In the saga of local music, the turn of the millennium was not a major stanza. It was a transitional, nebulous time. The national attention lavished on Chapel Hill indie rock in the nineties—from mainstream breakouts like Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five to underground legends like Superchunk and Archers of Loaf—had fizzled. Napster had started to trouble the music industry, but the internet had yet to develop the commercial and documentary infrastructure we know today.

As a result, many of the most popular local bands of the late 1990s and early 2000s are all but forgotten. They seem adrift in time and culture, marooned on some vague island between the well-mapped continents of Gen X and Millennials. Gen Y2K, if you will. Scantly documented by the major press and predating Myspace, it left little to no trace online, though there’s some good INDY coverage (shout out to Angie Carlson) if you can find it after 20 years of metadata-shedding website migrations.

If the golden age of science-fiction, as the famed quip has it, is 12, then the golden age of indie rock is 21. I happen to be a vague citizen of Generation Y2K. I plunged into the Chapel Hill/Carrboro indie scene in the year 2000 for a simple reason: I turned old enough to drink in the smoky nightclubs where it lived. 

To reconstruct that time through 20 local albums that turned 20 in 2020, I aided my Miller High Life-clouded memory by digging up my earliest writings, from a zine called ‘Sup and a vanquished INDY competitor called The Spectator, which I diligently clipped at the start of what turned out to be my career. I also bugged musicians to hear some albums I—and maybe they—hadn’t heard in years, and I consulted some local music journo pals (trucker-hat tip to David Menconi and Grayson Haver Currin). 

I exercised some personal prerogatives. I allowed albums that came out in 1999 or 2001, but, with a mind toward restoring the record, I omitted eligible groups that made their primary impact in the nineties, or as long legacies. Hence, you’ll find none of the aforementioned indie-rock bigshots, or Corrosion of Conformity, or Jennyanykind, or The Connells, or Southern Culture on the Skids, or any number of other heartless exclusions. 

And I decided against trying to shoehorn in the few surviving local records that aren’t in some way under the indie rock umbrella. It’s depressing to look back on how white and heteronormative my horizons were then, but it’s also heartening to realize how different this list would look if it were about 2010, let alone 2020.

But if I’m not including Shaw University-bred hip-hop group Lords of the Underground or Justus League’s Cesar Comanche, both of whose impact came a bit too early, I’m also going to skip MC Paul Barman, even though his 2000 EP, It’s Very Stimulating, was produced by Prince Paul and has the dubious distinction of setting the nerd-rap mold.

So come with me to Y2K, a slice of recorded time lost somewhere between stories. As notable for what it lacked as for what it had, it still produced bands that meant the world to the young adults whose lives they scored. Its musicians still seed today’s terrain, and its best moments stand the test of time. You can find them linked throughout and in the playlists at the end.

Caitlin Cary: Waltzie

[Yep Roc Records; 2000]

Members: Caitlin Cary, Mike Daly, others

As the millennium turned, the Raleigh alt-country bands that had surged in the nineties were splintering into solo projects. If this list were amoral, it would have to include Ryan Adams’s solo debut, Heartbreaker, but after his history of alleged sexual misconduct and manipulation was revealed last year, who needs him? Especially when his former Whiskeytown bandmate, Caitlin Cary, also released her outstanding debut EP in 2000. On Waltzie, produced by the omnipresent Chris Stamey, Cary threads her gorgeous voice and fiddle through limpid ballads that, the title of the below suggested track aside, need no apologies. She remains active in music and visual art circles today. 

 Suggested track: “Sorry”

Cold Sides: Cold Sides

[Moment Before Impact Records; 2001]

Members: Robert Biggers, Zeke Graves, David Nahm, Eric Cope

In the heyday of The White Octave (more on them later), drummer Robert Biggers also played guitar in a lesser-known band that was like the shadow cast by the bigger act’s light. Instead of anthemic emo, Cold Sides played sparse, chilly post-punk in the Mission of Burma manner, not unlike the music Biggers and The White Octave’s Finn Cohen would later rivet down in The Nein. Cold Sides’ out-of-print debut is a study in subdued anxiety; the music chants and moans, and unexpected lyricism keeps glinting in the guitars. Its members later fanned out through projects like Le Weekend, Audubon Park, and Ezekiel Graves.          

