Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
Men and women purchase minivans for very specific and very similar reasons. These men and women are exactly like the parents of the Annuals. The test drives, the financing and the signing on the dotted line are done because certain needs aren't being met. They're looking for more space for wee ones. They must haul things. These vehicles are meant for carrying whole slumber parties worth of people, basketball teams and bickering siblings, who can't keep their hands to themselves, crossing invisible barrier lines and pinching or slugging each other to pass the time on vacations to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. Years later, after the minivans have exhausted their first lives on the family of five or six, etc., they become metamorphous and are adopted by the working poor -- rock and roll bands that tour around the country playing for lads and lasses in all of the various underbellied haunts and the occasional plum of an establishment that this great nation has been founded on.
These minivans then carry stinky men and women, always in a state of partial or complete ungrooming, probably some amount of weed, Charles Bukowski books, the latest copy of Magnet, a token mascot and either unbridled optimism or a jaded version of such. Sometimes the vans are living dual lives, daylighting as the family's extracurricular activities mobile and moonlighting as the way 15-year-old kids are getting to and from practices and shows opening for the best young emo bands around. Rarely are these minivans built to, meant to or actually do carry living, snorting polycephalic beings such as this NorthCarolina band of age-old friends still hovering near, on or below the legal drinking age. The six heads of this invigorating band (think of being thrown into a freezing ass lake of perfect blue water with headphones on and as your body takes in all parts of the shock of that temperature change, what you continue to hear loudly and with as much clarity as the water had blue, is a gold rush, a sunken treasure) are not extensions of serpents or the Beast of Revelations, but the composite of a hydra that sounds like a mountain and plays with fire.
They make a big, beautiful trail of savory expansiveness that you wouldn't be afraid to hang on your wall for all visitors to see. The songs that make up the band's debut album, this past year's Be He Me, are explorations of multiple degrees, where ideas clamor about at times and before they're put to bed, they go around bear hugging as many other ideas as come into reach. It's orch pop with a chilling way to speed up a pulse rate, snaking through reminiscence, fiction and longing until what's come of it a direct ratio of lighting bolts to fireflies -- power and flare mixed with peace and nature.
The United States has three active volcanoes -- Mount St. Helens, Mount Lassen and Lake Superior Ice Volcanoes -- but Annuals lead singer Adam Baker might be an honorary fourth. (It's likely that it will never become official, only because there's probably paperwork involved -- this band still doesn't have an official website and frequently doesn't have much or any merchandise for sale at their shows). He's a dervish, who regularly looks and sounds like a 20-year-old sorcerer -- with or without the choir robe -- summoning tiny explosions with a snap of his wrist and a backbreaking convulsion that would leave Robert Pollard laid up in bed for weeks. His lyrics never shortchange themselves any introspectiveness, but the diverse nature of all that he has going on around him, with the essential work from bassist Mike Robinson, drummer Nick Radford, guitarists Kenny Florence and Zack Oden and keyboardist Anna Spence, allows for the synthesis of heart or family on the sleeve words (baby boys and baby girls, fathers and mothers) and power. You'll notice some traces of Chris Martin's vocalisms in Baker's voice at times and you'll also notice the way the band makes child's play of songs, turning out complex thought processes filled with expressiveness and intricacies that are never marked, tired or codified. And just as folks have a hard time believing Will Oldham is a Madonna junkie and a smitten Nelly Furtado fan, it's difficult to think that Baker and Robinson are Brad Paisley fans, as they suggest in separate interviews. What of it though if they do? I digress.
As the opening of "Carry Around" skitters and percolates, Baker pokes himself in underneath the music, distorted and talking. He says, "Well, I've got magic in my head . Magic on my nose. Magic coming out my fingers. Magic crying out my eyes. I've got magic…everyWHERE I FUCKING LOOK!!" and it seems rather apt. It seems like that's what Conan O'Brien and his audience are going to get January 18 when the band makes its national television debut (possibly with a hired string section; they said they may never be asked back to the show so they may as well go all out). They don't know how it works, but they hope to meet the host. If O'Brien has a copy of Be He Me, it might be the other way around.
