HOMEWOOD’S ROCK STAR DADS
Portico Homewood writer Jim Fahy sat down with some of Homewood’s most well-known rocker dads to talk music, kids, and suburban living.
by Jim Fahy photo by Brit Huckabay
A musician dreams of many things. Fame and fortune? Sometimes (but usually one more than the other—and usually the latter). Recognition of artistic genius? More often than not. A little validation goes a long way after all—especially in this day and age. But being known as a “Suburban Rock Dad?” That doesn’t often come up. But Homewood isn’t a typical suburb, and one of the most unique aspects of the city is that it’s a home for a wide variety of artists.
I met some of these artists—in this case, musicians—at Avondale Brewing Company during the most Alabama of Augusts. Hot, stormy, surprisingly temperate all in the course of a few hours. While posing for photos on Avondale’s outdoor stage, these six musicians joke about ailments. “Backeotomy” becomes a popular suggestion for a band name (three of us have had back surgery—myself included). But this is hardly a gathering of geriatrics. Rather 40-something dads that, while not immune to the mystery ailments all adults face, have a resistance to the formal trappings of suburban life. All six have a rich, musical life that runs parallel to their day jobs, mortgages, car payments, schools, and the rest. They’re in pretty good shape, too. Dare I say, handsome?
This is no gaggle of amateurs either. All of our subjects have not only spent their past lives writing, recording, and performing original music, they’re doing it now—in the present—and they plan to in the future. Though not immune to the lure of a cover set—especially when it’s for charity as is the case for Grateful Dads (see sidebar)—everyone here creates original music. Not because they need to. Because they have to. Because that’s what artists do. And these lads, devoted fathers all, are just that—artists.
So, here we are on this mild August night, getting loose, being frank, and making sense of the realities, glories, and annoying misconceptions that surround playing rock and roll beyond your “golden years”—whatever the hell that means. Much of it can’t be printed here… But we’ll hit the highlights.
First, allow me to make some introductions:
Les Nuby is something of a local legend. A natural, soulful musician who is ridiculously proficient on a number of instruments, Nuby made a name for himself as the drummer for Birmingham legends, Verbena. After working as a session musician in Los Angeles, Nuby returned to Birmingham and became the deadly lead guitarist for Vulture Whale. His new project, Holiday Gunfire, is in the midst of finishing its debut long-player—a treat for those who like their rock super melodic and very, very loud. Les is also the co-owner of Ol Elegante, a Homewood-based recording studio that has likely captured the
essence of your new favorite Birmingham band, in addition to that of notable musicians from around the country.
Chris Rowell grew up in Birmingham but spent years in Atlanta where he toured and released records with a number of projects, including his band Warm in the Wake, his electro-acoustic project, 3D5SPD, and King Lear Jet—whose music was heard on shows like Felicity and Dawson’s Creek. Since returning home, Rowell has kept busy with his gorgeous, intricate, and languid indie rock band, Sea Fix, as well as The Lost Controls and Bunny Austin. Rowell also maintains a secret studio, the appropriately titled Hidden Window Studio, and occasionally produces other artists such as The White Bats.
Chris Hoke works in public relations as the Executive Creative Director at Markstein, but he finds it hard to relate to people who aren’t similarly obsessed with music. “I don’t wanna say I’m not friends with other people, but I’m not friends with other people. I don’t even know what to talk about!” Not that you’d know it: Hoke is affable, smart, and funny with a ton of great stories. Adept at several stringed instruments, he’s a ripping guitarist with a style that incorporates cool technology with his ferocious playing. He’s spent years playing with Rowell, both in Atlanta and currently as Sea Fix and The Lost Controls. He’s also a frequent Grateful Dad performer.
Tommy Prewitt spent years as a professional drummer. At Auburn, he started a band called Flat Stanley that spent years touring the southeast. After graduation, he moved to Atlanta and formed Month of Sundays, who put out a few records and toured the world, until their breakup in 1995. Fun fact: Month of Sundays sent a cease-and-desist letter to a young band from Louisville who was interested in the same band name. They took heed and changed their name to My Morning Jacket. Though music is no longer his day job, Prewitt still makes plenty of time for playing, contributing his considerable chops to Bunny Austin (which also features Rowell), the slinky post-punk of Flux & Lion, and many a Grateful Dads gig. Both of his kids play music, too, and he’s always happy to help them make noise at home—which makes him a saint.
