In late May, Asheville indie rockers The Hermit Kings had a blast opening for a reunited Gran Torino at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall. A week later, they returned to the West Asheville venue for the All Go West music festival and had another positive experience. “The sound was great, the lights are great, the room was great. It felt really good,” says lead guitarist and vocalist Zaq Suarez. “And so I started kind of turning the wheels on, ‘I want to work with these guys. What can we do beyond just putting on a show?’”
He called up Isis talent buyer and co-owner Josephine Woody. His pitch? Free For All Fridays, a string of no-cover nights in the typically slow touring month of January. Each Friday a different local band opens the evening with a 35-minute set, followed by 40 minutes from a regional indie group with The Hermit Kings closing things out. Woody’s response? A wholehearted yes.
“We do a lot of Americana and bluegrass, which I love, but we’ve kind of nailed that,” Woody says. “I’ve always had a whole lot of interest in indie music and had a desire to have more of that presence at Isis, so this will be a good way to kind of get that ball rolling.”
Suarez got to work setting the schedule and recruited some of The Hermit Kings’ closest musical friends. Starting the series with a folk-rock focus on Jan. 9 is Asheville trio Minorcan and Johnson City, Tenn., six-piece This Mountain. Jan. 16 features the post-rock of Camp David and local rock mainstays Doc Aquatic, while Jan. 23 brings Suarez’s acoustic solo project Tiny Things and Athens, Ga., psych rockers T. Hardy Morris & the Hardknocks. The residency ends on Jan. 30 with the return of Doc Aquatic, whose set will give way to Athens’ krautrock quintet Roadkill Ghost Choir.
Featured throughout the month on the Isis walls will be the hand-drawn creations of local artist and Hermit Kings poster designer Matt Micale. Each show also offers two beers for sale from sponsoring Asheville breweries. Hi-Wire Brewing is handling the first and last Fridays while Burial Beer Co. — in its first taste of distribution outside of festivals and beer dinners — covers the middle two. As a means of compensation for the local bands, the breweries will help foot the bill for high-quality videographers to film a song by the opening act and a Hermit Kings song, plus pay to have the video edited and posted online the following Tuesday.
On top of supporting bands they love and introducing regional acts to their own fans, Free For All Fridays provides a platform for The Hermit Kings’ newest incarnation of Suarez, Zach Dier (bass), Zack Hayes (drums) and Simon George (piano). Though the group typically limits its Asheville performances to every two months, in that span they write an average of six new songs. Onstage, the band members struggle to showcase how they’ve grown. “I know people want to hear songs that we wrote three years ago, but I want to show them both,” Suarez says. “Every two months we’re so different. I feel like it’s really helpful [to share the new material], but it’s kind of hard to keep people singing along when they don’t know the words.”
The Isis residency should help with new song familiarity and kick off what looks to be a big year for The Hermit Kings. After playing over 60 shows in 2013, the band scaled back to just over 20 in 2014 to focus on getting to the next level. Through new manager and Gran Torino guitarist Johnny Mann, The Hermit Kings met Durham-based producer John Plymale (Superchunk, Dex Romweber Duo), and under his guidance spent what Suarez calls “a lot of money” to record three songs exactly the way the band wanted.
The relationship has proved so fruitful that the week before Free For All Fridays begins, Plymale will pitch the band to his longtime friend Mac McCaughan at Merge Records. Promising as that news is, Mann and the band’s Los Angeles-based music attorney think they could get signed by an even bigger label. “I don’t want to jinx anything, but it all feels really good,” Suarez says.
The Hermit Kings’ goal for February is to be in contact with those record labels, then it’s back to the studio, where they’ll grow the three aforementioned songs into a full-length album. Also on the agenda is getting some licensing work done, but most importantly, “We want to be on the road,” Suarez says. “We want to do 150-200 days on the road. I want to go to Japan, goddamn it, and I want to go with my band because I love those dudes.”
WHO: The Hermit Kings present Free For All Fridays
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Fridays, Jan. 9, 16, 23 and 30, at 9:30 p.m. Free