And Follow Your Dreams DownAuthor: likeadeucePlay:Henry IV, Part I
, modern AURecipient: kerrypolka
, who wanted Percies + unintended disasters, and who also digs Bruce Springsteen, jam sessions, and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Summary:
Kate Mortimer, Harry Percy, various others, with a wee bit of gender swap. Notes:
Thanks to: friends to be named later, who know garage bands in general and the Carolina music scene in particular. Title and epigraph are from "No Surrender," by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street band, which seems like a Hotspur song if there ever was one.We busted out of class, had to get away from those fools/
We learned more from a 3-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.
From the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer
, Sunday, August 29, 2010.
If you had to make a list of great Southern rock-and-roll towns, you might think of Memphis; Athens, Georgia; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; or the indie-rock mecca of Austin. You would be forgiven, in other words, if you overlooked the leafy Chapel Hill suburb of Lake Forest.
If the members of Esperance have their way, though, one garage in this otherwise sleepy neighborhood will find a place in music history. That garage belongs to the family home of the band's drummer, Edmund Mortimer. It's here that Ed, now 22, taught himself to drum by playing along with Max Weinberg on old E Street Band records. It's also where, when Ed was a junior at East Chapel Hill High School, his older sister Kate introduced him to a University of North Carolina classmate who had a guitar and a few songs to his name.
That was New Jersey transplant Henry "Harry" Percy and the rest, the group hopes, will turn out to be history.
Kate Mortimer is not a member of the band. The twenty-five year old wants to make sure that you know that.
"I don't play anything," she says firmly. "I took piano lessons like everybody else in Lake Forest. I played xylophone with the pit percussion at the football games, that kind of thing. But I got to college and it fell by the wayside."
Still, it's hard to talk about meeting the band without talking about Kate. As Esperance's manager, Kate is the person you call to get an interview. The interview happens at her parents' house, in that no doubt soon-to-be-famous garage. It's a cozy rehearsal space, decked out with comfortable furniture and posters of Southern music legends like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, a team photo and schedule for the Tar Heels' 2005 championship basketball team, and a banner for the British soccer club Tottenham Hotspur, a relic of the semester Percy spent in London.
Kate lounges next to Percy on the second-hand sofa, as we talk; Ed Mortimer sprawls on the floor. Bassist Devin Douglas and keyboardist Matt "Archie" Archibald will join us later for the photo shoot, but on this overcast Sunday morning, they are still, as Ed opines, "sleeping off the road." For that matter, Ed admits, he's only present because, "My bedroom is right over the garage, and my sister is very persuasive." There's Kate again.
It's hard to blame the band members who decided to sleep in. Esperance just got back from a 9-week tour, covering 30-plus cities, in support of their independently-produced album "Stronger Faster Tomorrow." Within the next month, they will be back in the studio to record a much anticipated follow-up, with producer Owen Glendower, legendary head of Spirits of the Vasty Deep ("SVD") Records.
But -- and we keep coming back to this -- none of the band's success might be in place if it wasn't for Kate.
"Esperance was my class project," she explains. Kate and Ed's father, you see, is a tenured professor in UNC's music department. (Edmund Mortimer, Sr., a saxophone player and musicologist, is a well-known session musician in his own right, having recorded with -- well, we'll get to that. It's complicated.) Instead of following in either parent's footsteps -- mother Esperanza (yes, we noticed that, too) is an ophthalmologist at the university hospital -- Kate pursued undergraduate degrees in economics and business. While she enjoyed attending the gigs of her brother and other friends on weekends, this was strictly for fun. Until, that is, music came back into her life in an unexpected way.
"Harry and Ed and the lineup they had at the time had started to bring some revenue in. I was taking an arts management class, and I asked to look at their books."
"So I showed her what we had," Percy says. "And she looked at it. And then she yelled a lot."
"I didn't yell!" Kate pushes her hair back from her face -- jet black with a streak of magenta, it's not exactly the Kenan-Flagler MBA program standard -- and admits, "I might have cried for a while."
Percy mouths, "She yelled," then puts an arm around her shoulder, pulls her toward him and kisses the top of her head. "So we hired her."
Officially and in public, Harry Percy and Kate Mortimer are reticent about describing their personal relationship. Early coverage of the band referred to Kate as Percy's "manager-fiancée," but Mortimer herself posted on several message boards to correct the apparent misconception.
Watching the two in person, it is hard to miss the casual physical affection between them, but their time together is necessarily limited. The band is frequently on tour, and road manager Rich Vernon handles logistics while Kate holds a day job in the UNC admissions department. ("I could have gone Wall Street, after I got my MBA;" she says, "but the global economy had the courtesy to collapse during my final year and make that decision easier.") Others in the local music scene have described the relationship as "mercurial", "on-and-off," or just plain "rocky," so it is understandable if the two choose to focus on the longstanding and, thus far, sturdy professional relationship.
