The Rock*A*Teens: An Oral History
After a 12-year hiatus, the influential Cabbagetown rockers return
Formed in Cabbagetown in 1994, the Rock*A*Teens arose out of tragedy and forged a unique sound that tapped garage rock, '50s pop, and rockabilly. The group's reverb-drenched guitar wails and forceful, melodic rhythm section defied the post-Nirvana wave of alt-rock and grunge that dominated mainstream music in the '90s. Buried underneath the band's noise, Lopez's visceral lyrics chronicled tales of melancholy, heartbreak, and weirdness and conveyed a haunted sense of place that was distinctly Cabbagetown.
The Rock*A*Teens' members had played with many other Cabbagetown artists during the late '80s and early '90s. The neighborhood's musicians included performance artist/singer Benjamin of Smoke, Chan Marshall of Cat Power, and musicians within Atlanta's Redneck Underground. The Rock*A*Teens emerged as part of Cabbagetown's second generation of bands and started to make music in the wake of several fatal accidents. Lopez, a local fixture with groups such as Opal Foxx Quartet, Dirt, and Seersucker, found himself bandless when collaborator Allen Page died from a drug overdose. Kelly Hogan, the sultry frontwoman for the Jody Grind, who's since become a prominent solo artist and Neko Case's longtime backup vocalist, lost her friend Deacon Lunchbox and bandmates Rob Hayes and Robert Clayton in a fatal car wreck in April 1992.
Soon after, Lopez began giving Hogan guitar lessons inside his dingy shotgun home at 711 Wylie St. Photographer Chris Verene, a founding drummer of local lo-fi rock outfit Dairy Queen Empire, and lead guitarist Justin Hughes rounded out the band's original lineup. Small, local shows at the Clermont Lounge and Dottie's Food and Spirits, a working-class bar on Memorial Drive that hosted punk shows, eventually landed the band a record deal with Daemon Records, an independent label founded by Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, in 1996.
During their eight-year run, the Rock*A*Teens released five albums, including three on Merge Records, and garnered a devoted fanbase. But the band's music never caught on with a wider audience. In many ways, the Rock*A*Teens were ahead of their time. The band influenced a new wave of indie rock songwriters, including Destroyer's Dan Bejar, A.C. Newman of the New Pornographers, and Okkervil River's Will Sheff, who all cite Lopez as a major inspiration. Both local and national indie-rock artists ranging from Carnivores to the Walkmen remain indebted to the Rock*A*Teens' music.
The Rock*A*Teens' return has long seemed unlikely given the band's initial lack of commercial success. But for the first time in 12 years, the band — which now consists of Lopez, Hughes, drummer Ballard Lesemann, bassist Will Joiner, and keyboardist Michelle DuBois — will make a comeback. The Rock*A*Teens will play their first Atlanta shows at the Earl on June 6 and 7. They'll continue the one-off reunion tour with several other East Coast concerts, including a performance at the Merge 25 Festival in Carrboro, N.C.
In anticipation of the group's long-awaited comeback, we spoke with past and present band members, musicians inspired by the Rock*A*Teens, and others who crossed paths with the rock outfit in Cabbagetown, Atlanta, and beyond.
Chris Verene, the Rock*A*Teens drummer, 1994-98: We definitely appreciated the town of Cabbage. It was nice to be able to live there and do art and do music there without changing the surface. ... There was no such thing as indie rock. When we were living there, it wasn't like, "Wow, we're here, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is cool!" It would've seemed absurd to call it a movement.
Chris Lopez, the Rock*A*Teens frontman, 1994-present: It was like living on a movie set. There were the mill, the train yard, old houses, and sidewalks. It had a different style of houses from the rest of the city. There wasn't anything to do in Cabbagetown unless you wanted to procure a prostitute or buy drugs.
Henry Owings, Chunklet founder and editor: You moved here because it was cheap and you could play with your friends. But you knew why you paid nothing, because it was fucking scary.
Chris Verene: It was a low-income, struggling area. It wouldn't occur to you to have a café there. You would definitely not want to have a café there. No one would've even considered opening something in Cabbagetown.
