Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Martin Hacker-Mullen is at a crossroads: Two rock projects they’ve played in, and contributed to for several years, are going through some changes. Charlotte band Clearbody — comprised of Hacker-Mullen and their two closest friends, vocalist/guitarist Eric Smeal and drummer Seth Wesner — has garnered national attention and rave reviews with the release of its 2020 debut album One More Day.
While not poised like Clearbody for a commercial breakthrough, the second project on Hacker-Mullen’s plate claims a firmer hold on their heart. Emo-punk-inspired Stress Fractures began in 2017 as its creator’s solo project. Now, impacted in part by Clearbody’s burgeoning success, Stress Fractures has seen a shift in personnel and where its upcoming debut album was recorded, but the band remains hot-wired to Hacker-Mullen’s psyche.
Despite Clearbody’s hard work, creativity and camaraderie, it’s still surprising to be part of what is touted as the next big pop-punk band from Charlotte, Hacker-Mullen acknowledges.
“We were confident in [Clearbody’s One More Day], but had no idea it would have that range of appeal,” Hacker-Mullen says. “We thought that our friends would like it, and … peers would listen to it. But magazines that I bought at Books-A-Million when I was in high school writing about me now is not something I expected.”
Hacker-Mullen is referring to a Spin Magazine headline proclaiming that “Clearbody Up Their Game” upon the album’s release.
It shouldn’t be surprising, however, that Hacker-Mullen’s musical multi-tasking is beginning to bear fruit.
“It’s fun to challenge myself with all these different projects, and never keep myself in one style of writing or music,” Hacker-Mullen says.
The bassist/guitarist/vocalist has jumped with both feet into a heavy shoegaze combo, a punk-rock group and a power-violence screamo-hardcore band. Hacker-Mullen also joined as touring guitarist for Charlotte emo-punk band Jail Socks, where they saw a Charlotte band with national exposure go from breakthrough to potential break-up. (Jail Socks is currently on hiatus.)
When Queen City Nerve reaches Hacker-Mullen by phone, they are at The Animal Farm, a restored 19th-century farmhouse and barn in Flemington, New Jersey, that’s been turned into a recording studio.
With Smeal, Wesner and producer Jon Markson (Drug Church, Taking Meds) Hacker-Mullen is in the middle of a stretch of four 10-hour days recording the full-length follow up to One More Day. Despite Hacker-Mullen’s commitment to Clearbody, their first musical priority is — and perhaps always will be — Stress Fractures.
Mamas, Papas and Dollhands
New Jersey-born, but raised in Columbia, South Carolina, Hacker-Mullen discovered guitar (and Guitar Hero) at the age of 8. When the video game drew more of their attention than the instrument, their mother pulled the plug and signed Hacker-Mullen up for proper lessons.
Now 25, Hacker-Mullen cites musical inspirations like Pennsylvania emo and math-rock band Algernon Cadwallader, which introduced them to the guitar tuning they currently use. Mid-to-late-1990s and early-2000s emo and pop-punk bands like Blink 182, Third Eye Blind and Jimmy Eat World are even more influential.
“Pop music is important to understand if you want to put together music that people are going to listen to,” Hacker-Mullen says.
Based in Winnsboro, South Carolina, Stress Fractures released its first two EPs, Don’t Close Your Eyes and Rock and Roll is Dead, in 2018. Hacker-Mullen’s friend Marcus Wickham played drums on the EPs while primary songwriter Hacker-Mullen sang and played everything else.
Don’t Close Your Eyes is a collection of break-up songs, but on Rock and Roll is Dead, Hacker-Mullen’s muse is far more emotional and personal.
Hacker-Mullen drew lots of inspiration from their mother’s domestic partner, Steve Hobson, as the budding guitarist and musician navigated through middle and high school.
Hobson was a session guitarist who toured with big name classic-rock acts including Paul Revere & The Raiders and folk rock icons The Mamas & the Papas.
“[Hobson] helped me understand how to play my guitar better,” Hacker-Mullen offers. “He’s probably the greatest guitarist I’ve ever known, and I was grateful for the time I got to have with him.”
When Hacker-Mullen was 17, Hobson, who struggled with addiction, passed away.
“That hit me hard,” Hacker-Mullen says.
The next person to impact Hacker-Mullen’s life was longtime friend and bandmate Eric Smeal. Similar to Stress Fractures’ early musical efforts, Smeal released Flare Gun, the first album by their band Dollhands in 2015. Smeal wrote all the songs, played all the instruments and recorded the project alone.
Hacker-Mullen and Smeal came together in a roundabout way. By 2018, Stress Fractures’ lineup was in flux. Wickham had moved to Nashville, and Hacker-Mullen’s partner, Liz Neyman, had begun playing bass for the band.
Then Neyman moved to Charlotte, and Hacker-Mullen began visiting frequently. On one visit, Hacker-Mullen approached Smeal, who was then booking Charlotte shows, and hit them up for a pass to a local gig by the band Mom Jeans. Once Hacker-Mullen subsequently moved to Charlotte for a six-month spell, they struck up a friendship.
“Almost every night, Eric was picking me or [me and Neyman] up and taking us wherever,” Hacker-Mullen says. “We would just hang out all night.”
