A wave of sound grabs you, an almighty bottom-heavy guitar riff, carried along and anchored by nimble, emphatic drums. That catchy and propulsive guitar-and-drums combination lodges into your skull and won’t let go, particularly when it entwines with cosmic yet relatable lyrics:
“When I lie awake at night/ And wonder who we are/ I stare up at the Milky Way and feel so very far away/ And close to my home…”
I’m listening to the galactic rocker “Broken Stars.” It’s the first single, accompanied by an animated-lyrics YouTube video, off Flame Tides’ second album Bonfire Tsunami, which dropped on vinyl on Aug. 13, and on digital platforms in November. The band, comprised of baritone guitarist/vocalist Mike McNeely and drummer/vocalist Hayley Moran, combines the attack of a blues-based hard-rock combo, along with the philosophical concepts and ambitious melodic reach of art rockers. Moran and McNeely are life partners and musical partners. They will bring their self-described “groovy melodic power duo” to Petra’s on Nov. 19.
Moran and McNeely’s modern distillation of everything good about classic rock is entwined with an accepting and holistic outlook that infuses their life outside the band. Moran is founder and owner of Haylo Healing Arts Lounge, a Plaza Midwood tattoo parlor that honors the divine feminine and approaches skin art as a creative collaboration between client and practitioner. Her and McNeely’s philosophy, a mix of the pragmatic and the mystic, informs their band moniker Flame Tides as well the title of its latest project.
“[With] Bonfire Tsunami, I thought of the tsunami as an image of ultimate destruction, these waves just crashing over you,” Moran says. “At the same time, the bonfire is not a flame that consumes, but one that gathers people together.”
“Each of us is an individual wave, but we’re also part of the ocean,” McNeely says of the band’s chosen water symbol. “We’re the collective movement in the ocean.”
Before the couple came together to share music-making and their life together, Moran and McNeely undertook separate journeys, ones McNeely likens to the hero’s journey outlined in the works of writer Joseph Campbell, whose works include The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth.
“You are the hero in your life,” McNeely says, adding that being born, engaging the unknown, surviving, self-actualizing, discovering yourself and recognizing a higher calling are all heroic acts.
“What does it mean to carve a path in a dark forest that’s only your path and not following some trail that’s already there?” he asks.
When Michael met Hayley
Moran’s family moved from Fort Worth, Texas, to Charlotte in 1984 when she was 4 years old. At age 14 she took up guitar, playing Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco and other folk songs. Drums began calling to Moran as early as elementary school when she was inspired by fellow students tapping out beats on their desk. She started making beats at home.
In 1999, she launched her apprenticeship as a tattoo artist, working at Immortal Images Custom Tattoo Studio. Moran formed a band with three friends she met through her tattoo work. The lineup for that band, Shot Silk, was Moran on guitar, Mindy Barker on drums, Katie Dunn on vocals and popular Charlotte airbrush artist Elf on Bass.
“Shot Silk [was] hard rocking but avant-garde, with some dark Tool vibes [and] sultry deep lyrics,” recalls Moran, who wrote the band’s music while Dunn supplied lyrics. When Shot Silk started to splinter, McNeely would sometimes play with the group while Moran started dabbling on the drums.
“Then it was, ‘Hey Mike, let’s start this other project!’” Moran remembers. The duo formed the core of a loose-knit configuration called The Waves.
“I had it in my mind [that] I could play with various musicians, and The Waves could be these multiple incarnations,” Moran says. “When you saw the Waves, you might see a different set of musicians every time.”
McNeely had been playing in several bands before he crossed paths with Moran. Growing up in El Paso, Texas, he decided to become a guitarist after hearing albums by rock bands like Rush, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. McNeely played in his first band when he was 14 years old. Moving to Houston, he played with popular group Atticus Finch. The band put out two albums, Bruised in 1995 and Vertigo in 1998.
“Our music was heavy funk grunge,” McNeely says. After moving to Charlotte in the early 2000s and playing with a few bands, McNeely joined soulful group The Between, featuring vocalist Dani Young who went on to front Charlotte band Radio Lola. McNeely next played guitar and sang in Deep Sky, which he describes as having “an aggressive driving sound with some nods to the ’90s.” Deep Sky put out one album called 7 in 2014.
“With Deep Sky, I developed … poetic lyrical ideas that carried into Flame Tides,” McNeely says.
The next few years brought changes to Moran and McNeely. In the fall of 2014, the couple started dating, and in January 2015, Moran launched Haylo Healing Arts Lounge. Her approach to tattooing would have a profound effect on her drumming and vice versa.
“I’m a lot more in the moment, harnessing the muse and discovering what comes out,” Moran says of both her music and her tattoo skills. Tattooing professionally for 20 years, Moran has an exacting approach but she still likes to be as improvisational as possible and not overly calculating.
“That’s why I love the drums compared to playing guitar,” she says. “It’s a much more playful instrument. It’s like a dance to see what comes out naturally with my body movements.”
Likewise, she says tattooing has much to do with movement, flow and what feels natural.
“It’s a little like channeling,” Moran says. “With playing the drums … I sit down, keep my head down and [keep] my eyes unfocused and just see what happens.”
The Wave finally folded when the band’s drummer quit after a show at The Double Door Inn. Moran and McNeely turned their attention to Flame Tides, starting to record in their home studio, compiling songs for their inaugural album Thunder Love. At first, the tunes were primarily instrumental.
