The bright bubbling synthesizer evokes New York City’s Danceteria, the fabled 1980s nightclub where Wham!, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth rubbed shoulders amid flashing neon lights. Justin Kent’s spiky shards of R&B guitar merge with Daniel Jackson’s booming drums and Rodney Wallin’s pulsing bass.
The band lets the roiling groove breathe and build. It becomes a launching pad for Grey Revell’s soaring vulnerable vocals.
“I was born in stereo/ The rhythm in my head/ Rises from the dark/ It paints the city blue and red/ It wakes the dead man sleeping in my bed…”
“[It’s an] epic electro post-punk groove,” Revell says of the band’s latest single “Purple Nights.”
“Think Giorgio Moroder producing The Climax Blues Band with help from A Certain Ratio.”
Tactile and visceral, the tune plays as mission statement and raison d’être, with Revell revealing how music chose these four men to spark and soar as Roman Candles. Revell breaks this driving force down to basics: He makes music so he can hang out with his bandmates.
“These guys keep me sane,” he says. “They keep me social; they keep me out of my house — most of the time.”
“I’m here for the camaraderie and the creative expression,” Kent says. “I care and focus on the process, and hanging out with these guys and creating something together.”
“I love the guys, and I love making music with them,” Wallin says. “I’m proud of everything we’ve done.”
“If there are people out there that would enjoy [our music], we want to find them,” Jackson says. “We want to connect with them.”
“Purple Nights” drops in October — Friday the 13th to be exact — before debuting live at Starlight on 22nd on Oct. 14.
The song is part of an experimental release schedule the band is conducting. Instead of recording and compiling tunes for an album release in perhaps a year’s time, Roman Candles is concentrating on a string of singles, one released every three months.
Garage rock-inspired barn burner “Death Follows the Big Moon” dropped in March, followed by the similarly incendiary “Radium Girl” in July. January is slated for the band’s sprawling masterwork “Jesus Was an Astronaut.”
“It’s a ballad about the end of 20th Century, the Heaven’s Gate cult, MTV and all the things we’ve lost,” Revell offers.
Taken alone, any one of these tunes could be called a departure for the veteran rock band perhaps best known for its America-tinged “Return of Red Cat.” Considered together, however, Roman Candles’ recent string of stylistically diverse singles documents an ongoing evolution.
Each tune embodies a radically different musical approach, yet they are also recognizably the work of the same band, concise in construction but expansive in vision.
Regardless of genre, Roman Candles consistently deliver supple bass grooves, precise yet swinging percussion, guitars that shift from architectural chords to experimental explorations and vocals that are flawless in execution while retaining immediacy. Plus, all these songs rock.
All of this brings me to a quandary. I’ve been in touch with Revell for a decade, and I know the band members well enough to call each a friend. I strive to maintain a critical distance, but I can’t help thinking that Roman Candles is among the best rock bands in Charlotte, with exquisitely crafted, viscerally satisfying songs.
“We’re all coming together with these germs of ideas and turning them into these interesting songs,” Revell says. “We’re just getting better and better at it. I don’t see anyone else consistently hitting it that hard, that fast.”
Anti-folk and Buddhist rock
I first met Revell at a long-shuttered Malaysian restaurant in a since-demolished building. A song he had written and recorded in 2000, 13 years before our meeting, had resurfaced, bringing Revell international notoriety and a decent amount of money.
With its spare vocals and acoustic guitar arrangement, “Gone Gone” imagines the end of the world with bittersweet acceptance, encapsulating the wheel of life with all its uncertainty. The tune recalls the Buddhist koans that Revell is fond of recounting.
Utilized in Zen to prompt questions, a koan strips a parable or dialog to haiku-like bare bones. Many of Revell’s lyrics are koan-like in their ability to evoke multiple meanings.
In songs like “Gone Gone” and the Ennio Morricone-influenced widescreen spaghetti western cautionary tale “I Don’t Leave Friends in Darkened Houses,” profundity seems almost in your grasp yet tantalizingly out of reach.
