From Ziggy Stardust to Rob Zombie, rock music has unleashed a menagerie of exotic creatures, larger-than-life figures spanning subgenres as diverse as U2’s bombastic arena rock, The Clash’s punk manifestos, Led Zeppelin’s mystic psychedelic blues and whatever the fuck it is that Kid Rock does.
As satisfying as it is for rock fans to stride in the shadow of these giants, it’s often more satisfying to walk alongside some normal people.
Sure, it’s fun to drunkenly karaoke along with Bon Jovi’s self-parody — “I’m a cowboy/ On a steel horse I ride/ I’m wanted dead or alive…” — but I’ll wager that far more people can relate to the story that unfolds in The New Creatures’ single “Telephone Wire,” where a couple struggles to find time alone together:
“She said where you wanna go/ Oh well I don’t know/ How ‘bout back to your place/ Oh well mine’s not clean/ She said well okay but my roommate Jeanie’s home/ She’s into Jesus man I really hope you stay…”
“Telephone Wire” consists of multiple snippers depicting life at The Creature Farm, a modest house where The New Creatures’ guitarist John Carstarphen leased out in McAdenville, a small town 17 miles west of Charlotte known mostly for its yearly Christmas lights exhibition, in 2019.
The band, then comprised of Carstarphen, bassist Bjarne Nielsen and guitarists Conrad Sloand and Ben Carroll, moved in and promptly gave the house its name. Drummer Jacob Palladino, or Dino for short, joined the fold down on the Farm later that year.
Life at The Creature Farm is reflected in another snippet of “Telephone Wire,” says Carstarphen.
“The Next day rolls around/ I was sitting on the couch eatin’ a can of beans/ watching westerns on tv when you called me up…”
The song, released in May 2021, hearkens back to the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020 when the five friends and musicians were quarantined at The Creature Farm with no working Wi-Fi in the house. Starved for entertainment, The New Creatures were reprieved when Carstarphen’s brother brought over a cable box. Unfortunately the box could only access a few channels, and the one that came in best was Grit, a network devoted to classic film and television westerns.
“They were so boring, those westerns,” Palladino says.
“We all just felt like we were sitting around eating a can of beans, watching westerns on TV all day,” Carroll adds.
In conversation, Carstarphen, Carroll and Palladino come across as nice, regular guys, the last people to acknowledge that they’re also insanely talented musicians and songwriters. The band has slimmed down to this threesome after the departure of Nielsen and Sloand. Nielsen left The New Creatures a month after the band released its second full-length album Seed in August 2021 to move back to his hometown of Rochester, New York. Sloand announced he was leaving the band in November 2021.
The departures were amicable, Carstarphen and Carroll say, a matter of two of their close friends deciding to do something different with their lives. As a matter of fact, Sloand stops by to hang out just as Queen City Nerve’s phone interview with the band is winding down. Carroll says Nielsen is one of the best bass players he knows, but that Nielsen always had an affinity for hard-hitting psych rock, a genre much heavier than what was going down at The Creature Farm.
The New Creatures play a fresh yet familiar brand of melodic music that draws from surf, country, indie and classic rock. Those elements are present in “Telephone Wire,” where chiming, frenetic rhythm guitars that suggest nerdy ’80s indie band The Feelies give way to an amiable country rock canter, punctuated by chiming entwining lead guitars that would fit in on Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1969 album Happy Trails.
Carroll compares the band’s approach to songwriting and arranging to durable British Invasion legends The Kinks.
“The Kinks have such a crazy huge diversity of sounds,” he says. “It’s all over the place, but when you hear a Kinks song, you know it’s them. I’m not saying we sound like The Kinks, but we allow our writing to be as free as we want.”
Carstarphen simply describes his band’s songs as “good driving music.”
The trio, augmented with Charlotte bassist Cameron Godwin (Swim in the Wild, David Taylor and the Tallboys), bring their diverse sound to The Evening Muse on Feb. 25.
Belmont native Carstarphen picked up the guitar at age 10. He started playing folk music in high school with Sloand, a transplant from Arkansas who grew up in Gastonia. Growing up in Farmington, Connecticut, Carroll grew up surrounded by guitars. Emulating his father and his older brother Brett, Carroll began to play at age 6.
Carroll and Carstarphen met in 2015 while both were attending college at Montana State University. They started playing together and immediately clicked, forming a band called Mellow Knights. “That’s when I started thinking I could make a career at [music],” Carroll says.
Carstarphen left school after a year, but Carroll stayed out in Montana until 2019, when Carstarphen got back in touch, urging Carroll to move to McAdenville and start a band.
“I loved playing with him so much in Montana, I knew that was the thing I wanted to do,” Carroll says.
In the meantime, Sloand and Nielsen met up at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where they started playing together as well. After reconnecting with Carstarphen, Sloand moved to North Carolina to make music with Carroll and Carstarphen. Nielsen also eventually came down to join the nascent rock band.
Once the guys were ensconced at The Creature Farm, they began to hone their sound. Carstarphen and Sloand’s folk backgrounds shaped the lyrics, making each song tell a story.
“Instrumentally [too] we try to tell a story with the notes we’re playing, and make every song like a journey,” Carroll says.
The New Creatures started playing out immediately — at The Peculiar Rabbit in Plaza Midwood. It was too soon, in Carroll’s estimation. “We weren’t quite ready, but it was fun,” he says.
