Working at The Milestone was a dream job for Andy Fenstermaker. He means that literally.
“I look back at my time there as though I actually lived in a dream, [one] that allowed me to realize my own dreams and present them to other people,” he says.
In 2005 the self-described rural weirdo from Gastonia befriended Neal Harper, then-owner of the west Charlotte punk club, and badgered him for a job. At the tender age of 20, Fenstermaker started working the door at the funky, graffiti-strewn venue, even living there for eight months in 2006. The club on Tuckaseegee Road became part pressure cooker, part arts lab — an alchemical cocoon that housed the metamorphosis of guitarist and songwriter Fenstermaker into the performance artist known as Andy the Doorbum.
“I was witness to three to four bands a night for six to seven nights a week, which helped me hone my craft in ways I could not have otherwise,” Fenstermaker remembers.
His first move from doorman to onstage performer came in the form of a gruff-voiced solo acoustic set. By 2014, Fenstermaker had also developed his performance art, a conflation of myth, risk and ritual. While there’s no such thing as a typical Andy the Doorbum show, a recent gig uploaded to YouTube provides the curious with a teaser.
At the 2018 show in Telc, Czech Republic, Fenstermaker is a hooded magician on a darkened stage, singing a cross between a wistful folk song and a Gregorian chant. Then he’s hit with a full spotlight, and we see him bedecked in a horned headdress, which casts a shadow like an ancient glowering god.
We might be watching Merlin weaving a pop incantation, a knot of conflicting primal emotions, at the edge of the abyss. Or it could be something entirely different. The interpretation is left open to the audience.
In retrospect, it was inevitable that Charlotte could not contain Fenstermaker’s explosive curiosity, creativity and insight for long. In the summer of 2015, he decamped for Los Angeles, where he currently lives with Sarah Sitkin, a multifaceted artist who combines sculpture, photography, special effects and body art. There he continues to create and tour, which is good news for those who failed to catch a show while the Doorbum still stalked among us.
Fenstermaker’s Musing on a Mass Extinction Tour will log four stops in Charlotte, including a set at his old homestead, The Milestone. The Queen City shows will comprise a mix of performance sets and acoustic performances depending on the venue, he says.
“The themes for the performance-based sets involve the dynamics between light and darkness throughout life, and finding a place in an ailing world,” he explains.
Fenstermaker won’t disclose more than that, just that he wants each audience member to draw something personal from the experience.
The mystical and mysterious Doorbum, who turned 35 in April, grew up in a musical family. Gatherings where everyone sang and played traditional, country and bluegrass tunes were common. When Fenstermaker was 10 years old, a neighbor telephoned crying because Kurt Cobain had just died.
The tragedy opened a window for Fenstermaker onto a whole new world of music. Not long after that, a friend gave him a Butthole Surfers tape. The tape became a gateway to the Melvins, Pixies and Leonard Cohen.
At 14, Fenstermaker’s father bought him a guitar, which he taught himself to play. As he developed his songwriting, his family continued to support his endeavors, even when his creativity took a decidedly weird turn.
“[My family] accepts it as me just being me,” Fenstermaker says. “They raised me to be unashamed of who I am.”
After a string of seven albums and EPs, the first of which was recorded in the small, cramped door booth at The Milestone, Fenstermaker reached another, well, milestone, in 2014. That’s when he released The Fool, a mix of song, ceremony and personal discovery laced with ritualistic drums and spoken word with nary an acoustic guitar in sight.
Deeply proud of the record, Fenstermaker wanted to release it on vinyl but he couldn’t justify the cost of the pressing unless he could perform the songs live, and that wasn’t possible with his simple acoustic setup. In the meantime, he had been contemplating and mentally cataloging ideas for performance art pieces. The Fool became the catalyst to bring those ideas to fruition onstage, and Fenstermaker’s first performance art set was born.
“I realized it was the right path,” he remembers. “It allowed me to express myself in ways that I had never been able when I was just singing and playing guitar.”
Fenstermaker immersed himself into developing his performance pieces, presenting them at venues throughout the Charlotte area. April 2015 marked another transformation for Fenstermaker when he launched his Alien/Native Movement, which spawned a pop-up street performance assault he dubbed the Art War.
The Alien/Native Movement, a term that refers to being part of a scene while also feeling separate from it, started as a moniker to place on Fenstermaker’s self-released records, a kind of fake label name. It also became a fitting label for the group of out-of-state artists and performers he invited to take part in the Art War.
Conceived as a series of art eruptions and magical seismic waves around town, the alternative onslaught took to the streets in our often staid and self-absorbed city. The Art War included scheduled music, dance and theater performances, as well as guerilla events designed to shake up the status quo. Reactions ranged from people telling Fenstermaker how inspired they were by the happenings to others getting so angry that they wanted to punch him in the face.
“It was everything I had hoped it would be,” he says laughing.
One unforeseen result of the Art War was that it also became Fenstermaker’s unintended swan song to Charlotte. One of the artists he invited to participate was Sitkin, and when she invited Fenstermaker to accompany her back to Los Angeles to explore their budding relationship, he readily complied. “She’s the most talented person I know,” Fenstermaker says.
He also felt it was time to move on, and that the Art War served as a fitting goodbye to the city that incubated his artistic aspirations.
“Everything about [the move] felt completely natural so I followed that feeling to see where it would lead,” he says.
Since moving to Los Angeles, Fenstermaker has pursued his music and art, while also working as a set builder in the art department for television shows. It seems a strange occupation for Fenstermaker, who has in the past attributed much of his creativity to his avoidance of watching television.
Yet he sees no contradiction here. He respects the people who work on the productions, and he finds the behind-the-scenes work interesting, he explains. But he still refuses to watch the finished product. He continues to shun media targeted towards mass consumption.
“There’s something hollow about it that does not speak to me in any way,” Fenstermaker says.
That said, he believes video is a valid art form and he enjoys working on independent film projects.
After the Mass Extinction tour, Fenstermaker will perform late May in London, and he’s also currently putting the finishing touches on his next album, tentatively titled Of Tears, No Amount Can Quench Mouths Maimed By Drought.
For now, though, he’s looking forward to returning to Charlotte and the gritty club that nurtured his ambitions. After all, The Milestone and its extended family, particularly Harper, supported Fenstermaker as he was coming into his own personally and artistically.
“I’ve traveled a lot and performed in many amazing venues, but you just don’t find places that special very often,” Fenstermaker says. “Charlotte is extremely fortunate to have it, and I was fortunate to be part of it for 11 years. I will always sing its praises.”
Andy the Doorbum performs at The Milestone on May 11 with Ceschi, Factor Chandelier, Zeta and The Emotron; at Lunchbox Records on May 12 with Ceschi; and at Repo Record on May 13 with Ceschi.