There was a weird social chemistry in the air at the Bitter Pills’ recent reunion show at the Pilot Light. In front of the stage, the crowd’s energy was palpable—the first five or six rows coalesced into a blurred frenzy of arms and hair, people dancing as though they’d spent the last few years sitting on their hands, beer sloshing inside PBR cans and frothing up and out of bottles. The scene along the walls, on the other hand, was significantly more subdued; like birds on a power line, people leaned against the wall with their arms crossed, listening intently and nodding their heads in time.
Clearly, some in attendance were longtime fans of the band, known in its day for delivering a brand of feverish rock’n’roll inspired by the Pills’ obsession with vintage vinyl. Others were receiving their first introduction.
“When you don’t play for three or four years, it’s almost like starting over with a new band all over again,” bassist George Gondo explains, seated in a chair outside the Pills’ home base, Lost & Found Records.
“We’re doing the same material, but a lot of people don’t know who we are,” adds drummer Graham McCorkle. “They come see us and say, ‘Hey, we like the stuff you guys are playing,’ but we’re playing the same bar, the same songs we were before. I actually thought a lot of the songs were tired. But now it’s like we’re a brand new band because it’s been so long.”
If you’ve been around the scene as long as the members of the Pills have (since the early ’90s, although the Bitter Pills itself wasn’t birthed until ’98), you start to see patterns, cycles. Because Knoxville is a college town, the music scene seems to turn over every three to four years, with new bands surfacing and others falling off the radar. Since the Pills have been broken up since 2003, McCorkle speculates with a laugh, “There are probably people who came to Knoxville who would’ve liked Bitter Pills who went through their school years and left without even knowing who we were.”
Now that the band is back together (“We just sort of blundered back into it,” explains guitarist Matt Juroff of their reunion), it seems unlikely that they’ll will remain on the periphery of the local music scene for long. The Pills’ sound, a calculated smashup of explosive drums and swampy organs and guttural guitars, is culled from years of sitting in front of turntables and studying the music that comes out.
But the Pills aren’t High Fidelity wannabes; they’re the real deal—obsessive-compulsive vinyl fiends who trade records like the average teenager trades MySpace friends. “We like the older recordings. We really think that way,” vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Nathan Moses says. “It became our own style. We wanted to sound like the British Invasion, early American pop kind of music, soul and rock and roll, but we wanted to have original songs. It became our own thing; we came naturally into it.”
Which isn’t to say the Pills steer clear of experimentation. Moses says they’re not afraid to kick convention—the traditional verse-chorus-verse formula, for instance—aside and do their own thing, say, write a song that runs only maybe a minute and 20 or 30 seconds long. In that sense, the past merely functions as a launch pad for the Pills music rather than a blueprint for it. And, besides, when you start throwing genres and timelines around, things can get messy.
For example, Gondo notes that there’s a big difference between what is considered “garage rock” today and what “garage rock” used to be. “You hear bands all the time that get called ‘garage’ and it has nothing to do with the original garage sound of the 1960s.” McCorkle confirms, “Garage band is kind of a confusing term. I mean, doesn’t everybody start out in their first band playing in their mom’s garage? It’s kind of like ‘singer-songwriter;’ I don’t really understand it.”
Other relics of rock’n’roll history the Pills have no problem wrapping their heads around. Like records, thousands of which are piled just feet away inside Lost & Found's door. Moses, a Lost & Found employee, finds himself darting back inside on occasion to ring someone up or help a customer find what he’s looking for. “There’s just something about vinyl,” Gondo explains, shrugging his shoulders. “It just sounds better. People don’t collect CDs. In 20 years, landfills are going to be filled up with these plastic little jewel cases and broken CDs. But there’ll always be a record store, there’ll always be eBay, there’ll always be an antique booth with records in it and people who want to buy them.”
The Pills admit, though, that even though they’ve only recorded on vinyl in the past, they may break down and record a CD (in addition to a seven-inch or LP, of course) in the near future, out of respect for fans and radio stations and prospective venues that don’t have turntables. But don’t expect them to turn themselves over to modern technology anytime soon, or to throw in the towel.
“We’re not a fly-by-night kind of band,” Moses says. “We’re not the kind of band that plays for the wrong reasons, to make it or to get paid or to be popular. We’re doing it because we like it. We really are passionate about what we play.”