"I’ve got cracks in the windows from playing loud bass,” says 36-year-old Stewart Pack, pointing to spidered fractures in the glass panes looking out on the steeply sloping back yard of his home in South Knoxville. “The kids’ rooms are right above me. They’re amazingly tolerant of the noise; some nights it seems like they’re lulled to sleep by it, even after they’ve been loud and active all day.”
Pack motions to the five-piece drum set in the corner nearest the window; it’s one of three dozen or so musical instruments—electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, electric bass, even a steel guitar and a mandolin—crowding the little basement hovel he shares as a workspace with his wife, Kimberly, a photographer. “Those drums are so loud,” he says. “But it’s rock ‘n’ roll, so it has to be loud. And the guitar amps, too. They sound so much better when they’re really jacked up, getting a workout.”
Of course, with three kids under the age of 10 stationed at various points above the room that incubates most of Pack’s musical undertakings, the disruptions go both ways. “It’s hard to record before 9 p.m. or so,” he laughs. “You can hear bumps and clunks on some of my recordings, where they’ve been bouncing off the walls while I was playing a song.”
Such are the hazards of pouring the whole of one’s creative impulses out in the cramped petri dish of a home studio—a home studio that is truly a home studio in the purest sense of the word. But having spent the first 14 years of his adult life paying his dues in sweaty beer halls as one of Knoxville’s most active musicians and bandleaders, Pack, the family man, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Anyone who has been paying any attention to local rock music over the last couple of decades has probably heard one of Stewart Pack’s projects somewhere along the way. In late 1980s and early ’90s, he fronted the raucously tuneful, guitar-centric post-punk outfits the 1-900s and Pegclimber, both of which were fixtures at area clubs and on local college radio. The mid-’90s gave way to a couple of mellower Pack projects, the sprightly pop musings of Glowplug and Dinky Doo.
Though his live shows are infrequent now, Pack is perhaps more prolific than ever, with four full-length releases to his credit since retiring from the hassles of having a full-time band around 2001, and two more on the way.
Only now his priorities have shifted, in that music is a passion and an avocation again, rather than a second career. And the venue is different, too; the fruits of his labor are no longer hawked at merchandise tables and independent record stores—they’re available for free downloading on the Internet (go to lynnpoint.com).
“I’d been doing the same thing for over 10 years—write-rehearse-gig, write-rehearse-gig,” Pack says. “It was this cycle that never yielded anything. So I got into this mode of ‘I need to get busy writing songs without having to be able to gig them.’ No more renting rehearsal space or trying to book shows.”
He slides into his CD player a copy of his latest release, Stewart Pack and the Royal Treatment , a 13-song gem also featuring Gregg Dunn on piano and bass and Paul Turpin on drums. Pristinely recorded, with note-perfect performances, the disc could just as easily have been some lost Robert Pollard project, only with sweeter vocals and without the dicey quirks.
“It’s not important for me to try to make money off what I do anymore,” he adds. “I just want the music out there. And for me to think that you’re going to actually buy my CD instead of the new CD that everyone is talking about… my ego just isn’t that big.”
Pack cut his teeth on the meaty, riff-dominant guitar rock of ’70s FM radio. “I was into classic rock very young, because it was all about great guitar,” says Pack. A deft, versatile player, equally buoyant as a rhythm ace or soloist, he’s now something of a guitar hero himself for younger musicians playing alternative rock in Knoxville circa 2006.
“I started playing that stuff at age nine—everything, even down to Blackfoot and Molly Hatchet,” he continues. “When I was younger, I was more interested in guitars and melody than in the nuances of writing songs, which is something I’ve tried to pay more attention to as I’ve gone along.”
His first real band came in his early college years at the University of Tennessee with the 1-900s, a post-punk power trio given to strong, slightly askew melodies, but characterized most notably by Pack’s heavily overdriven SG squall. “We were just trying to be ridiculous and obnoxious with a three-piece rock band, but still with some semblance of good songs,” Pack says. “The idea was sort of a punkish ’50s-rock, Del Shannon-meets-Descendants, but it turned into its own thing. I guess it was sort of the Police-meets-Del Shannon-does-punk.”
The outfit was seemingly ubiquitous on Cumberland Avenue for a while, sharing countless multi-band bills at the former Flamingo’s club, appearing on local music anthologies and even college radio’s 90.3-WUTK with memorable singles like “Soured” and “Untitled.”
“When I was a student at UT, Stewart’s bands were the first ones that really caught my ear,” remembers former Mustard drummer Paul Turpin, who also played drums on Stewart Pack and the Royal Treatment . “I really admired the way he played guitar. It was unique to the area. I like to call it the ‘Stewtone’ now.”
“I heard them back in the day, when Stewart had his own guitar P.A. and they were loud ,” remembers guitarist Phil Fuson, who collaborated on one of Pack’s forthcoming Internet releases. “Real loud. But they were always smart, with strong song-writing, which is something I’m a fan of.”
