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The most non-Durham member of Tooth has called Durham home since he was 4 years old. One member remembers his Little League getting kicked out of a pizza parlor (called, appropriately, Pantera’s) that no longer exists, and two members work at Sam’s Quik Shop, the best place in the city to buy a six-pack you’ve never seen.
Tooth is so Durham that Ryland Fishel, who everyone in the band has known since high school through a circle of local punk bands, finally joined Tooth after his boss at Randy’s Pizza told him a new metal band in town needed a bass player.
“I was like, ‘Sure, bring ’em by and I’ll see if they’re worth a shit.’ And one of ’em comes, and I’m like, ‘I know this guy!’” Fishel says, laughing and nodding across the table at frontman J-Me Guptill, who worked at Randy’s before Fishel did. “So then I go to practice, and it’s like ‘I know all these guys. What’s going on?’”
Finally complete as a five-piece, Tooth started playing almost immediately, quickly gaining notoriety as one of the best new bands to go underground into Raleigh hardcore basements and one of the few heavy bands in Durham. But they were worried thatnow, as grown-ups playing heavy metalthey’d feel alien in their hometown.
“When we started playing two years ago, I was the least gung-ho about Durham. I didn’t think a band like this would be supported in Durham,” says guitarist Rich James as a Merge Records mixtape transitions between The Rosebuds and M. Ward. It’s well after midnight on a Thurday in the bar above Fishmonger’s, and Tooth is deep into a fourth pitcher of Yuengling. “But everybody has a common goal in mind in Durham, which is putting Durham back on a map.”
Indeed, Durham’s new network of bands accepted them. They may be somewhat lonely as a metal band, but they feel like part of a fabric that includes Midtown Dickens, Hammer No More the Fingers, Red Collar, Dry Heathens, Chest Pains and The Future Kings of Nowhere. They’ll share a bill in Wilmington with Hammer No More and Red Collar eight days after releasing Animality in Durham, and they’re not worried at all about being the boisterous metalheads that crash someone else’s Superchunk and Fugazi party.
“We’re doing a show with those bands in Wilmington, but I feel like it could be Midtown Dickens and Des Ark or Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan or any three Durham bands,” says Guptill. “And we could go into any city and people in any club would be like, ‘Man, they’re doing something down there.’”
“Down there” could refer to the Trianglewhere Tooth has been accepted by all three vertices in a yearor the South at large. On the strength of a handful of standout records and years of building, a network of Southern metal bandsincluding Savannah’s Baroness and Kylesa, Atlanta’s Mastodon, Miami’s Torche and Wilmington’s Weedeatercame into a wider, national spotlight this year. James, wearing a Baroness shirt tonight at the bar, went to school at the Savannah Institute of Art & Design, and he doesn’t shy from the comparisons or being welcomed into that fold.
“I was very inspired by that scene, and it’s very supportive in Savannah,” says James. Tooth played Baroness’ CD release party in Savannah in September. “You go into Savannah, and it’s rock ‘n’ roll all the time. You go into the pizza place, and they have the Dead Boys blasting.”
Rock ‘n’ roll all the time fits Tooth. Their metal breathes divergent influences, epitomized by Guptill. He’s wearing a Willie Nelson hoodie, but he talks stoner metal, offers analysis of his lyrics (about animals and gods), and boasts of a concept song that’s in the works. A fantasy about a dragon doing battle, the rest of the band hates it. Guptill just laughs.
There’s a Thin Lizzy fan and a Thin Lizzy detractor, and drummer Noah Kessler, who prefers heavy to fast, has the self-proclaimed outsider tastes of the group. But there’s something upon which they all agree: “Musically, in general, I like badasses. Chuck D is a badass. He’s against violence, but he’s a badass.” Someone raps a line from Public Enemy’s “Rebirth,” and Guptill continues. “Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, even Willie Nelson…. And that applies to metal. Lemmy.”
“Now that’s a badass,” says Fishel, nodding down now at his Motorhead shirt.
“Maybe it has something to do with being small,” Guptill reckons, smiling. Or maybe it’s about hanging tough until you find your crowds.
Tooth plays a CD release party with Two Days of Freedom, Gun Metal Black and Chest Pains at Duke Coffeehouse Friday, Dec. 7, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $5. Free beer will be available. Tooth then joins Colossus for its CD release party at Blend Thursday, Dec. 13, at 9 p.m.