After witnessing The Jesus Lizard with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Southern Culture on the Skids on Thanksgiving in 1993, Milton Carter came home that night and started punk band The Mathmatics (misspelling intentional). He enlisted his skateboard buddy Dougal Bailey on drums and guitarist David Cooper (replaced by Tom Cook a year later). Their first gig (with their friends the band Valve) went down at Club Metropolis (now Club 828), a gay bar that allowed shows in the basement.
Asheville's music scene in the early '90s was a lot different than today's band-on-every-street-corner, band-in-every-bar land of plenty. Downtown was gritty; the bars raw. "When we were starting bands, adults pretty much frowned on it," says Carter in an interview from his home in New York. "When we were in our early teens we would go see any band that played at the Spiders Web, or Fine Arts theater and later Squash Pile (the defunct venue on Riverside Drive that now houses Curve studios)."
He adds, "It was fun. We wanted to be rock stars and the world was our ashtray."
An overflowing ashtray: The DIY grit-rock and punk scene of that era (born in reaction to the bluegrass and hair bands that dominated early '90s Asheville) spawned two CDs plus one cassette tape anthologizing (then for kicks; these days for posterity) the sounds of bands like the Mathmatics, Biltmore Forest Overdrive (BFO) and Tripod under the "Decline of WNC" umbrella. The cover art parodied, appropriately, the classic L.A. punk compilation The Decline of Western Civilization.
Equally fitting: The idea for a Decline reunion came about from a drunken conversation between Carter (who now owns a T-shirt company in New York City) and Bailey, now a local filmmaker. This weekend, July 24 and 25, some of the Decline bands will play again at Broadways and Stella Blue (two of the clubs where it all began). Maybe for the last time.
Downtown back then, or the Yoo-hoo bomber strikes
Former music promoter and BFO band member Rest lives in Atlanta these days, but a decade and a half ago he and Carter (plus a host of others set to play this weekend) shaped Asheville's music personality. Beyond punk, their Decline compilations tapped bands like The Merle, Luvsix, Vic Crown and The Force, TimInAction and Excessive Defiance — all groups that defined the sound of Asheville's mid- and late '90's scene. Still-active hip-hop collective Granola Funk Express (now GFE) is track No. 7 on the Vol. 3 disc.
But, Rest's influence aside, his first reaction to Asheville reads quite differently from the present teem of tourists blissfully battered by the town's charm.
"I moved to Asheville in '89 for six months and came back in '93," he says. "I was not happy to come back; Asheville had no music or anything else. It was basically a bunch of dicks hanging out at Magnolias, Cinjades and Gatsby's."
Rest's reaction thawed a little when he discovered a sanctuary, a venue named after a heartsick schmuck who sawed off his hearing for love. "When I came back, there was a scene at Vincent's Ear," Rest says. "I met Tampa Dave and he introduced me to everybody else. I had been in a bunch of bands in South Florida … and I was putting shows on down there. There was a lot of new potential in town, and a different breed of young people downtown."
Bailey adds, "It was the hub of a very special time in Asheville, or the southeast for that matter. You never asked what the bands sounded like. You just would go there to see a show, because it was always entertaining, and most of the time great."
A perfect example: Tripod (like the Mathmatics) owes its first show to Metropolis, playing on "Punk Enough to Give a Shit Night."
The new bands carved a niche, but not always easily. Rest remembers eccentric elements of danger on the prowl: "One time during Bele Chere in the early '90s, BFO played a show in the alley across from Gatsby's. We played with a band called I Hate You. During their set, their former guitarist ran up and threw a Molotov cocktail at them and the drum set caught on fire … fighting ensued. The guy [who] threw the bomb, he made it out of a Yoo-hoo bottle."
A dearth of venues also threatened the burgeoning scene. Rest and fellow promoter Doug Nissley, in a bid to bring harder rock bands to Asheville, had booked national act Five-Eight to play at Metropolis. When that club shut down, they had to find a new stage. The duo turned to a little country bar called 31 Patton (now Stella Blue) where their appearance frightened the 31 Patton owners.
"We went in there to try to talk Carolyn Spain [the owner] into letting us have our show," Rest says. "They figured we were a bunch of New Yorker punk-rock commie weirdoes and didn't want anything to do with us."
Nissley, who Best describes as "a charming nice young southern Christian boy" returned to 31 Patton the following night, won over the owners and booked the show. In fact, so completely did Nissley charm Spain that — according to Rest — she became a mom for the wayward, giving many starving musicians jobs or a place to stay.
