Quartet explores NC pride on their new album
If you’re smart, talented, creative, cool and you live in North Carolina, Terrance Richard really wants you to stay here. Richard, frontman and singer of Charlotte indie-rock quartet Junior Astronomers, has seen too many interesting people leave the state for other places with more progressive politics, bigger cities with more well-known music scenes and for work in the arts. Brain drain. Soul drain.
Those mixed feelings, loving a place but also wanting it to be better, to not have it represent policies that are hostile to minorities, to immigrants, to the LGBTQ community, to not have big business and religious hypocrisy trump the values of charity, forgiveness and community — many North Carolinians can relate.
But Richard is in a band, and he travels the country playing music to people from many other places. Junior Astronomers have a new record, Pyramid Party, their second full-length, which comes out this week.
Richard and his bandmates have incorporated complicated misgivings about where you live and the defiant hope for it, part of the music.
“It’s definitely a recurring theme,” Richard said. “The whole record is kind of about Charlotte, about loving the city, wanting to leave, wanting to stay.”
Charlotte is North Carolina’s biggest city, of course, but the music scene from the Queen City has often struggled with, if not an identity problem, then a slight sense of spurned-stepchild syndrome. Charlotte is not Chapel Hill. Charlotte is not Asheville. Charlotte is not Athens. Charlotte is not Atlanta. Charlotte is not Nashville. And so on. It’s not exactly a college town. It’s not a freak mecca. It’s a banking city. Musicians generally don’t flock to Charlotte and many have fled.
“I’ve watched maybe 40 or 50 of my favorite creatives leave town,” Richard said. “Before they left I would sit down with them and talk to them.”
Perhaps the band’s defining “Save North Carolina” song is an older anti-HB2 track called “FPM,” which stands for “Fuck Pat McCrory.”
Some of the lines on that one go like this: “The capitol is in control/They tax us to fix our roads/ Why can’t you just fix our state … so we can stay… I love my state but I’d rather be awake.”
But it’s not like Richard and Junior Astronomers are political activists. Their music, which is both emotional and arty, melodic and unafraid to be jarring or abrasive, is about their lives. The burbling bass lines and jagged guitar lines on songs like “An Idea” are almost proggy in their sucker-punch force.
Richard is 29 years old, and the music reflects the late-twenties sense of searching, the partying, the ups and downs of excess and the uncertainty about whether getting delirious is a sustainable long-term way of pursuing happiness.
Staying out late and drinking a bunch, the festive feeling can be ecstatic, but the warmth and fellowship can morph fast. As any dime-store substance-abuse counselor will tell you, sometimes the desperate quest for a good time is just an effort to mask a bad feeling at one’s core.
“We celebrate so much — we celebrate at the wrong times,” Richard said about the theme of slightly forlorn merry-making. “Especially for me, when I celebrate so much I start thinking in my head, ‘Why am I partying this much?’”
The title track is a party song, Richard’s house is called The Pyramid, and they have Pyramid parties regularly. But this one is about throwing a party to impress someone who might not even show and feeling morose when they don’t. Is there anything sadder, from an indie-dude perspective, than a carefully curated playlist designed to impress or woo someone who doesn’t bother to listen?
The right song, the right lyric — these are aesthetic concerns, but they’re also matters of identity for Richard. And that sense of identity is bound up in a sense of place, too.
Part of the reason that Richard feels invested in the music scene in Charlotte and in North Carolina is that music and the aggregation of clubs and musicians and fans sort of gave him a direction.
As a high school student who was into poetry — Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda — Richard didn’t necessarily feel like he fit in. Seeing one of his future bandmates play at a battle of the bands for their high school flicked a switch with Richard: This was a clear way to make passionate writing that connected with people.
“I was a writer. I wrote poetry,” Richard said. “I was like, ‘I can’t make money off this and survive,’ I was like ‘I’m gonna sing and make music.’ I told my parents that: I’m gonna finish high school, but I’m not gonna do anything else because I just wanna play music.”
As an African-American in the predominantly white world of indie rock, Richard says the DIY/punk scene in Charlotte nurtured him as an artist.
“Being around a community like that, it felt comforting,” Richard said.
As a singer, Richard does some curious things with his voice. Sometimes he delivers lines with a droopy reserve, but more often he pushes his voice to emphatic places, where it rises high or starts to break in expressive ways. He sometimes brings to mind the eclectic English hip hop artist and singer King Krule. He might also conjure a more full-voiced Julian Casablancas.
Richard sees a kinship between singing and movie acting. Sometimes it’s the subtle touches, the nonverbal qualities to a voice — the texture, the timbre, the drive behind it — that make it compelling.
“I listen to a lot of soul, and a lot of it reminds me of how I felt when I was younger about punk,” Richard said. “You’re making a vibe. Either the vibe is aggressive or the vibe is melancholy. I look at vocals as an instrument. It’s about making the vibe. That’s what I try to do.”
The whole idea of understanding who you are and what shaped you, it’s central to how Richard thinks about what he and Junior Astronomers do. “How can you leave a place that made you the way you are?” he asks.
When bands leave the state and try to succeed in bigger, more music-centric cities, Richard said sometimes he hears a change in their sound, a mysterious loss of something, and he says “they’re drinking the wrong water.”
In terms of how a place can shape a sound, the new record was recorded at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium in Kernersville, adding another layer of North Carolina sonic essence to the story.
Richard might be an unlikely spokesperson for the Tar Heel State, as an indie rocker who spends much of his time elsewhere, on tour, on the road, but he wants, yes, a unified scene.
“That’s what I’m fighting for, if it means, as a state, coming together as local artists, let’s do it together,” Richard said.
If you’re thinking of packing your bags to move to Portland or Brooklyn or Marfa or Montreal, Richard has a few words for you, “We want people to stick around and help out. Don’t leave. Fight with us.”
Junior Astronomers play On Pop of the World with Cold Fronts and Totally Slow, June 8 at 1333 Grove Street in Greensboro.