MusicMusic Features

Rock Duo Cope Fiend Crafts a Soundtrack for Survival

The best of fiends

Cope Fiend duo Randi Johnson and Marlon Young perform together
Randi Johnson (left) and Marlon Young perform together at a pop-up in Charlotte. (Photo by Mary Massie)

The insistent guitar line is slurring, slinky and somewhat sinister. The fretwork threads through Randi Johnson’s double-tracked vocals, which duel as much as harmonize. As her voices enfold, entwine and diverge, Johnson navigates unwanted attention, dodging the male gaze like bullets: “Stop watching me / Do your own thing / I’m not here to please /Your curiosity … Give me attention / But only when I ask…”

Johnson’s emotional landscape exists in tandem with a suggested reality — impressionist brush strokes evoking a street scene, one that Johnson can manage and even transcend.

“Cross the street / Carry my feet / Floating cross concrete / Floating through sky…”

The song, “Sunight,” nods to female post-punk pioneers — artists like The Slits, The Raincoats and Jarboe who deserve to be better known. And yet it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard.

I’m walking past Marlon Young’s Plaza Midwood house on a Sunday evening when he calls me up to listen to Johnson’s low-fi home recording. Young is enthusiastic as he plays the track on his phone.

“I like the juxtaposition of the lyrics’ symbolism with the upbeat energy of punk music,” Young says. “She’s clear and her voice resonates, as well as the guitar sound.” 

He believes he’s never heard a guitar sound anything like the sound on the track. When Young gets bowled over by a song it carries weight. He’s been part of Charlotte’s music scene since the mid-1990s, playing drums with bands including Latino Chrome, Moonburn, Interstellars and Hardcore Lounge, and lately he’s been honing his production and recording chops.

Detroit native Johnson currently lives back in her hometown, but she is also a distinctive singer-songwriter who enriched the Charlotte music scene. Through the 2010s, Johnson developed her distinctive acoustic guitar-based Motor City grunge sound at open mics throughout the Queen City.

Johnson and Young crossed paths back in those days, and have kept in contact. Starting in the winter of 2021, they began collaborating as dynamic rock duo Cope Fiend, coupling Johnson’s songwriting and inimical sound with Young’s musicality.

“The name Cope Fiend sparks from [Young] and I talking on the phone — we’re just trying to get through this,” Johnson says. “We’re obsessed with coping, getting through it and getting to the other side of whatever it is.”

“It’s perseverance,” Young says. “This is the time to change old habits.”

A few weeks after my impromptu front porch listening session with Young, Johnson flies into Charlotte. After a few days sorting through the voluminous material Johnson has written and recorded on her own, Cope Fiend heads to East Avalon Recorders in the historic music town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to rerecord a few tunes with the benefit of studio polish and an experienced producer. 

It’s the first step for two talented and intuitive Black musicians who want to bring something novel to the rock market. Cope Fiend plan to bring their invigorating sound to an appreciative audience.

“I’d love to hit the college circuit because I think a lot of kids connect to what we’re saying,” Johnson says. “I feel like it’s fresh and new.”

If Cope Fiend does succeed in reaching a wide audience, they will have done it the old-fashioned way, becoming an “overnight success” after decades of hard work. 

Motor City inspiration, Queen City woodshedding

Johnson grew up in Detroit until she was 10 years old, when she moved with her mother and brother to Virginia. Music was always around her, Johnson recalls. She didn’t know life without it.

“We grew up when Michael Jackson was moonwalking across the stage, and Prince was doing splits,” Johnson says. “Cyndi Lauper and David Bowie made a huge impression on me because they looked different from who I was seeing on TV and listening to.” 

Johnson’s first instrument was an electric bass, then she switched to an electric guitar. She moved to Charlotte in 2007, and played her first open mic at The Evening Muse the following year.

By this time, she had switched to an acoustic guitar because it was more portable and practical. With her black Taylor acoustic, Johnson became a fixture on Charlotte’s thriving open mic scene, playing venues like Comet Grill, Common Market’s since demolished South End location, Rhino Market & Deli on Morehead Street and more.

“I love distortion, guitars and the general look and sound of collapse, a driving beat and lyrics that need to be honest,” Johnson says of her sound. “If it’s not what I’m feeling, it’s difficult to express.”

