Why the garages of East Nashville are now American rock’s hottest property
At Battle Tapes studio, Jeremy Ferguson (seated centre, in glasses) with collaborators and musicians from the Nashville scene. Bands represented here include Quichenight, Ranch Ghost, Turbo Fruits, D.Watusi, Bad Cop, Hands Down Eugene and Pujol. Photograph: Jo McCaughey
Forget the Grand Ole Opry; there are more thrilling new bands in East Nashville than anywhere else on earth. We meet its stars, from Pujol to Paperhead via Jeff the Brotherhood
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, this place doesn’t look much like hipster central. Detached houses – those sprawling, wooden ones you see in US dramas – are set in wide, healthy lawns. There’s no sign of a thrift shop, a record store, or dimly lit bars. Just houses and more houses, split by the occasional mini-strip at an intersection: coffee shop, deli, filling station. Nevertheless, this homely area of East Nashville, across the Cumberland river from downtown, is now home to possibly the biggest concentration of exciting guitar bands in one city since the White Stripes and their garage cohort emerged from Detroit at the start of the last decade.
There’s Pujol, playing a snarly, unconstrained version of rock’n'roll; there’sNatural Child, with their goofy Stonesisms; Heavy Cream, beefing up a more traditional version of indie rock; D Watusi, bringing the beat pop; there are the teenagers of the Paperhead, offering a Sealed Knot-style re-creation of the sound of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd; there’s the noisy sibling two-piece Jeff the Brotherhood, who would be the parents of all this, were it not for Be Your Own Pet, the Nashville teens who caused a brief sensation in the middle of the last decade. Oh, and did we mention one of Jeff was also in Be Your Own Pet? There’s more, too – how about Diarrhea Planet, and their toppling-sideways take on hardcore punk?
And the houses matter. These were the venues in which the aforementioned bands learned to wrestle their instruments to their will, to play to crowds. Take Meemaw house. That’s where Daniel Pujol – now the creative force and sole permanent member of Pujol, as well as a graduate student in world affairs – started putting on the house shows that fed so much of the current scene. He’d started making music at college in Murfreesboro, just outside Nashville, because he’d “got tired of watching people smoke weed and play Halo and not be allowed to talk”. Sitting in a coffee shop called the Sip Cafe, he gestures vaguely across the street. “I moved up here to find people who were interested in collective living, who really wanted to make art. I moved right across the street over there into a large Victorian-style house and me and some people experimented with the collective living scenario.”
He was joined by Wes Traylor (now of Natural Child) and Jessica McFarland (who’s now in Heavy Cream) and the three formed Meemaw. “We didn’t have the money to go on tour,” Pujol says, “so we decided to do reverse touring – basically, finding all the bands we liked and then we would do shows with them in our basement.” That led to them meeting Jeff the Brotherhood, and the emergence of bills of like-minded Nashville bands. “It got up to about three shows a week where there were 100, 150 people in our backyard, and the last show we did was the first time the cops got called.”
A lot of thought went into putting on bands. “If we’re going to throw shows, we’re going to have local bands and they need to be from totally different aesthetic spheres,” Pujol explains. “It was a lot of different people who were into a lot of different things, coming in to an intentionally aesthetically inclusive place. With some really cool Christmas lights.”
To promote them, he and his friends would sit in college classes using MySpace to flyer anyone and everyone. Come show night, that led to “new people getting together, and that created a lot of new bands”.
“Those house shows were really big in developing this wave taking flight right now,” confirms Jeremy Ferguson, who has recorded scores of the young groups at Battle Tapes studio in his East Nashville house. “A lot of these bands formed from being in bands that played in that basement, or hanging out with those kids. Each wave of bands has where they got their thing, and a lot of it here was with Meemaw and Jeff.”
Guitarist Jake Orrall was 15 and his drumming brother Jamin just 13 when they formed Jeff the Brotherhood in 2001. Like many in the Nashville underground scene, they have family connections to music – their father Robert Ellis Orrall is a country songwriter and producer, with Taylor Swift among his credits – but Jamin doesn’t think that made a difference to the brothers’ choices. “Dad has never really done what we did,” he says, referring to the house shows, the back-of-a-car touring, the self-released records. “He’d been in the music business, but when we first started touring on our own, he just stepped back and said: ‘You guys do what you want.’ We just started booking shows through our friends, playing as many shows as we could for whatever money we could get.”
Following their fifth album, 2009′s Heavy Days, Jeff decided to go full-time. “We were both back in Nashville, both working and we both really liked this record. We had never really tried to push our band – we toured every summer just for fun – so we decided we were gonna try to do it 100%. We both moved out of our houses, put our stuff into storage and just went on the road for the next two years.” Their work sparked wider interest in the Nashville garage sound, and suddenly its extent became apparent.
