Rock stars often wear their hometowns as a badges of honor. Everybody knows that Bruce Springsteen hails from Asbury Park, New Jersey; the Beatles came from Liverpool, not London; and Athens, Georgia, might just be another sleepy college town if it weren’t for acts like R.E.M. and the B-52s. And yet when the band Wild Light tells people they hail from New Hampshire, their fans seem surprised. Says member and multi-instrumentalist Seth Pitman, “It definitely distinguishes us. There are people who have asked us what state New Hampshire’s in.”
The state of New Hampshire has a rich history of popular music. They may call themselves a Boston band, but Aerosmith got its start in Sunapee. Tom Rush was born in Portsmouth, and wrote “Merrimack County” about his childhood in Concord. And the tradition continues today with artists like Elsa Cross, who sings, plays and looks like the lost granddaughter of Elvis, or Nat Baldwin, the in-demand upright bass player who commutes to Brooklyn to play with Department of Eagles and the Dirty Projectors.
And yet New Hampshire has been a tough place to launch a rock band. Would-be rock stars find few clubs that will book them, much less pay them, unless they stick to playing covers of other people’s hits. Genuine music scenes are few and far between, outside of a few bars in Manchester or the Seacoast. It’s no wonder that so many acts head down the interstate to Boston or beyond in search of their big break.
That’s how Wild Light got their start, at least in their latest incarnation. The band formed around the core of Timothy Kyle and Jordan Alexander of Amherst, who have been making music together since grade school. In their teens they enlisted Seth Pitman of Hopkinton and Seth Kasper of Milford, forming a Clash-
influenced punk band that played basement parties and rec rooms.
Though the band broke up during college, the members started working together again in the summer of 2005 and relocated that fall to Quincy, Mass., to make a go of it as a band. They got their first break when they opened for Arcade Fire — the successful Montreal-based rock band whose leader, Win Butler, roomed with Alexander at Phillips Exeter Academy. That show won them a manager, Mark Kates, who has launched them onto high-profile tours with bands including The Doves and The Killers.
Their first LP, “Adult Nights,” was released this April on StarTime International. A mature but effusive debut, where joyous anthems and kitchen sink arrangements propel lyrics that are reflective but still raucous — for example, on the first single, “California on my Mind,” where a broken heart spurs the singer to kiss off the whole state.
But none of their successes came from living in Boston, where despite two years of hard work, they never cracked the city’s notoriously insular scene. So in 2007 they left their poorly-heated Quincy apartment and moved home to New Hampshire. The decision was a practical one. Still not able to support themselves on music, the band enjoys the support of their families — when they’re not on the road. Touring has taken up most of their time this year, as they bounce from one promising opening slot to the next. But when they have downtime, they spend it in the state.
“I don’t know if there’s a lot of ‘support,’ other than familial support, [for us] in New Hampshire,” says Pitman. “But we get a lot of kids who are in bands in New Hampshire e-mailing us and MySpacing us being like, ‘It’s great to see a band from New Hampshire make it! What should we do?’ Because these kids are in the same position that we were 10 years ago.” What’s his advice? “We don’t f****** know. We tell them, ‘Just keep playing!’”
While Boston and Cambridge are pockmarked with rock clubs that support up and coming bands, New Hampshire’s cities offer few venues. New talents scramble for open mic nights or gigs where they stand to make no money unless they can already draw a crowd. And the lack of clubs also keeps New Hampshire off the touring circuit: bands traveling from out of town either skip the state on their way between Boston and Portland, or stick to college campuses.
Local rockers still bemoan the death of the Elvis Room in Portsmouth — even though it shut its doors 10 years ago. Jon Nolan of the acclaimed ’90s roots rock band Say Zuzu remembers the Elvis Room as “a special place,” where acts like Elliott Smith, the Donnas and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies would make a stop on their way through New England.
But even after the Elvis Room closed, the independent rock scene didn’t disappear; it just went underground. “Basement shows, alternative venues and off-the-radar shows are common for specifically indie bands,” says Nolan. Outlets like the Hush Hush Sweet Harlot series at Portsmouth’s Red Door give local talent a receptive audience. And Nolan’s own
label, Milltown Records, has released CDs by bands like Murkadee and Lonesome State, and each album cover bears an illustration of the band’s hometown.
As Laurel Brauns notes, a small, struggling scene can also offer more support and tighter connections than a big city. The singer-songwriter was drawn back to her home state from Portland, Ore., by the talent and the kinship she found on the Seacoast, sharing a bill with the Hotel Alexis and Unbunny. Although she has since moved back to Oregon, Brauns remembers why she moved to Portsmouth in 2003: “It has that tight-knit family feel you would expect from a smaller scene. There’s definitely a general lack of competition, which can be a good or a bad thing … [but] bottom line, it’s really supportive.”
