Silver From the Silt 

With Tenement Halls, Chris Lopez polishes a muddy legacy

Sitting rigidly against a wooden booth at the Little 5 Points Corner Tavern, Chris Lopez transfers ice cubes with a fork from his water to a cup of black coffee. He seems on edge. The reluctant local music fixture and founder of the now-defunct Rock*A*Teens has long radiated a modest and artistically frazzled presence in his hazy songs. Now working as Tenement Halls, Lopez reveals a humbly brilliant songwriter on his flourishing solo album, Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells.

Since the late '80s, Lopez has played guitar for once-lauded locals Dirt, Seersucker, and the Opal Foxx Quartet, but it wasn't until forging the Rock*A*Teens that his talents became apparent.

The Rock*A*Teens married the mysterious elements of Joy Division and Jan and Dean with reverb-drenched heartbreak. Their sound reached far beyond Atlanta's perimeter and the group landed on indie bastion Merge Records, home to such revered luminaries as Superchunk, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Magnetic Fields. Seven years and several records later, the group went bust. Though critical darlings, the R*A*Ts never engaged the buying public.

Lopez cut his teeth in the post-Nirvana '90s, a time when bands like Pavement, Sebadoh and Guided by Voice displayed intense work ethics while embracing willful obscurity. Does he feel pressure to adhere to this mythos? "Who's to say what success is in that respect?" Lopez says. "Bands were being judged by a standard of if you came close to Nirvana, you were successful. The Pearl Jams and the Soundgardens, the stuff that was on the radio was all lunkhead music, anyway. I don't think of Sebadoh or Pavement as obscure, but the difference between them and me is that this is not willful obscurity, this is obscurity."

For Lopez, the Rock*A*Teens' place in history is fine with him. "I certainly don't take myself too seriously. I'm confident with the songs I write, but not with the showmanship side of being a musician," he says. "The Rock*A*Teens came to a point where the group was serving the ego. When we played shows, I wondered was I supposed to be trying to impress people and let them judge me, even though they don't even know me? Speaking for myself, I never possessed the ability or desire to be a dancing monkey. I just wanted to play music and leave it at that."

The Rock*A*Teens used naturally occurring reverb and distortions as their calling card. Lopez's distressed vocal wails complemented the gritty tonal qualities of the music with an uncanny resonance. With Tenement Halls, the sound is cleaned up -- some. "Now She Knows" and "My Wicked Wicked Ways" are classic Lopez numbers that could have appeared on any Rock*A*Teens disc.

But what's most noticeable is Lopez's enhanced lyrical strength. "Charlemagne" falls somewhere between the Beatles' and Siouxsie and the Banshees' respective takes on "Dear Prudence." "Marry Me" sounds suspiciously like a disguised serenade to his wife, Touch&Go recording artist Shannon Wright. "Silver from the Silt" thunders with a passion for language that's not often associated with the average rock band.

Though he quickly dismisses the influences of luxuriant Southern authors such as William Faulkner he defers to another Southern voice: Walker Percy. Averting book titles like The Second Coming and Love in the Ruins, he pauses before offering his assessment of Percy's style. "It's a self-deprecating kind of loneliness, but more in an existential way; always looking at things and getting the scenarios," Lopez says. "His characters are more urbane. They live in big cities and his writing is funny but it's not gory. It's not phantasmagoric -- if that's a real word."

Aside from his verbal contributions to Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells, Lopez produced and played all the instruments himself. The few exceptions include both former Rock*A*Teen Ballard Lesemann and Cat Power and Hubcap City's Will Fratesi on drums, and Wright on a Wurlitzer.

For live performances, Lopez has assembled a lineup consisting of Fratesi playing drums, Tom Collins' Fran Capitanelli playing bass, and Rock*A*Teens alum Jeff Wiggins playing guitar and keyboards. "[Touring] can be a real drag, but I'll do it," he says. Lifting his gaze, Lopez scans the dining room and reflects. "The first time I ever played live was in this very room, with the Opal Foxx Quartet, back when this place was the L5P Pub. That was an entire lifetime ago. It was all a lark, but it was a lot of fun back then when I had no idea what I was doing."

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