The unsinkable Party Battleship plays Winston-Salem
Middle age can present a problem for rockers. Rock music is basically an energetic celebration of youthful innocence, rebellion and attitude. So when you hit your 40s, the pose can seem a bit off, or desperate, like someone oblivious to the passage of time, grasping for bygone glory days. (Then again, perhaps the older generations have shown the way: if Keith Richards, Billy Gibbons and Tina Turner can keep their sizzle, maybe death is the only thing that should make the music stop.) The Charlotte quartet Party Battleship has embraced the challenge and found a way to navigate that terrain. Their press info boldly claims that they’re 100 years old as a band. That is, the band members have over 100 years playing live music in bands collectively. They’re all in their 40s. They’re all seasoned rockers. They say they like to think of themselves as the coolest middle-aged rock band in the region.
The music industry may be continuing its slow-motion implosion, clubs may be shuttering, and a new generation of listeners may not be as enamored of the intimate small-venue live-music experience as previous ones were, but Party Battleship powers ahead, on course, chugging toward the port of call where riffage, hooks and melodies are the prime values. The band, fronted by Shalini Morris, comes to Heyday Guitars in Winston-Salem on Dec. 7. Morris lived in the Triad for years and has loads of musical connections here, having fronted the power-pop trio Shalini in the 2000s, backed by former members of Let’s Active during much of that period.
In the 1990s, Shalini, whose last name was Chatterjee at the time, had a Bay Area group called Vinyl Devotion, and before that she was in a band called Kissyfish in the Madison, Wisconsin area, where she’d gone to college. The power-pop vibe has been strong in her music for decades.
“I grew up on Pat Benatar,” said Morris, who spoke with me by phone from her home in Charlotte over the Thanksgiving weekend. The Beatles and Elvis left an imprint at an early age, too.
Party Battleship is made up of members who all played in other bands, several of which will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the Charlotte music scene over the last 25 years. Bassist Adam Roth was in Bellglide. Multi-instrumentalist and arranger John Morris, Shalini’s husband, was a member of Tyre Fyre, Snagglepuss, and Come On Thunderchild. (Morris is also a painter who created individual paintings for each song on the record.) Drummer Jason Perkins will sit in with the band for the Winston-Salem show.
Party Battleship released their debut album, “Cake + Flames,” in 2017. The record is built around bright and crunchy power-pop tunes, with a lot of distinct male-female vocal harmonies. The sound is efficient and energetic without being excessively minimalist or hyper. The album opens with “Theme Song,” a song with a melody that hops up and dips back.
“It’s not for a lack of precision, it’s not that our sympathies failed,” Shalini sings.
This is rock that’s not rooted in the blues, and it’s also devoid of a lot of the poses of disaffection and brooding aggression. Bands like Cheap Trick, the Bangles, Teenage Fanclub, and the Mendoza Line come to mind when listening to Party Battleship. The band also bears a slight sonic similarity to Game Theory, whose frontman, Scott Miller, worked on Shalini’s Vinyl Devotion releases, and to whom she was married for a time.
Shalini and her bandmates have kept Party Battleship focused on moving forward, on deliberate, incremental progress.
“I like the concept of continuous improvement. It’s energizing,” she said.
The music shows its familiarity and debts to the past, but it’s not engaged in any kind of slavish period-piece wax-museum reproduction of previous eras. In fact, the whole notion of being stuck in the past is set up as something to be avoided in “Lilac Dust,” one of the record’s strongest tracks.
“Don’t live in other times. Don’t live in other lives,” Shalini sings. The song is about social media saturation and the ways that people spend so much effort posturing to present an idealized version of themselves, envying the similarly fictionalized depictions of other people’s lives.
“It was about Facebook and how people sugarcoat their lives,” Shalini said.
Another track, “The Fifth Season,” might summon a distant comparison to the hybridized New Wave arena pop of Foreigner.
While working on the batch of songs that went into the debut record, Shalini said she had a minor writing breakthrough by pretending that she was writing the songs for someone else to sing (which, in some cases she was doing, since her husband, John, ended up taking the lead vocals on a few of the songs). The band is patiently working on a new bundle of songs for a record they hope to release in 2020.
“We’re really taking our time. There’s no deadline,” Shalini said. “We’re not second-guessing ourselves.”
She said her approach to writing has always involved creating an excess of material and then putting much of it on the discard pile.
“I throw a lot of songs out,” she said. “I’ve always had a winnowing-out process. I’ve never stuck something on a record that I thought was really crappy. I put myself through a rigorous quality check.”
Some people look at the operational metabolism of a band like Party Battleship and think that the schedule of playing small gigs on the weekends, connecting with a small audience, driving a few hours to get home and slowly chipping away at assembling new records is too difficult to pull off while remaining creative and optimistic, and having a life.
But Shalini likens the thrill of making music in a group setting with shared struggles and shared rewards to the rush that runners or players of a team sport get by training and hitting their long-term goals.
“I have this personality where the harder it gets, the harder I’m going to go for it,” she said. “It’s more important to do this now than ever.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Party Battleship at Heyday Guitars, 414 Brookstown Ave., Winston-Salem, on Saturday, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m.