"Carolyn sunk a ton of money in to that place and probably hemorrhaged more cash than Enron and the Iraq war combined," says Rest. "The musicians in this town back then should have built a statue to that lady."
The first batch: 100 cassettes
When Nissley left for Athens, he passed the mantle to Rest and Milton who instituted the regular Thursday Decline Nite shows — albeit with snafus. Such as one bloody night when the Mathmatics and locals the Creeps played with a Knoxville band called the Malignmen.
"The Creeps' singer, Sean, had a bunch of fake blood packs on himself and was doing this fake blood-suicide thing during their set," Rest recalls. "The Malignmen were not going to be outdone. They went on stage and their teenage lead singer immediately broke a beer bottle and started repeatedly stabbing himself in the arms, wrists and stomach. They finished their set and went to the emergency room. It looked like someone slaughtered a cow on stage."
If that was a low point, the Decline's many high points
were captured in three music collections.
Rest and Carter came up with a compilation cassette tape called Decline of Western North Carolina, Vol. 1. A benefit show at Vincent's Ear in 1995 (with the Spoonbenders, the Mathmatics and Acme Music Company) paid for 100 cassettes. Carter wanted CDs (not popular in 1995), and somewhere between $1,400 and $1,600 paid for a thousand copies. The alliance with 31 Patton allowed Carter and Rest to promote their CD venture.
"Bands played for free and we put them on CDs," Rest says. "Soon the hippie bands were friends with the punk bands. The rockabilly bands were friends with the alt-country bands, and everybody came out on Thursdays to see everyone else. The crowds were pretty good and our bands started playing weekends."
No one got rich but, "the benefits were seeing your name on a CD and creating something like that from scratch, being connected to a community of your peers," Carter says. "I think bands now maybe take for granted releasing music, but at the time, culture as a whole (in the area at least) was not interested in supporting 'alternative' music, so it was a real challenge to get something done."
The scene thrived. DIY ruled (including, for 17 issues, Carter's music zine Gank) giving hope to many musicians who pounded the promo pavement. Carter and Rest, however, finished their tenures in the late '90s.
"I got a phone call from Milton one day, and the band came to a sudden end," says Bailey of the Mathmatics. "I was never clear on the reason. I picked up an old copy of Gank a while back, and there was an obituary which read something like, 'The Mathmatics, aka.The Rolling Stones of Asheville, have decided to call it quits over allegations.'" (Carter and Bailey remain great friends, and Carter will fly in the week before the shows to practice.)
Rest's last show with BFO came in 1997, after which he started a family and moved to Atlanta. Tragedy hit Rest hard in 2004 when Tampa Dave was stabbed to death at a show in Ybor City, Fla. Rest distanced himself from music for a while afterwards. While he never fully recovered from Dave's death, Rest began a new punk project recently: The aptly titled Everything Falls Apart, which will play alongside BFO (former guitarist Larry Scott, will fly in from L.A. to sit in for Dave) at the Decline reunion.
Jody Cooper, who now owns a hauling business in Sylva, will man the drum kit for Tripod alongside original vocalist and bassist Sam Brinkley at Broadway's on Friday. (Cooper's current band, Hoss, also plays.) Carter's Mathmatics (with On the Take) will headline the Broadways show Saturday. And Saturday afternoon, Stella Blue hosts Everything Falls Apart plus Decline staples Vic Crown and the Force and Electrolux.
These musicians created the decline of Asheville, and their "corruption" of the scene still sends seismic shifts around the region, so if various band members' rehashed stories might sound like the old timers' recollections of snowbound walks with infinite hills, give them their due. The reunion should resurrect memories back to when hard rock in Asheville still bore a hardscrabble innocence. As Cooper puts it, "It was really happening. Everybody was tight knit. It seemed like it was the best time for punk, hardcore and hard rock bands."
who: Decline of Western North Carolina reunion shows featuring BFO, Tripod, Glaze, Vic Crown and the Force, Mathmatics and more
what: Three shows at two venues over Bele Chere weekend
where: Broadways, Stella Blue
when: Friday, July 24 (Biltmore Forest Overdrive, Tripod, Glaze) at Broadways. $4. Saturday, July 25 (Everything Falls Apart featuring Bob Rest, Vic Crown and the Force, Electrolux, Dr. Z) at Stella Blue, 2 p.m., $2. Saturday, July 25 (Mathmatics and On the Take) at Broadways, 9 p.m. $5.