Before you could receive an e-mail or a text with a link to a Web site that contains awesome music from an underground band that nobody’s heard of, it used to be cassette tapes passed from hand to hand, with words such as “Jane’s XXX” scribbled on them - that glorious, small rectangular plastic case containing a bootleg copy of Jane’s Addiction first album.
There was a time when tapes were traded like a type of musical currency. In Georgia, R.E.M. songs were recorded off of college radio, drivin’ ‘n’ cryin’ and B52’s demos were passed around. Tapes were rerecorded over and over. The quality diminished. Listening to this music that only a handful of people had heard was like finding audio gold, crackling and hissing gold. That’s the way we first heard the Atlanta band Mary My Hope.
In the late ‘80s and very early ’90s, Mary My Hope seemed on the verge of superstardom releasing the RCA/Silvertone Records major label debut “Museum,” which gets a four-out-of-five stars review from allmusic.com. But the band’s tale is one of those just-missed prospects that litters the rock ‘n’ roll landscape. The band dissolved in 1990, and enigmatic front man James Hall left for a solo career. His solo career is similarly well-respected, but underexposed and unknown to most.
But Hall has forged ahead, and interestingly enough, he’ll share a bill on Saturday at Pirate’s Cove in North Myrtle Beach with another Atlanta band The Higher Choir, fronted by Chance Walls who is the former lead singer of another just-missed prospect The Drag (a rare Myrtle Beach band signed to a major label). Brian McKenzie’s Electric Bird Noise will round out the bill.
We caught up with both of these singers to get the scoop on the upcoming show, and find out if their careers are stories of missed opportunities or if they fell in line with artists who just want to do it their own way.
Journey down the Hall
James Hall was born in Houston and raised in Nashville, Tenn. The multi-instrumentalist moved to Atlanta in the summer of 1987 to form his first real band, Mary My Hope. The band was a fusion of post-punk and dark art rock, kind of like a southern Jane’s Addiction blended with Smashing Pumpkins. Hall was a mix of Jim Morrison, David Bowie and Iggy Pop and a new gothic sensibility.
Mase Brazelle is an on-air personality/deejay at WKZQ-FM in Myrtle Beach, but back in the late ‘80s, he was playing in bands around Atlanta at the same time that Mary My Hope was rising in popularity. “Back then, we were just hoping to open for Mary My Hope,” he says.
“They could come out on a stage backlit with smoke, open a show with a slow burner, before kicking into a rocker on their second song and get the crowd going,” says Brazelle. “No one starts a show with a slow song, but they could do it and pull it off.”
Other than Hall, the band consisted of Clint Steele on guitar, Sven Pipien (who later joined another Atlanta outfit, The Black Crowes) on bass and Steve Lindenbaum on drums. In no time, the band was touring the Southeast and becoming one of the hottest bands in Atlanta.
“They were one of those bands in the Atlanta scene that were getting interest from record labels, along with Insane Jane, Follow for Now and Hollyfaith,” says Brazelle. “They would sell out big venues like the MetroPlex, the White Dot, and they really made the Cotton Club their home.”
In 1989, the members of Mary My Hope went to London to produce their first and only full-length studio album, “Museum,” for RCA/Silvertone Records. The record, along with the crazed energy of the live shows, made the band a harbinger of a new alternative sound that was coming from the West.
“They went to Europe to record the album and play some shows. When they came back, they were super slick, and they just blew up,” says Brazelle. “They opened for Love and Rockets at the Fox Theatre (in Atlanta) and blew the doors off. They got the crowd going just as much as the headliners did.”
What would happen next would make “Museum” an out-of-print artifact of the heyday of alternative music, an era that borne dozens of genres of alt-rock. Mary My Hope had become local legends. But as quick as they’d come, they were gone, leaving only an EP titled “Suicide Kings” in 1990. The EP was also expanded into a sort of lost gems collection called “Monster is Bigger than the Man,” which contained additional unreleased material, some cuts from “Museum” and two live tracks.
“I don’t know what broke them up,” says Brazelle. “They were always thin and mysterious, so there were always speculations like they were doing ice or something.”
