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Photos by Mitchell Kearney
FB Logo by Hope Nicholls
It’s hard for me to write about music objectively, as so much of it is inherently subjective and emotionally charged, so apologies if at times I tend to stray into some slightly non-journalistic phrase turning. Like here, while I listen to some Fetchin Bones. This may be a band you casually flirted with, but we had a solid four-year relationship (1985 – 1990) and while it didn’t really end, it did drift apart. And then in 2007, those Fetchin Bones made another appearance. A hot live release titled Dead Band Rockin’ hitting like a one-night stand seduced me back into their music. Since then, the band’s songs have moved in random formations through my life. Certain times call for certain sounds, right?
Fetchin Bones circa 1987
So yeah, maybe it was a one-sided relationship. It’s not like they sat around for hours listening to me. But still, this is stirring up some emotions so bear with me.
When I heard this band, this musical flashback to parts of my youth, was reforming for their induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, I started turning up the volume once again. I reached out and spoke with singer / percussionist Hope Nicholls about the ceremony announcement and it turns out I wasn’t the only one surprised.
“We found out about the possibility of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame early in 2023. Since it was to be the entity Fetchin Bones inducted, I insisted it be all seven recording members, as there are two albums with each incarnation and all four albums do stand the test of time to me,” Hope explained. “Although the Galaxy 500 / Monster line-up is the definitive line-up, we are grown-ups now. Wiser, and great friends. We honor and respect Gary White and Marc Mueller and all the amazing things we did in support of the first two albums. All the amazing work they did artistically.”
Four studio albums, two different line-ups, and the live hit of Dead Band Rockin’. I think if you listen to these albums for the first time, right now, they will still fit perfectly alongside more current, and more popular hip and hyped bands of the alternative and indie genres. You’ll be surrounded by an effortlessly cool sonic experience that still manages to feel vibrant and alive.
For the uninitiated, you might throw on an album, spin a track, or even get digital and stream a song or two. You might find your head nodding, your feet tapping, and you might hear a little grunge touched influence kicking into some riot grrrl energy, though maybe a little more down south styled. Then there’s some jangle pop sliding in, like R.E.M. tripping on a paisley underground vibe, but you also get some real grooving alternative stained funky numbers wrapping around the slower songs. Everything fits together and flows, and their live sound is fantastic. Like early Jane’s Addiction melting into a Gun Club sunset. And then you realize, looking at the release dates, that this band was doing all of this before all of that.
Their first LP, Cabin Flounder, came out in 1985. Three years before Nothing’s Shocking hit, three years before the first L7 album. Then Hole’s Pretty on the Inside was released in 1991. Two years after the “last” Fetchin’ Bones album, Monster. And don’t you dare forget about Bad Pumpkin in 1986 and Galaxy 500 in 1987. That’s four full-length full-on chaotic melodic grunge rock twang punk metal pop albums that hit and killed the indie radio waves before all the little kiddies got a taste of mainstream alternative via Nirvana’s 1991 Nevermind.
Meanwhile, doing the vinyl spin time-machine on another wavelength, R.E.M. was sending out the sounds of Murmur and Reckoning. Pylon had Chomp, while The Replacements asked us to Let it Be. That’s a little more where this band’s dial was spinning in those early days. As Hope tells it, when they started back in 1983 nobody in their hometown of Charlotte, NC paid attention to them until that first record hit. But Athens, GA was a different story.
“We were pals with the guy who owned Charlotte’s iconic punk rock club, The Milestone. He would book us, even when it was just Aaron Pitkin and I and a Dr. Rhythm machine, as an opening act. One night we opened for Art in the Dark from Athens. They liked us a bunch and said people in Athens would get what we were doing, so we went down there to open for them, and it was an instant smash. It was crazy! Very quickly we were on big shows there and going to play 688 in Atlanta. It was that GA buzz that caught Danny Beard’s attention. To be on DB RECS is/was a huge honor, as the B-52’s and Pylon are two acts that were hugely influential on me. Once Cabin Flounder came out, the Charlotte Observer picked up on us, but we never were as big in Charlotte as we were in Atlanta, probably because Charlotte has never been a music city like those in GA.”
From inspirations and influences to fans and followers, the music of this band draws upon a sonic platter and then spins somewhere perfectly in the middle of the world that was living left-of-the-dial. Ironically enough, I think their “alternativity” is one of the main reasons this band remains slightly hidden from sonic view. It’s not that they weren’t good enough to break into the mainstream, it’s not that they didn’t have the right style or sound or vision; it’s more like this band is alternative. And by that, I mean as an alternative to the mainstream. While other bands rose up and moved higher in the charts, became known worldwide, were labeled and sold as alternative, Fetchin Bones, whether they wanted to or not, in my mind, defined the word. They weren’t grunge, they weren’t jangle, they weren’t pop, they weren’t country Americana metal funk, or punk, but they held a little bit of it all. And they still hold it, even though I suspect the bringing together of all the band members must have been a little emotional after all these years.
Hope sheds some light on the reunion, “The first two Fetchin Bones albums are with Gary and Marc. When they quit, we were not in touch with Marc basically until about a year ago. Social media finally got us reunited! Except for a couple years of bitterness right after they left, Gary has been a constant friend. We have visited each other with our kids and stayed very close through the decades. Clay Richardson is here in Charlotte, so we always saw him frequently through the years. Danna Pentes and Errol Stewart have family here, so we also saw them intermittently over the years too. In 2000, we did a pilot reality TV show for VH1 with Errol and Clay in LA and Charlotte. Then we did Dead Band Rockin’ shows with them in 2007. But all seven rehearsing at my house this October and doing the set at NCMHOF was unprecedented. It felt like we were finally all grown up! There did not seem to be any residual resentment or drama. It was a beautiful thing.”
