When heavy roots rock combo King Cackle played a July 19 gig at Skylark Social Club, Queen City Nerve had this to say: “With fuzzed-out guitars, jackhammer drums and growled vocals, King Cackle suggests what the animatronic Pirates of the Caribbean would sound like if they got shitfaced and started a punk blues band.”
Group founder and chief songwriter Joe Nelson chuckles when I read him that blurb. It turns out he’s used to all the rollicking buccaneer comparisons.
“We have that rock ‘n’ rollers on a pirate ship vibe,” Nelson says. “That’s what everyone tells us.”
That makes the band’s upcoming January residency at Snug Harbor so fitting. The venue’s gritty yet comfy nautical feel complements the band’s stomping roots rock, grooves that roll like a full-rigged frigate in a squall. It’s the perfect match of setting and sound for cracking open a barrel of rum or frigging in the rigging.
In fact, King Cackle’s saga has the dramatic heft and emotional arc of a seafaring adventure: An everyman visionary goes on a quest to realize and create the sound he’s hearing in his head. He bonds with a band of brothers who woodshed and hone that sound. It looks like smooth sailing until tragedy strikes, and the remaining comrades mourn the passing of one of their own. Then the brothers rebound and set sail for new — and broader — horizons.
“Everyone in the band is from different walks of life with different musical backgrounds,” Nelson says. “But it comes together pretty well.”
Growing up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Nelson was surrounded by music. It was a bluegrass town, and Nelson remembers the country tunes that his uncles loved. His father was into big band jazz and swing, particularly Rat Pack crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. To this day, Nelson appreciates Sinatra’s and Martin’s way with lyrics that riffed off events in their lives.
“They’re such smart asses,” Nelson says.
His older brother amped up the attitude when he turned Nelson onto the in-your-face aggression of punk bands like Pennywise and Bad Religion. That hard-rock edge was augmented by Nelson’s stint as vocalist in a high school band, the metalcore skate-punk combo Train Wreck Orchestra. A healthy dose of hip-hop and the guitar pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page were the final ingredients, forming a dense, rhythmic and swinging sound that Nelson kept hearing in his head but nowhere else. Working as a dishwasher in restaurants as a kid, Nelson became obsessed with the guitarists’ wild and elaborate solos.
“I picked up the guitar when I was 15 because I wanted to know what kind of lyric would cue that sound,” he says.
Nelson also picked up banjo, slide guitar and resonator guitar, and he started searching out music that came close to what was playing in his head 24-7. He hit up record stores in his hometown and eventually found four bands that influenced what would become the King Cackle style, a confluence of heavy riffs, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll and open tuning.
Nelson found inspiration and affirmation in the hillbilly punk-blues of Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Left Lane Cruiser. The similarly stomping 20 Watt Tombstone from Wausau, Wisconsin, exerted an influence, particularly years later when King Cackle shared stages with the midwestern band and befriended its members. The God Damn Gallows brought a psychobilly-metal hybrid to the mix. But Nelson reserves his highest praise for The Legendary Shack Shakers of Paducah, Kentucky, and their flamboyant front man J.D. Wilkes. He credits Wilkes’ writing, plus the Shack Shakers’ combination of rockabilly and unorthodox bluegrass riffs for spurring King Cackle’s creepy carnival — and piratical — feel.
Concurrent with his musical quest, Nelson was paying the bills working at restaurants. His career choice came to bear on some of his lyrics. Years later, Nelson’s toil in various kitchens influenced the song “86’d and Out,” one of three tunes on King Cackle’s debut EP that dropped in September 2018. To those who have successfully avoided working in food service, a menu listing is “86’d,” or removed from the board once a busy kitchen has run out of the item.
“86’d and Out” is about working for too many shitty bosses who look at employees as replaceable components with little value, Nelson explains.
“The basis of that song is busting your ass all day long and these people don’t even care,” he continues. “Anybody who’s in the restaurant industry knows how stressful it is and how you have to bite your tongue all the time. You can’t say what you really want to say to that customer that is being shitty for no good reason.”
He would go home and funnel his frustration into songwriting, but there was no band to help focus his energy, so he became a bedroom musician.
“When I got off work, music was always the one thing at the end of the day that nobody could tell me how to do. No one can control you or tell you how to play.”
Nevertheless, Nelson stuck with his restaurant career for a couple of years. He found his best boss at Bistro Bethem in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The chef there took Nelson under his wing and taught him the ins and outs of cooking. He also introduced Nelson to local musicians who turned him onto even more music – a treasure trove of rock, jazz and bluegrass.
Nelson’s day job brought him to Charlotte, where he studied the culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University. He currently works as a sales rep at Artisan Beverage Group.
In Charlotte, Nelson met another mentor who would change the course of his life. At Sanctuary Pub in NoDa, Nelson met multi-instrumentalist Noah Warner. As a teenager, Mount Pleasant native Warner had played in Margo, a high school combo that included Warner’s friend Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers. Warner went on to play in a few other bands with Avett, eventually moving to Charlotte.
At Sanctuary, Nelson and Warner hit it off, so they moved to Nelson’s apartment to jam. Warner was impressed with Nelson’s slide guitar playing, and he encouraged the younger musician to get out of the bedroom and into the clubs in front of audiences.