Henry Owings: In whatever romantic way, Cabbagetown was kind of like a working-class white ghetto. It was kind of scary, kind of strung out, and kind of dangerous. Underneath it all, in some weird Flannery O'Connor Southern Gothic way, it was beautiful.
Chris Lopez: There were a lot of drugs around that scene. Needless to say, some people passed away very close to me.
Kelly Hogan, the Rock*A*Teens guitarist, 1994-1997: Lopez had a band with Allen Page called the New Centurions. If Allen hadn't died, then the Rock*A*Teens wouldn't have existed. That's when Lopez started coming over and teaching me guitar right after in the spring of 1994.
Bill Taft, longtime Cabbagetown musician: Allen died right before our first New Centurions show. It was a drug overdose, heroin, I believe. I think he died in his car parked outside the house on Wylie Street. I was surprised, but others saw the foreshadowing. It was terrible.
Chris Lopez: Kelly's friends in the Jody Grind died in a car accident. She didn't have her band anymore. She didn't want to sing or be the front person in the band.
Chris Verene: The Rock*A*Teens came out of a void. It was out of a hole that needed to be filled.
Chris Lopez: Musically, what I was doing was not what I wanted to be doing. I was just doing my own thing at home.
Kelly Hogan: Lopez's house at 711 Wylie St. became the epicenter for the Rock*A*Teens. It was a little shotgun house. It had four bedrooms. We practiced in the back of the house. We had mattresses over the window and all around the walls so we wouldn't disturb the neighbors.
Justin Hughes, the Rock*A*Teens guitarist, 1994-present: Verene got me into the band. I didn't know Chris Lopez or Kelly. I was from Atlanta, but had been away at college. I was new to the city in a way. I got into a car accident on the way to my first practice. I didn't understand how the Boulevard tunnel worked and got hit.
David Barbe, Athens, Ga., producer: With a different person in the center, I don't think that personalities as diverse as Kelly, Chris Verene, and Justin could be in a band. Lopez was always the center of the orbit. He had real chemistry with each one of those band members.
Chris Lopez: I didn't want to be in a rock band. I wanted to get away from the standard rock setup. I was more interested in each of our personalities and what we can do. We were bound by our limitations and that was a good thing.
Kelly Hogan: None of us owned a bass. I was learning guitar chords from Lopez. We decided I would play one string almost like washtub bass on guitar. I got the biggest, thickest guitar string they make, a 54 gauge or something, and strung it. Then I skipped a space and put that same gauge string for the third string down. If you play one string, and you break it, you're kind of fucked!
Chris Lopez: I had this Epiphone Futura amp that has this insane reverb. You could play and, if you just crank up all of that reverb, there's shit happening that you're not doing sonically. ... I'm surprised it still works. We wouldn't have the band if it weren't for that amp. It has this specific sound.
Kelly Hogan: Verene came and said, "I have the name of the band. It came to me in a dream." I asked, "What is it?" He couldn't even say it and wrote it on this piece of paper. We unrolled this piece of paper and it said: The Rock*A*Teens.
In 1994, the Rock*A*Teens played their first show at Dottie's Food and Spirits, which later became Lenny's Bar, on Memorial Drive.
Kelly Stocks, Dottie's promoter, 1992-95: Chris Verene called me about the Rock*A*Teens. I had this following of bands. They knew I would take care of them. The downside was I didn't have a P.A. a lot of times. The upside was that a lot of places made you pay to play. You didn't have to do that with me.
Chris Lopez: Everyone played at Dottie's. You could just start a band and call Kelly Stocks. ... It was just a working-class bar. There was country music on the jukebox. It was a dump. The stage was fucking tiny. Tiny, tiny, tiny. Four people on stage with a drum set would be crowded.
Chris Verene: Although we had low expectations, and although we were just having fun, everyone knew about our past bands. Everyone in it was from a fantastically broken-up thing.
Chris Lopez: We thought it went swimmingly. Having 40 people there, that was a show. I remember all of us there, putting the stuff back in the house and going, "That was great. That was fun for not knowing what we're doing."
The Rock*A*Teens continued to play local gigs and started to book short weekend tours outside the city. They eventually caught the ear of the Indigo Girls' Amy Ray, one of Hogan's friends, who had started her own independent record label called Daemon Records.