“Many of the songs started with me saying, ‘Hey I was playing around with this on the drums. What about this beat?’” Moran says. Both her and McNeely are enamored with poetry and literature, however, and they thought it would be a shame not to have some vocal content in their songs.
The trouble was that McNeely had been shredding his vocal cords singing in the Soundgarden-influenced Deep Sky. As a solution he turned to the talk box, an instrument popularized in the 1970s by Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton, with which a musician places a tube between their teeth so the sound resonates into their mouth and takes on the characteristics of different words and phrases, which are then picked up by their vocal mic.
With the talk box, McNeely found a way to have lyrics for songs by mouthing the words and saving his ravaged voice.
“It was me trying to avoid singing,” he says. “I needed a break.”
The band’s bottom-heavy sound was further defined by a Gibson SG baritone guitar that McNeely found for sale at a Sam Ash store.
“I always liked [blues artist] Son House, this minimalistic approach that created big primal sound,” McNeely says.
With the baritone guitar, he found that sound.
“I could immediately tell there was something that could venture into the low-end territory, a little throaty [with] nice overdrive,” he says.
The guitar gives Flame Tides those plutonium-heavy grooves that entwine with the band’s mystic, playful and positive vocals. In places, McNeely’s sole guitar approximates Black Sabbath’s doubling of guitar and bass lines, a two-instrument approach that produces the heavy metal pioneers’ signature sludgy riffs.
One song on Thunder Love, “The Owl,” celebrates a milestone in Moran’s and McNeely’s lives.
At the time, McNeely was into long-distance trail running, which had him alone out in the woods for hours at a time.
“It’s meditative,” McNeely says. “What I call the frontal cortex veils start dropping over time, and you get this other kind of experience through nature.”
While McNeely was running one day, he was trying to decide whether to ask Moran to marry him. At that moment, an owl swooped down past him and landed in the path in front of him.
“It was more of a religious experience than anything I’ve ever had before,” McNeely says.
When McNeely got home, primed to pop the question, he learned that Moran too had encountered on owl.
“On that same day, I had been creating these magic wands,” Moran says. “I’d gathered some sticks from the yard [and] I was … curing them and drying them in this box. I thought, ‘I’m going to put some family photos in this box.’”
She chose a photo of her deceased father. In the photo, her father poses with an owl.
The couple got engaged on Christmas Day 2016 — they have yet to marry — and started writing a song, a sidewinding protean swamp blues workout called “The Owl.”
“I’m kind of a shaman,” McNeely says. “I think our early human spirituality was more experiential than dogmatic. It was usually shaman-led societies that would have these meaningful rituals. You would have trance dances and various things that would tap into rhythmic ideas.”
“That’s our primal approach,” Moran offers.
From the pandemic to the stars
One year later, during the pandemic and lockdown, Moran and McNeely started recording songs for their follow up LP in their home studio. This time there would be actual singing. People had been moved by Thunder Love, McNeely says, but had trouble making out the messages he was delivering filtered through the talk box.
“I think Mike felt like he had some things to say, and people wanted to know what we were saying, so we put [those messages] out there, and made them clearer,” Moran says.
She realized there were a few things she wanted to get off her chest too, so she wrote the lyrics to the tune “American Dream meets Quarantine.”
“I started compiling all these common phrases, like ‘Catch a tiger by the tail,’ and ‘XOXO,’” Moran says.
The resulting tune, released as an animated lyrics video, is a playful swagger with distorted decaying guitar, emphatic drums and incongruent, disjointed lyrics. It’s the apocalypse presented as nonsensical standup comedy.
“From the giddyup Jump Street/ As the sun dives deep into the sea/ leaving a trail of twilight on fire/ It’s the broken-down textures I want to be around…”
“[It was] us utilizing our words a little more, and being able to combine our voices and raise our band to the next level,” Moran says “We’re trying to continue to evolve.”
The album Bonfire Tsunami was released on vinyl at the annual Fire Party at Haylo Healing Arts Lounge in August. The celebration was centered on the seven steps of alchemical transformation. The event contended that alchemy, popularly presented as a method of turning lead into gold, was and is actually focused on transforming the self (lead) into spirit (gold). It marked the seventh anniversary of Haylo’s founding, and raised funds for the charity Kiss the Ground, which focuses on soil regeneration and regenerative farming practices.
The vinyl release was deliberate, says McNeely. Flame Tides chose a format it believes is the best way to capture the physical aspect of the band’s songs.
“We mixed our record analog. It wasn’t mixed in a computer; it [went] through a console we have [in our home studio],” McNeely says. “The vinyl itself, contains physical representations of … the interplay between the frequencies which are generated by the instruments and the vocals. [The difference between] vinyl and streaming is like the difference between a hand-written letter and something you’d send in an email.”
With a cover painting and graphic design by artist Giovanni Ulloa, and high-end photographs by Buren Foster Photography, the gatefold vinyl LP Bonfire Tsunami is intended as a work of art, Moran and McNeely say.
Moran hopes listeners get a sense of the authenticity that went into the creation of the package and the music it contains.
“No matter how they feel about it, they should know that they are listening to our real and true creative expression from the heart,” Moran says.
“There was this real sense of loss during this experience, and this sense of isolation because with the lockdown you’re just not with other people,” McNeely says. “[Bonfire Tsunami is a] record where we wanted to reach out, and hope that people can feel some connection.”
He mentions the second song on the record, “Broken Stars.”
“While we wonder who we are, one thing we do know is that we share our humanity,” McNeely says. “That’s what that song is about — it’s this idea that we are all stardust. We’re all made from the exact same stuff.”