Systems: Home is Where the Heavy Is
By Corbie Hill
Houses are packed in tight in this Carrboro neighborhood — several are jammed together on a single acre bisected by a dirt drive. A high-volume math-metal band thrashes away in the single bedroom of one house until a cop knocks on the window. Guitarist Daniel McDonald, 28, steps outside. A neighbor McDonald says is schizophrenic watches from behind a skimpy tree that offers little concealment. From inside the house, bassist Spencer Lee, 23, incredulously asks if he’s the guy who called the cops. Lee walks to the window, smiles, and waves. The neighbor peers back around the sapling.
The four members of Systems don’t seem overly bothered or surprised. McDonald joked beforehand about the likelihood of a police appearance. In the band’s three years, it’s lost numerous practice spaces and metal-friendly venues. It’s not that Carrboro isn’t a music town, the members insist, but that it has a lousy support mechanism for heavy music.
These problems are endemic, Lee believes, to a sense of entitlement that pervades Carrboro and nearby Chapel Hill. “People are unwilling to compromise on their personal space here,” he explains. The same thing happened when the band practiced in a Hanna Street rental. “There was no [neighborly] dialogue,” Lee says. The family next door called the cops early one Friday evening, which killed it as a practice pad.
The band members describe a dichotomy at work in which patrons of the arts take a closed-minded stance toward heavy or aggressive music. “People love to go into art museums and go ‘it’s very dark and shows the nasty underbelly of society,’” Lee says. “But once music is brought into it, they immediately shut off and want nothing to do with it.”
Systems threw shows at Hanna Street, chaotic affairs where McDonald cranked his full-stack and Cameron Zarrabzadeh, 23, broke his guitar neck on multiple occasions. While art and literature may portray violence or visceral energy, Systems presents it in person. Underage kids were welcome at the Hanna Street shows, too, and Zarrabzadeh laments an alcohol sales-supported, 21-and-up venue culture that shuts out younger listeners. The guitarist/vocalist is calm and measures his words carefully. He’s studied plant medicine with the Navajo and approaches serious topics with philosophical reverence.
“Teens should be involved, especially in music that’s cathartic and expresses internalized violence,” he says. “I know a lot of people, it’s saved their lives.”
Systems’ first LP — which has languished in pre-release limbo since the spring — is named for a desert plant used by southwestern natives: Ghost Medicine. Eight anxiety-inducing tracks explore themes of death and loss. Drummer Peter Gwynne’s math-borne drumming and McDonald’s soaring post-rock guitar find common ground in Lee and Zarrabzadeh’s turbulent, seething metal. Opening track “Procession” is a dark, patient invocation: Explosions in the Sky gone nihilist. Rusty guitars growl behind chanted vocals in “Datura Hallowing” before a serpentine melody emerges. “The Burial” juxtaposes mosh-ready smart thrash a la Converge with Neurot-style post-metal.
With the band divided on how to release it, Ghost Medicine is currently homeless. It’s a familiar state. Systems may have lost several practice spaces, but McDonald has also been kicked out of several rentals that were bulldozed and turned to condos. “They’re knocking down the places we’re living” in, he says. And it may be that McDonald is sympathetic toward his neighbor because of the things they will soon have in common. As the neighbor rants at the police and slinks back to his little red house, McDonald notes that it’s slated for demolition. When the man’s mother died, he lost the house. And he — like Systems — will soon be looking for another home.