Eric Smeal has been busy, to say the least.
Smeal recently returned from Atlanta where he was touring with New York alt rockers Taking Meds as a member of not one, but two, bands representing Charlotte — his indie rock brainchild Dollhands and emo punk rockers Stress Fractures. As soon as Smeal returned to the Queen City, Dollhands played an Amos’ Southend gig on a bill that sounds like a who’s who of New York City indie music blog Brooklyn Vegan: shoegazers Nothing, rocker Tony Molina and hardcore crew Candy.
The 22-year-old guitarist and frontman was just warming up, however, as now he’s preparing for the release party of his two bands’ collaborative EP Spring Break at Snug Harbor on April 5.
Smeal has a lot on his mind, but at the moment he’s recalling his recent discovery that Spin doesn’t think that much of his taste in music. Smeal posted on his Facebook page that the national music webzine rated all 109 Sleater-Kinney songs, and that his favorite came in close to dead last.
“I think it’s funny when stuff like that happens,” Smeal says laughing. The ranking grabbed his attention because Sleater-Kinney is one of his favorite bands, and his favorite song from them is “Pompeii,” which boasts massive guitar riffs. “I saw that they put ‘Pompeii’ at 106, and I was like, ‘Come on! Have some respect. It’s a good song.’”
Smeal’s respect for the insistent riff — and for the occasional underappreciated song — stems from an early age. He first picked up a guitar at 12 years old but didn’t start taking music seriously until he discovered the songs of actor, singer and songwriter Drake Bell. Smeal was captivated by Bell’s harmonies.
“My parents raised me on classic rock, so Drake Bell was the first music I found for myself,” Smeal remembers. He considers himself lucky that he got to share a stage with Bell years later, when Smeal was playing with yet another one of his bands, an emo side project called Group Text. “It was really strange for me because [Bell] was my first concert, too,” Smeal continues.
Through Group Text member Brett Green, Smeal was introduced to another key influence. Green, formerly of Mineral Girls and currently with self-described torture jazz collective Skewed, also works at Lunchbox Records. One day at the shop, Green turned Smeal onto Soft Sounds from Another Planet, a lo-fi dream-pop masterpiece by Korean-American musician Michelle Zauner’s solo project Japanese Breakfast. Smeal felt a connection with Zauner’s music and started to dig into her back catalog.
“I can’t think of another songwriter who can convey so much passion in a single song like she does,” Smeal maintains. In what seems to be a recurring theme in his career, Smeal also got to play with Zauner.
“She’s one of my favorite musicians and it was an honor to to share a stage with her,” Smeal says. His only regret is that his reverence for Zauner’s music left him a little tongue-tied. When they met, Smeal could do little more than thank Zauner for her music and note that it helped him a lot through a hectic year.
Despite his encounters with indie rock icons and influences, Smeal’s most lasting connections are with Charlotte area musicians. While he was still a senior in high school, he released Dollhands’ first album Flare Gun. He wrote all the songs, played all the instruments and recorded it by himself in a week. Smeal maintains a D.I.Y. approach to recording. He took audio engineering classes at Central Piedmont Community College so he doesn’t have to go into a studio when he wants to cut new songs, and he works sound at The Milestone every Wednesday.
But Dollhands soon became a true group effort. The band currently consists of Smeal on guitar and vocals plus his long time friends Seth Wesner on drums and Martin Hacker-Mullen on bass. Hacker-Mullen is also the founder and leader of Stress Fractures, and in 2018 he casually recruited Smeal to play in his band.
“Stress Fractures has gone through a lot of lineup changes over the past couple of months,” Smeal explains. “For a while it was Martin, Liz [Neyman] and Marcus Wickham, but Marcus has moved to Nashville.”
Smeal, Neyman and Hacker-Mullen had been friends for a while but they never played music together. One day the three friends were in a group chat when Neyman and Hacker-Mullen asked Smeal to play drums. He obliged, but eventually switched from drums to guitar.
Though Stress Fractures won’t be playing the release show at Snug Harbor, the gig serves as the kick-off for a joint Dollhands-Stress Fractures tour in April that will take both bands to Texas.
“It’s funny because Martin plays bass in my band and I play guitar in their band. So it’s going to be us switching instruments and playing different kinds of music,” Smeal says.
Though both groups are indebted to 1990s alternative rock, each outfit forges its own path. Smeal describes Stress Fractures as emo punk. As for Dollhands, he says the band is straight-ahead garage rock that veers off into shoegaze. Both bands have perfected a mix of pop beauty buffeted and borne on a maelstrom of noisy whirlwind guitars.
“Martin described Dollhands’ FFO (For Fans of) as Nothing and Dinosaur Jr.,” Smeal says. “It’s like shoegaze but I don’t do the whole low-singing voice. I just sing. I try to make it as versatile as I can to appeal to a lot of different people.”
But it’s another project with local musicians that has taken Smeal furthest beyond the valley of the Dollhands. In 2017, the experimental emo band Group Text was spawned in a process just as casual and inevitable as the conjoining of Dollhands and Stress Fractures.
“[Group Text] is weird because it started on the internet,” Smeal remembers. He posted a Facebook status stating he wanted to form an emo band in the mold of Philadelphia indie rockers Glocca Morra. In short order, Brett Green, Arman Serdarevic and Taylor Knox jumped online and said they wanted to play. “And then we just practiced,” Smeal continues. “It came out of a Facebook status and we wrote an EP.”
Smeal believes the writing process for that band was the easiest creative undertaking he’s ever been a part of.
Despite all this activity — three bands, a spring tour and a new LP that he’s going to start writing soon — Smeal claims that he’s merely “a low-key full-time musician.” He points out that he still has a day job tending bar at Tip Top Daily Market in NoDa, but admits that he’s also launching a record label and occasionally booking shows.
The Acrobat Unstable label came about when Smeal, his father and Hacker-Mullen were shooting the breeze. “We said we should start a label, and so we did,” Smeal says laughing.
Are you starting to see a pattern?
Smeal reveals that several releases are due out on the label in a couple of months, and adds that new Stress Fractures material will be appearing on a Chatterbot Records compilation slated for April release.
Though Smeal has stepped back from booking rock shows full-time because the stress was triggering anxiety dreams, he still does it now and then.
“If a band hits me up that I really want to play with, I’ll just book the whole show,” he says. Smeal points to a show at The Milestone in February where Dollhands played with Origami Angel, Commander Salamander and local emo band Jail Socks. He booked the entire lineup and was happy with how the show went.
“It felt good being able to pay the touring bands and still have money for us and Jail Socks. I like it when shows like that end up being good.”
So is booking shows or launching a label the best part about being a low-key full-time musician in Charlotte? Neither, Smeal replies.
“I’m lucky because I’m playing shows with all my friends,” he says. “We never get mad at each other, and we always have a good time.”
Smeal tells a story about the Nothing show Dollhands recently played at Amos’. He explains how Hacker-Mullen gets very animated whenever he plays bass onstage, so it was fun being on a big stage and glancing over to see Hacker-Mullen shredding away.
“It’s the little things that are cool,” Smeal says, “just being able to hang out with my friends and play good music for people who actually enjoy it.”