Now “Gone Gone” had gone global, at least in Spanish-speaking countries, licensed for a South America Hewlett-Packard television campaign. Revell would use some of HP’s royalty payments to finance a solo tour of Argentina before returning to Charlotte, ready to start the next chapter of his life.
Even before all that, Revell had experienced a full life, encountering artistic challenges as well as a few disasters.
“As a kid, music came easy to me,” Revell says. “I could always carry a tune.”
Raised in the Los Angeles bedroom community of Corvina, Revell decamped for New York City at the age of 18. There he found community and encouragement with the city’s anti-folk scene, a group of punk rock-inspired artists including Beck, Regina Spektor and Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches.
“Anti-folk was a lower east side Manhattan songwriter scene that … started as a reaction to West Village folk musicians,” Revell says. “It evolved into this artist-friendly, indie research-and-development wing of music.”
Revell benefited from that R&D, recording and releasing three solo albums in two years. The records — Midnight Eye (1999), Crazy Like an Ambush (1999) and The Green Train (2000) — signaled Revell’s growth in the tumultuous anti-folk scene.
“I group all those records together now,” Revell says. “It was a two-year sprint to catch up and be taken seriously as a songwriter.”
In the wake of 9/11, Revell and his family left New York and eventually settled in New Orleans. There he recorded Little Animals, an atmospheric and ominous snapshot of the Crescent City. Finishing the album just as Katrina struck, Revell relocated to Charlotte in 2007 just as his marriage fell apart.
Revell kept active in Charlotte’s music scene, contributing his playing and production skills to local groups like Sinners & Saints and Zoe Vette & the Revolvers. While writing and recording The Revolvers’ debut LP, B.C. Radio, Revell met Jackson.
Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Jackson says he got “fully indoctrinated” by MTV. Like Revell, he says music came naturally to him. In college, Jackson joined some school friends in the band Bowl of Soul, serving as singer.
As time wore on, he grew more interested in keeping the beat than being a frontman. When the band broke up, Jackson traded the band’s P.A. for a drum set. Jackson gigged in Birmingham, Alabama, before moving to Charlotte and playing with the Revolvers.
Having occasionally played guitar with Roman Candles in the past, Vette transitioned and is now trans man Zoen McLachlan, who went on to study anthropology, graduate from Florida State University and is now working on a PhD.
“I’ve traded music for teaching,” he told Queen City Nerve.
For a year, Revell lived at a Belmont home owned by his friend Scott Parry. The house also served as Impermanence Studio where the group practiced and recorded early singles and EPs.
“Scott Parry is a friend and ally to creators,” Revell says.
The group was a three-piece comprised of Revell, Jackson and bassist Liz Burns. Billed as Grey Revell’s Roman Candles, the band played his songs. (Parry played keyboards in an early lineup of the band.)
In 2013, Roman Candles decided to shoot a video for the band’s rendition of the title track for Crazy Like an Ambush. Burns couldn’t make it so the band called on bassist Wallin.
Wallin had picked up a bass at Tennessee State University, and didn’t pick it up again for 22 years. At age 40, he took lessons from a friend and stepped into his first ever professional gig with covers band Big Hand Dave. He says he felt honored when Roman Candles called and offered the video gig.
“I’ve been blessed from that point forward to play with some very patient and talented musicians,” Wallin says.
A final addition to this lineup of Roman Candles was Florida-based keyboardist Matt Stache, who joined at the start of the band’s next artistic endeavor. Spending 2014 writing and recording one song per month, the band produced three sets of Happy Infinite EPs, volumes 1 through 3.
A stand out tune from the EPs is brisk metaphysical art rocker “Blake,” a paean to the English poet and philosopher. Here Revell’s soaring vocals wind around Stache’s sugar-rush synths, Wallin’s chunky bass and Jackson’s skittering beats.
“It’s an upbeat rock tune about a crazy metaphysical British guy,” Revell says “I always call The Happy Infinite Buddhist rock. If you put all the songs together, it’s a weird journey to enlightenment.”