Amy Ray: They didn't have any aspirations. I knew what they had gone through with the tragedy affecting many people in the Atlanta scene. The music was drenched in sorrow, anger, really dramatic love, and passion. I thought, "People need to hear this."
Chris Lopez: I don't even know what year that first record came out. We're not going to say no. ... They weren't the first songs I had ever written, but they were probably the 10th, 11th, and 12th songs. Using the term "written" is a stretch.
Amy Ray: They weren't gung-ho about it. But they needed to do this. I kept at it and got them to do it.
Justin Hughes: We recorded The Rock*A*Teens at Bosstown Recording Studios — now part of Stankonia. Bobby Brown owned it. We were recording with David Barbe and we wanted to get a big drum sound. It was probably six days total.
Chris Lopez: In a warehouse that's two stories tall, there was an office or something that had a lowered roof so it'd be a regular room. We were recording some song. I was like, "I'll go up there." So I had the microphone up there and it was just goofy fun. Alcohol possibly could have been involved.
Kelly Hogan: Lopez would go up there and sing. It was crazy, like a big sort of basketball gym or something.
Chris Lopez: We were just finding our feet, experimenting, doing whatever we wanted to do. We put a goddamn cheerleading chant on our first record.
Amy Ray: The first record did really well. They immediately followed it up with a second record. They also opened for the Indigo Girls a few times.
Chris Lopez: We actually played a show with them at Auburn University in their basketball arena. It was bizarre.
Justin Gage, founder and editor of music blog Aquarium Drunkard: It was great. It was this raw, primal, garage blast. It was not what you were hearing at the time. It wasn't a precious indie rock thing. It wasn't the post-Nirvana alt-rock stuff that was everywhere. It harkened back to the golden age of rock 'n' roll.
Ballard Lesemann, Flagpole music editor 1996-2002, Rock*A*Teens drummer 1998-present: You fall in love with Chris Lopez's voice and the way he delivers his lines. He sometimes sounds exasperated, or broken-hearted at times, or totally in love. It's this wild range of mood and emotion. It's believable and genuine.
Dan Bejar, Destroyer frontman and the New Pornographers member: The main thing that drew me in was the mythology of fucking Cabbagetown. I had this insane idea of this place even though I had never been there. The characters had these bohemian melodramas they could hold based purely on Lopez's songs.
Amy Ray: He's like a Marlon Brando in some ways with his presentation and singing. His imagery always reminded me of classic Tennessee Williams moments, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or On the Waterfront.
Will Sheff, Okkervil River frontman: It was like going out and getting drunk with Tennessee Williams as opposed to reading the actual play on the page.
The Rock*A*Teens released their second record, Cry, with the help of Barbe and producer Rob Gal in February 1997.
Chris Lopez: We were a little more confident when we made that record. I was a little more confident.
David Barbe: That's the real beauty of the record. Different room, different vibe. We physically tightened up the drum sound a little bit and gave the guitars more room to ring out.
Ballard Lesemann: Cry was, and probably is, one of the best collections. That was a great record and college radio loved it. It really established the Rock*A*Teens as this really serious songwriting rock band.
Justin Gage: The live show was a continuation of hearing them on record. There was a lack of pretense that really struck me. You weren't hearing any of it in mainstream rock 'n' roll or the independent level. It was tapping into this romantic ideal of rock 'n' roll.
Chris Verene: Chris Lopez wanted the audience to be really engaged with our tours. The music is actually very peppy and danceable despite having some real bummer songs like "Rockabilly Ghetto."
Chris Lopez: Playing live is a total visceral experience. It is what it is. You go out there and you play. To me it's very physical.
Beth Wawerna, Bird of Youth frontwoman: The Rock*A*Teens are like stripping the skin off this living, breathing thing: just blood and guts. Chris Lopez, how he's singing and screaming, and the way it works with Justin's guitar parts, and all of it was this bleeding, sweating, pulsing beast. It was at times really ugly and at times really valiant.
Chris Verene: By 1996, the Rock*A*Teens, Cat Power, Smoke, and Gold Sparkle Band were beginning to have a New York scene, too.
