Hope Nicholls and Aaron Pitkin Stay True to Free-form with It’s Snakes
Playing the drums is often thought of in terms of raw caveman sensibilities — getting in touch with some primal pulse, pounding out patterns on animal skin, generating vibrations that have an almost concussive force. So it’s a little funny that when singer Hope Nicholls took up drums, the move served to put a civilizing tether on some of her wilder musical impulses.
Nicholls is known best as the former frontwoman of ‘80s college rockers Fetchin Bones, but her new band, It’s Snakes, plays Greensboro on Friday, Oct. 21 at The Green Bean, with Totally Slow. I spoke with Nicholls by phone last week.
North Carolina earns its due respect in the cosmology of indie rock. The music scene here gets referenced along with Seattle, Athens and Minneapolis. Chapel Hill is, of course, the focus of most attention that comes to the state, with bands like Superchunk, Polvo and Archers of Loaf deserving their devout followings. You could go on: the Flat Duo Jets, the Connells, Squirrel Nut Zippers, etc. The wider region is big in the annals of college rock, with Mitch Easter, the DBs, Let’s Active, and so on. Fetchin Bones and the dynamic idiosyncratic married-couple power-team of vocalist Hope Nicholls and guitarist Aaron Pitkin should also be on any list of great North Carolina music-makers. Nicholls, 56, and Pitkin, 55, haven’t really stopped making music together since they met at Warren Wilson College, just outside of Asheville, in the fall of 1981. Fetchin Bones formed in 1983 and disbanded in early 1990, and the couple have been involved in a number of suitably freeform DIY and largely unclassifiable projects since then, with It’s Snakes being the latest.
Before getting too far, I have to say that I played music with Nicholls and Pitkin for most of the ‘90s in Sugarsmack, their post-Fetchin Bones band. We were signed to Sire Records for a time, released several records and toured the country. I started playing with them when I was 20 and they were seasoned veterans (probably each around 30). We’re close. They came to my wedding. I went to theirs. I first saw Fetchin Bones at the legendary Milestone club in Charlotte when I was probably 14 or 15, long before I met them. I was blown away. Fetchin Bones’ full-length debut, 1985’s “Cabin Flounder,” is a great record, manic and melodic, pretty, poetic and hyper. Listen to “Plus Seven” or “Brilliant” for a sense of how they could bridge a jittery energy with insistent melodies. Nicholls and Pitkin still represent a kind of rock-and-roll ideal to me — they embody the dream of making music, building it into daily existence, being creative, hanging out, fusing thrift-store fashion, a neon primitivist visual style and attitude, a non-stop work ethic and a defiant of-the-people, DIY, outsider-art vibe.
Nicholls is a wild and uniquely Southern thing — part Howard Finster, part Little Richard, part Rose Maddox and part Flannery O’Connor. You can hear strands of Cheap Trick, Can, Chic, the Cramps, Crazy Horse, Captain Beefheart, Exene Cervenka, and the Carter Family all braided together in the music Nicholls and Pitkin have made over the years. Nicholls has a crazed, theatrical wide-eyed howling delivery that could evoke Jerry Lee Lewis, or she could just as often shift into weird disco-era Mick Jagger faux-patois or a kind of vaudevillian sideshow belting. All over the place was always cool. Fetchin Bones was a band that swerved from cow punk to arena rock to muscle funk to jangle pop and beyond over the years. The toured to support R.E.M., the Replacements and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others. It seemed like they were destined for pre-grunge hugeness. Then they broke up. (There were a few minor reunion tours in the oughts, and this summer in Wisconsin there was an informal show including Nicholls, Pitkin and guitarist/singer/songwriter Gary White from the band’s first incarnation.)
Nicholls was always a kinetic entertainer — even during the ‘90s, when entertainment was suspect. She hopped all over, smacking a tambourine, honking on a tenor sax, working a vibra-flex or other noisemakers from her anvil case of toys, which doubled as a step stool if she wanted to jam the bell of her horn up and around her microphone. “I do love to jump around,” she says. “I’m a pretty big gesticulator and mover.”
The fact that Fetchin Bones, and the other subsequent Nicholls/Pitkin projects, were and have been headquartered out of Charlotte, which wasn’t necessarily a music-centric town for much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, sort of added to their take-it-or-leave-it-on-our-terms approach. Remaining Charlotte-based signaled their not-giving-a-shit attitude as much as anything. In addition to making music, the couple run a boutique/clothing store that showcases their eclectic sense of style, which veers from retro classic to space-age futuristic, from street to rustic. It’s like their music, which blends that blatantly synthetic with the handmade, pop with folk, robot with rude stomp.
It’s Snakes, which is releasing a full-length album recorded in Nashville in the coming months, is both a totally new thing for Nicholls/Pitkin and a return to their roots, in a way. It’s a new band, with younger players, and Nicholls is now playing drums — something she just sort of took up and does with admirable untutored abandon. Singing while beating drum heads and smashing cymbals sort of serves to constrain her combustible onstage energy. Nicholls says it’s good for her “to not necessarily always be a maniac on stage.”
Being trapped behind drums limits the amount of karate kicks and pogoing she can do.
“It does rein me in, and I think people like that,” she says.
The move to drums makes perfect sense in another way. Nicholls’ singing has always had a rhythmic focus. She routinely jams repeated vocal patterns into open spaces at the end of a phrase, making lyrical tidbits into a kind of percussive ornament. (Listen to the way she loops the words “Get it!” on the Fetchin Bones song “Stray.”) It’s almost like she’s been playing the drums and singing all along.
“For me, the drums are integral to all the songs that I write,” says Nicholls.
It’s Snakes marks the first time that Pitkin has returned to guitar in over 20 years, playing bass, taking up the drums and also tinkering with keyboards and sequencers in their different projects during that time.
“Throughout Sugarsmack, throughout Snagglepuss, everything since Fetchin Bones, he didn’t really play guitar,” says Nicholls. “But every day the way Aaron relaxes and mellows his mind is to play acoustic guitar, so he has an infinity of riffs and he’ll complete them. He’ll have an A part a B part – the whole thing.”
Prior to It’s Snakes, after Sugarsmack, Nicholls/Pitkin were in Snagglepuss from 1999 to 2013.
“That band was just seven people going balls out the whole time,” says Nicholls. “It was all protest songs, pretty much, about the state of the world, millennial creep.”
During that period Nicholls and Pitkin started a family, and they also started a kids-music project with some other instrument-wielding parents.
If there’s a through line to all of this, it’s just that the pair let their wide-ranging musical and artistic tastes guide them.
“All the bands we’ve done – we just do what the hell we want,” says Nicholls. “We couldn’t figure out a way to sell out even if we had ever wanted to.”
Wanna go? It’s Snakes play with Totally Slow on Oct. 21 at The Green Bean, 341 Elm St. in Greensboro. Call 336-691-9990 or visit gsobean.com/downtown for more info.