After a year and a half of socializing, the relationship changed with a shakeup in Dollhands’ lineup. Smeal went looking for a new bass player.
“I was their first choice … to play bass,” Hacker-Mullen says. “It came about naturally.”
Shortly after that, in 2019, Dollhands and Stress Fractures released the split EP Spring Break. Hacker-Mullen next asked Smeal to play drums in Stress Fractures. Smeal said yes, but switched from drums to guitar in short order. Mutual friend Seth Wesner stepped in on Dollhands’ drum stool.
In late 2018, Hacker-Mullen and Smeal launched Acrobat Unstable Records with the intention of having an outlet for their own music, Hacker-Mullen says.
It has since developed into a resource for releasing music Hacker-Mullen and Smeal feel needs to be heard, including a few projects by friends who lack the means to get their music on record.
Clearbody’s One More Day was released by third-party label Smartpunk, and the band is currently shopping for a label to release Clearbody’s as yet untitled second album.
“It’s nice when you can have a third party as interested in what you’re working on as you,” Hacker-Mullen says. “I personally would like if somebody could fuck with this record as much as we do, so that they could help us push it the way that it needs to be pushed.”
The back-and-forth between the two bands spilled over onto Stress Fractures’ 2020 EP Short Films. The lineup for this release is Smeal on guitar, Wesner on drums, Neyman on production, and Hacker-Mullen on vocals, guitar and production.
Hacker-Mullen says the EP might not have come about without the input of Smeal, who had written Stress Fractures’ forthcoming debut LP and had some leftover songs that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album.
“I was thinking I might just shelve [the songs], and focus harder on the stuff I think is more cohesive,” Hacker-Mullen says. “Eric was like, ‘I think these are three of the best songs you’ve ever written. It would be upsetting if you never put them out.’”
From Dollhands to Clearbody to Stress Fractures
Hacker-Mullen said the trio began to influence each other musically. Regardless of the possible cause, Dollhands, which was Smeal’s primary writing vehicle just as Stress Fractures is Hacker-Mullen’s mode of expression, began to change.
“Seth and I were interested in shoegaze and punk and hardcore,” Hacker-Mullen says. “Dollhands … was straightforward punk-leaning garage-rock music.”
As Smeal’s interests shifted to other musical genres and they started dabbling in different writing styles, Dollhands shed its old identity. With the rebranding of the band as Clearbody, Smeal decided to step away from playing guitar for Stress Fractures, a move approved by Hacker-Mullen.
Although Hacker-Mullen is proud of the Dollhands releases, the name and identity change was beneficial.
“We reshaped it into Clearbody and focused on how can we get heavy-driving guitar tones and intricate guitar leads, but still have awesome atmospheric rhythms,” Hacker-Mullen says.
As a result, One More Day, by the rechristened Clearbody, became a passionate labor of love.
The band’s commitment is obvious in songs like “Ultraclarity,” where fuzzed subterranean bass anchors jagged distorted guitars that radiate outward in a shimmering emo/hardcore aurora. Similarly, the anthemic “Quarterback” enfolds wheeling scythes of flashing guitars with sweet and soaring vocals. Ethereal wordless vocals also simmer atop chugging hardcore riffs on “Scratch the Color.”
Speaking from Animal Farm, Hacker-Mullen says the forthcoming second LP will up the ante. They feel that Clearbody’s sophomore album provides the band an opportunity to create songs that sound hard as nails.
“My favorite thing about the album we’re working on now [is] you can hear the cohesion between everything,” Hacker-Mullen says. “Every song shares the same qualities but [they] choose a different aspect to bump up.”
Smeal says that One More Day, as captivating as it is, is a collection of older songs the band had been playing prior to the rebrand as Clearbody.
“The new stuff is totally 100% us,” Smeal says. “A lot of One More Day was written just by me, but all of the new songs we wrote together. It’s better because of that.”
To add to Hacker-Mullen’s eventful playing and releasing schedule, they also tracked Stress Fracture’s upcoming debut album over the course of 10 days last year in Florida.
With Smeal having stepped away from guitar for the band, a new Stress Fractures lineup was necessitated for the album. Caden Clinton from Tallahassee emo band Pool Kids played drums on the album while Hacker-Mullen plays everything else.
Hacker-Mullen is currently getting the LP mixed for an as-yet-unscheduled release.
“It’s a self-titled album,” Hacker-Mullen says. “The lyrical themes play into the concept of a stress fracture — doing something over and over again until it breaks. I’m using my own moniker as my writing inspiration.”
The sobering theme fits in with the overall message of Stress Fractures’ music, Hacker-Mullen says.
“What I get behind with a lot of my music is that life is fucking hard and it’s terrible, but if you want to try to make it good, it can be good — but it is a fight, and you shouldn’t forget that.”
As important as Stress Fractures is to Hacker-Mullen as an outlet, Clearbody’s next release is eagerly anticipated. Why not put all their musical and career eggs in the Clearbody basket?
“It’s the same reason my eggs were spread even further before,” says Hacker-Mullen. “I want music to be my job. I don’t want to have to clock in anywhere ever again.”
Smeal also has high expectations for Clearbody’s new music.
“I hope people like it,” Smeal says. “But I’m just trying to have fun and rock with my buddies.”