Goodnight Man, hello apocalypse
Bass player Brian Johnson slips through the corner door at the Mellow Mushroom on Winston-Salem’s Fourth Street with a white sack of food for Louis, a homeless friend. It’s part of a deal, bandmate Austin Pheiffer says: They provide him with food, and in exchange he refrains from asking them for money for alcohol.
“We’re a very relational band,” says Pheiffer, who writes lyrics and sings for Goodnight Man, in addition to playing guitar and occasionally pounding a floor tom. That, and “freakishly organized.”
It’s 5:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July before Goodnight Man’s second show ever, and the members are gathered for a shared meal at the Mellow Mushroom, which together with a couple churches has provided a significant portion of the band’s gainful employment.
The four men – guitarist Philip Pledger and drummer Joe Russell complete the band – are confessing Christians in the mainline of the Protestant church, but they share with their evangelical mega-church brethren a rootless sense of questing and with the voluntary poverty movement of the Catholic Worker a hunger for authenticity. That a Christian band’s lyrics deal with topics such eating disorders and globalization and that their music spills out in a technically precise torrent of heavy cascading riffs, atmospheric slide guitar alternating with choppy squawks, throbbing bass lines, dynamic percussion and primal screams should surprise no one.
Pledger, who grew up playing electric guitar at Calvary Baptist Church, is the only Winston-Salem native. Johnson grew up in a Southern Baptist church in Chicago. Russell hails from Buffalo, NY, and Pheiffer had lived in at least five states before coming to Winston-Salem to lead the worship band at First Presbyterian Church in 2005.
All the rules about cultural identities in politics, spirituality and fashion may be in question, and paths uncharted in the current smash-grab of societal flux, but that may be beside the point. Practically every musician in the Piedmont, from members of Daughtry to the SoloS Unit, seems to have gotten their start in the church. U2 and Prince have both made music with heavy spiritual overtones. That Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke came out of the black church is well known. For that matter, so did Snoop Dogg.
When a pizza with ham and feta cheese and calzones with mushrooms arrive, they pause to pray.
“Thank you for the freedom that we have in this country,” Pheiffer intones. “We pray for Louis tonight.”
Pheiffer quit his job at First Presbyterian Church after concluding that institutional perpetuation outweighed inspired personal discipleship.
“I’ve had a disillusionment with the church,” he says. “It’s very bureaucratic. It really informs my lyrics. We’re all Christians, but I have a lot of cynicism towards the church as an institution.
“I’m feeling like there are a lot of issues in the world that the church is not dealing with,” Pheiffer continues. “When I was employed there, I felt like the church was asking a lot from me bureaucratically, but not as a humanitarian. The song “Crumbling Cathedrals’ is about how we’re so idolatrous in our society. That deals with architecture, but even in art, if art isn’t saying anything I think it’s a waste, when people are hungry and dying.”
The band’s millenarian vision comes across in Pheiffer’s lyrics: “All cathedrals will collide in space/ Man’s creations crumble in disgrace/ All the colors coalesce in a beautiful embrace.”
Pledger explains the band’s name: “Goodnight Man is kind of apocalyptic, but not in a negative way,” he says. “It’s looking forward to when humanity is going to not be as concerned about progress, and God’s just going to unite everything…. Just doing away with the temporary, I guess, which is the things we like to hold on to a lot of times. A theme of renewal.”
By the time the band takes the stage at the Werehouse, a press of freshly scrubbed and churchy looking collegians has massed towards the front. Some wear flip-flops. One young man comes clad in a black T-shirt reading “Seek Justice.”
It’s the second show, and the band has a string of dates lined up around North Carolina. Whether technical precision and spiritual fervor will carry them forward remains to be seen: In September, Pheiffer will follow his wife-to-be to Boston, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in public health; Pledger has another year at UNC-Chapel Hill. Onstage tonight Pheiffer jabs his finger in the air like a righteous prophet-cum-rock star. The band channels some of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and the Who’s “Tommy” through a modern polyphonic scree whose blueprint was drawn sometime ago by bands like Radiohead and Coldplay.
But first they do what they do before all rituals, all significant moments in their lives together: namely, pray.
Huddled tightly in the load-in alcove at the club, one of them raises a soft voice: “I just hope everybody goes home happy, that all the bands do well. I pray that everybody’s talking about it when they leave.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.