Bill Taft: We spent a lot of time in Ryder trucks riding up to New York shows. We'd park it in front of 711 Wylie St. and load up. It was like being in a submarine with no windows.
Kelly Hogan: There were couches in the back, a bunch of bags of corn chips, quarts of warm Busch Light, sleeping bags, and blankets. We even hung thrift store paintings on the walls. There was a metal art deco standing ashtray duct-taped to the floor, a boom box, and cassettes. We saved big Maxwell House coffee cans with plastic lids to pee in.
Chris Verene: We used to travel up and down the East Coast from Atlanta all the way up, making stops in D.C. or Chapel Hill.
Kelly Hogan: We somehow would come out $300 in the hole each tour because our transmission would fall out every time. I remember packed Lounge Ax shows in Chicago. I remember our second record release party at the Point. It was going to be an ice storm or something, but it sold out. That was the groundswell. We started getting better opening gigs.
Chris Lopez: Superchunk was playing a show in Chapel Hill and asked us to play. A friend of mine worked with them. I might have said, "It'd be really cool if we put out a 45 on your label," or something.
Chris Verene: Merge Records is now really famous, but it wasn't a big deal then other than Superchunk. They never expected to be a multiple-Grammy-winning-motherfuckin' label like today.
After releasing two albums with Daemon Records, the Rock*A*Teens signed with Merge Records. The band's label debut, Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall, arrived in record stores in April 1998. But in the process, the band lost two of its founding members. Hogan moved to Chicago to pursue her solo career. Verene, who did not want to continue touring, left the group to focus on his photography.
Ballard Lesemann: I remember getting Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall in the mail and thinking, "God, this is the trashiest thing I've ever heard come out of David Barbe's studio."
Chris Lopez: When we made Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall, I played the drums on that record. Then after that Ballard joined. That's how Ballard came. Then I must have worn the Rock*A*Teens bassist Brandon Smith out with my neurosis.
Ballard Lesemann: They needed a tour drummer for six weeks. It blew my mind. It was summer and we were in their old Chevy Club Wagon that had no AC, the speedometer didn't work, and one of the driver's side windows was stuck halfway rolled down. It was probably the most grueling road trip I've ever taken.
Henry Owings: In late summer '98, the Rock*A*Teens played at the Star Bar every month until the following March. It didn't matter how drunk they were, it was always good, but messy as fuck. During that time, Benjamin of Smoke died. It was the closest I'd ever seen Chris Lopez to becoming visibly emotional on stage. It was a really hard time in town. Those Star Bar shows galvanized my view of the Rock*A*Teens. They were recording Golden Time at that point, so you could tell they were fleshing shit out. That was spine-tingling.
Philip Frobos, Carnivores bassist/vocalist: When I was 16, I'd go through all the CDs after work at Chapter 11 Bookstore in Gainesville, Ga. I noticed the Rock*A*Teens had the same record label as Neutral Milk Hotel. ... I bought Golden Time and thought it was really strange music. I started to really like it. Initially, I was really drawn to Chris Lopez's odd vocals. Now I take away from it the instrumentation. It's a record that's full of so many good songs where the collection itself is great. Like "In the Woods Hemlock Park" has really awesome melodies, guitar, and bass rhythms. "Little Caesar on a Bicycle" is a fucking awesome little Cabbagetown punk song.
Will Joiner, the Rock*A*Teens bassist, 1999-present: In 1999, Ballard called me up and said, "We need someone to play the bass." I pretty much learned the entire repertoire in about a week's time. Next thing I know, I'm on stage at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City opening for Superchunk at, like, a sold-out show. That was my first show. We had practiced twice.
Laura Ballance, Merge Records co-founder and Superchunk bassist: We definitely saw some ups and downs. I remember there were times when Chris Lopez had a hard time with touring. He'd have panic attacks sometimes. Touring didn't always agree with him. He always came through. The whole band did.
Ballard Lesemann: When we got back from tours, we were desperate to scrape together enough money to pay the rent. We did more tours to write songs. If we can survive another tour, maybe we'll make another record.