“I didn’t hear about Mary My Hope until the early ‘90s,” says Brian McKenzie, a local legend in his own right. McKenzie has been connected to and played in most of the notable rock acts out of Myrtle Beach. Since 2000, he has owned and operated his local studio, Brian McKenzie’s Music Factory. “I was floored by the sound, a cross-stream of art-rock and grunge and gothic-rock.”
But what really happened in 1990? “Mary My Hope was really beyond its years. We played a lot of crowds that were like deer in the headlights. They didn’t know what to make of us,” says Hall. “Not many people were doing what we were, where we were at the time. We were a band of raw talent, but we were also a band of vices. And ego wasn’t the least of them. We made an album, played a lot of shows, used up our touring budgets, and I ended up leaving.”
But that couldn’t be all there was to it, could it? “There were also struggles for power, for credit, for money. In the end, it impeded us,” says Hall. “I wasn’t much of a team-player in those days. I was 21-years-old at the time. I felt washed up, lost touch with why I picked up an instrument or a pen in the first place.”
Mary My Hope kept it going for a few years without Hall. “I opened for them with a replacement singer when I was in Dead Cut Tree,” says McKenzie. “The songs were still cool, but it wasn’t the same. “Museum” is still one of my favorite albums.”
Hall headed for the Big Easy, New Orleans, put together a band and started playing solo gigs. In 1993, he released his first solo record, “My Love, Sex and Spirit” on Daemon Records. The music was less bombastic than Mary My Hope, more sensual rock, melodically ablaze. But he still had plenty of swagger, and it carried him to sign with Geffen Records in ’96 and release “Pleasure Club.”
“After he moved to New Orleans and started Pleasure Club, he wasn’t part of the local Atlanta music scene,” says Brazelle. “But he’d come back to play a gig in town, and I’d see him perform or I’d hear some of his new music and I’d ask myself, why am I not listening to this guy?”
“I kept with James during his early solo albums,” says McKenzie. “It wasn’t as heavy, but it was still cool. It still had the art-rock slant to it, and I’ve seen him live over the years.”
Hitting his stride
Hall says he was growing into the artist he wanted to be.
“I don’t think you really hit your stride as a musician until you reach your 30s,” says Hall. And he was almost at that watermark. His son had just been born in 1996 when he opened for Better than Ezra and Satchel. “The singer from Satchel, Shawn Smith, approached me about playing keyboards on tour with his other band, Brad (which also includes Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard). It was a big tour in ’97, but it was low pressure and low responsibility for me. It was fun and it made me think differently about what I was doing. It got me excited again.”
Hall formed the band Pleasure Club in 2002 (named after his ’96 solo disc). The new band released two albums, “Here Comes the Trick” and “The Fugitive Kind.” The sound was dark, sexy and jazzy. Hall’s vocals were a ragged soul. But Pleasure Club broke up in 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina. And the storm drove Hall back to Atlanta, to start a new band and begin a new partnership.
In 2005, Hall met Bruce Butkovich, Atlanta native and guitarist/bassist. The two formed The Futura Bold and released a self-titled album. But that was just the beginning for the pair. “Bruce has made things so much easier for me. We work together in the studio, in bands, sometimes we can even do an acoustic duo.”
Butkovich admits that Hall wasn’t always comfortable with acoustic sets. “For years, James has gone up to Sturgeon Bay, Wis., to the Steel Bridge Songfest and spent a week paired-up with other writers,” he says. “They spend a week writing songs and at the end of the week, they play them at a benefit concert. He has a closet full of goods songs that we’ve been experimenting with. Not all of these songs work with a bigger band, but they sound fucking great on acoustic.”
In the last year, Hall and Butkovich started doing smaller shows as an acoustic duo. “It’s a really cool setup,” says Butkovich. “I’m the mood music for whatever story James wants to tell, or voodoo he wants to do.”
Butkovich was raised in Atlanta at the same time Mary My Hope was making the rounds, but he didn’t hear Hall’s music until he listened to the first solo album in ’96 or so. But since their partnership, they have put together what Butkovich calls “the Atlanta home team. It’s made up of a great group of local musicians that work with us in the studio and do live local shows.”