 Suggested track: “Plague”

The Comas: A Def Needle in Tomorrow 

[Yep Roc Records; 2000]

Members: Andy Herod, Nicole Gehweiler, Margaret White, John Harrison

The Comas were probably most popular circa Conductor in 2004. It came with an album-length video starring Michelle Williams, who was filming Dawson’s Creek in Wilmington and dating Comas singer Andy Herod, and it got an 8.0 on Pitchfork (from me, with much embarrassing handwringing about the state of indie rock). But they were never more perfect than on this second record. Their cloudy, creamy, country-tinged dreampop—with violin by Regina Hexaphone alum Margaret White, a strong female vocal presence, and a drummer toying with a sampler—stood out from the masculine rock energy that still pervaded Chapel Hill. Plus, they just wrote great songs. “Tiger in a Tower” is the ringer, but “PA Mac” is my favorite local deep cut ever. John Harrison (North Elementary, jphono1) is still a benevolent fixture on the scene. 

  Suggested track: “Tiger in a Tower”

Fin Fang Foom: Texture, Structure, and the Condition of Moods 

[Lovitt Records; 2001]

Members: Eddie Sanchez, Mike Triplett, Mike Glass

In the late nineties, Jacksonville natives Fin Fang Foom led a mini-migration from Florida that funded the Chapel Hill music scene through the aughts and beyond. They released three LPs and were a staple on local stages, opening and headlining. In 2001, they were still two years away from their best record, With the Gift Comes the Curse, but Texture was a strong showcase for the stormy, sweeping post-rock that earned devotion at home and in Europe. These days, drummer Mike Glass has gone full-on metal with Bitter Resolve. Guitarist Mike Triplett plays art-rock with dance-scene staple Ginger Wagg in Dove Legs. And as for bassist, singer, and occasional flutist Eddie Sanchez? Eddie’s a local landmark, from his widespread bassing (Nora Rogers’s Solar Halos, H.C. McEntire’s Bellafea, The Love Language) to his post behind the bar at deep-townie hideout Northside District, which he co-owns.

 Suggested track: “Dead Ringer”

Idyll Swords: II 

[Communion Label; 2000]

Members: Dave Brylawski, Grant Tennille, Chuck Johnson 

Polvo, whose twisty dissonance defined the timbre of math-rock, was one of the most unique Chapel Hill bands of the nineties. Their latent interest in the droning strings of Asian and Middle Eastern music came to the fore when Polvo’s Dave Brylawski joined two other guitarists to explore global acoustic folk as Idyll Swords. Mostly experimental and instrumental, II also featured the pastoral pop of “Lake Palace” among the field recordings and dancing strings. Brylawski and Grant Tennille went on to rock out in Black Taj, and Polvo had an acclaimed second act in the 2010s. Chuck Johnson, a veteran of post-rockers Spatula, later built a national following for his fingerstyle guitar and electronically processed pedal steel.

  Suggested track: “Lake Palace”

The Kingsbury Manx: The Kingsbury Manx

[Overcoat Recordings; 2000]

Members: Ryan Richardson, Scott Myers, Bill Taylor, Kenneth Stephenson 

In a town full of one-of-a-kind bands, The Kingsbury Manx were extra one of a kind, and they secured permanent cult-favorite status with this timeless debut. Released by former Thrill Jockey employee Howard Greynolds, it earned the Chapel Hillians indie cred as far away as British tastemaker NME, but their reputation stands on an uncanny sound I recently described as “postmodern prewar Americana,” a description that best fits the unforgettable “Pageant Square.” Other wide, warm arrangements suggest Pink Floyd or Simon & Garfunkel, the sepia landscapes shot through with prismatic colors. The tunes are as rare as the texture—the “sweet autumn leaves” of “Piss Diary” have never stopped swirling in my head. 

 Suggested track: “Pageant Square”

Malt Swagger: The Lost Pilot

[Self-released; 2000]

Members: Steve Carter, Mark Cunningham, Dave Jernigan, Meredith Jones, Andy Magowan, Roland Ottwell 

You’ll have to take my word on Malt Swagger. The Lost Pilot, their sole record, is out of print and offline. Only two YouTube videos filmed at Chapel Hill’s The Cave mark their quixotic moment. They’re still Durham’s only vibraphone-centered jazz-noir combo with shades of Tom Waits and David Lynch. Their pedigree ran backward—guitarist Dave Jernigan had been in What Peggy Wants with Squirrel Nut Zipper Tom Maxwell—and forward; bassist Andy Magowan became a prominent Durham restauranteur behind spots like Geer Street Garden. I have no idea what became of Steve Carter. Last I saw him, he was trying to get his huge vibraphone upstairs at Boxer’s Ringside, a great club that passed too quickly through a different West Main Street than we know now. He might be walled up in a stairwell.

