Champions of the Weird: Greensboro’s the Difficulties
In March 2015, Rachel York could not determine if she was still a musician.It had been nearly two years since York, the youngest daughter in a family of musicians, graduated from Eastern Carolina University with a degree in bass performance. A busy work schedule left her little time to pursue her passions.Standing behind the bar at work, she confessed her dilemma to Brian Lampkin, her boss at Scuppernong Books and lyricist in local group The Difficulties.“Rachel said something like, ‘I don’t know if I’m a musician anymore,’ and it kind of broke my heart,” said Lampkin. Shortly after, Lampkin began brainstorming ways to get Rachel into the band.“He was trying to help me feel like a musician again, to give me an outlet,” said York.When percussionist Cameron Britt left the group to focus on other projects, the cost of a long commute, fatherhood responsibilities, and better job opportunities elsewhere (aka the unfortunate realities of life for professional musicians), Lampkin saw an opening: The Difficulties needed a third member.Lampkin invited York to a rehearsal with bandmate Mark Engebretson, an Associate Professor of Composition and Electronic Music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG).The trio, an unusual mix of vocals, bass, baritone sax, and electronics, meshed together surprisingly well.“The instrumentation is pretty weird, [but then again] so much about the band is just kind of awkward,” said Engebretson. “Hopefully it’s a lovable awkwardness.”A few months later, this new lineup played in Greensboro for the first time, performing on home turf at Scuppernong on a Saturday in May.“Anytime that you’re performing in front of people it’s extra motivation,” said York. “It was a great way to ease back into being excited about music.”The Difficulties dished out new versions of old songs, with York adding bass to “Jimmy Jazz,” a Clash-referencing parody of local commercialism, “Desire,” a meditative piece showing shades of Engebretson’s impressive career in avant garde, and “It’s So Easy,” a tongue-in-cheek warning against the dangers of convenience.By the time the trio played Scuppernong again a year later, having now gigged at PB & Java and New York Pizza in Greensboro, as well as The Shed in Durham, they had a few new song titles scrawled on the bottom of their set lists.“I Don’t Want to Be Stiff,” was one of the most exciting of those new tracks.A drum-machine-driven slow-jam meets angst-ridden anthem, it had York, Lampkin, Engebretson, and even a few audience members, shouting the chorus together at the back of the bookstore:“I don’t want to be stiff/Someone, something give me a lift/I don’t want to be in love with death/I want to cry when I feel your breath.”For John Paul Carillo, who played bass later that night with headliners Joy on Fire, the song showcased the potential of the The Difficulties’ new formation.“With them all singing that chorus, they sounded much bigger than a three-piece,” said Carillo. “I was really inspired when I heard that tune for the first time.”As it turns out the music is just as inspiring for listeners to hear as it is for The Difficulties to make.“In some ways, that moment when a song comes together in rehearsal is better than performing,” said Lampkin. “It’s the moment of creation when you know you’ve made something.”Such was the feeling of fulfillment during The Difficulties’ rehearsal last Sunday morning, as the band birthed another new song.With a few last clicks on Engebretson’s keypad, The Difficulties put the finishing touches on the starkly beautiful ‘All Good People,’ which the band will debut this Saturday, August 27, at the Crown at Carolina Theatre at 7:30 p.m.The song is a modern-day “Eleanor Rigby,” whose lyrics Lampkin wrote as a kind of antidote for the depression that comes with striving to live decently within a mad world.In spite or perhaps because of the topic, seeing the song come together was particularly meaningful for the group.“Putting that song together yesterday, man, it was joyous,” said Lampkin, giddy with uncharacteristically bro-y emphasis. “To create it, to pull it together with two other people, it was just lovely.”For York, the song had a special significance.“It was my ultimate dream in middle school to be in a band and to write songs and to sing,” said York.“All Good People” is the first song composed by York for the group and otherwise.“It’s the first song I’ve written that I’ve been happy with,” said York.“I’m basically living my dreams,” she adds, half-joking from behind the bar at Scuppernong. “Even if it’s only one song every 20 years.”She pauses and then lets out a self-deprecating laugh.Sounds like The Difficulties are worth it.