The Mule Skinner Grocery is a tiny hole-in-the-wall corner store, and at first, it’s an intimidating place. Three plastic lawn chairs are lined up out front, each holding someone with a story to tell and a 40-ounce beer in their hands. These are the people who you don’t read about in tourist brochures. It’s the kind of place where you encounter men with fresh stitches in their heads and disability checks in their mailboxes. It’s a far cry from the city across the river.
I’m here to interview Hey Neighbor! (the exclaimation point is part of the name), a local rock band, at a place they find comfortable. It may seem like a strange spot for an interview, but sitting at a table next to the beer cooler, I find that, much to my surprise, the Mule Skinner becomes as warm and friendly as it once was forbidding.
“My mom’s maiden name is Skinner, and one day I was driving around and saw this place,” says Justin Raybuck, Hey Neighbor!‘s lead singer and guitarist. “One day I came in, and everyone was nice, so I started hanging out here.”
Sitting between the chips aisle and the beer cooler, we talk about a range of topics, not the least of which is Asheville’s reputation for its fickle treatment of local rock bands. The feeling seems to be that a band can’t just play rock ‘n’ roll, but that they must reinvent the wheel, or stretch out the songs and jam for hours upon end.
“[We realize] how important it looks when you have a list of genres and subgenres attached to your name, and we are working on that,” says guitarist Chris Towe.
While a lot of bands gripe about the lack of support from local audiences and the limited number of local venues, the members of Hey Neighbor! see it a different way.
“We have fun at our shows,” says Towe. “People might be hesitant to go out [and see local music], but the ones that do are always supportive.”
Formed last year by Raybuck and Towe, and rounded out by drummer Josh Carpenter and Dave Wayne Gay on bass, Hey Neighbor! is more than just a rock band. Recalling indie bands such as Superchunk and the Archers of Loaf, their sound—with its warm and fuzzy guitars—is as welcoming as their name.
“We never set out to just be a rock ‘n’ roll band, but it ended up that way,” says Towe.
On their first release, a self-titled 7-inch single, the band’s trademark fuzz and melody shine through on four songs. It’s a sound that is too pop to be punk, too punk to be pop, and so likeable that in no way, shape or form should it be considered punk-pop. What the single does do is manage to capture is Hey Neighbor!‘s sense of immediacy, something that, according to drummer Josh Carpenter has been there since the beginning.
“I showed up on a Monday and played the songs for the first time with Justin and Chris,” recalls Carpenter. “Then they said, ‘Man, the show on Friday is going to be great.’”
It’s that urgency that creates the sound. While it’s hard to find sitting here under the flickering of the fluorescent light in the Mule Skinner Grocery, you can see a shimmering outline of the joy the band members have in playing together. And while there will always be bands in Asheville that are content with to experiment with West African-infused, Celtic-based folk music, Hey Neighbor!—like the Mule Skinner Grocery—are content with an ice cold Budweiser, three chords and the truth.
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Hey Neighbor!! and Chainestereo
what: Local rock ‘n’ roll at its finest
where: Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, Oct. 4 (9 p.m. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800)