At first blush, Volume One sounds like the kind of what-the-hell project that droves of cooped-up musicians have been doing since March: Record 10 double-drummer tracks, send them out to friends to finish, and then wrestle the results into an album.
But the road leading to Carrboro supergroup Speed Stick’s debut, released last week by New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records, was longer and more unique than that. With a group featuring members of Bat Fangs, The Love Language, Polvo, and The Paul Swest, plus contributors as august as Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan and The Breeders’ Kelley Deal, a spirit of merry contradiction reigns on Volume One.
Far-flung genres crash together, from gnarly noise-rock to cozy indie-pop to—why not?—a hip-hop song by the moody party-rap lifer Juan Huevos. Elsewhere, artists with well-worn wheel tracks make hard turns. Though the songs are composed, even poppy, the album is as improvised as the core group’s music. This anything-goes approach led to the ultimate paradox: One of the heavier experimental rock bands around has made one of the more effervescent local albums in recent memory. And it all started, as even the biggest projects often do, with a single intuitive connection.
In 2014, Laura King and Thomas Simpson were both among the 16 full-kit drummers playing in a Hopscotch concert called IIII. King, who now pounds hard rock in Bat Fangs, was in the punk band Flesh Wounds then, while Simpson roams glossier indie-rock pastures in The Love Language.
Still, stationed side by side, they connected so well that they knew they wanted to perform as a duo—though, at first, it wasn’t quite clear how. They came from rock contexts, where having two drummers was rare enough. But only two drummers? That’s not even a thing.
In 2016, Charles Chace, of the free jazz band The Paul Swest, asked King to perform at a residency he was curating at The Station. She quickly enlisted Simpson. They practiced twice, at Nightlight (King came up with the name Speed Stick because they were sweating so much), and then never practiced again. At that first show, they established their tradition of playing face-to-face, sharing a single bass drum—two performers with one heartbeat.
“We’re a lot alike as drummers, but we also complement each other very well,” King says. “We never know what we’re going to play until we get together.”
More shows followed, while Chace and Polvo’s Ash Bowie osmosed from collaborators to official members, sealing the deal at one of those big shows at The Cave, back when everyone thought it was about to close.
“When we start playing, there’s no direction, but someone will do something and we’ll all catch onto it,” King says. “It’s this sort of follow-the-leader thing we play live.”
By January 2019, Speed Stick was ready to record. Knowing that the furious spontaneity of their live duo might not translate, they set a plan to create by committee when they began recording in Chace’s home studio, tailoring each track to friends.
They were surprised and delighted by what they got back, as a record that they never would’ve thought to make was taking shape.
“We’d be like, this beat’s for Mac; he loves punk rock,” King says. “So we did a punk-rock beat, which he totally turned around with this synth. Another surprise is Ryan Gustafson’s song.”
That’s an understatement. The cryptic folk-rocker (The Dead Tongues) drifts closer to ambient house than anyone ever would have guessed with “Let It Shine.” King and Simpson made the track imagining him playing banjo. Even Chace and Bowie got in on the table-turning after their bandmates served them the kind of freak-out they usually feast on.
“It had no steady beat—drums completely falling apart,” Chace says. “I shocked them by looping stuff and making it into a song.” The result, opener “Protect Your Magic,” kicks off the record with a fanfare of squalling noise, flinty post-punk, and free-jazz Chinese horn. It also sports a vibrantly deranged video, the first King has ever made.
It’s not a huge leap from there to “Knots,” where Deal and R. Ring collaborator Mike Montgomery also employ drum loops in their atmospheric vamp. But it is a leap from “Knots” to the pert, synthy “Twin Collision,” where Love Language leader Stuart McLamb goes meta.
“I really love Stu’s song, because he wrote it about Tommy and I playing drums together,” King says. “Twin collision. It’s what we are when we get on stage and go.” Ben Felton also blurs boundaries with his flashing anthem, “Plants,” based on a driving drum break from a phone recording he made of one of Speed Stick’s earliest shows.
Not everything came as a shock: Nora Rogers and Jenny Waters turned in the kind of epic dual-guitar grooves that fueled their recent debut as Object Hours. Pipe’s Ron Liberti enlisted Casey Cook for some pogo-ready pop-punk, while Clarque Blomquist came up with a typically unidentifiable musical substance.
“What did Clarque even do with the drum recordings?” Chace wonders. “Maybe it just inspired him to make a song, and the beat’s slowed down in the background or something.”
They didn’t bother to find out. By then, they were all in on making an album without knowing what kind of album it was—only that it would be collectively dreamed into being, powered by enthusiasm and oblivious of destinations or goals. The patchwork of Volume One may be a one-time shot, but it leaves a dazzling streak.
Comment on this story at email@example.com.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.