MATHens

Guitar-Focused, Indie Jazz "Math" Scene Thrives in Athens

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Jordan Olivera of Manray. Photo by Mike White @ DeadlyDesigns.com

Athens cuts its edges sharp. Athens can be jagged. Athens has corners. And if you duck into one of those corners late at night—say, for instance, into a corner of a parking lot at the intersection of Lumpkin and Clayton Streets, behind a wrought iron gate, under a corrugated metal awning, past an aged walnut tree and beyond scattered chairs and picnic benches and into the Caledonia Lounge—you can find any number of sweaty, explosive, pummeling performances from the city’s lesser-known bands high on brainy aggression, intricate notes, complex time changes and guitar heroics something awesome.

Athens made its name in the ’80s with fun bands. Pop bands. Bands that jangled against the tougher, excessive hard rock of the time. Bands that time-warped to outrageous dance parties. And in the ’90s, the Athenian zeitgeist manifested around the Elephant 6 collective, a psychedelic, blissed-out group of playful and boundary-pushing tuneful pranksters.

But there’s a heavier, louder Athens that’s always existed, and at the heart of the current batch is Hello Sir Records, a label whose artists have a particular affinity for math rock, an arty and jazz-inflected offshoot of punk rock characterized by complex rhythms, spiky melodies, dissonant chords, rapid and often surprising stop-and-start time changes. Most bands tense up at classifications, but big names on the national scene include Faraquet, Q And Not U, Battles, Drive Like Jehu, and Shellac.

 If you can’t find a home, make one

In mid-September of this year, NASA announced its Kepler space telescope discovered a planet orbiting a binary star system, about 200 light years away. Imagine Hello Sir Records is that planet—the bands Cinemechanica and We Versus the Shark are those twin stars providing the gravitational center keeping things from flying off in any direction.

Back in 2003, Cinemechanica—drummer Mike Albanese, bassist Joel Hatstat, guitarist/vocalist Andy Pruett, guitarist/vocalist Bryant Williamson—found themselves playing a highly complex, precise music that shares as much with punk rock as it does with guitar-shredding ’70s prog, with just a touch of video game melodicism. We Versus the Shark—guitarist Luke Fields, guitarist Samantha Paulsen, bassist Jeff Tobias, drummer Scott Smith—were equally loud, but more erratic, more hip-shaking, a little funkier and a lot more frantic. Before playing at legitimate venues, the bands cut their teeth at DIY venues like the Chi House and Tite Pockets.

“Hello Sir was really born out of We Versus the Shark and Cinemechanica wanting to stay brother and sister forever. We were real wimps and didn’t want to do two separate pushes for bigger labels, so we opted instead to make a small one and start releasing material and making a little name for ourselves,” says Fields.

Adds Paulsen, “It started when I met Mike at [downtown Athens coffeeship] Espresso Royale Caffe and he invited Luke and I over to his house to play some music, where he played us one of the first Cinemechanica recordings. We met Bryant that same day (they all lived together then), we all fell in love with each other, and we’ve been working and playing music together ever since.”

“I guess the talk of the label started when we were both recording our first albums,” she says, “and wondering how to get them out in the world. I was never really behind all the business aspects of it, Bryant was. All I knew is that it was exciting to have my closest group of friends start up a label that I thought had real potential.”

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(L to R) Andy Pruett, Joel Hatstat and Mike Albanese of Cinemechanica. Photo by Mike White @ DeadlyDesigns.com

Bryant Williamson became the major financial and business force behind Hello Sir, while Joel Hatstat took up the role of sonic vizier, utilizing his knowledge of production and sound engineering to mastermind Hello Sir’s recording sessions. The label bought a modest house seven miles east of Athens in sleepy little Winterville, set up shop for Hello Sir Records and created a recording studio it called Epi-1: Ecosystem. Packed with high-end analog equipment, the bands got to work. We Versus the Shark, for instance, put in more than 200 hours recording its 2005 debut Ruin Everything!

