There’s been a lot of talk recently, both in local clubs and on locally oriented music sites, about which band from Asheville will be the next to step into the national spotlight. Names are thrown around, various viable reasons are given, and speculation is rampant. But, on that list of likely future headliners, one name stands out as being very likely. Poised, polished and critically praised, Secret Lives of the Freemasons is ready for the spotlight.
With little fanfare from the local media, this Asheville-based post-hardcore, punk-powered metal outfit has been making waves on a national scale, at least with metal fans. The group was recently picked up by taste-making label Victory Records, which will be backing the band’s second full-length album, Weekend Warriors, when it hits shelves this month. And so, the band’s relative local anonymity puzzles its members.
“It’s weird going down to play shows in Columbia [S.C.], and opening up their weekly paper and seeing two articles on us in an issue, and then we haven’t heard anything about us in our hometown,” complains guitarist Tucker Ensley.
It’s possible that the band has been hamstrung by hometown factors beyond its control. Ensley notes that, due to the policies of local venues, Secret Lives’ main fan base, which is largely under 21, has all but been shut out of many local clubs. If your fans can’t drink, it seems that many local venues aren’t interested in booking you.
To the band, it seems almost like an unfair business practice that has limited their chances for local recognition. But, outside of the Asheville area, things are very different.
“We play Charlotte, where venues are all ages,” says Ensley. “We don’t want to play shows that aren’t all ages. [The venues] still have a full bar. I think the clubs in this town are more about selling drinks at the bar than showcasing live music.”
Secret Lives’ complaints haven’t entirely fallen on deaf ears, however. Recently, some venues have been a bit more open to allowing all-ages shows, such as the band’s upcoming CD-release event at Stella Blue. But, as a rule, all-ages shows in Asheville are still a rarity.
You don’t need a beer buzz to enjoy Secret Lives’ music, though. Their shows are as much a physical experience as a musical one, with bodies crashing and writhing to the onslaught of chugging guitars and hammering drums. The music’s fury and passion are matched by the zeal of their often-underage fans. According to Ensley, these sober kids rock just as hard as their older, beer-swilling and less-inclined-to-dance counterparts.
While Secret Lives isn’t the only local band championing the inalienable right to rock for the not-yet-old-enough-to-vote set, they are among the most vocal.
“We play to 14-year-old kids and 50-year-old guys,” Ensley says. “If you’re in college, you should be able to go to a rock show. Do people not want to see live music if they’re under 21? Of course they do.”
The band is currently prepping for an East Coast tour, giving Ensley an opportune chance to look back at nearly a decade as a musician. He says that performing at venues in and around Asheville was a valuable learning experience, and he’s gained a unique insight into the uneasy relationship among clubs, bands and music fans.
“Everybody in our band has been involved in the local scene, and for us to be shut out of the press and clubs is strange,” he says. “I was 15, and I read the Xpress and I went to shows. But you never heard anything about those bands and those audiences.”
“It wasn’t as tough for us, but it was tougher for other bands,” he reflects. “I’ve been in bands since I was 15. It’s not hard to play shows; it’s just hard going to see them. There’s no bitterness from us about it. I just wish clubs would open themselves up more to these groups.”
While local-music insiders waxed philosophical about talented artists who never seemed to make it out of the open-mike circuit, Secret Lives was busy performing at almost any venue they could find. The members were touring, recording and promoting themselves. Ensley also chalks this success-hungry mentality up to the age of the band and their fan base.
Instead of focusing on the local success it wasn’t finding, Secret Lives channeled its frustrations into the band’s 2005 debut album, This was Built to Make You Dance (Astro Magnetics). The album showcased the brutal sonic assault that is Secret Lives of the Freemasons, and it could be a challenging listen to the uninitiated. But the punch-in-the-jaw fury of that release was tempered by a sweetly musical aftertaste that often left audiences and critics wanting more.
Surprisingly, Ensley says that the album was designed more as a musical compromise than as their defining statement.
“It seemed really natural when we first got together to play music that sounded like the music we heard at shows we went to,” he says. “It started out by doing that, because we wanted to play shows, and the bands that we were playing shows with were heavier. We had some poppy stuff, but we wanted to play more shows. So we wrote songs that could go over well with the crowd.”
But with the release of Weekend Warriors, an album that alternately makes the listener want to dance or break things, Secret Lives seems to have fully realized its sound. The powerful “screamo” vocals of front man Brien Worsham are still there, but they’ve become tempered with both a keen sense of melody and a sharp lyrical wit. To paraphrase the band’s first album title, Secret Lives is a rock machine that was built to make audiences dance.
“We talked about this after touring,” says Ensley of the more pop-leaning direction of the new album. “The band needed to evolve, and that meant writing songs that were more poppy.”
Of course, in punk and hardcore circles, a sudden change in a band’s sound can lead to an immediate backlash. But Ensley says that the band isn’t worried about it.
“We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback, and a lot of people talking about how we’ve changed our sound,” he says. “I think we’ve transitioned well, and we can play with anyone now.”
How will the band’s new sound affect their local profile? Will Secret Lives be among that elite group of local bands to “make it” into the national spotlight? Only time will tell.
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Secret Lives of the Freemasons
what: CD-release party for Weekend Warriors
where: Stella Blue
when: Friday, Feb. 22. 10 p.m. (All-ages show. www.myspace.com/stellabluelive)