Pipe Record Release Show | Friday, Aug. 4, 9 p.m., $10–$12 | Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro

If you’ve haunted Carrboro since before they cleaned up the telephone poles to match the higher rents, there’s a certain visual style you probably associate with local concert flyers. It’s colorful and bold, with high-impact text slicing a strong central graphic into layered planes—punk but polished like Raymond Pettibon meets Andy Warhol. 

This style emerged in the early 1990s when Ron Liberti started screen printing posters for Cat’s Cradle shows. There’s something similarly enduring, almost load-bearing, about Liberti as a musician and scenester—especially with his band Pipe, which is releasing a new, self-titled album via Indianapolis’s Third Uncle Records on August 4. It might give the wrong impression to call them indie rock, though they are indie, and they do rock. They play loud, swinging, sneakily catchy songs that sound like they hurt to sing, the riffs stewed in ‘70s garage and pre-hardcore punk. 

Pipe released some singles, an EP, and three records between 1992 and 1997; most are out of print and were never digitized. Hardly a trace can be found on YouTube of their raucous live show, fired by Liberti’s coiled, capering presence. Yet when I got into local music circa 1999 and started piecing things together, Pipe seemed as important as Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, and Polvo, and in some circles—like those around the Orange County Social Club—they’re still spoken of with the same reverence as their famous friends, who made a bigger national impact through touring and videos.

And perhaps that’s the key: during the ‘90s alt-rock boom, Pipe was around, playing shows and hanging out. 

They earned plenty of national fans through college radio play, but they were the local-est of local heroes. And when the band petered out, Liberti stuck around, playing in bands like the Ghost of Rock, Bringerer, and Cold Cream and continuing, alongside Casey Burns, to refine the visual language of local rock and beyond—recently, he designed the logo for Guided by Voices’ 40th anniversary.

But Ron Liberti doesn’t live here anymore. As a working artist and designer, he had to go 60 miles to find a rental house for what a room costs in the Triangle now, the kind of place you could still luck into, around here, until fairly recently. 

“I miss my friends, and I miss living there,” Liberti says via video chat, “but the same house was three times as much.”

Pipe songs don’t make a big deal about what they mean. On the new record, which picks up right where the band left off 26 years ago, the sounds are un-mellowed, with Liberti sounding more and more like Lemmy from Motörhead. The songs have titles like “Bug Boy” and “Puck Man” and are casual about intelligibility, with all the energy trained on frenetic yet sleek motion, though the atmospheric closer “Stumbles” is my low-key favorite. 

But one theme is urgent and clear on “Venable,” a pummeling blues-punk eulogy for an artist-friendly town. “Oh Venable, you’re trading in your Peavey for a tricycle,” Liberti bellows. “You’re turning horizontal into vertical, incredible.” Recalling Rosemary and Franklin before the artists “got kicked up off the Hill,” he rat-a-tats, “Affordability is not attainable/Sucking on a stone is not sustainable.” (I’m quoting at length here because you aren’t likely to make these lyrics out through Liberti’s shredded sneer, and they’re good.)

“That was one of the first new ones we wrote after our reformation,” he says, which happened 15 years ago and led, in a leisurely way, to this album. “In the nineties, we were all moving to Carrboro because it was still so affordable, inspiring, and chill. Come the turn of the century, things had already started to change. Now it’s 2023, I live in Wilson, and many peers and comrades have had to relocate also.”

Sometimes, you really can’t go home again. But a new Pipe record? It feels close.

Pipe. Photo by Mimi McGlaughlin.

There is something likeably mascot-like about Liberti, who, at 56, still has the boyish, smiling, mischievous vibe of the ‘80s skate kid he once was. 

He grew up on the Jersey Shore, going to car shows and races with his father, where he reveled in the rumble of the engines and marveled at the hand-painted pinstriping. You can trace the scorch marks from there to the hot-rodded speed and efficiency of Pipe’s music, especially in the classic single “Raceway Park.”