What no one’s quite sure about, though, is why the Nashville bands have gravitated so eagerly to the garage-psychedelic-punk lineage. “It’s just coincidence,” Pujol says. “I don’t know a lot about garage rock.” He knows his punk, though – he explains that one of the reasons he formed a band was “because of the social and artistic limitations that we saw in the persona and delivery of hardcore music, having actually been fans of old, original hardcore music, which was a little more normative”.
Jeremy Ferguson thinks the beloved Nashville record shop Grimey’s, which stocks the original garage and psychedelic albums, has played a role. He also stresses the importance of happenstance, though: “I don’t think bands set out to sound like each other, but when Jeff started using a wah pedal, suddenly all the other bands started using a wah pedal – but to do their own thing. So it’s not like a copycat thing, more: ‘That’s a cool idea! Let’s all do that!’” Jamin Orrall offers the most succinct explanation for garage rock’s popularity: “It’s easy to play, and it’s fun.”
Jack White’s Third Man Records came into this bubbling scene in 2009, bringing with it a studio, rehearsal space, and offering opportunities to some of these local musicians. Pujol says: “Third Man totally changed my life.” Before its arrival, he’d assumed he needed to be opposed to the music industry. “When they came here, what they really did was say: ‘Hey, music’s art and you can do it professionally. You can respect your material and respect your art and behave respectfully.’ This conversation might not have been possible without them coming to town. The story might just have been: Punk rock bands hate music industry! Good times! House shows! Beer party! They made things a little classier.”
White’s lieutenant Ben Swank, a former Detroit rocker himself with the Soledad Brothers, says it was important to Third Man that it support the Nashville underground rock scene, “but because it was already happening and had its own momentum and its own thing, let it be what it is and not get too involved in pushing it in any one direction. We try to book local bands here at Third Man as much as we can. We’ve done singles and live records with Pujol and Jeff the Brotherhood. We’re out at shows all the time and a lot of the kids that are in bands, they come down here and intern. We try to be part of it, but let them get on with their own thing.”
Getting on with their own thing – at least, not yet being beholden to anyone with a commercial interest in their careers – is why the old saw that musicians make music for themselves and if anyone else likes it, that’s a bonus, sounds true here. Why wouldn’t it, when these groups are also the founding cores of each other’s audiences, when they play on each other’s records, when they’ve all been in bands together before, when so many of their records have been released on the same label, Infinity Cat?
That’s why Natural Child can sound like a tarmac-chewing rock machine on one song, but then turn into a having-a-laugh high school band the next. It’s why the Paperhead think it wholly unremarkable for a group of teenagers from the deep south to sound the way they do. “I dunno,” says their 19-year-old singer-guitarist Ryan Jennings when asked why they chose to so perfectly emulate the sound of the UFO club in 1967. “It’s just what we had in mind when we started. We all love the first Pink Floyd record.”
Getting on with their own thing applies on a wider scale, too. D Watusi’s Ben Todd isn’t just a 23-year-old in a band. He’s also the co-founder ofNashville’s Dead, an influential blog that also promotes shows and has spawned its own record label (the website also lists the houses where you might expect to be able to see a band). The night before my visit to East Nashville, D Watusi played to 300 kids with the Paperhead at the latest off-the-grid venue to emerge: the Zombie Shop, a motorcycle repair joint that opens its doors to bands after hours.
It’s all been noticed. “There are majors around in pockets,” Jeremy Ferguson says. “There are plenty of bands having meets and greets.” He doesn’t think anything much will come of the slow dance, though – in an age of declining record sales and royalties, what have major labels got to offer a young band except the prospect of debt on an unrecouped advance?
That might save the Nashville underground from being artificially inflated in the way Detroit was a decade ago, but it’s hard to see it – in its current form – lasting for ever. Scenes always blow over sooner or later, and this will be no exception. Ferguson sees lasting talent at work, though he anticipates their futures being different from their presents, citing former Be Your Own Pet drummer John Eatherly, who is now working with Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger among other projects, “and he’s 20 or 21 or something, and he makes a good living… A lot of the bands are training grounds for the voices that come out of them. Most of these young people are really passionate about their music. Some of them will drop out of the music industry and get real jobs, but there are others who won’t.”
For now, though, this group of bands charges on and on, exciting themselves, exciting each other and gradually exciting more and more strangers, too. “We were in Atlanta the other night,” Ben Swank says, “and there was some record shop open, and it was blaring some music out. We couldn’t tell whether it was Natural Child or the Stones, and that made me really happy.”
All the groups mentioned, except D Watusi, have albums available via iTunes. The Paperhead’s second album, Focus in on the Looking Glass, is available on vinyl in the UK on Ample Play