Kate's role in developing the band extended to elements as basic the name. At the time she helped the group revamp its business model -- their “brand,” as she likes to say -- they were billing themselves as "Chez Mortimer," a reference to the early jam sessions held at the Mortimer home.
"She made us change it," Percy says gravely.
"I didn't make you," Kate protests, then promptly begins ticking off points on her fingers. "People don't know how to pronounce it --"
"Because it's French." Percy gives a literal wink at this, referring to the fact that the current moniker, which means "hope," is also a French word that gives some audiences pause. (Say "ESS-per-ence," and you'll be close enough.)
" -- People associated it with an earlier lineup," Kate continues. (Yes, as I promised, there will be more on the band's tangled history later). "Most of all, though, it's really not a 'Mortimer' band."
"No offense taken," says Ed Mortimer. "We all know I'm just the drummer." Twirling a a pair of sticks for emphasis, he points them at Percy. "Harry's the talent."
However tongue-in-cheek Ed's observation, most observers would agree with it -- to a point. The musical talent of Esperance's ensemble should not be understated -- including Ed's expert high-speed drumming, which often sticks in the your mind long after the song has faded. The relentless tempos remind you that these guys love the Ramones, the Clash and the Violent Femmes (a Percy-helmed cover of "Blister in the Sun" was an early crowd-pleaser, and they still play it).
You can also hear splashes of country western and blues, though, and, while every young male artist these days seems compelled to lay offerings on the altar of Bruce Springsteen, Percy seems like a guy who might really be able to pull it off. It isn't just the matching forearm tattoos based on the Boss's lyrics. ("No retreat," says the left arm, while the right announces, "No surrender.") Harry Percy doesn't just talk the rock star talk. Despite a few incidents of bad-boy behavior -- a profanity-laden voice mail that he left for a local critic who was unkind to the band's first album was immortalized on the writer's MySpace page, and his tendency to argue via the Internet reportedly prompted Kate to take over the password to his Twitter account; she has no comment -- he generally doesn't act out on stage, or trash hotel rooms. No, what makes Percy a just-maybe rock star is something in his deep-set brown eyes, in the populist mumble with which he spits out his knotty lyrics, and in the sheer energy of watching this guy play for two hours straight without taking a visible breath. Something that tells you that you just might be looking at The Real Thing.
It seems to matter, then, that we're watching, "Esperance," not "Harry Percy and His Chapel Hill Garage Band." The name, in fact, is a nod to both founding families. Dr. Esperanza de Vega, if you've been keeping track, is Kate and Ed's Guatemalan-born mother. ("She'd be working double shifts at the hospital and she used to bring us cookies," Percy laughs. "We remember.") Meanwhile, during that London semester that he'll talk your ear off about ("I was supposedly studying Samuel Johnson and the history of England. It was more like Joe Strummer and Guinness"), Percy ran across a reference to "Esperance" as the motto of Britain's ancient, noble Percy family.
"I liked the convergence," Percy explains.
"I found a good font for it," Kate says, diplomatically, but points with pride to the band's memorable logo, which has helped their T-shirts become familiar fixtures in the Triangle's campuses and night clubs.
I ask if it's weird having the band, essentially, named after the siblings' mother. "Mom's been very supportive," says Kate, while Ed alludes back to the cookies.
Percy chews over his answer for a bit longer, admitting, when he speaks up, that it isn't his mother, and it isn't his parents' garage. Then he sighs and pushes back his curly hair, and pronounces, "Family. We've all got them. We're all part of them. Everybody's somebody's kid."
That's the first and very nearly the only acknowledgement, in the interview, of Esperance's hidden genealogy. Harry's father is Henry "Bud" Percy, the Jersey Shore musician, DJ, and bandleader for several abortive late-night television ventures (the bands being, by universal acclamation, the most and perhaps only watchable parts of the show). His uncle, Thomas Percy, left New Jersey for Memphis, where he was a founding member of the legendary (and still touring) country-rock quartet East Mountain Boys. Tom Percy not only wrote most of that group’s most memorable hits, he's the bass player that half of the bass players in the South learned their tricks from when he sat in, often anonymously, on hundreds of Memphis recording sessions with -- wait for it -- Ed Mortimer, Senior.
Regarding Harry Percy's personal musical heritage, two things are very clear: he's proud of his family, and he doesn't want to build on a career on their achievements. It took a year of Ed, Jr. and Harry playing together before the Mortimers realized the connection, because Percy had never brought it up. "We're all somebody's kid," Harry repeats, then says, "Even Hallie was somebody's kid." Then abruptly he stands up and asks if it's okay to pull out his guitar, because, while we've been talking, he's thought of a song. He makes a beeline for his instrument, while Kate makes sure that all my questions about "the new record" have been answered.