The Daytrotter interview:
*One of the most startling things about you guys is that, for all of the Internet love that you've been getting, you don't even have an official website yet, do you? Just a MySpace page. Por favor, explain this glaring omission from your arsenal.*
Mike Robinson: That's a valid question if I ever saw one. We've just been very busy with touring, playing, writing, recording, etc. etc. We've never been very good at much else -- including websites, having merch, dressing ourselves well, and so on. Having a manager has definitely gotten us to shape up a bit in those departments -- mostly because they push us out the door so we figure these things out. Unfortunately, the website is something we tried to have come together months ago and didn't, and still hasn't. We'll have one soon I promise!!
*Do Tar Heels REALLY hate Duke that much?*
MR: You'll definitely find some people around these parts that would bump it up into hate-levels. But we tend to just appreciate athleticism on all teams in basically all sports. We are a little partial to UNC though, can't lie.
*Is there a touch of surprise in any of you that "Be He Me" has taken off the way it has? Are we just in a different time and age where a debut record can make a bigger splash than it could, say, 10 years ago? Is that a good thing?*
MR: We've always believed in our music and we've always dreamed of getting to do some of the things we've gotten to do in this last year, but we've always tried to be realistic in the midst of having big dreams and ambitions, so it's definitely been an amazing experience. I'm not really sure about what's going on with regards to the time and the age that we're living in, but maybe I'll know in a few years. I think the Internet has definitely opened up some flood gates that may have possibly been better left closed. But the irony is that with them closed we're one of the bands that may have been "shut out" so to speak. We've never really tried to be a stylish band, we've always just focused very hard on making and playing the music that we do. And I think it's safe to say the Internet has changed the criteria for success in music enough to make our personal core-priorities not necessarily the right ones to become a huge success. (Unfortunately)
*What about the past year would you have rather done without?*
MR: I think that while we've had some pretty crazy downs to go with all of our ups, the last year has offered so much in the way of life experience and learning that I wouldn't want to change much…But then again, we could probably have done without being sat on the ground outside of our van in Utah for two hours (10 degrees outside) getting our van and our belongings ripped apart by four cops and a German Shepard trying to sniff out pot. Good thing we didn't have any. Thanks Utah police!
*Has all of the touring been exhausting? I have to ask because you really went out of your way to visit us. What a horrendous drive you guys made back in Sept. Can you tell me about that day? There must have been hallucinations by the end of it.*
MR: Touring can certainly get a bit hard on the back muscles, especially for us just because we're a bit larger than the average band. We travel with at least seven people at all times in our van, and that makes for a sleeping situation that we have to get a little creative with. And regarding our scenic drive to Daytrotter; we definitely didn't realize quite how far a drive we were embarking on that day, hah. But it was fine, you were wonderful hosts and we felt alright about what we came up with in the hour or so we recorded. But that day involved waking up in Indiana, driving out to you guys, which we later realized was almost Iowa, and then ending up playing a show that night in Chicago. It was one of the more exhausting days.
*What can you tell me about Be He Me that people don't know or what aren't listeners picking up about its content?*
MR: I don't think the collective listening public has quite 'discovered' the last half of Be He Me yet. The songs were picked out of our little pool of songs Adam had gotten started on, so the album wasn't necessarily written as an album, but we worked real hard on getting it to sound that way. A lot of people who have commented on the production don't seem to pick up on the fact that in most of the songs on the record we have like 60 to 70 tracks of music running. We use a lot of home recording tools (because we record at home, go figure) but the software we use won't allow us to have as many layers as we want in our songs so we have to bounce entire songs into new sessions to continue to work on them until they get where we want them to go. I don't know why I'm babbling about this. I don't know if anyone reading this knows what I'm talking about. A lot of time and effort went into Be He Me and we're very proud of what we managed to accomplish with it. We're excited to work on the next record because of the new resources we'll (hopefully) have to really pin down the sounds we want.