“We all agreed that our two bands were going to complement each other pretty well,” said Williamson at the time of the label’s founding, “and with eight people committed to working full-time, much of the labor-intensive work could be accomplished ourselves. I think that everybody feels a real sense of pride in starting the label and taking responsibility for our own successes and failures. We’ve got eight people whose No. 1 priority in life is making this a success.”

And while Hello Sir Records made for a good home for Athens’ math-rock scene, and still does to this day, some other bands laid the groundwork in the years before.

 The forerunners

An important precursor to the current loud ’n’ complicated scene is Porn Orchard, a somewhat-iconic, somewhat-obscure band active from the mid-’80s through the early ‘90s. Composed of Sam Mixon (drums), Curtiss Pernice (guitar) and bassist Ron Hargrove, who was later replaced by bassist/singer Ted Hafer, Porn Orchard played a heavy kind of punk influenced by the LA hardcore scene, but wove in a number of complicated elements as influenced by jazz structures as concise, three-chord punk. Pernice and Mixon stayed occasionally active in the scene, backing troubadour Vic Chesnutt, for instance, on recordings and tours.

In fact, digging in Athens’ vinyl bins can net you nostalgia and memories, but occasionally finds from the town’s heavy past pop up, and they reveal strands of the Georgian musical tapestry of the past few decades. Take, for instance, the frenetic Jack’o’Nuts. Vocalist Laura Carter sang with the storied Bar-B-Q Killers, and musician Chris Lopez went on to form Atlanta’s The Rock*A*Teens and Tenement Halls. The band shared much in common with aggressively, spastically raw acts like the Jesus Lizard.

Punk-leaning acts like Mercyland, Eat America, and the decidedly more prog-rocking Magneto stumbled the same streets and shared the stages with the high-voltage Five Eight and the riff-happy Hayride, many of whom popped up on the 1992-chronicling compilation Fuel: Seven Bands from Athens, GA. Harvey Milk is as sludgy and punishing as heavy bands come, and exists in its own gravitational system, and loud, layered bands like Music Hates You, Coulier, Lazer/Wülf, Chrissakes and Pride Parade have assaulted Athens’ stages and eardrums ever since.

Say hello to today

Since the label’s 2004 formation, a regional scene has coalesced around Hello Sir Records. What started out as a way for two Athens bands to put out their own records has turned into a southeastern heavyweight. Though Hello Sir may not truck out huge numbers of albums, despite being Athens’ most important record label since the heyday of Kindercore a decade ago, what it doesn’t do in quantity it makes up for in the quality of its followers, a dedicated group of musicians and fans alike who have jokingly referred to its homebase as “Mathens.”

Hello Sir’s first release in 2004 was a 7” vinyl single by Athens’ Maserati, a band whose instrumental rock epics are as cinematic as they are gut punching. It followed that release with Cinemechanica’s debut EP/1 and We Versus the Shark’s first full length.

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Coley Dennis of Maserati. Photo by Mike White @ DeadlyDesigns.com

Over the past seven years Hello Sir has provided a home for releases from Tiger Bear Wolf, Serka, Ahleuchatistas and The Bronzed Chorus (all from North Carolina), The Mercury Program and Antarctic (out of Florida) and HO-AG (hailing from Massachussetts) as well as So Many Dynamos (over from Missouri). The bands will frequently tour together, and though the label isn’t particularly prolific, with just a few releases a year, fans have come to trust the Hello Sir name.

“Honestly, the biggest challenge so far is really gaining ground in the world of publicity,” Williamson notes. “We’ve had several records that have gotten great reviews on Pitchfork, etc., but we haven’t really seen that correlate necessarily with album sales. Not to mention that these reviews have usually come with the aid of publicity companies that are, well, pretty expensive. We’re relying more on the name of Hello Sir Records itself, touring, and word of mouth to move records these days.”

“I think [Hello Sir’s bands are] all very unique, though the one thing all the bands have in common is their guitar-focused jazzy, math influence,” says We Versus the Shark guitarist Sam Paulsen. “These bands are comprised of incredible musicians writing anything from instrumental indie-jazz like Bronzed Chorus to straight-up rock and f—ing roll like Tiger Bear Wolf, and yet all of them have that certain quality about them that makes all the bands fit together and make sense on one label.”