The members of Mary My Hope didn’t really keep in touch after the break, but they did play a reunion show in 2008. “For such serious music, we had a blast, and the audience really seemed to be into it,” says Hall.
“When I was 18, I did my best to imitate Roxy Music or Iggy. I never ran out of influences. I was concerned with what people would think about the work, but that only convolutes the work. I wasn’t in control. I was never happy with anything. It was too contrived, too structured,” says Hall. “Now, I have arrived at a balance between the heart and the head. I try to boil down the emotions and the passions to what inspired them, to connect with the listener. It’s about simplification – simple statements, simple dialogues. It sounds silly, but this is music for the common man.”
Hall believes the absence of a marketplace has helped him to make the music that he wanted to make without it feeling forced or contrived. “Some might say I made the same album eight times, but I hope not,” he says. “I think the years have given me more perspective and my music reflects that.”
But as much as Hall loves making music, he has continued to work outside the music business. “I’ve always tried to gain skills outside of music. I do have a family to think about and a job I love,” he says. He is also the coordinator of a nonprofit organization, Books for Africa, which is the largest exporter of donated books to the African continent. The organization ships more than two million books a year to 45 African countries.
Recently, Butkovich coaxed Hall into the studio and sat him in front of a mike to play a set of 26 songs acoustically. Butkovich is trying to whittle down the set to around six songs for a live acoustic EP. “The funny thing is James can pick up an instrument and act like he forgot how the song goes. But he remembers,” says Butkovich. “He can intentionally fuck up a song so beautifully that he makes it imperfect and powerful.”
Over the years, Hall has collaborated in the studio and shared the stage with some memorable acts – Jane's Addiction, Love and Rockets, Morphine, Satchel, Brad, Robert Roth, Better than Ezra, Rage Against the Machine and on and on.
This summer, he played one of Pleasure Club’s songs (“You Want Love”) with Marilyn Manson on stage at the Tabernacle in Atlanta. “I was real popular in my house for about three hours,” he says. “But then it was over, and I was back to just being me.”
Staring at the Walls
Meanwhile, it’s been almost two decades since The Drag released “Satellites Beaming Back at You” on Island Records. Back in 1996, these five bright-eyed kids were going to be the first rock band from Myrtle Beach to make it to the big leagues. Their sound was a mix of catchy Britpop and melodic alt-rock. The record was a respectable offering, but Island Records had issues. The right marketing never happened. The sales never happened. And The Drag’s deal went away. The years ticked like moments, and the weight of these years caved-in on the band.
The band broke up, and the members went in different directions, coming together occasionally to play reunion shows here and there. Walls formed another band, One Louder, and eventually found himself in Atlanta. In the mid-2000s, he formed the rock band The Lord is My Shotgun. The sound got harder, more southern.
“I first worked with Chance with The Lord is My Shotgun,” says Butkovich. “I was around when they were putting the band together. I produced their record, played live with them. But I couldn’t commit too much because I was also playing with Futura Bold.”
The members kept changing, which made the sound change. They brought in organs. The guitars became minimal. “Everything kept getting bigger and different. We were in the studio in ’08 or ’09 with The Lord is My Shotgun, working on a song called ‘Love & Dynamite,’ and we just kept throwing stuff in, including anyone and everyone we had been jamming with. The song took on this big gospel sound, and we started calling the sound The Higher Choir.”
This leads us to Walls’ current band The Higher Choir (THC). Walls regrouped with the guitarist, drummer and percussionist from The Lord is My Shotgun. The band expanded to a seven-piece. He grew his beard into a fabulously long hillbilly bib. He added the moniker of “choir commander” to his name.
His new band pumps out melodic southern rock ‘n’ blues with a tinge of gospel. The lyrics take on a storyteller vibe and deal with southern folklore. “The Higher Choir is southern-fried-country rock and blues,” says Walls. If you were to trace The Drag to THC, the only common denominator is Walls. “They’re two completely different sounds.”
