that era is easily unearthed like a time capsule via local hero/Sonic Youth’s merch man Bill Mooney's killer video for Polvo's "Vibracobra,” off the band’s first album, Cor-Crane Secret. By the time it had arrived in 1992, North Carolina as a whole was releasing so many 7"s that it had become hard to keep track of any specific sound or genre. There’s the fractured '70s pop of the dB's, the unbridled aggression of heavy metal band Corrosion of Conformity, the economic rock of Flat Duo Jets, and the melodicism of the hugely underrated Metal Flake Mother—and each is buried somewhere in the crevasses of Polvo's sound. An amalgam of that influence can be found on Cor-Crane Secret. The eclecticism made the scene.
Corrosion of Conformity
But let’s be real: North Carolina’s musical renaissance in the '90s really began in the late 70's in the city of Winston-Salem, located outside of the “Research Triangle,” an area of the state which includes Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham. It’s there that a small group of Big Star-obsessed teens from Winston-Salem’s R.J. Reynolds High School started now-legendary bands Let's Active and the dB's, groups that kickstarted what many now consider to be the North Carolina indie rock sound. (Once those groups trickled down to Athens, Ga. and into the minds of the then-nascent R.E.M., the term “college rock” was born, alongside Ohio’s Guided by Voices and California’s Pavement.)
But while R.E.M. was preparing to become, well, R.E.M., a heavy hardcore community was also being born in North Carolina: the now-lengendary 1982 No Core Records compiliation casssete ushered in Raleigh bands like Corrosion of Conformity and No Labels. C.O.C. grew to become a seminal punk band, releasing some of their most furious material on No Core before evolving into a metal band beloved by stoner rock communities.
The Flat Duo Jets
In the late-'80s, in nearby Carrboro, North Carolina, the Flat Duo Jets developed a lo-fi indie rock look and mind-set that would inform much of the Chapel Hill scene. In fact, frontman Dexter Romweber is frequently namechecked by Cat Power and Jack White as an inspiration because of the physicality of the band–and the inarguable fact that they made blues music and rockabilly into a punk thing. In 1987, the Flat Duo Jets were heavily featured in the cult documentary Athens Inside/Out tripping on LSD, worshiping Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent (the band moved from Carrboro to Athens allegedly to be a part of the doc.) If that’s not enough to convince you of their greatness, I don’t know what will.
Superchunk and Merge Records
Even before he became the North Carolina music icon he is today, Ralph Lee “Mac” McCaughan was a participant and student of all that was bubbling up around him, fully grasping the local thrills of the thriving DIY scene. (In 1984, he drove two Corrosion of Conformity members to the emergency room after they'd been stabbed—the band was trying to stop someone from stealing one of their amps at a show at Durham's St. Joseph's Church, and the rest is history.) Of course, that’s not how McCaughan became a legend: that would happen in 1989, when he started the Chapel Hill indie rock band Superchunk, and in 1989 alongside bassist Laura Ballance, the label Merge Records.
Learning from the DIY approach that fueled the No Core cassette as well as DC’s Dischord Records, Merge gave Ballance and McCaughan the opportunity to release their own material, as well their friends' within the local scene and beyond. The label has grown streadily, eventually becoming the indie music monolith we know it as today—home to releases by Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Clean, Teenage Fanclub, Waxahatchee, and so on.
Metal Flake Mother
And now, for the more obscure selections. Metal Flake Mother bridged a gap between the sounds of the Flat Duo Jets in the late '80s and Polvo in the early '90s. Considered a super group to locals—featuring Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Jimbo Mathus, guitar god Randy Ward and members Benjamin Clarke and Quince Markham—Metal Flake Mother’s sole LP, Beyond the Java Sea, is the stuff of North Carolina legend. Recorded by Lou Giordano (famous for recording the entirety of Boston hardcore from DYS to SSD, the guy also worked as Husker Du's longtime live sound engineer), Beyond the Java Sea is a local classic.
Erectus Monotone and more
There’s no way one article would be able to fully delve into all of the bands that influenced the Chapel Hill sound. (Hell, it would be impossible to tackle all the copycat Polvo bands alone). There are hundreds of great '80s and '90s Chapel Hill bands people outside of the region will never get to hear. Like Joby's Opinion, the Mind Sirens, Family Dollar Pharaohs and Spatula, bands that played shows alongside Archers of Loaf but never experienced the same level of fame (or financial backing needed to tour extensively.) Many of those, unsurprisingly, featured women, like Her Majesty's Secret Cervix, the Furies, Speed McQueen, Bevel, Chew Toy, Rubbermaid, Dish, Angels of Epistemology, Picasso Trigger, Blue Green Gods, Bicentennial Quarters, Orifice, Snatches of Pink, Southern Culture on the Skids, Blackgirls, Portastatic, Shiny Beast, Grover, Trailer Bride, and June, to name more than just a few.
Of the obscure, the most visible was probably Raleigh’s Erectus Monotone, a band that warped Polvo’s indie rock approach into an even more angular, aggressive attack. Think of them as a middle ground between the aggressive skronk and noise rock found on Amphetamine Reptile Records, with the adventurous spirit found in Captain Beefheart. (Listen to “My First Harmony,” above, and you’ll see what I mean.)
There’s a reason so many brilliant bands thrived in obscurity, even while the Chapel Hill scene blossomed and some of the most legendary bands of the early '90s rarely played outside of town. Kirk Ross, co-owner of Jesus Christ Records (home to Pipe, Spatula, Polvo) referred to it as the phenomenon of "the soft trap”—when a place is so good and you grow so comfortable there, it becomes a kind of quicksand you can never leave. And even though many people outside of North Carolina will never hear those bands, they all provided a crucial soundtrack for a time and place, establishing a DIY lexicon for generations to follow.