“We weren’t very good,” Carstarphen agrees.
In 2019, Palladino answered an ad on Craigslist calling for a drummer. He auditioned in front of all four members and got the gig.
“I knew these guys would be my best friends,” Palladino says. “It was just a feeling in my nuggets.”
Released in June 2020, The New Creature’s Home Cooking EP was the first band project Palladino played drums on. To record, the band rented an Airbnb near Sugar Mountain overlooking Linville Gorge.
“We just moved all the furniture out and just set up all our musical equipment,” Carroll remembers.
The vocals for the EP’s six songs were tracked live along with the rest of the instruments to replicate the energy of a live show. “We didn’t do any overdubbing for that. It was just on our mics playing it as good as we could one time,” Carroll says.
Most of the songs for The New Creatures’ self-titled debut album, recorded in February 2020, were written at The Creature Farm while the five band members hunkered down in quarantine during the first month of the COVID pandemic. The lockdown produced a massive amount of material.
“It was kind of awesome but at the same time it sucked,” Carstarphen says.
The record represents a sonic step forward for the band. The New Creatures had met producer Brian Gluf at a Snug Harbor gig, and Gluf offered the band use of his Salisbury facility Maldek Studios at no charge. The band moved into a house in Salisbury, about a 45-minute drive from Charlotte (going the opposite direction on I-85 from McAdenville), and worked tiring but exhilarating 12-hour days.
Carstarphen calls the experience an eye-opener.
“We knew that you could make a scratch track at our house, and we could make it sound good, but when it comes to tracking a full band and trying new things, Brian opened a lot of doors for us,” he says.
For their next project, the four-song EP Out of the Blue, the band packed their van with every piece of recording equipment they could scrounge up from The Creature Farm and went to a rented house in North Myrtle Beach. They used the house as an experimental studio. Once again, all the instruments were recorded live, but the band went crazy with overdubs for the vocals, recording voices in the shower, in the bathroom, and under the bed.
“That was the most fun [project] that I’ve been a part of,” Carroll says.
“It was really nice getting away from everything and making some music,” Carstarphen says, “It was like being on vacation.”
The vacation had a sudden return-to-adulting coda, however. As the band headed home they learned that a massive oak tree had fallen on The Creature Farm, taking out one of the bedrooms and a carport.
“We came back and there’s this 100-foot tree that crushed all that,” Carroll says. “It shifted how many people could live [in the house].”
Palladino and Carstarphen moved into a house down the street, while Carroll, Nielsen and Sloand stayed at the diminished Creature Farm with their rescue dog, Layla.
Seed, the band’s sophomore album, would prove to be Sloand and Nielsen’s last with the band. Stellar songs on the release display an increasing maturity from a band whose members are still in their twenties. On “Floorman,” Carroll’s yearning vocals soar over sluicing surf guitar and waves of hissing cymbals and clattering drums:
“Last time I saw you/ We were back where we were/ Two innocent kids living a life so pure/ Now the times are changing /I’m lost in the woods…”
The Big Star-styled rocker “Now We’re Dancin’,” nods to Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones with percussive electric piano, spiraling country-rock guitar riffs and Carstarphen’s joyous gritty vocals:
“Standin’ in line just chasing the dragon/ 20 more minutes and I’ll be home/ Behind the privacy of the curtains in my windows/ Nobody’s looking in and no one knows…”
The big difference between the first and second albums is that the band had a lot more time to get more familiar with each other as musicians, rather than just as buddies, Carstarphen says.
“It got to the point where we were communicating through our instruments a lot better,” he offers. Carroll believes the album highlights The New Creatures’ facility at crafting songs that work well with three interweaving guitar parts.
“It’s overwhelming sometimes when you’re trying to make a song, and you’ve got three guitars locked in,” Carroll says. “We got a lot better at that on Seed than on the first album.”
With the departures of Sloand and Nielsen, integrating three guitar lines is no longer an issue. While Carroll, Carstarphen and Palladino miss their former bandmates, The New Creatures have adopted a more streamlined approach to making music.
“Now there’s a rhythm [guitar] part and a catchy lead,” Carroll says. “It’s simpler but it doesn’t sound simpler.”
“It’s a whole lot easier to communicate with three minds working on something rather than five to complete the music,” Carstarphen says.
Along with the band’s new music direction, they’ve also started recording with a new producer at a new facility, Tom Harling at Record Press Play in Charlotte. The facility benefits from having a surfeit of analog equipment, Carstarphen says.
“Every sound is super dialed in through pre-amps and a bunch of analog gear,” he continues. “It gives it a really warm and cool sound.” The band says they’ve moved from Maldek to Record Press Play because they wanted to try something new. The band is changing as well, Carroll says.
“Now that it’s just me, John and Dino,” he says. “I feel like the music has changed and this new recording place is … .”
“More tailored to what we want to do,” Carstarphen says, finishing Carroll’s sentence.
He offers that two songs recorded at Record Press Play may be the finest music The New Creatures has produced to date.
Carroll says he feels prouder of the two songs, tentatively titled “These Changes,” and “Kitchen,” than any other tunes he’s tracked. For now, the future looks promising for The New Creatures, and their ultimate goals appear to be unchanged.
“All I ever wanted was to write a song that anybody can relate to and listen to, and it will brighten up their day a little bit,” Carstarphen says.