 Suggested track: Those Cave videos, unless you buy the one used CD on Discogs for $10.

YouTube video

The Mayflies USA: The Pity List

[Yep Roc Records; 2000]

Members: Matt McMichaels, Adam O’Fallon Price, Matt Long, David Liesegang

After the national press largely lost interest in new Chapel Hill bands, The Mayflies USA were a buzzy holdout whose borderline breakout in 1999, Summertown, drew praise from SPIN and The Village Voice. The next year, The Pity List seemed to get less attention, though it had the same chewy hooks and fuzzy power-pop appeal. Their musical debt to Big Star would be repaid when frontman Matt McMichaels and producer Chris Stamey joined forces with some R.E.M. associates for an Alex Chilton memorial project, Big Star’s Third. Like Hellbender’s Wells Tower before him, Mayflies bassist Adam O’Fallon Price later landed the leap from indie rocker to author; he won an Edgar Award for his mystery novel The Hotel Neversink earlier this year. 

Suggested track: “Thinking Out Loud”

Milemarker: Frigid Forms Sell 

[Lovitt Records; 2000]

Members: Al Burian, Dave Laney, Roby Newton, Ben Davis, Sean Husick

Speaking of Hellbender—one of the best, least-remembered of the nineties bands (think: Jawbreaker crossed with Pavement)—Tower wasn’t their only member to find later success. Harrison Haynes, also a visual artist, drummed nervous disco for art-punk legends Les Savy Fav. And Al Burian, who published canonical zine Burn Collector, formed Milemarker with Ben Davis—whose Bats & Mice released a great little debut EP in 2000—and Dave Laney. On this pivotal album, they added singer and lightshow artist Roby Newton and flipped the ratio of their electronic-tinged emocore (that’s emo plus hardcore). Their dark, guitar-slashed electro-pop was right on time for the dance-punk revival that brought us The Faint and The Rapture, jittering with punk anti-consumerism and peak-Radiohead technoparanoia. “Cryogenic Sleep” is great, but the most memorable song finds Newton singing an incredibly silly refrain with incredible conviction: “Turn on the microwave and—defrost the woooooorld!”

  Suggested track: “Signal Froze”

Kenny Roby: Mercury’s Blues

[RiceBox Records; 2000]

Members: Kenny Roby, Steve Grothmann, Ray Duffey, Rob Farris, Dave Wright, Rich Avery, Caitlin Cary, Scott Miller

6 String Drag were Raleigh rockers with enough alt-country cred to be co-produced by Steve Earle for a Warner Brothers sublabel, though the result, 1997’s High Hat, turned out to be their final album until a low-key reunion several years ago. Like Caitlin Cary—who appears on Mercury’s Blues, among several other Whiskeytownies, Backsliders, and Countdown Quartet-ers—former Dragster Kenny Roby embraced old-fashioned pop simplicity for his first solo turn, becoming a weary but wry raconteur, like Elvis Costello doing Randy Newman. Below the mellow, yearning grooves and wised-up but wondering lyrics, you can faintly hear the distinct snap of vestigial punk roots.    

 Suggested track: “Book of Time”

Sankofa: Five Elements

[Self-released; 1999]

Members: Stefan Greenlee, Mark Wells, Matt Brandau, DJ Pez, Apple Juice Kid

If people think G Yamazawa coined a certain nickname in his 2017 Durham anthem “North Cack,” that’s just because they don’t remember Sankofa, who dropped “North Kack” in 1999. UNC’s answer to The Roots, the group mixed conscious rhymes, battle raps, and turntable cuts with a punchy live soul and boom-bap band, and they appealed to otherwise rap-averse Cat’s Cradle indie rock crowds. You can only find their two CDs used, but “North Kack” is online, and it still really hits home. The hook would remix great with its famed counterpart. Drummer Stephen “Apple Juice Kid” Levitin went on to help Pierce Freelon form the Beat Making Lab and earn production credits for Mos Def and Camp Lo. And hey—who remembers Tyfu Dynasty, the Wu-Tang-style rap group that shared Sankofa stages and had a record called Spinfinity? I think it was on storied Chapel Hill indie label Mammoth Records, and I really want to hear it again. 