Young was born in Charlotte, but by fourth grade he had moved with his mother to Atlanta. Thanks to college radio there, and his own eclectic tastes, Young grew enamored with soul, classic and current psychedelic rock, and the moody yet propulsive post-punk grooves of Joy Division. In 1989, after graduating high school, Young came back to the Queen City to attend the UNC Charlotte. He later met musician Jason Herring, current leader of Charlotte band The Mystery Plan and founder of record label 10mm Omega Recordings.

At the time, Herring was in a psychedelic shoegaze outfit called Moonburn. Young helped out on harmonies and was a roadie for the band. In 1996, Herring left Moonburn and formed alternative rock band Latino Chrome. After picking up a pair of hand drums he found at Herring’s apartment, Young joined the group as its drummer. Three months later, Young played his first gig onstage at The Double Door Inn. 

Latino Chrome saw local success but eventually splintered. After briefly reforming Moonburn, Herring and Young launched one of Charlotte’s best-loved and most fondly remembered bands, The Interstellars, in 1999. Joining Young on drums and Herring on vocals and keyboards was guitarist and producer Paul Jensen, bassist Patch Hanna, keyboardist Dave Puryear and saxophonist David Walen. In the meantime, Young had met Danielle Lotito. Their son, Elijah Marlon Young, was born in 2000, and the couple married in 2001. With a family to raise, Young left The Interstellars to work at Charlotte-based background music company Muzak.

“I was an audio architect,” Young says, “a glorified DJ for retail stores.” Young and Lotito split up in 2006, but both continue to raise their son. That year, Young started playing with Hardcore Lounge, an eclectic pop rock band founded by brothers Wesley and Chris Johnson, scions of a musical family that counts country pioneers The Johnson Family Singers among its forbears. Young continues to play with the group.

Concurrently, Randi Johnson’s traction in her music career was hampered by her struggles with mental illness. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after having long struggled with depression. She took medication for it, but didn’t want to depend on drugs to feel better.

“I most definitely coped by playing music,” Johnson says. At one point she was playing four or five open mics a week. She had a stint with a corporate job, but it didn’t last, and she was forced to move into her van. Her saving grace throughout those tumultuous times proved to be music. 

“I found it most useful to me to stay in motion, stay in contact with my friends and not to isolate myself,” Johnson says. She also strives to stay in good company with people with good energy. She counts Young as one of those supportive people.

A rendezvous of fiends

In 2018, Young launched the musical outfit Occam’s Portal. That’s also when he met Johnson. The two credit producer, performer and multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Edwards, who DJs as Jah Freedom, with bringing the two together.

“[Edwards] called me,” Young says. “He said, ‘It’s time for you to meet Randi because she is a rocker, and I think you’ll understand her vibe.’” 

It turns out Edwards was right. Young caught Johnson’s set at an open mic at Rhino Market and saw a kinship between Johnson’s soulful grooves and the music he loves.

Randi Johnson and Marlon Young
Randi Johnson and Marlon Young became close friends after meeting at Johnson’s open mic set at Rhino Market in 2018. (Courtesy of Marlon Young)

Even after meeting, Johnson’s and Young’s busy schedules precluded them playing together much. They played twice together, Johnson says, the first gig being a fundraiser at the now-shuttered Bold Missy Brewery.

“[Then] we did a rehearsal at my house, and that was for the Behailu Academy,” Johnson remembers. “Musically [Young was] the drummer I always prayed for secretly in my heart.” 

When weather got bad, and Johnson needed more shelter than her van could provide, she knew she could rely on Young for a place to stay.

Ultimately, Johnson felt constrained and stagnant in Charlotte and decided to move on. In May 2020, she packed up her van and headed north. She lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for some time, delivering food with Doordash while still living in her van, but left after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. She needed to go to a safer place and in August 2020, her hometown of Detroit beckoned.

Young and Johnson kept in touch, texting on a monthly basis. Then shortly after Christmas 2021, Young had put Occam’s Portal on hiatus and was quarantining at home when Johnson began sending songs — lots of them.

“I got this [message] with song files from Randi, and I said, ‘What the hell is this?’” Young says. “I was just listening to these tracks, and they got me off my couch.”

Johnson had further distilled her sound with the acquisition of a new guitar.

“It’s an acoustic electric, so you could add distortion to it,” Johnson says. “It’s an Epiphone. I think it’s the [model] Frank Black played in The Pixies.”

Young, who likes to call Cope Fiend’s music “shoe blaze,” was blown away by Johnson’s songs and their emotional power to touch listeners. “It felt like it was the perfect time for re-connectivity, and especially after going through all this COVID,” he says.