The 1-900s gave way to the like-minded Pegclimber, which also featured 1-900s bassist Larry Brady, but with Shayne Ivy replacing Morrie Rothstein on drums. But years of playing big-riff rock began to tell, and the mid-’90s saw Pack scale back with Dinky Doo and Glowplug, both of which also featured him as singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter.
“I felt limited by what I had been doing before,” he says. “I went after a smaller rock sound after Pegclimber disbanded. Something like the Pixies—less flashy but with more songwriting. The name Dinky Doo was sort of a swipe at that. It was something smaller, ‘dinkier.’”
Something else happened in the 1990s, too; as Pack’s songwriting matured, his personal life also changed. He married long-time girlfriend Kimberly Dobbins in 1994. And four years later, the couple made room for son Henry, the first of three children. (Son Simon and daughter Julia followed in 2000 and 2002.) And Pack learned that family life impacts not only the lifestyle of the maturing rocker, but also the motivations.
“When you’re a kid, you write about being oppressed and angst and being put down,” Pack says. “Then all of a sudden I was married and happy, and I had this sort of crisis of ‘What do I write about?’ I think a lot of rock ‘n’ roll artists fall by the wayside for that very reason.”
Meanwhile, the demands of home and career (Pack is a graphic designer, currently employed by the Scripps network) made fronting a full-fledged rock band an increasingly difficult proposition. Longtime friend and former Glowplug member Gregg Dunn observes that, “I think he became burned out on the regular band thing. He just wanted to play, and he wanted things on his own terms.”
But it wasn’t until Glowplug played its last regular show, somewhere around 2001, that Pack was able to fully reconcile his artistic inclinations with his real-world responsibilities. “We’d just had our third child, and I needed something to divert my stress and attention, not add to it,” Pack says. “I also wanted the total freedom to do whatever I wanted, good or bad. And I didn’t want to worry about whether I could gig something because it has extra guitar parts or piano or whatever.
“They always say, ‘Having kids will change your life,’ but that isn’t the half of it. It makes you look at everything differently, including your own childhood. It puts you in a different context. It’s like there’s this break in your life; you’re putting certain things behind you, and then looking ahead.”
He found the outlet he needed in his own basement, with his guitars and drums and amps and a diminutive Roland Vs1680 digital studio workstation, and his children romping the floors overhead. The result has been a string of no-less-than-stellar alternative pop recordings including To the Quick , Paperback School of Discovery , Red Radio and Stewart Pack and the Royal Treatment .
Pack calls the latter recording (his most recent) “almost a coping mechanism for being a parent. A lot of those songs are about kids growing up and thinking about what comes down the road.” His next release That Is That , a more adrenalized rock effort featuring Ivy on drums, should be available in March.
But what sets Pack apart from any number of other home-based recording artists? The answer lies first in his wealth of experience as a live performer and bandleader, and then with the sheer volume and consistency of his output.
His friends and collaborators, though, point to his diverse and seemingly inexhaustible talents, which extend even to designing his own CD graphics—to his estimable skills as a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, artist and engineer.
“His playing is whatever you want it to be,” says Dunn, a contributor on some of Pack’s solo releases. “He’ll rip off a classic rock song, or a Descendants song, or he’ll play honky-tonk. And he can pick up just about anything and make it sound good. He’s a heckuva lot better bassist than I am, and he’s a better drummer than the drummers in most bands, too.”
“I marvel at what he can do at home with that Roland Vs1680,” Fuson says of Pack’s facility with the home recorder. “I’ve heard guys with rooms full of gear start to cry when they heard it. ‘He did all that with just this?’ It’s an example of someone getting everything he can out of a piece of equipment, a device not much bigger than a laptop computer. It’s amazing.”
Pack says the 51 songs (not including the upcoming CDs with Ivy and Fuson) he has recorded since Glowplug are “the stuff I’m most proud of, of all the music I’ve done. I think I’ve finally matured as a songwriter. I’ve done a lot of growing up in general these last few years.”
His live appearances are fewer and farther between nowadays, but he will play on Feb. 24 at Barley’s in the Old City, opening for former Superdrag frontman and fellow Farragut High School graduate John Davis, a kindred spirit, musically speaking, with his own brand of adhesively memorable alternative power pop. (“I guess there is a little bit of a ‘Knoxville Sound’ among certain bands,” Pack acknowledges. “There was a group of us who grew up here in the same area, revolting against the same things, listening to some of the same pop music.”) He’ll play live again on March 25 at the Corner Lounge, a sort of coming-out appearance for the release of That Is That .
And according to Fuson, that absence of regular-rock-band politics is one of the things that makes playing Pack’s songs worthwhile, even for the musicians who serve as sidemen to his prolific solo muse. “It’s a blast; there’s no pressure, no tension, no nothing,” he says. “Everyone is grown up enough that it’s fun again. It’s back to what playing music was like when you started out, its truest form. And the songs are great. It’s a joy to play with someone like that.”