Songs for Drug Money

The walls in this place are humming, buzzing with feedback and vibrating so heavily you can literally feel the music, not only in your ears but all the way down to your bones. It almost feels like if the band plays one more note, the walls will buckle and tumble down.

From my vantage point on the balcony, the crowd below looks like a teeming, churning mass of arms, heads, hands and hair. They are dancing wildly, dancing against the whole concept of ever stopping, begging for encore after encore and doing anything they can to keep the show going — to keep the music going.

And for perhaps the first time ever, I feel compelled to drop this cloak of music reviewer, set down my pen and notepad, and join them. It’s not because I wish to dance. It’s because I want, if only for a song, to join the patrons here in their own way of saying goodbye.

It’s almost closing time at Vincent’s Ear on a night in early November, and in less than a week, Fisher Mehan will be gone, and with him, the music of a band called Drug Money.

A personal effect

I first met Fisher Mehan before I ever gave a damn about local music. It was nearly two years ago, and I was just another would-be writer passing time at an open mic. I remember seeing a barefoot, scraggly-faced guy with a guitar and stringy hair step up to the stage. I remember him refusing to use a microphone, claiming he wasn’t going to need it. But most of all, I remember what he said as he looked out at the crowd just before he began to play.

“Hello,” he said. “My name is Fisher, and these are some songs about smokin’ dope and f••kin’.” And then he began to play. Within a few chords, he had my complete attention, and by the end of the song, I had become a believer.

Almost everyone I’ve talked to about Fisher and his band Drug Money has a similar story. The tales are of different times and different locations, but all of them share that common thread — an instant and total conversion from skeptic to outright fan.

As much as I like Drug Money’s music, I can’t say that their sound has ever struck me as being all that original. The first song of theirs I ever heard, the local anthem “The Oregon Song,” has always sounded exactly like a stripped-down version of Nirvana doing a cover of an unknown song by The Pixies. In all the times I’ve seen Drug Money — at least a dozen shows in the last year — I’ve never been able to shake that description. But the thing that makes the group so exceptional, to me at least, is that they make you feel it; each note, each drum beat, each wailing vocal is like a scream straight from the soul. I’ve never seen them give less than everything they have.

For all that I like Drug Money, I can’t tell you what a single one of their songs is about. No one can, not even Fisher — and he writes them. The songs are phonetic — for the most part they are not even remotely meant to be literal — and they’re written around the shapes and sounds of the language.

But just because you don’t know what they’re saying doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you. You can feel what they’re trying to communicate — instantly. Listening to Drug Money — hearing Paul Conrad hammer out rhythms and Fisher wail and vocally bleed onstage — is an experience you couldn’t misunderstand if you tried. And no crowd knows this better than the one at Vincent’s Ear.

How Drug Money united Vincent’s Ear

Any music scene tends eventually to become cliquish, with different groups off in their own corners practicing their own particular brand of being cool. When I first started paying attention to local music, I found this to be particularly true of the local indie-rock scene.

But then, slowly, my perception of these things changed. It first really hit me that something seemed different about a week before Christmas of last year. Fisher was throwing a holiday party at Vincent’s Ear — one of his then-regular Tuesday-night performances. In passing, he told me he had invited a few musician friends, and that maybe a few of them would show up and maybe play some songs. He told me it would probably be fun.

And it was. Not only did almost everyone invited show up, but they all brought friends. The house was packed, and before the evening was over, more than a dozen acts had performed, all for free, and the bar was sold out of Pabst Blue Ribbon. To top it all off, the traditionally jaded crowd that tends to frequent Vincent’s managed, if only for a night, to drop all their personal conflicts and small-town drama, and sing Christmas songs together with all their hearts.

The show, billed as “Fisher’s Holiday Extravaganza on Ice,” now seems to me a rare moment where Asheville was everything that a music community should be. Not all the acts were great — in fact some were outright awful — but the heart and the spirit of the music was there.

There were other, similar shows, one on Valentine’s Day and another on Memorial Day. Both were memorable in their own rights, but the glue that held each of them together was the duo of Paul Conrad on drums and Fisher Mehan on guitar and vocals — Drug Money.

Everything with a catch

It was only a matter of time before someone outside Asheville noticed Fisher’s music. A chance encounter with a talent scout led to the duo getting a management deal, followed by a short East Coast tour. Fisher was also invited to play a showcase at famous punk club CBGB’s in New York City, which led to a later Drug Money show to a crowd of major and minor-label talent scouts at that same legendary rock venue. There were tentative nibbles from prospective labels, followed by bites and, eventually, outright offers. For Paul and Fisher, things were definitely coming together — but there was a catch.

To take the next step — to make it to the next level up from being local headliners — they would have to leave their roots in Asheville and move to the Big Apple.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Paul, in addition being Drug Money’s drummer, runs Onion Music, a local digital recording studio that produced, among other things, the first three-song Drug Money demo. He and Fisher had spent hours in Paul’s studio, recording take after take of the group’s first locally well-known track, “The Oregon Song,” to get it as perfect as they could. But now Paul had to make a choice between his two dreams, running his studio or being half of a musical group he truly believed in.

“I’ve been working towards [playing professionally] for ten years now,” Paul said recently of taking the chance to move to New York. “It’s reckoning time, and I can’t imagine doing it with someone who has more potential and charisma than Fisher.”

The big goodbye

And so it was time for one last party, one final blow-out that would be Asheville’s — and Vincent’s Ear’s — way of saying goodbye. The Pabst Blue Ribbon-sponsored flyers read “Fisher’s Aloha on Ice,” but some fans and friends were already referring to it the way Fisher was: “The Songs for Goodbye.”

As goodbye parties go, it was incredible. The place was packed, wall to wall, with musicians and well-wishers, with people who’d never seen a Drug Money show and people who’d been front row and center at nearly all of them. Almost everything that happened on stage was memorable, but the truly shining moment came when The Ether Bunnies — an avant-garde rock group that both defies easy definition and yet truly defines everything about the eclectic nature of the Vincent’s Ear scene — came out to perform a song.

It was a slow tune, dark, somber and haunting, and it was nearly a full minute into the playing before the crowd finally recognized it. But when it finally clicked with everyone in the room, the feeling was incredible. Everyone who could do so sang along, even though no one, not even the song’s writer, really knows what the song is truly about.

It was a quiet, intimate and almost heartbreakingly sentimental cover of “The Oregon Song,” and if you looked closely enough, you could see Fisher choking back tears the entire time.

Epilogue

At the end of the night, with the dancers flailing wildly as Fisher Mehan and Paul Conrad played encore after encore, the floor slick with sweat and tears, the alcohol long ago collected from the tables and the crowd still assembled, still begging for more — there was such a feeling of buzzing and vibrating that it threatened to shake the walls loose and bring them buckling down.

It was love, in the most honest and simple sense — and it was all for a band called Drug Money.

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