The typical, popular Athens music narrative tends to start with B-52s, Pylon, bands mentioned in Party Out of Bounds, and continues to R.E.M. and Athens Inside Out Bands. Then, the narrative jarringly jumps to Elephant Six. Often less mentioned are bands such as Mercyland, Porn Orchard, Bliss, Magneto, and Roosevelt, who formed part of a local Athens hardcore/post-hardcore scene. Besides Mercyland and Porn Orchard, these bands are largely undocumented, their existence betrayed by a couple of tracks on a compilation, FUEL: Seven Bands From Athens, Ga. , put out by Self Rising Records. The compilation is indicative of an active, fervent scene, albeit one without many outside resources or media attention. I sat down with Joe Rowe, the drummer of Bliss, to talk about Athens in the 90s. Rowe currently leads a bands called The Goons and has played with bands such as The Glands.
WUOG: When did you first come to Athens?
Rowe: In 1987.
WUOG: Was it for school, or music, or…?
Rowe: Yeah, it was for school. I graduated high school in 1987, and I came here to go to school. I was studying music, and I was actually in the Georgia Redcoats marching band for that year too, playing cymbals. Yeah, I was a music major, but I failed out after a year or two, because i didn’t want to be in school. I basically just came here to please my folks at the time.
WUOG: What was happening in Athens around 1987 at the time? What was the scene like?
Rowe: Scene-like, there were a lot of spaces downtown that proper businesses weren’t in at the time, and people, like artists and musicians, were just renting them out, using the space, sort of borrowing the space, setting up rehearsal spaces, or art studios, or even clubs… clubs that didn’t last for very long. I remember there was one club called Nebraska that was open. It was like right downtown, kind of right around the corner from where the bike shop [Sunshine Cycles] is, across from the 40 Watt. That place was open for a little while, and they did shows in there as often as they could. Things like that were happening. It was a little more laid back. It was a little less commercial. There was not as much money. Not as much investment, where [now] the rent is so high. Downtown was just a little bit looser at the time.
WUOG: People would play to just play downtown?
Rowe: Yeah, in the spaces that were free. I never actually did that myself. I never like actually ran a club or had a space anywhere downtown, but I know that there were some bands that were playing around there. I don’t know who they got in touch with. I guess they got in touch with the landlord, and the landlords would let bands have shows.
WUOG: How did you meet Andy Baker and Will Low? How did the band congeal?
Rowe: I remember Will was playing in a band called Ruby Red. I was actually playing in a cover band. A couple of the guys in the cover band were in a fraternity that was on campus, and I started playing with them. Ruby Red, Will’s band played at the fraternity house one night. The cover band that I played in would play there sometimes too. We would just hang out there. I was actually a pledge there for a little while, until I failed out of school. Everyone I knew at the time, since I was in that band, or a lot of people i knew, were in that fraternity, but then I met Will playing at a fraternity party, playing with his band Ruby Red, and we just decided to start playing together. He pretty shortly quit that other band. It was just me and Will playing together in this basement apartment for a while. And then Andy… I can’t remember exactly where I met him. I just met him at a show or just kind of around, but he was playing in a band with a friend of his from Illinois. They were in a band called State of the Union. It was kind of like an Americana band. They did a lot of covers, and they needed a drummer, and Will and I needed a bass player. So we made an agreement that I would play drums in Andy’s band, State of the Union, and he would play bass in our band, and that’s how we started playing together. That was like late 80’s, early 90’s. I can’t remember exactly when, but right around that time.
WUOG: What type of band did you want Bliss to be? It sounds like, from what I’ve heard, to sort of have a Dischord type of sound to it.
Rowe: *laughs* yeah
WUOG: Sort of something like Slint meets Meat Puppets. Sort of like post-hardcore with a southern or country influence.
Rowe: Yeah, yeah. That’s exactly what we wanted it to be, for better or for worse, I guess. When Will and I first started playing, he had these songs, and it was very fast i remember. It was pretty fast and hard. Right then, before Andy joined, I don’t really remember trying to be too derivative or ripping off of anybody else or anything, but then,shortly after Andy joined the band, I know that I really fell hard for Fugazi. I started listening to them all the time, and then [I was] finding out all these bands, these Dischord bands. But they were really my main influence. It seems like I brought that a lot into the band. We were first called Cancer before we were called Bliss. We called ourselves Cancer, but we changed the name. There was another band called Cancer, and that was a pretty bad name anyway. So, yeah, we were really influenced by that kind of Dischord stuff, and then, a little bit later, I know I was really influenced by The Jesus Lizard and bands on Touch and Go. So basically, yeah, that kind of stuff, Dischord, Touch and Go, Sub Pop.
