"These are songs about love and octopi or whatever, but there's definitely still a dark underbelly and kind of a subtext of menace," says Miles Holt, one half of John Wilkes Boothe and the Black Toothe. "I really like that juxtaposition between accessibility, catchy melodies and good vibes, but just as in reality, there is something dark under the surface."
He's just captured the band's essence in one sentence. John Wilkes Boothe and the Black Toothe are high-energy folk absurdism, delivering comically dark and bizarre tales packaged in warm harmonies and acoustic traditionalism.
Holt's musical brotherhood with multi-instrumentalist Ben Melton, the other half of JWBBT, began in a high school black metal band. The collaboration took many forms over many years before settling into an energetic folk duo. Hardcore metal might seem more fitting accompaniment for lyrics like "I wanna tell you that you're just like that corpse / Can't you see that we were meant to be together / Putrid and warm and breaking into a million living pieces," but taken in full context, that's a heartfelt expression of love that oddly suits the upbeat and cheerful delivery.
"The lyrics have always been that way, more or less,” says Melton. "But we love really catchy stuff and vocal harmonies, and we just wrote the most natural thing that came to mind."
That formula is prevalent throughout the band's catalog. From the dark and morbid to the seemingly nonsensical, Holt's lyrics are always rooted in universal themes. They're just viewed through a dark lens and colored with warm harmonies and upbeat folk sensibilities.
"Whenever I'm writing a song, it takes me a couple months afterwards to define exactly what it’s about," says Holt. "But usually I find that everything falls into place thematically, even if it seems like a complete disconnect at first. And I feel like ambiguity makes things more universally relatable. These songs can mean absolutely anything you want; I don't give a shit. If this song speaks to you then f—k what it means to me.
"I get a little bit uncomfortable about the level of vulnerability that tends to surface," he adds. "So I kind of balance that out with this Dadai-istic, completely out of nowhere chorus formula so people know you don't have to take us completely seriously."
The band is no joke though. Frenetic live performances showcase the duo's musical dexterity, utilizing foot percussion and a variety of instruments to transcend the possibilities of a traditional two piece. It's a dynamic approach that has landed the band opportunities to share the bill with a diverse roster of local bands, from folk poppers like Now You See Them to punk outfits like Zombie Queen. They even opened for a recent Seduction Sideshow burlesque performance.
Clearly, the formula that appeals to a broad audience. This year, the band landed a spot as Best Local Acoustic/Folk Band without ever releasing a record — evidence of how powerful and engaging its live show can be.
"We've got Ben playing two to three instruments simultaneously," says Holt. "We're definitely pushing it to the limits, stage-presence wise. I feel like at this point, we can hold our own against full bands."
He admits there is also a certain appeal to the spectacle of the stage setup.
"We're doing the work of four people. At least three and a half people. That is entertaining, I think."
But Melton is quick to distinguish what they do from a gimmick.
"It's what I genuinely want, to be able to play all these instruments, because I love playing them," he says with conviction. "So if we're able to do it with just two schedules to work around, that's just less work for us."
Coincidentally, the band's appearance in the Best Of WNC poll coincides perfectly with the release of it's first album, which the duo recorded at Holt's home studio over the summer. Melton describes the self-titled effort as a "more lush version" of the stage show.
"Live, it's a lot more stripped down and raw, and it tends to have a little bit more aggressive energy to it," he explains. "But on the record, it's more precise and it sounds a little warmer, I think."
The band is celebrating the release with what promises to be a highly personal set at BoBo Gallery, Holt's favorite room in Asheville.
"We're hoping to push that place past fire capacity. And we like the intimate vibe, because if a venue is too loud, I feel like it undermines the whole lyrical emphasis that we go for. We can belt it out, but at that point I'm not sure we've got our vibe across. And I also can't sing again for the next week and a half."
There are no plans for a big push immediately following the record release, but the pair have their eyes on expanding the band's presence beyond the mountains this spring.
"We're consolidating our power here in Asheville before we push the boundaries of the empire," Holt quips in typical deadpan fashion.
And if it's local popularity is any indicator, the duo's "empire" of dark humor and infectious folk will be met with open arms rather than hostile armies.
— Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: John Wilkes Boothe and the Black Toothe, with Baby Rattlesnakes
what: CD-release party for
where: BoBo Gallery
when: Saturday, Oct. 15 (9:30 p.m. Free. bobogallery.com)