Charlie Finch, Joan Monaco, and Bill Warden were housemates for a while before they were in a band together. Then, in the spring of 2011, their friend Steph Untz insisted they form a band to play the reception for her graduate painting thesis show, which included impressionistic portraits of local musicians, artists, and associate hobnobbers. By the time of the show they had half-a-dozen songs and a rock 'n' roll name so good you might marvel that it hasn't been used before: Smoking Nurse.
"We'd already been talking about playing together for a while," says Finch, a graphic designer for Metro Pulse. "We all live in this house, so why don't we play some music? But it became sort of official when we were asked to play the art show."
Finch had been feeling the itch to play after the demise of his band Fecal Japan, a heavy psychedelic unit known to perform inside an inflatable plastic bubble with accompanying strobe lights. Warden has seemed to always have a band or two going in Knoxville since the early '90s—New Madrid was his most recent and long-lasting—and was also looking for a new project. Monaco had played guitar a few times in New Madrid, but was looking to make use of a drum kit she had acquired.
"I only started playing drums when the band started," she explains. "I'd had parts of a set that I bought a while back, and had been trying to find replacement hardware for it. This drum set had been sitting in my living room untouched for a year. I finally put it together, and these guys weren't playing, and we all lived together, so it just made sense."
Though Finch and Warden have been in numerous Knoxville bands and both have played with many of the same people, they had never collaborated, aside from a casual session back in the late '90s. Both play guitar, sing, and write songs, and in Smoking Nurse their two distinct styles complement each other well. Finch is stepped in shoegaze and churning neo-psychedelia, while Warden has a penchant for the noisy, bluesy side of garage rock. Monaco pounds out driving rhythms; the result is a blast of loud guitar rock that sounds novel but still familiar.
"The way I see it, there's some aesthetics we all share, and some that are different," Finch says. "I'll say, ‘I want to play this thing, you guys do whatever you want to do, and it's going to be fine, because it will still sound like what I'm bringing in.' And it's the same with Bill; I'm going to add what I want, but it's still going to sound like something coming from his perspective."
Warden acknowledges the different styles of their songwriting and playing, and finds these to be strengths of the group. "I think it is one sound, and that's kind of why it's neat live, because it's disparate but it still connects," he says.
The band has been on two brief tours, one around the Southeast and one that took them through the Midwest, into the West, and down to Monterrey, Mexico.
Mexico's exceedingly violent drug wars had recently moved into once-safe Monterrey, and the three admit they were pretty nervous driving their van down Mexican highways.
"I've always wanted to go to Mexico," Monaco says. "And I thought having a band is a good reason to travel and be in a city, and meet the exact people you would want to meet in that city."
Monterrey's rock scene is fairly robust, with a strong hardcore presence. Smoking Nurse played and socialized with members of bands who have releases on venerable garage labels Siltbreeze and In the Red, and even some of these guys were surprised and impressed that an unknown Tennessee rock band would travel to Monterrey to play a show.
The band recorded a batch of songs a few weeks after they formed, and are looking forward to recording new songs for a cassette release in the next few weeks. Warden will be heading to grad school at Yale in the fall, so the band's future after this summer is up in the air. There's talk of getting together whenever possible for a show, and how not playing together regularly might affect that.
"If we were to book a show, or just get together now and then, we would only be playing songs we already knew, and not have the opportunity to write new song, and that could get boring," Monaco says.
"And it took us forever to start writing new songs," Warden adds. "After we did that first tape, we just kept playing those songs over and over. We'd talk a lot about how we needed to write, and now it's cool because we do just kind of write. But I was afraid we were going to get in that loop of playing the same songs over and over."
"Oh, yeah," Monaco says. "Well, that would be stupid."
"I know," replies Warden. "But it happens a lot, and it happened to us for a while."