While the Rock*A*Teens' music strongly resonated with a small, devoted following, they never managed to sell enough records or tickets to make a living from music. Lopez renovated houses as a carpenter. Hughes worked at Eats. Joiner was finishing up with law school, and Lesemann kept editing at the newspaper. Although some people thought the band members would eventually turn their music into full-time careers, Lopez says he never strived to earn a steady paycheck from selling records, tickets, or merchandise. Toward the end of the millennium, Lopez began to write songs for the band's fifth and final record, Sweet Bird of Youth.
Will Joiner: Lopez gave me a cassette tape of 35 songs that was definitely going in a new direction. It was a lot more otherworldly.
Chris Lopez: We never demoed until we did Sweet Bird of Youth. After four records, I was like, "What can I add to it that has absolutely nothing to do with a guitar?" Playing the drums with my fingers, running the keyboard through all kinds of pedals.
Ballard Lesemann: We were winging it with no budget. ... It's almost over-the-top with extra keys, layered guitars. But it's an A for effort! We were trying to sound like we had a full orchestra at times when we only had five dudes in a cheap studio.
Will Joiner: It was an incredibly exhausting experience. It had to have been six days a week of recording for three full months. ... We were in our laboratory making musical potions.
Ballard Lesemann: Sweet Bird is like 17 songs, way too long, really. We debated if we want to put out a 20-song record or split this in half. I remember Chris Lopez saying, "Come on, this is our London Calling!"
Chris Lopez: Maybe we put too many songs on it. Me, personally, lyrically and melodically, they're some of the closest things to my heart and my soul that I've ever done.
Despite the grand ambitions behind Sweet Bird of Youth, Lopez and other band members started questioning the group's future.
Chris Lopez: We never really fit in culturally to the zeitgeist, as it were, ever. Ever. We did the fucking death marches across the country that any indie rock band does to find some sort of foothold.
Will Joiner: The shows definitely got better and well attended. There were highlights. The lowlights weren't bad. Being in an independent band, you get used to playing to empty rooms.
Chris Lopez: We played in Brooklyn to nobody and had the show of our lives. The guys who owned the club knew we played the show of our lives. That was probably right before we broke up, right before the end. I'm not lying, we had, at least of the tour anyway, we had the show of our lives. There was hardly anyone there.
A.C. Newman, the New Pornographers frontman: Dan Bejar thought they just arrived a little bit too early. If they showed up in 2001, it would've been a different game.
Chris Lopez: I remember playing to nobody in Montreal and Dan Bejar was there. Nobody cared.
Dan Bejar: There were probably nine people in the audience. I'm pretty sure four of them I dragged out myself personally. I don't know what the norm is for a rainy Tuesday night in Montreal in 2001. They seemed kind of used to it. There was always a cool, lurching drunken quality to the music. It was kind of a rough time for rock 'n' roll in America in the late '90s.
Will Sheff: What was so endearing about the Rock*A*Teens is that they were these weird Atlanta boys. They didn't have the right jacket. They didn't have the right boots. It felt real. The Walkmen took the same sound and had their sort of New York sophistication; a lot more brushed up and fashionably rumpled.
Dan Bejar: They looked like older dudes, not young men in leather jackets. ... In a 2001 staff write-up, Aquarius Records described Strokes' This Is It as something like, "No big deal, pretty good record, kind of a cross between Billy Idol and the Rock*A*Teens." I was like, "Shit, that's kind of a pretty good description of the Strokes!"
Laura Ballance: You could tell it wasn't going to last forever. I'm not sure what made it fall apart. It just kind of disintegrated.
Chris Lopez: I knew it in my mind. I didn't tell anyone until after. ... Was it sad? No. Was it a completion? Yes. You get to a point where you wonder how much psychic energy can you spend on this. You want to get on with your life.
The band didn't speak about a breakup, but the writing was on the wall by its final show on New Year's Eve 2002. Since then, many people have thought the Rock*A*Teens would never play another show. The Rock*A*Teens' influence started percolating throughout indie rock in the 2000s and inspired a new generation of songwriters.
Will Sheff: They were the best American rock 'n' roll band of the 1990s. ... There was a real greatness. You can bemoan that they didn't get huge. But I don't think it was designed to be huge.
Laura Ballance: The Rock*A*Teens were around at the wrong moment. If they had been around two years ago, they'd be huge.