“I played my first actual show in front of people at Sanctuary for their 10-year anniversary party, and I was scared shitless,” Nelson remembers.
To help him get over his stage fright, Warner came up to accompany Nelson on acoustic guitar on his first and last numbers. Nelson recalls that, after that experience, he was “hooked” on performing live.
Warner was getting ready to tour with another band, so he encouraged Nelson to go to venues and meet other musicians so he could form his own band. One evening Nelson caught a show at The Station, now Skylark Social Club on Central Avenue. There he met Aaron Rogers, and the two musicians connected and started getting together to play.
Nelson recalls sitting on Rogers’ front porch drinking beer when he asked Rogers if he wanted to start a band. Rogers was in.
“Aaron said, ‘Yeah. Nobody’s doing music like this around here. I think this is something we should do,’” Nelson remembers.
Though Rogers had played guitar, bass and trombone, he was tapped to play drums in the fledgling band.
“I don’t have a background playing four-four heavy metal or punk,” Rogers says. “I just play what I hear so I think that locked in with Joe. We were two people speaking a similar language, trying to figure out where the gaps were between what we were doing.”
Originally conceived as a two-piece, King Cackle later brought in Doc Caines to play guitar. Then Warner came back from tour and was suddenly available. He joined up on bass, turning King Cackle into a four-piece.
With Hell Commands Records founder and Raw Hex member Rick Contes recording, the quartet cut the band’s three-song EP, appending bludgeoning blues holler “Release the Hounds” and the grimy spaghetti western meets sea shanty “Trolltunga” to “86’d and Out.”
The collection dropped in the fall, creating substantial buzz for the band. King Cackle was going from strength to strength, gaining momentum and building up a head of steam, Nelson says. Then, on January 8, 2019, Warner was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma. The aggressive strain of cancer went into remission, but Warner subsequently discovered that it had reappeared in his spine. After a months-long struggle with the disease, he passed away peacefully on Sunday, July 28th, shortly after 6 a.m.
King Cackle lost more than a master musician, Nelson says. Warner was also a friend and brother.
“Noah was a huge influence for us,” Nelson says. “He helped us get really heavy and gritty.”
“That [influence] still lingers over everything we do,” Rogers adds.
Nelson says that Warner was adamant that the band continue on without him, and he promised Warner he would never let it fade. He is now keeping that promise.
After mourning the loss of their friend and mentor, the band regrouped. Justin Bickley (Green Fiend) came aboard to play bass, while Caines went on hiatus from the band in October as the birth of his first child approached.
Since then, Rob Grauer from Old Moons has filled in on guitar. Ian Pasquini has also sat in on fiddle, most recently at a November 9 gig at Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern in Wilmington with Green Fiend, Scowl Brow and Bushido Code.
“Ian’s an insanely talented musician [and] one of the hardest working guys in the industry here in Charlotte,” Nelson enthuses.
He says the violinist may also step into the spotlight for at least one of the band’s residency shows at Snug Harbor in January, where the band also hopes to see Caines return to the fold.
The residency promises to be King Cackle’s highest profile Charlotte gig in some time, with the band taking the stage for five consecutive Wednesdays at the Plaza Midwood venue, augmented with an eclectic yet compatible lineup of other local acts.
How Snug’s signature residencies work — who books the weekly bills and how much input the headliner has on who shares the bill with them — depends on a few things, Nelson says. In fact, it all boils done to the headliner’s initiative, he explains.
After Snug general manager Chris Burns saw King Cackle onstage at several shows there, he approached them for a residency. Nelson then reached out to Snug’s talent buyer Zachary Reader to book the residency. (For six years, Reader booked the residencies, but that role has recently been taken up by the club’s owners.)
Nelson had seen that many times resident bands were letting much of the booking for support bands fall on Reader’s shoulders, and he wanted to help. Nelson says he enjoys the logistics of putting the shows together, organizing it around certain subgenres and then putting them together to see how well they fit. So, he drew up a dream list of bands he’d like to work with and hit them up.
“It was super flattering,” Nelson enthuses. “I’d say 95% of the bands I contacted were like, ‘Hell yeah man, we’re down for that.’”
Groups like Pysch Ops, The Commonwealth, The Poontanglers and the Hellfire Choir will be heating up Snug’s stage during the wintriest of months.
Once the residency is completed, King Cackle intends to pull back from playing local shows. Nelson says the band plans to play four or five local gigs at the most so they can focus on writing and recording new music. An as-yet untitled EP is slated for a summer release, and Nelson and his bandmates plan to record a full-length album in Nashville soon after, with Contes once again recording.
More out-of-town gigs are on the band’s itinerary too. Asheville, Greensboro and a return to Wilmington are all on the band’s radar. Nelson also wants to draw on his Virginia connections to books a mini East Coast tour, including Richmond and Washington D.C, in the fall.
Nelson, who was once terrified of live gigs, now looks forward to playing in front of more audiences with his rollicking crew of rock ‘n’ roll pirates.
And despite what Queen City Nerve said about the band before, we doubt they’ll be shitfaced.
“There’s no drug on the planet that can compare to the feeling of playing live,” Nelson says.