The Rock*A*Teens: An Oral History 

After a 12-year hiatus, the influential Cabbagetown rockers return

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SWEET BIRD: Lopez screams into a microphone as the Rock*A*Teens run through songs for their upcoming reunion gigs. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • SWEET BIRD: Lopez screams into a microphone as the Rock*A*Teens run through songs for their upcoming reunion gigs.

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.

Amy Ray: I totally thought [signing with Merge] was a smart thing to do. I took that as Chris [Lopez] wanting to get more out of what they were doing.

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.

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