Bret Estep travels the globe working for The Southern Company. But at home, he lends his world-class drumming to Sea Fix, and a small variety of other local projects when time allows. Though he’s a beast of a drummer, like everyone else gathered today, he plays a variety of instruments, including guitar, clawhammer banjo, mandolin, and bass. He also claims to “have a somewhat expensive obsession with modular synthesizers and drum machines.” “Music is a huge part of my life,” he says. “As a drummer (who can play a bit of some other stuff), I just find the entire world as a giant musical and rhythmic experience.” Bret is also part of Hidden Window Studio, a Grateful Dad, and drummer for the excellent R.E.M. cover band, 7 Chinese Brothers. Speaking of which…
Danny Whitsett has been excitedly figuring out the setlist for a 7 Chinese Brothers gig—the aforementioned R.E.M. cover band—at Saturn on December 14th. Like many music lovers in the Southeast (myself included), R.E.M. was practically religion. The band came together for a one-off gig in 2013 at Bottletree and sold it out (and then some—I was there). A Workplay show met with the same success, so the upcoming gig should prove a good time. Danny is the engine behind 3 Legged Dog—the Grateful Dads band that features almost everyone here. Now the owner of Paintworks Design Studio, Danny spent the early 90s as a professional musician, albeit a struggling one. Once he and his wife Susanna settled in Homewood, he retired his professional status, which allowed him to fall in love with music all over again. Though he still writes and performs original music, he’s quite content putting his talents towards charitable events like Grateful Dads.
Fahy: So here we are. It’s a little darker, the temperature is damn near perfect, and we’re discussing the draw of Homewood. “My wife had never lived in Birmingham, and she was like, ‘I don’t want to move to the suburbs,’” says Hoke, whose family moved from Atlanta. “Homewood, in my mind, was a nice mix of suburban and urban. Also, having kids, it’s a good school system. As a dad, you have to choose your school system wisely, but you also want to be connected to the pulse of a city.”
“That was the simple answer for us,” says Rowell. “We knew the schools were awesome. The place where we were in Atlanta, in Dekalb County, was freakin’ awful. In fact, the school shut down the year after we left.” The schools were a big reason Whitsett’s family has stayed in Homewood since 1993. “My kids are in a school system where it doesn’t matter what activity they choose, it’s cool,” he says. “So far it’s band… Every single kid is so into what they’re doing.”
The make-up of the city and schools were also major factors. “It’s diverse,” says Rowell. “Only 60% to 65% white. There are all kinds of people—a lot of really good people,” says Rowell. “I literally walked into a City Council meeting, had the floor, and got the mayor, and it wasn’t a big deal. It’s still small enough for that kind of thing to happen.”
Speaking of kids, it strikes me that—especially in an age where funding for the arts in schools is being slashed—this group has found a community that believes in the importance of art, encourages creativity, and proves that art can provide happiness in one’s everyday life.
“It’s all my kids and wife have ever known,” says Danny. “There’s gonna be a guitar and pedal…” “Mine too,” says Tommy. “I met my wife at a gig in Athens, Georgia. Now we’re married and have two kids.” And she’s good with you playing music? “Yeah. It was a harder when the kids were little, because they were a handful.” “But that’s why we practice late on Tuesdays!” exclaims Bret with a laugh.
When asked how their kids feel about them as musicians, Hoke answers, “As your kids get older, their relationship with rock and roll starts to develop. And there’s this weird moment where they realize ‘You can be cool and you’re dad!’ But also, I listen to Bad Brains! So my son plays cello in reaction to my rock and roll.”
“At least he’s playing cello!” I say. That’s a breakthrough. Not only that, Hoke’s son joined 3 Legged Dog for a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” during last year’s Grateful Dads’ event. And it’s not just Hoke’s kids.