“Going to garages with my dad, with all his friends smoking cigarettes and drinking 40s and sitting around, talking, it almost felt like being in a band,” Liberti says.

He also admired all the hand-lettered signage lining the boardwalk, if not the Springsteen blaring from the speakers. He had a dyed and crooked haircut and loved the Ramones, the Replacements, and Hüsker Dü—unfussy, tuneful punk bands. He wasn’t sure he’d go to college, but a high school art teacher encouraged him to, so he enrolled as a painting major at Montclair State University, where he got into screen printing. There he started his first band, Love Onion, which, what else can you say? He also made friends with future Pipe bassist Dave Alworth and guitarist Mike Kenlan, who was the first of the group to move to Chapel Hill in 1989.

“When I graduated from college with a degree in fine art, I knew I was going to be a bartender someplace,” Liberti explains. “It was just easier to live down here.” 

He had visited Chapel Hill, where Kenlan had a house for what Liberti was paying to live above a liquor store in Hoboken. The bands coming through Hoboken were on the Cradle’s schedule, too. Kenlan made him a mixtape of local rock from that time just before Superchunk and Merge: Metal Flake Mother, Zen Frisbee, Bicycleface. 

So Alworth and Liberti moved to Chapel Hill, where the latter got a job at the Hardback Café, a music hotspot where Pipe drummer Chuck Garrison (Superchunk’s original drummer and partial namesake) was washing dishes. They formed just before Nirvana’s success shifted national interest to local scenes like Chapel Hill’s. Despite the fortuitous timing, they set out with no particular ambitions, nor did they develop any along the way.

“The thing I loved most was how supportive and cool everyone was, because coming from Jersey, it was more dog-eat-dog,” Liberti says. “Here, there was room for everybody and I loved that. We didn’t just have to play with hardcore bands.” 

Indeed, the opener for the record release show on August 4, will be Shark Quest, a legacy act in which seasoned local rockers play groovy vintage film-score music.

“A big part of the Pipe sound was cheap beer,” says Kenlan, who has joined the video call. “We weren’t a Sassy band. We weren’t cutesy and marketable.”

This is actually the first proper Pipe LP Kenlan has played on. After their debut, the Ball Peen EP, released in 1992 on Sonic Bubblegum, he left to focus on his other band, Small 23, which was gaining some traction; Clifton Lee Mann, formerly of the rockabilly band the Bad Checks, played guitar on their three LPs. The first two were released by Jesus Christ, a local label whose name was picked to lead to funny phrases like that one. It was run by Randy Bullock, a WXYC program director, and Kirk Ross, a musician and INDY journalist. 

“Didn’t Pipe do a show at Villanova where the nuns had to make out a check to Jesus Christ?” Kenlan muses.

The third, final, and perhaps best album of Pipe’s original run, Slowboy, was released by Merge. The band had done some decent tours—Archers of Loaf liked to take them out—but they had bad luck on the road, especially after Slowboy, when they were supposed to go all the way to California with New Bomb Turks. Garrison and Mann both sustained hand injuries and had to cancel 20 shows. Their booking agent, fed up with their stolen vans and other mishaps, dropped them. Kenlan returned to the fold, but Pipe had run its course. 

They didn’t know about the garage-rock revival that was shortly on the way—nor would they have cared, not being the trend-chasing types.

Pipe got back together to play Merge’s 20th-anniversary festival in 2009 and started working on new songs. In 2014, when they were recording with Alex Maiolo, the INDY reported that a comeback record was almost finished. But Liberti’s father died the day he started recording vocals, and his mother followed within the year, slowing down the already-sluggish process. They recorded more with Nick Peterson, and then there was the pandemic and vinyl-plant delays, and—well, they just took it as it came, which is the Liberti way. 

“I just love hanging out with these guys for 30 years now,” he says. “It’s like riding a pipe.” 

Too bad it can no longer happen in Carrboro.

Comment on this story at music@indyweek.com.

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