When I was in college, North Carolina seemed as distant as a foreign land. Hell, we were in central Wisconsin so at least one foreign land was significantly closer. But there was something else about the state that made it seem even further away somehow. Maybe it was simply that it was one of those areas that I’d never had much cause to think about before. When waves of records showed up from Georgia or Seattle, it didn’t strike me an exotic (and all the albums from nearby Minneapolis were like letters from home). A sudden influx of material from North Carolina, though, and I was wondering how this upstart music scene was finding a path all the way to our outpost in the middle of America’s Dairyland.
My retroactive impression is that the Tarheel Invasion began in earnest with the launching of Merge Records in 1989. Now as venerable as an indie label can get, Merge was originally little more than a means for the Chapel Hill band Superchunk to release their records. I think they were even initially outpaced by Carrboro’s Mammoth Records, founded in the same year. In fact, looking back at the early discography of the label, I can’t confidently testify that we received any records from Merge during my tenure. We wouldn’t have known what do with “Slack Motherfucker” if it showed up in the mail anyway. So rather than the now-foundational bands of Merge, like Superchunk and Polvo, we were getting and playing records from relative upstarts on the North Carolina scene, bands that hardly get mentioned today.
As someone who dopily felt the need to “choose sides” when two similar albums came into the station at the same time (as when I was insistent that the new Renegade Soundwave album was going to be a big deal and no one was going to care about this band Nine Inch Nails), my strongest recollection of North Carolina bands hitting rotation involved 1989 releases by Dillon Fence and Satellite Boyfriend. The self-titled Dillon Fence release was the one that got all the attention, including a rave from CMJ, but I gravitated to Satellite Boyfriend’s Yes Ma’am. This was probably in part because several tracks were produced by Tommy Keene, who had his own great album out at the time. And then there was the attention-getting presence of Mitch Easter, founder of Let’s Active and producer of R.E.M. He moved the slide pots for a couple of tracks, including the fabulous album opener “Bam Bam Bah.” As with other instances when I distinctly, purposefully selected one band or album over another, my preference didn’t have a strong predictive power. Dillon Fence didn’t set the world ablaze, but at least they’ve got a Wikipedia page. Satellite Boyfriend is one of those bands that has a markedly light presence in the online world of modern music reference.
Funnily enough, I now live within the borders of North Carolina (though in a city many other state residents would prefer pull up stakes and move to some godless place like San Francisco), and have indeed live here longer than any other single place in my adult life. And yet it sometimes feels like I’m still a visitor here, one of the tourists that my town grudgingly puts up with. When Merge Records staged their twenty-fifth anniversary concert last weekend, a long but manageable interstate journey away from me, it never even really occurred to me that I could attend. It wasn’t because of monetary concerns or my general aversion to the overloading of humanity that tends to take place at music festivals, although both would have certainly given me pause. As was the case all those years ago, those North Carolina folks simply seemed too distant to believe they were part of my world. Maybe I’ll get there someday, but not quite yet.
(Disclaimer: Most of the online sources I use to determine the availability of music releases barely acknowledge that Satellite Boyfriend ever existed, much less suggest that they have readily available physical objects imprinted with their music that can be purchased in such as way as to compensate both the band and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store. With more confidence than usual, I’m prepared to assert that Yes Ma’am is unavailable for purchase, and my charing of this song will cause no undue fiscal harm to anyone. Still, I will gladly and promptly remove this track from the interweb if contacted by someone making such a request, as long as that individual or entity has due authority to make such a request. Today, I also feel obligated to cite the source of the song in question. Behind that hyperlink is a bevy of information about the North Carolina music scene that I once found so mysterious and fascinating.)