U.S. Christmas Finds Metal Inspiration in the Appalachian Mountains

LOW DOGS: North Carolina’s U.S. Christmas has moved into a new era with a new lineup, a new album, and another disc already recorded.

LOW DOGS: North Carolina’s U.S. Christmas has moved into a new era with a new lineup, a new album, and another disc already recorded.

U.S. Christmas, a seven-person band based in western North Carolina that plays a distinctively Southern kind of sprawling psychedelic rock, has been around for nearly a decade. Guitarist/singer Nate Hall and guitarist/keyboardist Matt Johnson both live in Marion, N.C., just a few miles west of Asheville, and formed the band after they met in the town’s only music store. But it’s only been in the last couple of years, as the band’s lineup has stabilized and they’ve finally been able to record two proper CDs, including the just-released Run Thick in the Night, that U.S. Christmas has finally started the long climb out of the heavy rock underground toward the metal mainstream.

For years, the band played infrequently, with members coming and going, and documented its evolution with a string of low-budget CD-R releases. By 2006, the band was good enough to catch the attention of Scott Kelly of San Francisco’s legendary cult band Neurosis, who released 2007’s Eat the Low Dogs on his band’s Neurot label. But the entire band, except for mainstays Hall and Johnson, quit after that record. The current version of U.S. Christmas—Hall and Johnson, bassist Chris Thomas, drummers Justin Whitlow and B.J. Graves, bassist Josh Holt, and violinist Meghan Mulhearn—came together in 2009. (Graves and Holt are both from Knoxville and are also members of the local experimental metal band Generation of Vipers.) Within just a few months, they had written and recorded Run Thick in the Night, 13 songs of slow-moving, dense, almost impossibly heavy and occasionally beautiful heavy space rock. The two drummers provide a ballast for cosmic, swirling guitar riffs, Mulhearn’s melancholy violin parts, and Hall’s increasingly expressive wailing vocals.

“Despite the fact that we’re not geographically close together all the time, when we do get together we’ve got an agenda, we’ve got things we want to do,” Hall says. “And we’re able to do it really well. We did a show last week where we played the whole album. We hadn’t done that, ever. And we haven’t played a lot of those songs much since we recorded them, and we were able to rehearse pretty intensely there the night before.”

Hall’s not kidding about the band’s newfound productivity. Since finishing Run Thick in the Night, they’ve already recorded music for a follow-up, set for release in the spring or early summer of 2011.

“Its totally recorded and mixed,” Hall says. “It’s just got to get mastered and we’ve got to get the art and layout done. It’s just a single 40-minute song. Once you hear it you’ll understand—it works pretty well, I think. There’s no tracks, it’s just one song.”

For a band with as many local connections as U.S. Christmas has, the group has only played in Knoxville a handful of times. Part of that is spending nearly a decade without a stable, full-time lineup. But it’s also a conscious decision by Hall and his bandmates to avoid the pressures and expense of the road.

“We won’t do long, intense tours,” Hall says. “It doesn’t suit me, I don’t like it. We’re all at the stage in our lives where we’ve got jobs and families and lives that we can’t abandon. It’s so difficult to tour America. You hardly ever break even, much less make money. It’s not really about money, but we have to make the band something we can do. We can sacrifice, but you can’t destroy your life for the band, or then you destroy the band.”

That affinity for home is also part of their musical identity. U.S. Christmas doesn’t exactly sound like Doc Watson or the Carter Family, but it’s hard to ignore the influence of the mountains and Appalachian culture in the thick, haunted majesty of the band’s music, especially on the new disc.

“Me and Matt grew up in really rural North Carolina, and that’s what I identify with more than anything, really,” Hall says. “That’s always going to be part of what I’m doing. I was really glad to be able to bring that out more on this album. I like the songs that develop among really isolated people, and that’s a subtlety I think is lost in modern attempts to recreate traditional music. People didn’t hit tons of notes, they didn’t play really fast. It wasn’t a very fast style of playing but it evoked a lot of emotion. It had a melancholy to it that modern country doesn’t have.”

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