It’s the fever dream soundtrack for our times: Children sleep fitfully and clocks spin rapidly in reverse as sinuous bass snakes around corroding bursts of guitar. Drums rattle as we spiral into galaxies. Then the cosmos cascades into a political demonstration as riot police with teargas canisters arrive. Frenetic shredding segues to soaring spacy guitars, as stately as a funeral march.
These are sights and sounds from just three songs with their accompanying videos, tone poems despite the spare poetic vocals buried in the mix. With six more, they comprise Nothing Grows Here, the latest release by Charlotte hard rock trio Old Moons. On March 25, in the midst of our unfolding unprecedented pandemic, the band released the collection. The next day, Old Moons guitarist, singer and co-founder Rob Grauer cut together a full-length video for the album, now uploaded to YouTube.
“The video is all the songs,” Grauer says, “Maybe it will entice people to put some eyes and ears on it that might not otherwise.”
Grauer acknowledges that people normally listen to music while they’re driving to work in their car. As a rule, few sit at home and listen to records on the stereo. But these are not normal times, and the rules are changing as the city slows to a COVID-19 standstill.
The 29-year-old public high school teacher at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been quarantined at home when he speaks to Queen City Nerve in late March. His girlfriend is a nurse in an intensive care unit at Levine Children’s Hospital, where she works with at-risk patients, so the couple has been taking every precaution. Grauer hasn’t left the house in two weeks, but he’s used his time wisely.
He cranked out the complex 19-minute video for his band’s first full-length album in one day. The project combines two lifelong passions for Grauer, video editing and heavy music.
Grauer was born in Chesapeake, Virginia, but spent his formative years playing in punk and hard rock bands in nearby Norfolk. He attended Old Dominion University there and later transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he also contributed to the local music scene. In 2016, Grauer moved to Charlotte and started playing with drummer Evan Boggs.
As a duo, they formed Old Moons, which won the Readers’ Choice Best New Band Award in Queen City Nerve’s Best in the Nest last year. They released their debut, the three-song EP Lunar Blue in 2018. A single, “Love is the Law,” followed in 2019. Then at a show, Grauer and Boggs met bassist Trey Quinn, who professed admiration for Old Moons. A few days later, Grauer remembered that Quinn worked at music shop Sam Ash. He drove to the store and offered Quinn the bassist gig on the spot.
“We like to hang out, enjoy each other’s company and see what music we make without actually trying to make music,” Grauer explains. By his reckoning, the band has played out once a month since forming. Their last live gig was at Snug Harbor in November, supporting Asheville’s Bask and Winston-Salem’s Toke. They then took time off to write and record their current release, Quinn’s recorded debut with the band.
Grauer describes Old Moon’s compositional process as a series of improvisational long-format jams. Each player draws on different influences, so Grauer, Boggs and Quinn are frequently pulling in three different directions.
“I like hard rock and aggressive-sounding bands of all genres, and I’ve recently turned to the metallic side,” Grauer offers. “Evan likes more ’70s style rock [and] Trey is a more laid back in the pocket.”
The group compositions evolve, with the band members listening back to the jams, picking out the pieces they like, and honing them down into songs that Grauer calls “short and to the point — no choruses, no verses, a collection of riffs and ideas.”
In that respect Nothing Grows Here resembles a stripped-down approach to Black Sabbath’s 1970 self-titled debut album crossed with Metallica’s breakneck rhythmic switchbacks and Pink Floyd’s lyrical psychedelia.
“David Gilmore is my favorite guitar player so I’m geared to where you create a space [that] lets the music tell the story,” Grauer says. Though his evocative vocals and plain-spoken yet poetic lyrics are embedded in the mix, his guitar does most of the talking.
In the process of making Nothing Grows Here, the band’s planned six-month hiatus from playing live turned into a year. They went to Greensboro to cut the record with Jacob Beeson, who Grauer praises as an unofficial fourth band member, particularly during the recording process. Old Moons wrapped their sessions on Valentine’s Day.
Then after mixing and mastering, the record was ready to hit the streets — just as Charlotte started to shut down. Plans made in advance to play gigs and introduce listeners to the new tunes were effectively scuttled. In truth, Grauer says, he wasn’t entirely surprised. Working in education, Grauer and his colleagues had been discussing safety measures for their students for several months.