“The Higher Choir, as a band, is an extension of what Chance has been doing for years. It’s everything that The Lord is My Shotgun always wanted to be,” says Butkovich. “When I was producing their first EP, I could see they were hitting their stride. All those guys, including me, just wanted to be there for one another.”
“Chance has a certain style that’s amazing,” says McKenzie. “Whatever type of band that you put him in front of is going to be melodic and cool, and his live delivery makes him a great front man.”
In the two years of the band’s existence, the lineup has proactively added more members, they’re up to seven now. And The Higher Choir has released two EPs – “Half Way Home” in 2012 and “Steeped In Southern Tradition” earlier this year. The band plans to keep the studio production going by touring and dropping additional five-or-six song EPs as much as possible.
“We are releasing more material and plan on pushing even harder this upcoming year,” says Walls. “We have a new EP due out early next year, and then another one is coming later in 2014.”
Where the Hall meets the Walls
The lineup for the show on Saturday is a web-work on connections. John Powell, general manager of Pirate’s Cove, was the original drummer for The Drag. Powell is good friends with Butkovich, Hall’s guitarist. Butkovich has produced several of Walls’ projects, including The Higher Choir’s first EP. And well, everyone who has ever driven through a Grand Strand zip code is connected to McKenzie.
“Both James and Chance command the stage, and Brian is a local legend,” says Powell. “Their sounds complement each other well.”
McKenzie has been a part of some great local bands – Sqwearl, Sideways Derby, Dead Cut Tree, The Independents, October Chorus, Planet Cock, Something about Vampires and Sluts (SAVAS) and The Wet Teens, just to name a few. But Electric Bird Noise is a one-man art-rock show, consisting of experimental soundscapes made on an electronica synth/guitar. “I’ve collaborated with a few people on vocals on certain songs, so I’ll have guest performers,” says McKenzie. “But essentially, it’s just me.”
“James Hall was one of my heroes coming up,” says Powell. “It’s rare to find a guy like Hall. He’s so prolific musically and so down to earth.”
The two singers featured in Saturday’s show have a mutual admiration for one another.
“I’ve known Chance for a good bit now,” says Hall. “We first collaborated when I played piano on this trippy song he was working on called ‘Love & Dynamite.’ But after seeing Chance perform live, the energy he brings to the stage, it only made sense to start appearing together on the same bill.”
“I’ve known James Hall since 1993,” says Walls. “He is a friend and a great entertainer. Pirate’s Cove is in for a hell of show from him and Bruce.”
How’d this bill wind up on the marquee at Pirate’s Cove?
“When I lived in Charleston, James and Bruce used to stay at my house. Bruce and I became good friends,” says Powell. “Last time I was in Atlanta, I went to a James Hall show and started talking to Bruce after about how cool it would be to put this show together.”
Hall tells us that at the age of 45, he’s beyond putting together a battle-plan for touring.
“Usually, I only play gigs that I can drive to in a day,” says Hall. “Bruce and I have been playing with a band out of Charleston, the Fairy Godmuthas. They are great and gracious musicians who learned all the songs. They’re like our regional touring group.”
“We’re usually billed as James Hall and the Muthas for our shows in the Carolinas. It makes things easier for us to play with an active band. We play with another band when we play the New Orleans area,” says Butkovich. “We let the Muthas pick the songs they want to play, and we roll with it. Having to learn all the songs definitely keeps my chops up and James has a style that’s not traditional so I’m constantly mangling my fingers to get the right sound.”
“Having eight albums with no hits has left me a certain freedom. I don’t know where each show is going to go. All the material is fair game,” says Hall. “I’m just happy I can still remember all the songs and still play them. I’m lucky most of my music is like muscle memory.”
This will be Walls’ second appearance at Pirate’s Cove this year. He joined the other members of The Drag in February for a reunion show. “I live in Atlanta now,” says Walls. “So I don’t get to spend much time in Myrtle anymore. And The Higher Choir is coming to Pirate’s Cove to stomp your ass in the dirt. Then pick you up, brush you off, give you hug and say, ‘Now wasn’t that fucking awesome?’”