WUOG: Were there other bands in town playing post-hardcore type stuff or were you guys the only ones?
Rowe: For a little while it seemed like we were the only ones. There were bands that were already playing here in town like Mercyland, Jackonuts, Damage Report, and Jarvic Aid. Some of those bands were kind of doing the industrial thing, like industrial rock sound, or just straight up punk rock. I don’t really follow what they call the punk rock scene in Athens right now. I don’t really know what that is, but I know it’s out there and always happening, but it seemed like, at the time when we started playing, there were a lot of bands around that were playing really aggressive music. It seemed kind of more aggressive than the things people are doing these days. Maybe we were the only ones that were kind of like straight up kind of co-opting that Dischord sound and Touch and Go stuff.
WUOG: Did you guys tour or did you mostly play in town here?
Rowe: We mostly played in town. We tried to tour, but you talk to people who played back then… They always say the same thing. You know, it was before cell phones, it was before the internet, and we didn’t have a booking agent. So it was really, really hard for us to get shows out of town. It was basically calling the club every day at a certain time and trying to get to actually to talk to someone to book a show. So, we played a little bit out of town. The band called Porn Orchard, that’s another band that was around that was doing that, that was a pretty aggressive band, and they were nice enough to take us on a kind of small east/south-eastern tour one time. We toured with them and the Jackonuts, when Laura Carter was singing with them. She used to be in the Bar-B-Q Killers. So, we went on a short tour with Porn Orchard and Jackonuts to Virginia and places around, but that was really the longest tour we went on, and that was only a couple of weeks, and then we did some one-offs. We played in a club in Asheville, and there was a place called Johnson City, Tennessee. For some reason it was easier for us to get gigs there than at other places, so we played there a few times. We played Atlanta at the Masquerade every once in a while, but it was really just mostly Athens.
WUOG: You guys put out two cassettes? One was called Drive Hard?
Rowe: Yeah, one was called Drive Hard. And I think the other one might have been called Man Comes a Knockin’. Yeah, but it’s kind of hard to remember, it’s kind of fuzzy, about the stuff that we recorded. I guess it was always on cassette, except for that compilation, the Fuel compilation, but we put out at least two cassettes, and I know that there was some other stuff that we recorded that I just don’t have anymore, or it wasn’t on those cassettes.
WUOG: A name that keeps popping up on recordings is Kelly Noonan. She’s listed as engineer a lot. Was she important in recording the band or to the scene in general, in regards to engineering?
Rowe: Yeah, that’s her studio *points to a picture* [Suite 16], she had a studio in her house back then, that’s Andy. We were recording there. I think we recorded the stuff that’s on this [Fuel Compilation] there. I think we were probably doing a deal where we would try to get these bands to record with Kelly, and then maybe they’d get a deal, and Kelly’d get the work you know? But yeah, she was in a band back then called Wet it was an all girl band, an all female band called Wet. They were really good. We played with them a lot. I worked with her at the Gyro Wrap downtown. A lot of people [worked there]. There’s a guy that i met that i worked with there when i first moved to Athens, whom i still play with, and she worked there for a long time, and there were some other musicians that worked there for a long time. After Wet, she had a band called Jackpot City that was together for a long time.
WUOG: Do you remember how the Fuel compilation came together? Who exactly was putting it together? DId you feel an affinity with these other bands like Hayride, Roosevelt, Thorny Hold, and Jackonuts, that were on it?
Rowe: Yeah, definitely. I think the first people that started to put it together were myself, Andy, a woman named Pattiy Torno, who owned that club in Asheville, called the Squash Pile, and her boyfriend at the time, or it might’ve been her husband at the time, Chris Purcell. He still lives around town. Chris and Pattiy owned the club in Asheville, and I think we might’ve been driving between here and Asheville, and Will was involved too. I think we just came up with the idea in the car. We were driving between here and Asheville. Patti and Chris, they moved into a house with Andy and I. Andy and I lived together in two different houses. He had a recording studio in one of the houses. So, they lived with us in our house for a little while and we started putting this compilation together. Oh! And Ballard too! Ballard Lessman. Earlier he was in a band called Haytire Blowouts, but he was in Roosevelt, and so he was kind of one of the main people also. I kind of dropped out after a little while. I was kind of one of the first who dropped out the record label [Self Rising Records] because the idea was to not just put this out but to put out other things, which we did. I think Bliss put out a single, and they put out another compilation after the first one too. And then I just think it became Patty and Chris and Ballard basically, from the band Roosevelt. And he’s a writer now, Ballard writes some articles for Flagpole every once in a while. He writes some music articles. Yeah i think he wrote the Mercyland article that’s in the paper now. He doesn’t live in Athens anymore. But yeah all these bands on this compilation, we all played together and hung out together and that’s probably why these are all the bands that are on this thing. You know, just because it was an obvious thing it was a given. It was obvious who was gonna be on it. It was just bands that would play together. I play in a band with Frank McDonald, I still play with him in a couple of bands actually. Five-Eight were really nice to us, they were together before we were. They let us play some shows with them. Andy and I, we actually had a live sound company for a little while, and we ran sound for some of their shows for them for some of the fraternity shows and stuff. And Hayride, with Kevin Sweeny, they were great, we hung out with them, they were really great. they were really good friends with Kelly. I think we did one out of town show with them in Florida somewhere. Kevin and Nick and Will. We know all these guys. The people that I didn’t hang out with quite as much were Jackonuts. Just because they had been around. They were older.