“I had a feeling when the shows booked back in the day that they weren’t going to go through,” Grauer offers. With no shows in sight, several bands have turned to playing online gigs. Old Moons took the concept one step further with an online video-enhanced full-length album.
Video and design come second nature to Grauer. He’s produced videos and flyers for his bands as well as flyers for other acts. Prior to teaching drafting classes in which 80% of the curriculum used AutoCAD design software, he was a trainer at Apple, where he learned — and received free copies of — all their software.
For the Nothing Grows Here video, produced on Final Cut Ten, Grauer turned to the Prelinger Archives, a free collection of 60,000 advertising, educational, industrial and amateur films acquired by the Library of Congress in 2002, for his footage. After previewing the archives, Grauer downloaded anything he thought was eclectic, psychedelic or cool. He marked interesting clips, like a car crashing, a guy shooting a gun, or someone running into a wall. Then the clips were all time-synched to the music.
The album starts hard-hitting and heavy, so protest footage, eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of the 2016 Charlotte police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, is front-loaded on the video.
“It’s all different protests from police training footage on how to handle crowds,” Grauer offers. “I used the protest analogy a lot.”
He explains that his father attended Ohio’s Otterbein College, about an hour from Kent State, in 1970. On May 4 of that year, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of students protesting the U.S. government’s bombing of Cambodia, killing four students and wounding nine others. Republican president Richard Nixon had previously called students protesting his Vietnam policies “bums.” Grauer’s father knew one of the slain, Allison Krause, and conveyed the profound effect the shootings had on him to his son.
Grauer feels he aligns with his father’s sense of rebellion. As a high school teacher, he’s a straight shooter, but he plays in a hard rock band and he’s also a skateboarder, part of the Eastland DIY scene profiled in March by Queen City Nerve. “I like the symbology of protesting,” he says.
As the album progresses it grows more playful and lyrical. For those lighter moments, Grauer turned to Prelinger footage culled from the Bell System Science film series, a classroom staple throughout the 1960s and ’70s.
Produced initially by Hollywood veteran director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), the films feature University of Southern California English professor Fred C. Baxter as Doctor Research, examining weather, cosmic rays, the circulatory system, the sun and more, aided by animation and character actors including Eddie Albert (Green Acres) and Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon).
Toward the end of the Nothing Grows Here video, jittery bass slaloms through footage of marching cartoon eyeglasses melting into Dali-esque blobs. Swinging blues rock riffs tumble as Baxter chortles at a carnival comprised of clowns, knife throwers and fire eaters — all illustrating the senses of sight, touch and taste. The video concludes with a synthesizer pulsing like a warning beacon through a thicket of dreamy psychedelic guitar textures as an animated half-moon drifts across a starry sky.
The album and its accompanying video’s message is distilled in the opening lyrics of the first song, “Feel Warm,” Grauer says, quoting the lyrics: Burning to feel warmth/ You pray that nothing grows here/ Still you feel it.
“In a music scene [some] people are always plotting for the downfall of others, or they think the scene is lame. But if you were involved you could feel it growing,” Grauer says.
He believes there are always jaded people in any scene, including the ones he experienced in Virginia, but he points to plenty of great musicians in Charlotte who are “pushing the envelope, fighting the good fight and doing the right things.”
He admits it’s easy to look on the negative side. He feels as an educator he may be working in a dying industry. He also makes the aggressive music that tends to get venues shut down. He’s a skateboarder as well, a historically unappreciated and disenfranchised group.
“There’s not a lot of support. But I still participate anyway,” he maintains. And he feels support for the music scene, the arts and more has been steadily growing in the three years he’s been in Charlotte. “I’d like people in town to think [the album] is a good representation of the music scene. I want people to say, ‘This is one of the bands in Charlotte.’”
Grauer’s hard-fought optimism extends to the COVID-19 crisis as well, though given his girlfriend’s occupation, he does not diminish the disease’s harrowing cost in human life.
“I would hope that when people come back out of this thing, they will be more grateful of their time out and about,” he says. The markets will be bad, he believes, and the pandemic might take six months or more to blow over, but people will prevail if they work towards positive goals. “Things can grow even in the worst situations.”