Former G’boro musician carves out multiple niches

by Daniel Bayer

Question: ‘“What do you call a musician without a boyfriend/girlfriend?’”

Answer: ‘“Homeless.’”

That’s easily one of the oldest jokes in the book, but anyone who’s ever tried to make a full-time living from playing music can tell you that it’s a hard act to pull off. Just ask former Greensboro resident Brad Newell, longtime singer and guitarist with the Chapel Hill band Eight Eyes. He also teaches guitar at Music Loft stores in Greensboro and Durham, performs with his jazz band Workbook every other Monday at the Lager Haus on Tate Street and records bands at his home studio, Groovy Cellar, in Durham.

‘“One out of every five houses probably has some sort of computer recording setup. If I tried to be in an original music band or run a recording studio full time I’d be dead,’” said Newell, who moved to Chapel Hill in 1998, during one of the periodic lulls in the Gate City’s music scene.

‘“At that time [Greensboro] was even deader than it is now. I’d been here twelve years and it was like ‘What’s the point?’ I did everything I could do; I’d been everywhere I could go,’” said Newell. ‘“I just gave up. I figured why worry about it when I’ve got so many other places to play in other parts of the state?’”

Newell’s career as a songwriter began in the wake of North Carolina’s late ’70s/early ’80s golden era of post-New Wave power pop, when groups such as Glass Moon, X-Teens, Let’s Active and Rick Rock vied to put the Tobacco State on the map along with Athens, Ga. and Minneapolis as a hotbed of Reagan-era musical innovation.

‘“I played guitar for probably ten years before I even thought about writing songs,’” said Newell, who took violin lessons as a youth before moving to mandolin and banjo. ‘“It was right before I joined this band called the Graphic, who played in this area a lot in the eighties. They needed somebody to write songs for them. I didn’t really want to join the band ‘— I’d moved to San Francisco and was living out there ‘— and I said, ‘Well, maybe I can do kind of a Brian Wilson thing and send you cassettes and you can do my songs.’ Whenever I came back I’d play with them, and it worked out great. At the beginning, it was a really cool thing for a songwriter, because they said, ‘We’ll do anything you write, even if it’s bad.’ Then after a while they got picky. If I’d bring in five songs they’d do two.’”

After eight years and one album with the Graphic, Newell formed Eight Eyes, which has undergone several lineup changes over the years.

‘“When we started out we were an acoustic singer/songwriter kind of band with a stand-up bass and congas and over time we’ve moved into a three-piece pop/rock band,’” said Newell. ‘“I’m real happy with this [version of the] band. We have four-part harmonies, and I’ve never played with that many people who can sing, so that’s great.

‘“The whole thing about owning my own studio, and even mastering things by myself, is that I have complete control,’” Newell added. ‘“The problem with bands back then was we had to wait for some record label to do something. None of my releases are big sellers, but at least you can see an evolution of the band.’”

Eight Eyes ‘— whose present incarnation includes Adrian Foltz on drums, Elizabeth Ramsey on bass and Caitlin Cornwell on backup vocals ‘— has released four CDs since 1994.

While Eight Eyes focuses on ‘“classic pop,’” Workbook is a jazz-oriented project that plays mostly restaurants and weddings

‘“We have about twenty to thirty original tunes, and we also do a lot of standards and covers by people like Led Zeppelin and Soundgarden,’” said Newell. ‘“If you play a restaurant, the main thing you have to worry about is being quiet. You can’t be too weird, because it interferes with the clientele.’”

Another project was Wonderwall, a Beatles tribute band.

‘“I was in Wonderwall about six to nine months,’” said Newell. ‘“They were planning a trip to Liverpool, and we had a chance to back up Jackie Lomax, who put out several albums on the Apple label and was backed up by the Beatles. That was a big thrill for me.’”

Perhaps as a sign of Greensboro’s changing musical fortunes since his late ’90s departure, Newell’s various bands have begun playing more gigs in Greensboro recently, including an Eight Eyes show at the Flatiron.

‘“The Flatiron was kind of an inroad. I had already heard about all this other stuff happening, and was hoping I could kind of get my foot in the door a little bit,’”

He still wonders, however, if the resurgence could just be another case of so many unrealistic expectations.

‘“The big question about all these clubs [that are opening in Greensboro] is ‘Will they bring in an audience?”” said Newell, when the subject of the new Flying Anvil is raised. ‘“Greensboro’s been weaned over the last ten years on eighties cover bands and dance music, so it’s a big ‘if.’ I certainly hope that for their sake it works.’”

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