The bones are connected to the all the other bones, and that connects to me. This music is a part of my life, and I’ve shared it constantly. This band lives in a special place within my musical world. When I was listening, where I was listening, who I was listening with. This band will always have strong ties to a handful of other bands in my musical mind; The Donner Party, The Cat Heads, The Dream Syndicate, Tex & The Horseheads, The Flesheaters, Divine Horsemen, and Sister Double Happiness to name a few. I know, it’s a little California-centric and Fetchin Bones has North Carolina origins, but still these sounds share the same shelf space in my heart and mind, as well as sharing some seriously deep memories.
And speaking of the jangle, as I think I did, the producer on the first three Fetchin albums was Don Dixon – who also worked with bands like Dumptruck, the Smithereens, R.E.M., and was a big part in creating the whole jangle-pop genre. There is definite jangle going on, but thrown in with that straight-on rock, and a little twists of a whole lot more. They manage to move from the best bar band you’ve ever seen, to the most melodic beautiful pop group, to hard edged alternative rockers without missing a beat.
Yeah. I love this band. I’ve got multiple copies of albums on vinyl and cassettes because these songs have all been overplayed, grooves worn down. The song “Deep Blue” has made it on to so many mixtapes, and one of the best parts of the amazing film A Matter of Degrees, released in 1990, was seeing Fetchin Bones performing brilliant and live. There’s a lot to love about that movie, but Fetchin Bones makes it even better. I even had a nice t-shirt from the mid-80’s that I wore to pieces. Just a multi-colored logo on a white shirt, but it seriously disintegrated, and I thought I’d lost it forever. I finally found a slightly pricey replacement a couple of years ago, and then in celebration of their hall of fame induction, I got another. Brand new shirt, same classic multi-colored logo.
It’s been a long time since this bands last studio album and listening to their songs now I feel part of myself moving back in time, and the rest moving with the band forwards. These songs are very attached to the time in which they are written for me, but they still sound just as relevant and rocking right now. A hard line to walk along, but this band managed quite nicely.
Part of the reason their music, to me, still feels so vivid, is that it never felt forced. It remains vivid and dynamic. It remains alive. And that same reason, it seems, was why Monster was their last studio album.
Hope explains, “We want other people’s ideas. Working as an art gang to figure out how to take a few notes, a vocal idea or a beat, and hammer those into a song, that’s so fun! This process is why we broke up Fetchin Bones. It had gotten to a point where it was not that fun. There are lots of ways to make money that suck. Making art shouldn’t one of them. It should be fun and if it makes money and people like it, that’s like an extra bonus!”
After Fetchin Bones, the 90’s saw Hope doing the Sugarsmack, and then hitting with Snagglepuss in the 2000’s. Although hitting might be the wrong word. Snagglepuss released four albums in their time, but still never made it quite as far as Fetchin Bones did.
“If you missed Snagglepuss, it was because we stuck around here as we had very small kids, but we did do four albums with Don Dixon. Marc played regularly in the NYC subway as The Street Mule. He sells albums and is one of a small number of licensed musicians who have permission to be down there doing that. He’s sold thousands of CDs and is often playing above ground too all over NYC, at marathons and other outdoor events.”
So the music being played seems to be steady, while band names change and members shift. While there is a sonic line that can be tied through the formations, it feels like each band has its own individual character.
“We have never been a super nostalgic bunch, so to me, unless a band is writing new material, what’s the point,” Hope remarked. “Being in different towns means long distance songwriting, which is not much fun, and more about technology than jamming. And I have personally never been into just trotting out the oldies for the money. Also, Aaron and I were doing our 2000’s band Snagglepuss and it was keeping us busy and happy as artists.”
And then Fetchin Bones came together with an explosive 2007 live album, but it was a definite one-shot. Thoughts of a reunion were at the time non-existent.
“There was no talk of further shows after Dead Band Rockin’, as Errol and Aaron and I all had young kids at the time,” Hope says. “We were also flung across the continent, with Danna in Atlanta, and Clay, Aaron and I in Charlotte, while Errol was in San Francisco.”
Now, post-Snagglepuss, and surrounding the Hall of Fame induction, Hope is musically busy with It’s Snakes. Playing drums and singing the words alongside Aaron on guitar, Snagglepuss’ Darrin Gray on bass, and more guitar goodness from Greg Walsh. While there are some Fetchin hints on the four albums, these snakes are sliding through on their very own grooves.
“After Monster and Fetchin Bones,” Hope says, “Aaron and I always felt we were just making more art. It was fun to start again with just him on Sugarsmack. But we love collaborating with others, so we always ask friends to join us in the process. Aaron wanted to have a fresh start, so with each band he switched up on what he was playing: bass for Sugarsmack, drums for Snagglepuss. Then I felt like it would be good for me to do that, so for It’s Snakes, I decided to play drums and sing, while he went back to his first love, guitar. There is a similarity with Fetchin Bones and It’s Snakes, in that guitar riffs and melodies are the starting point for most songs. He wrote many Fetchin Bones songs on acoustic guitar and same with It’s Snakes. I think what does give all four bands a definite individuality is the players we work/worked with.”
And as we hit the end of 2023, music is still being made, under different creations, different names, but Fetchin Bones will always remain.
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