By Grayson Currin
Charleston indie rockers try bucking national and coastal trends
The biggest band from Charleston, S.C. named Company — at least according to a Google search for the phrase “Company band Charleston” — is a nonet featuring two vocalists and a three-part horn section. According to their resume on Gig Masters, a website that enables one to secure “the life of the party,” The Company Band carries a $2 million event-insurance policy, can expand to a 12-piece lineup if the money is right, and can supply a medley of Sam Cooke, Outkast and Van Morrison, if the crowd is into that kind of thing.
“The Company Band,” reads their biography, “is putting its own spin on the music industry by giving people a combination of music genres creating delectable sounds the ear can only imagine.”
This bit of market research is symptomatic of the way Brian Hannon, the 26-year-old leader of an enthusiastic Charleston indie rock quartet also named Company (or Co. for short), feels about his adopted coastal city: Better known for tourist lures Fort Sumter and Rainbow Row than its legacy of indie rock, it’s not that Charleston is without its own musical past or present. From the blues to beach music, and from the indigenous sounds of the nearby Gullah people to the pervasive misbelief that Hootie & the Blowfish came from Charleston, the place often called the Southeast’s “Holy City” certainly has a tradition of sound. It’s just that most of it has nothing to do with how Hannon’s Company sounds.
“Here in South Carolina, most people don’t know about music like that, while Chapel Hill has such a legacy of that. People are already inclined to it,” says Hannon, who moved to Charleston five years ago after a stunted stint at the University of South Carolina. “Some guys here are talented, but they don’t really know about indie rock. They wouldn’t really like to play music with me.”
On its two LPs and debut EP, Company embraces the most affable bits of the core comprising what’s historically considered “indie rock.” Company can twinkle like The Go-Betweens and sprawl like My Morning Jacket, slink like Built to Spill and smile wide and wink narrow like The Shins. Their latest, Dear America, even ends with a requisitely brooding atmospheric tune called “Dreams.” Like exit music for a college radio segment, the six-minute song trusses images of isolation and anxiety to string-girded rises. “In dreams/ I’m right there with you/ In dreams/ I’m smiling at your doorway,” Hannon entreats at the song’s apogee, standing proudly not at a doorway but at a three-avenue intersection of Weezer, Explosions in the Sky and Red House Painters.
In interviews (found, of course, after wading through a litany of pages about Charleston’s other Company), Hannon has long worn the classification of indie rock as a badge of honor, a strange distinction within a wide genre built and maintained mostly by musicians who regard such descriptors and tags as anathema. In 2010, however,
Charleston City Paper ran a short story about Company ahead of a Friday night gig. Their debut EP was due soon on blues-and-buzz band syndicate Fat Possum. In less than 600 words, the piece used the adjective “indie” six times, punned on Guided by Voices with the photo caption, and gave Hannon room to ruminate on his band’s place in the wider cultural context of rock & roll: “I would still call my music indie rock. There’s definitely a distinguishing point between what indie rock technically means and how people use the term to define a sound.”
Ahead of the release of Dear America, Company’s earnest and wide-eyed second LP for Brooklyn imprint Exit Stencil earlier this year, Shuffle’s Jordan Lawrence queried Hannon about the threads of indie rock that the album ties together. “Thank you so much!” he began the answer. “I’ve always been drawn to indie rock. It’s a lifelong obsession.”
Hannon admits now that he might have overstated the length of his interest in indie rock. He actually studied jazz in his Greenville, S.C., high school, playing guitar alongside kids who were preparing to head to Berklee College of Music and The Juilliard School. He came to understand the language of composition and performance through his jazz studies, but he also to came realize that this wasn’t what he’d spend his life doing. The jazz and classical lifers, he found, were just too good and too devoted.
Luckily, he did find indie rock. When Hannon was 17, he and a few friends took a road trip to Boston. He’d been spending time on Amazon.com, clicking from one band to another, trying to find a new sound. In Boston, he recognized a name on a concert bill from his research — Yo La Tengo, the indie rock co-architects, were in town from New Jersey to play a show at the Roxy with Superchunk side-project Portastatic. Hannon and his pals went: “After that, it felt special, like it was my music.I just knew that it was mine.”
