Garden State pulls from the Gate City’s talent pool

by Amy Kingsley

Pete D’Angelo’s introduction to Greensboro was surprisingly inconspicuous. The nascent record impresario was riding in the van with the Quick Fix Kill, the first band released on D’Angelo’s Ernest Jenning Record Company. They set up a show in Greensboro at the cave-like Guilford College Underground through a WQFS volunteer and student named Eric Mann.

Mann also played in Kudzu Wish, a band that had just recently polished off a split release with indie heroes Disband. The local groups conceived the gig as a showcase, a ploy that ended with remarkable success. Not only did D’Angelo and Ernest Jenning Record Company release the split CD, they also followed up by releasing full-lengths for both.

That the bands, both longtime local favorites, earned such support is not a surprise. But the geography of their patrons – Brooklyn – is a bit puzzling. Disband moved to Athens, Ga. and Kudzu Wish broke-up (amicably), but Ernest Jenning has over the past few years become a reliable heavy in the Greensboro scene.

Around October the label will release an album of lush, lazy rock by local band Health. One of their future label mates will be ex-Kudzu Wish lead singer Adam Thorn, who is slated to go into the studio sometime next month.

Over half price beers at the Green Bean, Thorn and I traded theories about why distant record labels (including Athens-based Hello Sir) have shown such interest in Greensboro’s indie rockers.

“I think there’s this analogy that can be made between New Jersey and New York and Greensboro and Chapel Hill,” Thorn said.

His point is that D’Angelo and his partner Gandhar Savur, a couple of Jersey natives, can sympathize with Greensboro’s predicament in the shadow of Chapel Hill, an indie rock Mecca perhaps a few years past its prime. In fact, D’Angelo’s promise to release the as-yet unrecorded Top Buttons album has been one of the few stable things about the project.

“What I’m doing now I should have released a year and a half ago,” Thorn said.

The hold-up resulted in part from high turnover in the bass player and drummer positions. At least seven musicians from the greater Triad area have contributed their rhythm talents to Thorn’s brand of jittery, jangly pop.

But while a finished product from the Top Buttons remains elusive, Health’s album is, as they say in the business, in the can.

“The Health record is fantastic,” D’Angelo said. “I’ve been a Health fan for a while, ever since Jonathan [Moore] was recording songs in his bedroom. Within less than a week after I heard the record I told them I would release it.”

The Ernest Jenning connection extends far beyond a simple business transaction seesawing over the Mason-Dixon. D’Angelo has paid local photographer Matthew Spencer to photograph the Black Hollies, a rock band from Brooklyn recently signed to the label, and contracted with John Rash for poster art.

“Every band we have at this point we route through Greensboro,” D’Angelo said.

And the Greensboro bands regularly pass through New York City. Tiger Bear Wolf, who are not on Ernest Jenning, played and crashed at D’Angelo’s pad just a few weeks ago. And the New Yorker has parlayed a job at the College Music Journal into a solid presence at its vaunted annual new music convention in October. Greensboro will be well represented at this year’s festival, with at least three bands making the trek north to appear at an Ernest Jenning Record Company showcase. The connection has transformed from a business transaction to one firmly rooted in friendship.

“It’s so weird when you have all these friends that don’t really live near you,” D’Angelo said. “Whenever everyone gets together it’s complete chaos.”

Ernest Jenning isn’t the only record label based outside of North Carolina that has shown interest in Greensboro bands, and D’Angelo has mostly trained his focus toward the music coming out of Guilford College. What makes Ernest Jenning’s interest unusual is the fact that D’Angelo and Savur had so little personal connection to the scene before meeting Disband and Kudzu Wish.

As for the groups, the advantage in signing to a label like Ernest Jenning or Hello Sir is the professionalism.

“There isn’t really a local label that has national distribution and promotional capabilities,” said Moore, a member of Health and Tiger Bear Wolf. “Some of those other labels do.”

Greensboro does have a couple of independent record labels, like Rash’s Slave Records and Red Strings Records. Each imprint offers its own advantages. Ernest Jenning’s are primarily its connections to college radio and the CMJ festival. D’Angelo even has in hands in a bit of the local record producing scene, working with and helping Red Strings Records, a Durham-based that has released the WQFS-FM compilation and an album by Winston-Salem’s Finks.

At a table in the back, Thorn’s conversation veers from Greensboro’s collective depression to 1965-era rock ‘n’ roll and finally back to the Gate City. Thorn said he thinks the town’s music scene might be headed to permanent footnote status. We ponder whether a town’s scene can really thrive without a marquee hometown record label. But at the end of the discussion Thorn sounds positive about Greensboro and the prospects of his solo-project championed by Ernest Jenning Record Company.

“The outside interest is ultimately what’s going to make this town great,” he said. “Otherwise all you’re doing is being completely insular and insecure.”