Justin Gage: People listen now to more eclectic music due to the availability of music on YouTube, social media, and online music magazines. They didn't, for better or worse, benefit from online media.
Dan Bejar: It's cool to think about the Rock*A*Teens being our Big Star. Big Star records are now, kind of without anyone arguing the case whether it's
Rolling Stone or something more underground, are some of the classic American rock records of the '70s even though only a couple thousand people bought them. Can I picture Golden Time in that scenario? I really like that idea.
Will Sheff: The Rock*A*Teens fell in some kind of weird uncanny valley of indie rock. Their music felt very sincere. It had that same earnest intensity that I think indie rock wore out eventually.
A.C. Newman: It's always astounding to me that the Rock*A*Teens didn't get bigger. In the '90s, they were this epic blown-out reverb band. If you look at those records, you could scrub those songs up, clean them up, take away some of the feedback, and put some strings and vocals on there and you'd have Arcade Fire.
Dan Bejar: Destroyer's This Night might have been the record influenced by the Rock*A*Teens. I definitely went reverb crazy. I think This Night had this ragged, reverb-y, ghost backup vocals with a lot of swirling, needling guitar.
Amy Ray: In the world of indie rock, there wasn't much credit given to songwriting compared to the tone, mix, arrangement, or image. Lopez showed that plenty of great songwriters were operating in that realm.
Will Sheff: You could release the records today as is and they'd fit right in with modern garage stuff like Ty Segall. You could put more acoustic instruments on there and they'd sound like my band. They really seem to have predicted a lot of the tone of indie rock that would come in the next 20 years.
Beth Wawerna: I named my silly band after the Rock*A*Teens. Chris Lopez is my fuckin' hero.
Since 2003, Lopez, Hughes, Joiner, and Lesemann have returned to their day jobs and played in other music projects. For the past few years, rumors have swirled about a reunion from the Rock*A*Teens. That speculation finally became a reality earlier this year when the band announced its first shows in 12 years. To celebrate the comeback, Merge Records has [http://www.mergerecords.com/rockateens-reissue-tourdates|reissued Sweet Bird of Youth on vinyl.''
Ballard Lesemann: Everybody scattered naturally, had kids, and had their family and work lives. After Chris Lopez did his Merge solo project Tenement Halls, he sort of backed off.
Henry Owings: I think a lot of the Tenement Halls was about the old Chris being shed. He stopped drinking, he went vegan, stopped smoking, fell madly in love with Shannon Wright, raised a kid. That's a pretty tremendous metamorphosis.
Ballard Lesemann: The Merge 25th anniversary show was the spark. It blossomed into something that no one expected. Luckily, we can all get off work and make it happen.
Laura Ballance: We were surprised that Lopez said yes. I felt like he had left that part of himself behind.
Chris Lopez: I was always adamant against it. Let's just let sleeping dogs lie. This year, I felt more comfortable with it. I didn't want to get it together and have it be shitty.
Will Joiner: Our 10-year anniversary of the last show was coming up in December 2012. In May of that year, I took him out to Manuel's for a beer and tried my best to talk him into it. I probably got him about 49 percent of the way there. I can't say I'd given up on it because I've always been highly in favor of it. But I certainly didn't bring it up again. All of the sudden, out of the blue, he called me up and said that he basically wanted to do it.
Ballard Lesemann: I wouldn't be surprised if he's got some new songs up his sleeve.
Henry Owings: I do know that that brain is holding a fuckload of music.
Chris Lopez: No one has expressed any desire to make new music. We've got our hands full trying to figure out what we used to do.
Will Joiner: I haven't played rock 'n' roll for like 10 years. I haven't picked up an electric instrument since 2004.
Ballard Lesemann: The first rehearsals we did, within 10 minutes on the beat-up old equipment we had at Justin's house, it sounded like it did back in the old days. It was a weird feeling, right back where it was.
Justin Gage: I don't think what they were doing can be dated at all. That's kind of the beauty of it. I'm hoping their shows will be as great or greater than 10 to 15 years ago.
Chris Lopez: It's going to be as much about our band and the music as the people out there. It's going to be like a family reunion. It's going to be perfect, perfect, perfect.
The Cabbagetown band's members, friends, and fans discuss some of the group's most memorable songs