Hoke: “Chris’ son plays 20’s jazz standards on the piano!”
Rowell: “I’m like ‘Let’s sit down and play a song by The Band. There are four chords in this one. Let’s do it!’ And he’s kind of banging it out—boring!!! ‘I wanna play these modal ninths and whatever else—that’s what I’m into right now.’”
Hoke: “My kids are both actively learning and writing music, although nothing like what I do. I think they really want their own identity in music, so I try to be as hands off as possible and just introduce them to concepts and artists that I think are important—not necessarily ones they would like.”
Tommy: “Mitch is just taking off on the drums. He’s marching in the band, but he also plays the drum kit. Plays in the jazz band. He’s taught himself guitar. He’s in the 10th grade. He’ll be playing downstairs, and I’ll go down and say, ‘Play what you just did so I can see what you’re doing!’”
Bret: “My kids love that I am a musician. They come watch me play. We listen to a lot of music together and share what we like and why. My older son has a beautiful voice and can play piano. My younger son is a killer drummer and a bit of a synth guy too.”
Les: “My kids seem to think it’s great! Unless they come with me to work. Then it’s: ‘Oh God dad, your work is SO boring.’ It’s a lot of fun.”
Danny: “I’ve got this little shed with a thousand albums and a turntable. I have a high school senior and a sophomore in college, and we’ll go out there. The other night I put on Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones, and my daughter’s like ‘Damn! This is so good!’ And I say, ‘I know! For ten years I’ve been telling you this!’ And she finally gets it!”
But there are also the social aspects that go along with music. Creation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, especially when it comes to music. Not only are you collaborating, you have to be industrious—booking shows, making connections, finding clever ways to get people to a show. Music gives a community so much more noise—more so, I would say, than sports.
“It’s interesting,” says Bret. “Whether it’s fishing, or racing cars, or whatever, those are not experiential for anybody else. I think for the folks we know, they enjoy coming to see us play. They think it’s kind of cool. Like, ‘I know that guy! He plays guitar.’ Maybe it’s a Homewood thing—maybe it’s our little artistic community—but they’re like ‘You’re playing? That’s cool. I want to come see you play. You know what? I don’t care if it sucks or if it’s great, I’m going to have fun.’”
“When Bowie died,” says Hoke, “I thought about the time I spent talking about his career, talking to my kids about how it was linked to fashion and more. My kids are going to say, ‘I remember when David Bowie died’—how our household revolves around rock and roll. We’re past the generation that thought, ‘It’s a young man’s game!’ Rock just is—it’s everybody’s game.”
Bret: “It takes stones to get up on stage and have people come watch. I think people respect that you’re getting up on stage and putting it out there. I think our community thinks that is cool.”
Rowell: “That’s where the schism is though: For us, we have to do that.”
Danny: “That’s right. You don’t have a choice. We consume a lot of music, but we’re also producers of music.”
Hoke: “When I first got back from Atlanta, Rowell introduced me to Jason Hamric , and I was talking about the fact that I was trying to keep playing. He was like, ‘You’re a lifer. It’s okay!’ It was like this acknowledgement that this never really stops. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a dad or this or that. You find ways to do it. And everyone at this table, we’ve all played together, because we find people in a similar life station. The group gets smaller, but it gets more focused.”
Les: “It’s my job. It’s my therapy. I have very little interest in traveling to play shows now. I have a greater appreciation for the musicianship these days. It might sound corny, but I think that it’s important to do exactly what you love.”
But for the slightest glimmer of adoration from their kids can be as satisfying as a sold-out gig.
Rowell: “I will say this. My kids listen to that stuff. They don’t tell me about it, but I know they do. And it warms my heart, because I know that they have at least listened.
FAHY: It gives them rare insight into who you are!
Bret: “My boys find it sincerely cool. They’re like, ‘I can go to iTunes and find Sea Fix and that’s cool.’ I caught Hatcher one day playing drums to one of our songs. That’s cool!”
Tommy: “Mitch was listening to some old stuff of mine and was loving it. He asked, ‘Why did y’all break up? You should put this up on iTunes.’ That’s kind of cool.