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While dabbling in photography and sculpture as a student at UGA, Pierce wound up befriending a young Michael Stipe in art class. Pierce soon started playing drums in Stipe's short-lived experimental/psych rock band Tanzplagen (German for "dance plague"), but after about a month of playing around Athens, Stipe dissolved the group to focus on R.E.M.
By 1983, Pierce was dating Michael's younger sister, Lynda, who asked him to join her in the band Oh-OK after he'd auditioned to play in Love Tractor but was turned down. Oh-OK's lineup was filled out by vocalist Linda Hopper (Magnapop), and the group played its first show at the 40 Watt Club, opening for another early Michael Stipe noise project, 1066 Gaggle O'Sound.
Oh-OK's style quickly developed into a fusion of minimalism, new wave and playful post-punk. The group went on to join revered new wave label DB Records, along with fellow Athens bands Pylon and the B-52's. It even received a modest bit of national attention with its first 7-inch EP, Wow Mini Album.
As a drummer, Pierce's style was bold and uncluttered. He focused on a single, pulsating rhythm without adding a lot of fills. It was a distinct technique — one that didn't allow for many solos from anyone else — which caused some friction in the group. "Before Oh-OK, I had played in a few bands, and I was in the marching band," he says. "My style was a little of both and I just applied that to the Athens pop sensibility."
The Athens music scene was garnering a national reputation as an alternative music mecca and Pierce started editing a local magazine, Tasty World, that began as a forum for people to track their favorite groups. "Everyone was hearing rumors about our own bands, but there were no facts anywhere," he says. "It was all stuff that national publications were clamoring for, but no one in Athens knew anything about what was going on. It was all still underground."
But things never quite took off for Oh-OK the way they did for R.E.M. and the B-52's. In time, Pierce and Lynda Stipe broke up and he started playing with recent Nebraska transplant Matthew Sweet, who remembers him as "a Pied Piper kind of character."
"He was a little older, but he was sensitive, and he dug music and creativity," Sweet recalls. "It always felt like he had ambitions to become this lounge singer kind of icon guy. I can see him back then in an ascot and a velvet jacket. He liked to dress up in a thrift store kind of way. He was a part of the Athens music scene, but he was apart from it as well."
As overlapping tour schedules became too hectic to manage, Pierce left Oh-OK to form the power-pop duo Buzz of Delight with Sweet. "Matthew's stuff was so refreshing, and he liked my style as a drummer," Cologne says. "I chose to keep working with him because we had already been in the studio and he had financed the record himself. It just felt right."
Sweet and Pierce released the "Christmas" 7-inch, as well as a 12-inch EP titled Sound Castles, both for DB Records. They were praised by Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau, and the Buzz played shows in New York — until one night, after a gig at Irving Plaza in '85, when Sweet accepted a solo recording contract with Columbia Records.
Sweet broke the news to Pierce and left Athens for good. "I was a little pissed, but I was praising him at the same time," Cologne says. "I was just the drummer. I didn't write any of the songs and I didn't have anything to be mad about. But it was hard to maintain a friendship with him after that because he was always on the road."
Meanwhile, strange things were afoot in Pierce's world. It was the mid-'80s and he was left to his own devices. After spending a few days locked up in his art studio, Pierce had a premonition. He envisioned himself digging to the bottom of a Dumpster and pulling out stacks of old records. He did plenty of Dumpster diving back then, but it was mostly in search of found objects to use in his sculpting. The same day, the words "Romeo Cologne" popped into his head and he wrote them on a wall with a Magic Marker. "I thought, 'Huh, that's a weird name,'" he says.
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