With bands such as the Black Lips, Deerhunter, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Atlanta's once-underground rock-music scene is on the rise.
As recently as last year, the Black Lips — notorious for stripping off their clothes and making out with each other, urinating, and shooting off fireworks onstage — would play bars such as the Hi-Tone Café or the tiny Buccaneer Lounge when they'd roll through Memphis. Now, thanks to a label deal with Vice Records, a much-hyped set at the 2007 South By Southwest Music Festival, and exposure in Spin and Rolling Stone, they're on the fast track to stardom — and Atlanta's in the spotlight as the next über-hip scene to take off.
Former Atlantan Alix Brown, a veteran of punk-rock group the Lids and a band called the Wet Dreams, which also featured Deerhunter's Bradford Cox and the Black Lips' Jared Swilley, moved to Memphis two years ago, after forming the Angry Angles with Jay Reatard.
"I grew up with all those guys in Atlanta," she says. "The other day, I went to Schnucks and bought a magazine that had a two-page spread on the Black Lips. It's really strange having people who hardly know them talking about 'em so much."
"Honestly, I think the hype is terrifying," says Josh Fauver, who pulls double-duty as bassist for noise band Deerhunter, famed for the raucous album turn it up faggot, released on Kranky Records in 2005, and as drummer/keyboard programmer in the lesser-known Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which is playing Murphy's this weekend.
"Once a particular scene gets really huge, everyone's convinced that everything coming out of there is golden," Fauver says. "But I'm glad it's drawing attention. It's definitely changed things for the bands. I can remember not being able to book a show outside of Atlanta, because no one gave a shit about anyone coming from here."
According to Adam Shore, general manager of Vice Records, "This is a meaningful time for Atlanta rock, no matter what happens."
Signing the Black Lips to Vice was, he says, an obsession: "I feel like they bring everything to the mix. They've been a band for so long, but they're still so young. They're fully formed, but they're brand-new to so many people. For the last seven years, they've written great songs, put on great shows, and toured all over the world, but they never had a publicist or a booking agent. It's rare to come across an artist like this. I'd compare 'em to [Memphis musician] Jay Reatard. He's in a similar place. He's been doing this forever, and he's so underground but so ready to cross over."
"Vice and our publicist have done a great job getting the word out," says Black Lips guitarist Ian Brown, who lived in Memphis, off and on, for the last three years. (His gold grill, he brags, came from Regency Jewelers on American Way.)
"A lot more people know who we are — that's the main difference," Brown says. "The music is still the same, but the shows have a lot more people, and the money is a lot better. We don't work [day jobs] anymore."
"Lone geniuses can pop out anywhere. The only worry about trying to manufacture a scene out of Atlanta is the expectation that these bands will become superstars and yield massive record sales," Shore says. "The Black Lips, SIDS, and Deerhunter are too individualistic to put into the mainstream, which is not to say that they can't have great careers. It's amazing that they're selling as many records as they are and that a style of music that's not the most easily digestible is being championed by a lot of people."
Record sales on indie label Rob's House, which has released seven-inches from all three bands, confirm it: "We only pressed up 300 copies of the Deerhunter seven-inch, and they took six months to sell," reports Trey Lindsay, who runs the label with the Black Lips' tour manager, Travis Flagel. "But the band blew up, and now that record's on eBay. We did 500 copies of a SIDS seven-inch, and those sold out immediately, too."
"When SIDS started, it was kind of a joke band, and we've overstayed our welcome somehow. The group was supposed to last a summer, but that was three years ago," says Fauver, who unhesitatingly credits the Black Lips with jumpstarting national interest in the current Atlanta scene.
Fauver and Alix Brown, still friends, first crossed paths at an Atlanta house party nearly a decade ago.
"It was at a place called Squaresville," he recalls, "where the Black Lips set up in the living room and the audience stood in the kitchen. It's funny to think about, because everyone hated the Black Lips. People were like, 'I don't know about this band. They're really rowdy.' But in reality, they're legitimately the sweetest kids I ever met. I dunno what happens to them onstage. They get some beer in them and go apeshit, I guess."
"The question is," Shore says, "if you have 50 kids in a basement, and they're all going crazy, can that happen when there's 500 or 5,000 people? I actually believe it can."