For the first time since New Year's Eve '02, fans are getting the chance to hear the swampy, dingy, cathartic noise of a live Rock*A*Teens show — and the first two reunion concerts are in Charleston.
"People who've never heard us are probably gonna react the same way they did 14 years ago: 'What is this noisefest?'" says Ballard Lesemann, the band's Charleston-based drummer. "It is a real clangy kind of thing."
In support of a vinyl reissue of their final album, 2000's Sweet Bird of Youth, the band is getting back together for a tour that includes a stop at the Merge Records 25th-anniversary festival in Carrboro, N.C. Two upcoming shows in Atlanta sold out more than a month in advance.
The Rock*A*Teens were never the stars of Merge's indie-rock roster, which includes big sellers like Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Arcade Fire. But as ambassadors of Atlanta's freaky Cabbagetown music scene, they left a lasting impact. The Rock*A*Teens sound was cataclysmic and genre-bending, equal parts Roy Orbison and Pixies, with singer Chris Lopez's vocals often buried under a clanging guitar lead and a wall of ringing distortion. Still, Lopez's warble is triumphant and clear on Sweet Bird's opening track when he announces, "I am the car and I am the driver/ I am the boat and I am the pilot."
In a recent blog post about the Rock*A*Teens' return, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff wrote, "I often make the outrageous drunken claim that the Rock*A*Teens were the best rock and roll band of the 1990s."
Sheff praises a lot of the things that made fans fall in love with the band in the first place, things that latter-day indie rockers have emulated: the ever-present reverb wash, the "grimy loucheness" of the lyrics, the anthemic soaring choruses. He even praised the band's sloppy production values.
"For me that's part of the appeal — these masterpieces buried in muck — but for the first-time listener you sometimes just hear the muck and don't see the jewels sparkling in it," Sheff writes.
The Rock*A*Teens' origin story is inseparable from Cabbagetown, a now-gentrified east Atlanta neighborhood that was described by Creative Loafing as the grimy center of Atlanta's '90s music scene, a rundown former mill neighborhood inhabited by broke musicians and eccentrics. The neighborhood's luminaries included drag queen Benjamin Smoke's Opal Foxx Quartet, singer-songwriter Chan Marshall (Cat Power), and a wailing redneck poet named Deacon Lunchbox.
"It was a real weird corner of the Atlanta underground," Lesemann says. "They would all play together even though they didn't sound alike."
Lesemann was a late addition to the band, first sitting in on drums for a tour in the spring of 1998. The lineup for the reunion consists of Lesemann, Lopez, Justin Hughes (guitar), and Will Joiner (bass), plus newcomer Michelle DuBois (of Ultrababyfat) on keys.
In the days since the breakup, the Teens have pursued their own musical projects, but none have been breakout hits. Lesemann worked a long stint as music editor at the City Paper and has been playing drums with Charleston guitarist Doug Walters in the Fairy God Muthas and Torture Town. Joiner became a lawyer and started playing Brazilian folk music. Hughes burrowed deeper into the Atlanta underground, playing in several art-rock and punk bands. And Lopez expanded on the Rock*A*Teens sound in a group called the Tenement Halls.
"I think Chris had an idea for a sound, but he also just was naturally writing these tunes," Lesemann says. "Some of them were rough and aggressive, but some of them were really romantic, maybe on the melancholy side of it or maybe on the real puppy-love side of it. It was a funny combination. He'd be just bellyaching about heartbreak or shouting out for joy because a girl held his hand or something with this racket going on behind him in waltz time.
"I used to tell people we sounded like punk-rock prom music," Lesemann adds.
Lopez says he doesn't listen to the old Rock*A*Teens records, so it took him some time to pick up the songs again. He says he doesn't have plans for the band beyond this year's tour, and no new material has been written yet. The time off has given him the chance to reflect on the band's sound from a distance, though.
"That waltzy kind of stuff is more of a histrionic ballad, you know, just kind of over-the-top, like some sort of a singer persona from times past, or one-hit wonders," Lopez says. Sometimes, Lopez says he was just going for a "record geek reference."
"Other times it just is what it is," Lopez says. "That's what it sounds like when we play together, and it got recorded that way."