Suggested track: “North Kack”

Shallow Be Thy Name: 2000, 2001 

[Self-released; 2000/2001]

Members: Clark Blomquist, Caroline Johnson

The Florida influx that included Fin Fang Foom and Maria Albani (Schooner, Organos) also brought Clark Blomquist and Caroline Johnson to Chapel Hill from St. Petersburg. They set up shop as quirky indie-poppers in Shallow Be Thy Name. Drawing on dreampop and sixties psychedelia, they self-released three elaborately packaged CD-Rs in 2000 and 2001, which are now collected on the Bandcamp page for Waumiss, a subsequent project. The music is fresh and ingenuously off-kilter—ephemeral, but deceptively so. Blomquist is still a steadfast player on the indie scene, and a new version of Shallow song “These Are the Ones” (which featured Shark Quest’s Laird Dixon on guitar) recently appeared on his fine country album as C. Albert Blomquist.  

Suggested track: “An Eager Hand”

Shark Quest: Man on Stilts

[Merge Records; 2000]

Members: Chris Eubank, Chuck Johnson, Groves Willer, Kevin Dixon, Laird Dixon, Ben Felton, Sara Bell, Scott Goolsby

Think of Shark Quest as a sort of swingin’ clubhouse where the odder balls of the nineties scene regrouped to play groovy movie-soundtrack music to their hearts’ content. It included Regina Hexaphone’s Sara Bell; Zen Frisbee brothers Kevin and Laird Dixon (the latter, by the way, painted the Elizabeth Cotten mural at the Cradle); Chuck Johnson, already noted via Idyll Swords; and Groves Willer, who’d been in Evil Wiener with theremin-slinger Billy Sugarfix. Ben Felton later joined Durham dance-punk band Jett Rink, who’d be smashing this list if it were set a few years later. Man on Stilts is the best document of Shark Quest’s crazy quilt of surf rock, bluegrass, bossa nova, and whatever else crossed their skilled hands and madcap minds. 

Suggested track: “Chicken Strings”

Sorry About Dresden: The Mayor Will Abdicate 

[Route 14 Records; 1999]

Members: Eric Roehrig, Matt Oberst, Matt Tomich, James Hepler

Sorry About Dresden played the brawniest wimp-rock around, and when I first got into the Chapel Hill scene, they were my favorite local band. That was partly because of their affiliation with the Midwestern emo I loved—by 2001, SAD (note the acronym) was signed to Omaha beacon Saddle Creek, and one member, the late Matt Oberst, was Bright Eyes’ brother. Their dyspeptic sparkle and churn was rife with sneaky melodies and sticky hooks, filling an Archers of Loaf-shaped hole, and their hoarse 1999 debut was my Icky Mettle. Their self-deprecating snark was so pervasive it seeped onto their Wikipedia page. (“Lyrics tend to be melancholy or about weather.”) They sounded like they were wearing glasses, but might also break your glasses. I missed their January reunion show, but I hear bassist Matt Tomich still jumps super high. Frontman Eric Roehrig now leads the more-laidback Erie Choir.       

Suggested track:  “King of Hobbies”

Starpoint Electric: Bad Directions

[Plastique Recording Company; 1999]

Members: Ted Boyer, Clay Boyer, Steve Galloway, Cameron Weeks

Starpoint Electric opened for Archers on their final tour—at least until the latter band reformed a decade later. They sounded like the headliners, but with a lot of the feedback and panic pared away, revealing foursquare rock songs with the occasional winning inflection of country, as on “Bitter Happiness.” Their sole EP, Bad Directions, was produced by John Morand (Cracker, Sparklehorse) and sounds like it could have made a dent on alt-rock radio, perhaps between The Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom” and Seven Mary Three’s “Cumbersome,” had it been released a few years earlier. Buzzy then but forgotten now, the album can still be found in a forgotten corner of YouTube. 

  Suggested track: “Bitter Happiness”

YouTube video

Strunken White: Lighting a Dark North 

[Route 14 Records; 2000]

Members: Nagendra Jayanty, Noah Howard, John Booker, Jonathan Stickley

Speaking of Matt Tomich, he produced the swan song of Strunken White, a Durham band that disbanded before they could buy drinks at the clubs they roiled. The Daily Tar Heel covered their sold-out final show, in 2001, at the sorely missed Carrboro venue Go! Studios’ Room 4, which was owned by Cat’s Cradle manager Derek Powers. (Today, Belltree purveys fancy cocktails where the PBR once flowed.) Strunken White—yep, a pun on the American English usage manual—straddled the line between herky-jerky math-rock and soaring post-hardcore, but they did it with surprising spritzes of winsome melody. They sounded like Versus but with an approximate but enthusiastic command of shifty time signatures, from the stormy skies of “Voyeur’s Illusion” to the slippery-sweet tangles of “Playroom.”