Other Athens bands anchor Hello Sir’s roster. The act A.Armada delivers massively epic tunes, and counts label founder Bryant Williamson among its members. Williamson, a busy man indeed, also owns and books the Caledonia Lounge in Athens and plays in a number of the Hello Sir bands.

’Powers is an experimental rock oddity, a band that likes to crank the volume and deliver a quadrophonic experience. Featuring members of Cinemechanica, We Versus the Shark and the metal band Lazer/Wülf, ’Powers sets up on the floor of whatever venue it plays, placing guitars on four corners with drums in the middle, while the tunes ricochet through the audience.

Bit Brigade is one of Hello Sir’s curiosities, and the type of creative act that comes out of fertile musical towns like Athens. It’s a band made up of members of Cinemechanica, We Versus the Shark and a few others, who provide the live soundtrack while one of their buddies plays classic ’80s video games Contra, Castlevania and Mega Man 2 projected on a large screen behind the band. The act has garnered attention from the national gaming press for its pairing of technical math-rock and nerd culture.

“The weird thing is that we’re pretty nerdy for the indie-rock crowd, and too aggressive for the average video game crowd,” says Bit Brigade guitarist Luke Fields, who also plays in ‘Powers. “We tend to do better on the road with regular rock shows and normal rock bands. We become a strange and unusual spectacle. Even people who don’t play video games, even didn’t as a child, tend to enjoy it based on the quality of the music and the tension involved in executing everything we do in a live setting.

The label’s newest catch is an Athens quartet called Manray. Formed by three brothers—bassist Ryan, guitarist Jordan and drummer Derek Olivera—and guitarist Gene Woolfolk, Manray is the label’s latest shining star. The band plays hyperkinetic rock incorporating the time changes and intricacies of math rock while leaning towards melodic, heavier stuff.

At the end of 2010, Athens’ influential alt-weekly Flagpole Magazine called Manray “hands down, [its] new favorite band.” Says music editor Michelle Gilzenrat, “I think my friend said it best. During their last show at Caledonia Lounge, she whispered in my ear, ‘This is like… sex.’ Manray’s live show is incredibly engaging—filled with a sort of raw, carnal energy that’s pretty irresistible. And there’s really no one star of the show, either. I feel like my eyes are constantly darting from one member to the next; each one shredding or thrashing with impressive intensity. Each show is just a high-speed thrill ride from beginning to end—­like an injection of adrenaline and testosterone.” Tournament is Manray’s debut album; it was released over the summer by Hello Sir Records.

These days Cinemechanica continues to record and perform, and released its second full-length album Rivals three years ago. We Versus the Shark, the other half of the Hello Sir wonder twins, however, is no more. After the departure of Paulsen, the band continued as a trio for a while but called it a day in 2009, though all the musicians continue to immerse themselves in the scene, a family tradition since the label’s inception.

As for where the label is today, “The current Hello Sir matches up pretty perfectly with what I hoped it would seven years ago,” Williamson says. “More recent additions such as The Bronzed Chorus, Antarctic, and Manray fit the mold really well.”

“One thing that we all have in common is that we’re all attracted to bands that really have their act together,” said We Versus the Shark bassist Jeff Tobias in 2004 when Hello Sir launched. “We all really are enthused by the DIY ethic and indie rock, but there’s something really cool to all of us about a band that has their act together in terms of what they want to sound like, how they’re going to play. Just because punk rock was a reaction to musicianship doesn’t mean the two can’t mesh. Just because we’re interested in playing a raw, aggressive style of music doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to have a very musical and precise sound.”

“We, WVTS and Cinemechanica,” says Paulsen, “were all so proud of the work we had all done in writing these songs and recording our albums, and to be able to release it ourselves felt even more triumphant… I think Athens always has and always will appreciate bands that try to bring something new and loud to the scene, and that’s what the Hello Sir bands do.”

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