The lessons continued, and not long after moving to Charleston, Hannon traveled to England for an edition of the ultra-curated boutique music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. That’s when he finally realized that this music meant more than a good record collection or online samples of MP3s; this stuff was within his reach.
“There were lots of legendary bands playing there, but I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, there’s nothing here that anyone is doing that I’m not capable of doing,’” he explains, any amount of hubris accompanied by a genuine newcomer’s zeal. “I can do all of this shit, so I decided I’d just go do this in Charleston.”
Finding others to come along for the trip in Charleston wasn’t as easy as it might have been back in Minehead. Hannon had moved east with his drummer and friend Kelly Grant, who he describes as less of an indie rock lifer and more a good pal who just wanted to play together. Just as Company started to gather momentum by recording its Fat Possum debut and doing short but strong tours, Grant, at the age of 24, died in December 2010. Hannon pressed on, but finding a backbone as strong as that which Grant provided wasn’t easy. He’s since gone through two drummers and three bassists and has, just now, landed on a lineup with the ability to tour and an understanding of what he wants to accomplish. Hannon now works at a venue and restaurant called The Tin Roof — “a hip West Ashley watering hole,” says Charleston City Paper — where he’s met more people who share his musical interests.
“I think I finally found the right guys. The amount of musicians I meetand talk to regularly has gone way up, so now I have a lot of options,” says Hannon. Nearly 18 months later, he thinks he’s finally coming to terms with Grant’s death. He realizes that the past won’t fix itself. It’s up to him to push Company forward, just as Grant would have hoped.
Company’s new drummer, Shawn Krauss, moved to Charleston in 2002. Nearly a decade older than Hannon, he says the city is finally getting some attention outside of its beach and blues music heritage. Tin Roof, where he works alongside Hannon, has served as a convenient hub for the city’s young creative types.
“Charleston is a cool town and has all the makings of the next Athens or Chapel Hill,” he says. “But it can be tough. I don’t think there are a lot of musicians here that know what we are doing now. There are a lot of bands into folk, folk-punk, Southern alt-country bands with every song about whiskey. But it seems like there isn’t a lot of rock down here. I dare use the word indie rock.”
The isolation does have its benefits. Company doesn’t keep up with the microtrends of independent music at the moment, choosing to deal with the classic more than the cool or current. There’s not a warbling chillwave synthesizer or a direct electronic dance beat to be found on Dear America, a stable, staple indie rock album written by a bandleader who understands exactly what sort of music he wants to play. In fact, Hannon says he cares less about what a band sounds like than how they behave, reflecting a Southern gentility that has more to do with Charleston than any other element of Company. “If I meet them, and they’re nice,” he reckons, “that’s all that really matters.”
And they have inspiration at the ready. A few years ago, an area father took a shine to Company and passed their record along to his son, Ben Bridwell, frontman for Band of Horses. After Band of Horses first started to gain attention, Bridwell relocated to the Charleston area, so he’d have an anchor between extended Band of Horses tours. Unlike most kids who get music recommendations from their parents, Bridwell actually paid attention, spun the record, and remembered it well enough to connect the dots when he bought a bagel from Hannon. They started talking about music, and a few months later, he e-mailed Hannon and asked Company to open a hometown Band of Horses show. They subsequently tagged along for a string of shows between Georgia, Texas and Colorado. In both Band of Horses and its predecessor, Carissa’s Wierd(sic) Bridwell and his crew had spent years toiling in relative obscurity.
“They’ve paid all of their dues and were homeless and working shitty jobs, but they did it,” says Hannon. “When I feel so separate from everyone in Charleston, I constantly feel mired in doubt, like the dream is too far beyond, unfathomable. But here is Ben, who actually lived the dream. So, fuck, maybe it could happen.”