  Suggested track: “Playroom”

Trailer Bride: Whine de Lune

[Bloodshot Records; 1999]

Members: Melissa Swingle, Scott Goolsby, Daryl White, Brad Goolsby

For the fossil record: Before Flesh Wounds, titanic Carrboro drummer Laura King played in garage-punk duo The Moaners with Melissa Swingle. Before The Moaners, Swingle fronted alt-country band Trailer Bride, who were signed to the influential Bloodshot Records. To draw a distinction with their cowpunk contemporaries, they brought a more rootsy than rocky atmosphere to their Southern gothic tales of sin with a grin. Whine de Lune, right in the bullseye of their five-album discography, showcases their swampy blues and bluegrass ballad-picking, deceptively laidback but taut with the terrors of old-time Southern religion. 

  Suggested track: “Felt Like a Sin”

Transportation: Transportation EP

[Demonbeach Records; 2001]

Members: Ben Dunlap, Stephen Murtaugh, Robert Scruggs

When I think of Transportation, I think of places: Go!, where genial manager Ben Dunlap was practically my second landlord, and Hell, where bartender Stephen Murtaugh made me endless vodka tonics. Tucked under Rosemary Street (it later became Chapel Hill Underground), that infernal red basement was the ultimate scenester dive bar—the undisputed place to be after a Cradle or Cave or Local 506 show, at least until Orange County Social Club came along. Dunlap and Murtaugh’s power trio with Robert Scruggs released its first EP on Raleigh’s brief but productive Demonbeach label. While it might not be the most characteristic of their muscled jangle rock, “Lady Moon,” with its aching vocal performance, is the most memorable remnant of this approachable live-scene staple.  

  Suggested track: “Lady Moon”

The White Octave: Style No. 6312

[Deep Elm Records; 2000]

Members: Stephen Pedersen, Lincoln Hancock, Robert Biggers 

Another Midwestern import, The White Octave featured Steve Pedersen from Omaha emocore hotties Cursive and were signed to Deep Elm Records, then in the thick of the influential series The Emo Diaries. I keep saying “emo”—don’t think of the glossy pop version that flat-ironed the mainstream later in the 2000s, but the ragged, yelping rock that indie bands have been reviving since its decline. The White Octave did it like their lives depended on it, which was the way it was done. They probably got better when they added Finn Cohen for their second, final record, but this debut has an elemental purity that’s hard to top. They played an epic final show at Go!, which not only caused jaded hipsters to uncross their arms, but even made them crowd-surf. 

  Suggested track: “Appeals for Insertion”

Work Clothes: Work Clothes EP

[Self-released; 2000]

Members: Jenny Waters, Lee Waters

In December 2000, Jenny and Lee Waters burned 25 CDs of their silvery dream-folk songs to give people as Christmas gifts, and it was one of the sweetest local bonbons ever—the only thing that really scratched the same soft itch as The Comas. Exceedingly simple yet rich with intimacy, Work Clothes’ self-titled debut was later expanded with three more songs and officially released by Hypno-Vista, the label started by Ron Liberti (of Chapel Hill punk heroes Pipe) and Groves Willer. I hadn’t heard it in probably 15 years, but recently I had the nostalgic pleasure of unwrapping the plastic from its jewel case. I was startled by how deeply and instantly the melody of “Turn Your AC on High” came back to me, like something important I hadn’t forgotten but didn’t remember. 

  Suggested track: “Turn Your AC on High”  

Whether it’s on Spotify, Bandcamp, YouTube, or the INDY’s SoundCloud, you can hear every song on the list through the links above. We also offer two playlists: one featuring the 12 bands whose music is on Spotify, with some bonus tracks, and one featuring the four songs you can’t hear anywhere else.

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2 replies on “The Lost Era of Indie Rock: 20 Local Albums That Turned 20 in 2020”

  1. …for including Malt Swagger in your list! It was a fun stroll down memory lane reading about all of these great bands. As for Steve Carter, he has been playing the vibraphone for more than ten years in the awesome D-Town Brass, and is also the instigator of various cover bands over the years, most notably Garmonbozia (the music of Twin Peaks).

  2. the milemarker album in the thumbnail got me. saw them in Toronto when this record came out, the drummer was sick and they had to cut it short after a few songs. sad, but great memory!

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