A commitment to collaborate
The band released one last single, “Pull Down the Moon,” before going on hiatus in 2015. By the time they regrouped in 2020, Kent had joined.
Growing up in New Mexico Beach in the Florida panhandle, Kent reluctantly picked up a Stratocaster guitar at his father’s urging. Once he started playing, Kent couldn’t put the guitar down.
After touring with high-energy pop-punk band Convicted, Kent moved to Charlotte. Meeting Jackson through Jackson’s then-wife, Kent began playing with Revell and Jackson and McLachlan in Loving the Alien, a David Bowie tribute band formed in the wake of Bowie’s death in 2016.
“We played three shows, but Zoen moved to Asheville, and then I found myself in Roman Candles,” Kent says.
Though the band jokes that Kent is “the session musician who stayed,” Revell points out that Kent wrote 85% of the music on the band’s 2020 LP Proximo.
“Justin really turned that screw,” Revell says. “He came in with a bunch of musical ideas that were great. That was the pivot, when [Roman Candles] stopped being a thing [where] I bring songs and everyone puts their parts on them. It became more of a collaborative thing.”
That difference is apparent in the contrast between Proximo and the band’s 2021 follow-up LP The City is Closed.
Where the former is bold and cinematic with lashings of glam and progressive rock, the latter is direct, with more rock, roots and country. If Proximo is melodrama, The City is Closed is a slice-of-life drama.
“The City is Closed is an attempt to tighten up the songwriting and make it a little punchier,” Revell says.
“It’s when we switched to ‘Let’s sing more. Let’s do more harmonies.’” says Kent.
The more direct approach may have aliened Matt Stache. The band’s keyboardist grew increasingly distant from the rest of the crew, subsequently striking out on his own to be a popular TikTok content provider.
“Sitting in a room with four dudes, subsuming yourself and creating something with other people, that’s not something everyone can do,” Revell says.
“It is collaborative art,” Kent says. “Everyone brings their own expression to it, [but] it morphs into something different.”
After The City is Closed, Roman Candles’ focus on collaboration came to the fore. “Radium Girl” started with a riff and chorus devised by Kent.
Thinking about the 1920s radium girls, female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with luminous paint, Revell wrote verses for a protest “power to the workers” anthem.
That approach was jettisoned for an interpretation that the song was about a toxic personality.
“Death Follows the Big Moon” went through many musical changes until Revell remembered a dream he had.
“I was watching TV [in the dream] and The Pixies were on,” Revell remembers. “Frank Black was singing, ‘Death!’ and Kim Deal was in the back singing, ‘Follows the big moon!’”
The energetic garage rocker will be succeeded by the nocturnal electro boogie of “Purple Nights.”
Then January sees the release of “Jesus was an Astronaut.” The song is distinguished by lyrics written primarily by Jackson, who was inspired by a documentary on American religious cult Heaven’ Gate.
In 1997, 39 members of the group committed suicide at a suburban San Diego home, because they thought the coming of the Hale–Bopp comet would close a gate to heaven, damning them to life on earth.
“I was taken by this guy that self-exiled from the group because he could not stop masturbating to MTV videos,” Jackson says. “He still regrets leaving [and missing] the mass suicide. They were trying to be not human anymore. They wanted to evolve. This guy couldn’t do it — and he survived!”
The music accompanying this relevant concept is a whirlwind, prompted by a glam-rock chord progression that goes to back to work the band members did on Zoe Vette and the Revolvers’ B.C. Radio.
Jackson says the group’s devotion to music holds the members together, more so than any dreams of commercial or critical success.
“Everyone’s in this group because we have a tremendous amount of camaraderie and respect for one another,” Revell say. “The music reflects that.”
“This is by far the most creative and productive unit of friends that I’ve ever been with,” Wallin says. “I don’t think it could ever be replicated.”
“The next two songs that we’re going to put out are easily the best songs we’ve ever done,” Revell says. “Pound for pound what we’re doing right now, I don’t know any other rock band in Charlotte that even comes close. That’s how it feels to me.”
Biases aside, I can’t help but agree.
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