*Is there a lot of autobiography on it? Are the brother, father, mama, Ida all related to one another? Is it a family?*
MR: There's definitely a bit of a character profile going on in Be He Me with relation to Adam. But we share a philosophy that songs are different things to different people and despite the influences coming from his own life, I know it's a big goal for Adam to try to get his music to connect to as many people as it can. So while the roots of the song are with Adam, his family, and his life experience, they can hopefully be a lot of other things as well.
*What exactly is being said about this family?*
MR: The family songs aren't too interrelated except for their titles. Each song tells an independent story. "Brother" is very much a song about Adam and his older brother, Patrick. "Mama" is more about Adam's family at a particular point in time. And what is easily the most gut-wrenching song on the record for me in "Father;" is a fiction Adam made through the song that has some pretty haunting echoes of other things in it. I know Adam wrote the song with the knowledge that his dad had terminal cancer. But the song holds a lot of weight to me just because only a day or so after that song had been finished in N.Y., Adam lost his dad. Me and him flew home immediately so he could get to his mom in Newbern, N.C. Every time I hear the song it brings me back to the images and the feelings of that week in February of 2006.
*Were the childhoods good for everyone?*
MR: A lot of us grew up together, and music has certainly kept us together. I hope it always does. Kenny, Adam and I started our first band when we were 13 and 14 years old, playing pop-punk music. Me and Adam started playing music together a couple years prior to having our first real band with Kenny. So when I say "we" grew up together, that's more in reference to our formative years of being newly inducted teenagers. Prior to that, Adam lived in Apex, Kenny in Cary, and myself in Raleigh. Middle school was where all the meet and greets occurred. We were just lucky enough to have parents supportive enough to drive us from town to town to practice and play shows. We were quite a sight when we rolled up to shows to play. Only because it involved like two minivans with moms behind the wheel. We actually opened for Brand New in Durham way back when that was going on. As well as some other more national emo/pop punk acts. We felt fairly accomplished as 15-year-old emo punks. Haha. Meanwhile, Zack and Nick had a band out in Knightdale, N.C. But we didn't meet them until awhile later. We met Zack about four years ago and he helped steer us into more creative and productive directions. And through Zack we got together with Nick and Anna and it's been peachy keen ever since! It definitely wasn't difficult to arrive at our sound because -- in a way -- music makes itself. I don't think there was ever a difficult strive to get our songs to sound any particular way -- they just grew and grew and were worked on constantly for a long amount of time.
*What was the last wish you had come true?*
MR: Playing with the Flaming Lips. And since we got to go to Ireland to do it, it was like icing on the wish-cake.
*Does anyone else explore with on-stage outfits besides Adam? How did that start? How many choices do you have?*
MR: Adam really only dresses up when he feels like it, but pictures on the Internet tell a different story. Adam just thinks he looks good in certain things, as do the rest of us. The cat head has been passed around between Adam, Nick, and Zack a good bit. As well as some other little mood-lifting garments. Anna always gets commented on for looking the best, she's acquired a pretty awesome dress collection for our shows.
*When you're in a new city, what do you seek out? Where do you look to go?*
MR: We usually just try to find a good place to sleep and a big spot to park. Where they're found always varies drastically.
*Whose career would you like to emulate, if that were a choice that could be made?*
MR: There are a lot of very successful bands that we are huge fans of, and I've always found it interesting how each of them came into their skin. I think every good band does it their own way, and I just hope we can find our own path to walk as all great bands do.
*What was your favorite five records of the year?*
MR: Off the top of my head, and in no particular order
1. The Eraser -- Thom Yorke
2. Z -- My Morning Jacket
3. Antarctica -- the Never
4. A Brad Paisley Christmas -- Brad Paisley
5. Yellow House -- Grizzly Bear