There's nothing more to be said, in other words, about the other
elephant in the room, which involves the band's old lineup. Esperance is an energetic, promising rock outfit; Percy's songs are sharp and fresh and fun. Anyone who has heard the "Chez Mortimer" demos, though, or who remembers their early live performances, will notice some missing elements from the new band: the haunting female vocals, and the bluegrass-inflected rhythms provided by a gorgeous violin part. Those belonged to another early member of the Mortimer garage sessions. Since parting ways with the current members of Esperance, she has performed, sporadically, and gained a cult -- mostly Internet-based -- following under the name Hallie Monmouth. When she and Kate Mortimer were high school classmates, though, she was known by her father's name: Bolingbroke.
Here, then, is where the story of this indie rock band intersects, bizarrely, with the strange morass of high-level Southern politics. When Percy, Hallie, and the Mortimers met, Henry Bolingbroke was a powerful attorney, well-connected within Raleigh's insular legal-community but far from a household name. Within a year, two-term United States Senator James Richards (since deceased) had resigned (in 2005), and Bolingbroke been appointed to his seat. Although talk of irregularity surrounded the appointment -- and particularly vicious Internet rumors have circulated since Richards' unexpected death -- Bolingbroke's eloquence and pragmatism have won him widespread support in this traditionally "red" state. In 2006, Bolingbroke was elected to the Senate in his own right, and discussions of the 2016 Presidential race frequently name him the "Great Southern Hope." If you're from North Carolina, you know this, and you probably have an opinion about it.
Harry Percy, like Kate and Ed Mortimer, and all of their parents, are staunch and vocal Democrats. During the 2006 campaign, Chez Mortimer, along with several other local bands, played a campaign event at Chapel Hill's Carrboro Arts Center. During Chez Mortimer's set, Hallie -- never a regular part of the lineup, but always a crowd favorite -- joined them on stage. Surprisingly in this YouTube era, no recordings of the event survive. Some reports indicate that the Senator's daughter was visibly intoxicated, but this is far from a consensus. What all accounts agree on is that Hallie sang lead vocals for at least one number. That was a song no one remembers her performing before (or since), a slowed-down version of Springsteen's "Adam Raised a Cain" -- a ballad whose treatment of parent-child relationships is, shall we say, far from conciliatory.
While a few who were present are dismissive of Hallie’s vocals, the general feeling seems to be that this was a mesmerizing performance. All agree that afterwards, she went on a profanity-laden rant directed at her father. Finally, she threw down the microphone and walked offstage. She has never appeared publicly with her father since that day.
She hasn’t appeared with Harry Percy, either.
The Carrboro Arts Center "scandal scene" has been the source of much speculation in the political community. Generally, it is believed that the source of the falling out was Bolingbroke's public opposition to same-sex marriage. Hallie Monmouth has made no public statements about her own personal life, aside from the cryptic lyrics of her few available songs. However, Henry Bolingbroke has said, on multiple occasions, "I have a gay daughter," going on to explain that he has accepted her personal choices, but does not support granting legal status to same-sex relationships. Bolingbroke emphasizes that he is open to reconciliation, but, "Hallie makes her own choices." Conventional wisdom suggests that the family conflict may actually have helped the Senator with voters in this traditionally conservative state.
Prior to my interview with Esperance, Kate Mortimer made clear that the band was "not interested in talking about Hallie." After Percy mentions her name, however, I can't resist asking Percy one question: "Are you still voting for Henry Bolingbroke?"
Settling the strap of the guitar around his neck, Percy grins and looks at his frowning manager-but-definitely-not-fiancée as though he's getting away with something. Then he turns back to me, strums the guitar, and says, "I think I better let the songs speak for themselves."
This might be a reference to "Love Needs No Apology," a song Percy wrote for a forthcoming anthology that SVD Records is putting together to support same-sex marriage equality. The quiet and uncharacteristically straightforward ballad tells the story of the gay and lesbian couples living in a small town over several generations. Esperance has worked a fully-orchestrated version into their live repertoire, and the band's website indicates that it is their most downloaded song.
Harry Percy knows what he believes, in other words, and he isn't too worried about who else might be on his side.
Politics, of course, is rarely that simple.
Neither is art, or business, or family.
As the other band members arrive, though, as they get their instruments together, there's something about the scene that makes you wish everything was as basic as Harry thinks it is.
Percy demonstrates a guitar riff he's just invented to Archibald, who gets on the keyboard and starts to improvise to it. Kate Mortimer is perched on the arm of the couch, now, with her feet up on one of the fruit crates that serves as a coffee table. Harry makes a joke, and flashes a smile at Kate, who laughs wholeheartedly -- then quickly turns toward me as though asking for permission to stop being the manager. For a second, her ideas about brand-building and revenue streams falls away and she smiles.
"I think they're pretty good. Don’t you?" she says, almost shyly. "I think we might really be able to do this.”