Highly mobile N.C. band Drag Sounds help christen new record store in Winston-Salem
Drag Sounds make artisanal rock-and-roll. That totally made-up designation might not have much to do with their sound, which has clear debts to bands like the Velvet Underground and Television, but it has something to do with how the band — a trio with ties to the Triad — thinks about their music.
Drag Sounds play with Brooklyn trio Boytoy at Mesmerizer Records, a new shop, in Winston-Salem on Wed., January 11, at 8 p.m.
The food-and-drink world harnessed a growing interest in all things local to turn stuff made in our backyards — small-batch pickles, locally roasted coffees, zingy IPAs, funky tacos, down-home turnip greens, etc. — into sought-after commodities. It’s cool to buy products crafted by the hands of people in the community. Indie rock has always been a local affair. But bands, clubs and record-label people could probably still benefit from a little stronger “buy-local” ethos among music fans. The maker aesthetic has filtered into music culture though. Drag Sounds is a rock band that formed in Greensboro four or five years ago, moved to Durham then to Baltimore and has now returned to North Carolina. They’ve morphed from a quartet to a trio and the band’s recording its next record in the area with their Winston-Salem-based drummer Ezra Noble. They have an appealing slinky-wiry sound. And they have a humble utilitarian attitude about what they do — playing songs on electric guitars. The attitude is far from punk, and yet it’s almost punk in its distance from nose-thumbing and the need to destroy convention. When I spoke to Mike Wallace, one of the band’s two guitarists and singers, last week he compared their approach to being manual laborers, artisans.
“On some level though we’re like craftsmen,” says Wallace. “We’re like cabinetmakers. A lot of people make cabinets; we just want to make good ones. We’re not reinventing the kitchen.”
Then again, punk always valued workman-like rudimentary proficiency — even a certain crudeness — over cultivated virtuosity. But the idea of finding satisfaction in the routine hoe-your-row method of steady work is somehow at odds with the discharge of Bacchic energy that has often been central to rock and punk.
“The only real satisfaction is the work itself and the people you get to meet,” says Wallace.
It’s fitting that Drag Sounds will be playing at Mesmerizer Records, a spanking-new local, music venture in Winston-Salem, around the corner from the beloved and sadly departed Reanimator Records, around the corner from Krankies Coffee, and next door to The Black Lodge, creating a critical mass of good taste and counter-programming at the Innovation Quarter.
Twenty-five years ago — before the complete implosion of the music industry — bands could still reasonably harbor fantasies of making it big, major-label deals, and fat checks from publishing royalties. Excess and rebellion still seemed kind of cool. But how do you rebel against rebellion when rebellion itself has become a cliche co-opted by market forces? Simply making music for the pleasure of it, not expecting to get rich — that’s countercultural in a landscape where people once routinely bought and sold mostly bogus dreams of stardom.
“As long as we’re able to get together and work on music, that’s about our only ambition really,” says Wallace. “We just want to be a good rock and roll band and get to meet people and have experiences.”
Drag Sounds released their most recent record, Sudden Comfort, in the summer of 2016. Recorded in early 2015, it documented the band’s sound as it existed while they were a quartet in Baltimore, with two guitars, bass and drums. They’ve since distilled themselves into a trio, losing the bass. The stripped-down line-up has forced Wallace and fellow guitarist/vocalist Trevor Reece to make the interplay of their instruments sturdy, while not losing its brittle bite.
“There’s ways that we miss having a bass player, but it also makes each element work a little harder,” says Wallace. “Hopefully just the tunes and the melodies come through. It’s always been about the balance of two guitars.”
The ring and chime of the guitars is generally clean, only scuffed a little by the volume and treble of their amps. You can hear how the parts wind around each other, climbing and darting in between spaces left between their patterns. The twang, reverb and bend of the metal strings and the electricity gives the ramshackle sound a gleaming edge. There are points of connection with bands ranging from Modern Lovers to Big Star, Half Japanese, Built to Spill and Pavement.
“One of the main things about the Velvets and groups like that is that it’s very raw,” says Wallace. “Everything is out there, it’s not covered up with a lot of effects.”
Drag Sounds work from that template, but the band’s music still manages to be enveloping and hypnotic. Listen to “One Across,” which ripples along, with a murky, misty feel. It’s empty and full at the same time. “Talking’s no good, but neither is nothing,” goes one line, in suitably inscrutable triple-negative fashion.
Pushing the unfussy interactive drive of a song, letting the vocal harmonies do what they do without too much restraint or caution, giving the unstable intonation of twin guitars the space to flicker and wobble — it’s part of what gives Drag Sounds a tight spark. You can’t manufacture uncertainty, but Drag Sounds leaves a few songs with improv sections, and the fickle behavior of equipment and the live setting makes shows inherently non-uniform.
“Lately, we try to come at the thing with a lot of energy and some amount of abandon and some amount of unpredictability,” says Wallace. “Having done it for a while, the most fun for me is when things are not predictable.”
Wanna go? Drag Sounds play with Brooklyn trio Boytoy at Mesmerizer Records, 290 E. 4th St., Winston-Salem on Wed., January 11, at 8 p.m.