And for bands that win a national audience, coming from New Hampshire doesn’t sound as strange as it used to, especially in the Internet era. Hitting it big in your hometown grows less and less important: a band has to earn its reputation from where it tours and what the fans are saying about them online. Brauns wonders “if this is indicative of a general trend — that bands don’t even need to develop a local following or associate themselves with a geographical scene, per se?”
In that sense, New Hampshire bands don’t stay for their careers; they stay because it’s home. It inspires them with the evergreen landscapes and weathered mill towns where the bands grew up, and the family roots that keep them coming back. To take one example, Wild Light’s song “New Hampshire” ties an elliptical story about a family tragedy with music that celebrates the family’s deep roots.
And for all the strange looks it can bring, hailing from New Hampshire is still a point of pride. As Nolan recalls, “We had a number of people tell us it was a straight-out liability. And more than a couple bands from here would say they were from Boston when they were on the road. We always just said, ‘Screw that, we’re from New Hampshire.’ And that’s what we put on the front of our press kit. ‘Hick rock from New Hampshire.’” NH
There From HereA Virtual CD Produced by New Hampshire Magazine
We decided that a feature alone isn't enough to convey how awesome the New Hampshire music scene really is, so we created a virtual do-it-yourself CD.
We are lucky to have so many talented songwriters and musicians – it was kind of hard to pick just 12 to put on our CD, but here they are.
Just visit www.nh.com/therefromhere to download 12 songs (one from each artist). You will also find a link to download a high-quality PDF of an album cover we designed.
If you don't feel like downloading anything, you can listen to each song individually or as an entire album.
Below you'll find information about each song/artist we chose to include. Enjoy!
Four youngsters from Amherst are making their mark in the music world with a hot new CD and a touring schedule that has paired them with Arcade Fire, The Killers and The Doves.
Written by Wild Light
Engineered by Doug Boehm
From the album Adult Nights
Experimental music from the bassist for the Dirty Projectors, recently played with Björk. His deep acoustic reveries are haunting and slightly hallucinogenic.
Written by Nat Baldwin
Engineered by Chris Taylor
Portsmouth Herald Spotlight award finalist for best roots/rock band, they hook you in the heart with painful odes to loss and love.
Written by Eric Ott
Produced, engineered by Chris Magruder and Eric Ott
From the album Blinding Blues, Stinging Bees
Modern rockabilly, plays everywhere, 110 percent woman who channels Carl Perkins and early Elvis with a voice like Patsy Cline.
“Because of You”
Written by Elsa Cross
Produced and Recorded by Jon Nolan
From the album Elsa Cross, Unavailable
Power pop bongo band with catchy riffs and harmonic hooks. We dare you not to dance.
“She Wins Again”
Written by Patrick Curry
Engineered by Jonathan Wyman w/ Duncan Watt
From the album One More For Pocket
Exeter rappers bring hip hop cred to the white bread heartland without dropping a beat. Bypassing the gangster ethos but embracing the gritty underbelly of party culture, these boys are rhyming their way into the big time.
“Gone With The Wind”
Vocals: Bugout, Doug York
Produced by DC the MIDI Alien
Scratches by Statik Selektah
From the album The Breaking Point (Showoff Records 2006)
Seacoast singer/songwriter knits her ghostly sense of time and place into a big comfy sweater of sound covered with runes of enchantment.
Words and Music by Laurel Brauns
Produced by Jon Nolan
From the album Closed For the Season
Musically, Joe’s been around the block, heck, he helped build the block, performing as a young R&B star, Mighty Joe Drake, and going on to write songs for Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter and bluesman Paul Butterfield. Settled in Moultonborough, he still records but this is from one of his earlier works about to be re-released.
“Chase the Night Away”
Written by Joe Droukas
Engineered by Chris “Wild Wild” Westerman
From the album Bare Branches
Rapturous rockers apply Beach Boy harmonies to edgy indie lyrics and make magical music. Already on their way to the big time, you get the feeling they’d just as soon keep recording in the basement.
“Florence Foster Jenkins”
Lyrics by Christopher Pappas
Music by The Everyday Visuals
© 2009 Night Racing Music
From the album The Everyday Visuals
Instrumentalist and frequent Charlie Musselwhite sideman picks a funky guitar with a soulful vibe and scratches itches you didn’t know you had.
Written by Matthew Stubbs
Matthew Stubbs Music, BMI
Horn arrangements by Sax Gordon
From the album Soul Bender
Heavy Metal meets Grunge in a dark alley and they fight it out with deep bass notes and screaming guitars. Spontaneously, crowds gather to watch and headbang.
“Death by Rock & Roll”
All lyrics by Ben Phillips
Music by Phillips/FAMOUS/Khandwala
From the album All the Wicked
Talented Newmarket duo creates authentic, non-ironic folk music with sing-along tunes and somehow sounds hipper than most “alternative” bands out there. Yes, that’s a jaw harp you hear in the final refrain.
Hippo Posthumous Records
From the album The Johnnies