Young made a pitch to Johnson: He said the songs needed to sound better, and therefore needed to be rerecorded. He knew just the place to do it. Johnson agreed.

“[I said,] ‘I’m going to be very delicate with [them] because this is our sound,’” Young says. “I’ve always been under other people’s umbrellas, playing with other bands. I’m like, ‘This is ours, so let’s treat it right. It deserves the very best.’”

 In short order, Cope Fiend booked studio time in one of America’s most famous music cities.

Making music at Muscle Shoals

Called “the hit recording capital of the world” by music fans and local boosters, Muscle Shoals owes its reputation to Fame Recording Studio, where artists such as Aretha Franklin, Mac Davis and Duane Allman recorded hit songs. 

But Cope Fiend did not record at Fame. Instead, Young called his friend, former Charlotte resident Charles Holloman. Holloman had cemented himself within the Queen City music scene through his recording studio, Charles Holloman Productions. Artists ranging from Anthony Hamilton to Andy the Doorbum have recorded at CHP. The industry in Charlotte was changing, however, and Holloman was looking for new vistas. In 2017, he bought East Avalon Recorders in Muscle Shoals. The studio had opened in 1977, and did brisk business until it closed in 1989. 

“The studio remains virtually like it was when it opened [in 1977],” Holloman says. “It’s a nice little capsule.”

In Charlotte, CHP went offline in March 2017, and Holloman moved all the equipment to East Avalon Recorders. Though it was hard for Holloman to leave Charlotte, a city he had seen come so far since he launched CHP in 1993, he was drawn to the mythology of Muscle Shoals, a legend that he found to be grounded in reality. 

The acceptance and warmth of the Muscle Shoals community reinforced the wisdom of making the move. On top of that, Contour Airlines offers direct one-hour flights from Charlotte to Muscle Shoals, and the Northwest Alabama Regional Airport is about 300 yards from Holloman’s studio.

He says his initial interest in Cope Fiend stems from his relationship with Young.

“Marlon and I go back a long way, and we have made some great music and memories together.” 

When Young said he wanted to record at East Avalon Recorders, Holloman readily said yes, but when he heard Cope Fiend’s music, his enthusiasm grew by leaps and bounds.

“When I heard the songs and [Johnson’s] talent, I was over the moon excited,’ Holloman says. “[It was] raw energy — what music is supposed to be. I was in love from the first chord.”

In mid-March, Johnson flew into Charlotte and stayed at Young’s house for a few days before Cope Fiend boarded the flight to Alabama. In that time, she recorded a new song, “Ebb and Flow” on Young’s Alesis USB-MIDI keyboard controller. Johnson says she fell in love with that particular piece of equipment.

When Johnson and Young arrived at East Avalon Recorders, Holloman pulled all the files from Johnson’s computer. Over the course of the three-day session, the artists listened to every track with Holloman, who co-produced. The producers ended up selecting two songs to receive the high-end production sheen, “Sunight” and “Ebb & Flow.” Holloman played bass on “Sunight,” while musician Jonathan Goodman contributed bass to “Ebb & Flow.”

A lot of the studio work centered on getting the sound right for Johnson’s Danelectro baritone guitar, Young says. It’s an important component of Cope Fiend’s sound.

With Young back in Charlotte, and Johnson in Detroit, the two bandmates pronounce themselves pleased with the direction their two songs have gone. Now it’s time to concentrate on more material.

“Nobody really knows who we are, unless we already know them,” Young says. “We decided to go ahead and master these tracks, [and then] get them ready as a demo or a possible EP.” A full-length album is also a distinct possibility. “We’ve already confirmed where we’re going and who’s helping to produce the rest of the record,” Young says.

More songs will be needed to facilitate Cope Fiend’s production and playing plans. As for how future songs from Cope Fiend will come together, Johnson says the playing and division of labor is all mood-based, depending on what feels right.

“We complement each other. We spark each other’s vibe,” Young says.

Johnson says she’s anxious to perform the songs live and play to audiences. 

“That’s where I feel alive, on the stage,” she says. “I’m so thankful for Marlon because he really did reinvigorate my spirit. I don’t know if I told him, but I was low. I was like, ‘What am I going to do without music?’”

“We’re in the season of newness, spring and summer,” Young says. He feels the timing is perfect to launch a band that stretches boundaries.

As for Johnson, she hopes people listening to the tunes will come away with a sense of happiness and joy.

“All the songs are made in love, so I’m hoping that’s what they take from it,” she says.

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