In 1999, a young band stepped into Jerry Kee’s recording studio, where many illustrious Chapel Hill indie records had been born, and looked around in awe. It was their first time in a studio. They were lifelong friends, but their college band was new enough not to have a name. They didn’t really have a drummer or a bassist. They had never played a show.
But they had an agreement to make a record for Chicago’s Overcoat Recordings—a new label founded by a well-connected former Thrill Jockey employee—and a shy yet steady belief in the strange, beguiling music they were making up in their private world.
When the album came out in 2000, it bore the same name the band had chosen for itself, The Kingsbury Manx. It was an instant underground classic ex nihilo. It sounded like The Beach Boys and Yo La Tengo but bleached of color and patchily repainted by hand. Most of the songs were tuned to open E, surrounding plaintive progressions with dreamlike drones, which drifted through empty pastures where normal music would have more parts. Sweet, oblique, and elegiac, the words huddled together in sleepy close harmonies, as inseparable as the singers.
When they started blowing up in NME, Magnet, and a fledgling Pitchfork, nobody in Chapel Hill knew who they were. The record had no identifying information, adding to the sense of mystery. It launched the quasi-anonymous band on national tours and turned groups they idolized into peers, which amazed them. It inaugurated a run of seven releases in 13 years. It opened with “Pageant Square,” a lilting lullaby so clearly unique that it captivated old national editors and new internet tastemakers alike. “No one could have seen this coming,” they sang, their guitars like footprints in the desert of one endless, shining E.
The Kingsbury Manx hasn’t performed in a decade—but the drought will finally end on Saturday, January 7, at Cat’s Cradle Back Room, with openers Nathan Bowles and Joe O’Connell. The reunion was sparked by some key homecomings and the reissue, sometime this year, of the debut, bringing it back into print with a fresh Bob Weston remaster.
Reflecting the band’s overall career, this lineup is a bit different from that one. When Ken Stephenson, Bill Taylor, and Ryan Richardson started touring, Scott Myers bowed out on the reasonable grounds that he was an artist, not a bassist. He continued to paint their distinctive album covers.
Clark Blomquist, now a two-decade veteran of countless local bands, was a huge fan of the first Manx record and became their bassist-etc. before their second. And Paul Finn, now known for his work with Spider Bags and Odessa Records, started playing music with Blomquist when he moved here in the early 2000s. It was a short hop into the Manx, whose original demo, which they had sent to all their favorite labels, he remembered hearing while working at Drag City.
“Actually, it pissed me off,” he says, laughing, “because I was releasing the Movere Workshop seven-inch with Howard, and I was like, ‘Oh god, this is like us but way better and with vocals!’”
“Howard” was Overcoat’s Howard Greynolds, who released half of the Manx’s records and is doing the reissue. If they took off on merit, there’s no doubt that Greynolds gave them early chances most obscure recording projects don’t get.
“He not only released it but got it into the hands of booking agents and sent it overseas,” Stephenson says of the record.
“What struck me immediately was their sense of melody and their ability to harmonize,” Greynolds says. “It was reflective of what was going on at the time—Palace Brothers, Sebadoh, the Beta Band. Then Fleet Foxes came along and turned what the Manx were doing into a whole economy. Listen to ‘Hawaii in Ten Seconds’ and tell me Robin [Pecknold] didn’t spend quality time with this record.”
The Kingsbury Manx never officially broke up; adulthood just drifted them apart. Stephenson moved on to other projects, including one with Finn, after the band’s fourth release—this reunion represents the restoration of his special chemistry with Taylor. The final piece fit when Finn returned from Austin in 2021 and built a home studio in Hillsborough.
“Having our buddy back is great,” Taylor says, “so it’s kind of fallen into place with the reissue, and we have some songs we’ve been working on.”
But first, they’re revisiting songs they wrote more than 20 years ago, a seasoned band meeting itself as a magically naïve one. Stephenson has been going through 100 four-track tapes, digitizing them and culling bonuses for the reissue. Finn has been doing the same thing with his project Evening Pines (see page 15).
You’d think the memories would be blurry by now, but they’re not.
“None of this feels like ancient history,” Stephenson says. “Everything we were doing was the first time we’d done it.”
“Everything was so new,” Taylor agrees. “Buying gear, doing interviews, playing shows. We were doing things backward from a lot of bands. We were kind of laying the tracks in front of the train.”
They ran amok through Kee’s collection of metallophones and synths, which is how a Casio preset became the indelible Farfisa organ drone on “Pageant Square.” They wrote by layering and sharing, with Taylor and Stephenson handing a sheet of paper back and forth.
“When I started learning the songs, I was really intrigued by how the chord changes were very simple and minimal, yet their two guitars interacting created fairly complex chord shapes,” Finn says. “I’m still mystified as to where they picked that stuff up.”
“We were kind of living in our own little world,” Richardson remembers, “sharing a house and listening to music and talking about music and playing these songs. When I listen to it now, it just feels like the soundtrack of our lives.”
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