Rowe: Yeah, exactly. I was a fan of them. I was afraid to talk to them, and they were so crazy on stage and on their records and everything! They were kind of like what i was trying to be I guess at the time. Five Eight, too were kind of elder-statesmen, but These other bands were kind of all at the same age, same incubation, or period, or whatever. More buddies.
WUOG: I wanted to ask you about the name Bliss and the lyrics. Do you remember who wrote the lyrics?
Rowe: Yeah, Will was the singer and he wrote all the lyrics for the most part.
WUOG: They have a dark humor. Like in that song Acid Lake and Hydroplanin’. They seem very sardonic. There’s a theme of destruction it seems, would you agree with that?
Rowe: Yeah, I would agree with that. I would agree with that for sure. Um, Will, was a really nice guy, he was a really smart guy. He was probably one of the more i don’t know one of the more cleaner cut. He went through school, graduated school. He works for IBM now in the research triangle North Carolina area. But um, yeah i think a lot of that might’ve come from his family. I think he, like a lot of us do, had some family issues. You know some family members that you might not be too crazy about? Acid Lake, that was all about acid rain and commercialism. He was pretty well into that. He was kind of political, kind of social-political for sure in a lot of his stuff.
WUOG: There’s one song about stopping at a gas station and not having any cash and steam rising from the streets, and it goes “I’ll never hear those four track songs again”.
Rowe: The house that Andy and I lived in and recorded in and practiced at got broken into one time and they stole some gear. They stole our four-track machine that we were recording on. So that comes straight from that yeah. In one song, it might even be the same song it talks about being on the road on our way to Johnson city, which was the place where we played mostly out of town, just because we could.
WUOG: Were you trying to make a career out of this or were you playing to have fun?
Rowe: I think Andy and I more would’ve liked to have a career in it, at least in the music business in one way or another, and Will was, I think, although he was really dedicated to it at the time and really into it at the time, I think it was just kind of a stop gap for him more than it was for Andy and I. Andy and I still play music. We’re still very involved in music, and he’s not anymore as far as I know of. He has a family, he has a wife, and he has several kids and i don’t think he plays music anymore.
WUOG: You guys were together from about 1990-1993 or so?
Rowe: Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s kind of hard to remember. I’m bad about dates and things, but that sounds about right. I don’t think we were together any longer than five years.
WUOG: Was it a friendly end to the band?
Rowe: Well… if I had been more mature. I mean, it wasn’t bad. Will told us kind of a good ways in advance that he was gonna have to stop doing the band for a while for some reason. I can’t remember exactly why. Maybe it was because he had to go somewhere else for school, and I remember getting pretty upset by that and not acting very well about it. When he told us that, that there was going to be a certain point where he’d have to leave, I think I just said well I don’t want to do it anymore and stopped it right then. Andy and I knew that we wanted to play- and keep playing. So he and I stopped Bliss right then pretty much and we started recording, just he and I, and we made a record, just a cassette record because we wanted to keep doing it and we just didn’t like the idea. I would’ve done it differently. Looking back on it, I was just immature. but we’re friends. We’ve always been friends. Although, they did a reunion show, and I don’t know how far after we had broken up the reunion show was. It might’ve been a couple of years or something, but I didn’t play drums for that. Our friend Kyle Spence played drums on that. I can’t really remember how that went down. It was mostly amicable, but there were some feelings that got hurt, you know?
WUOG: Is there anything else you’d like to add about Athens at that time in general or about the band?
Rowe: I really liked a club, one of my favorite clubs to play in town was a club called Club Fred. Have you heard about Club Fred?
WUOG: Was that on Baxter?
Rowe: Yeah, it was. I don’t know if there’s anything in the space now, but at the time it was a pizza place upstairs, and for some reason the guy that owned the pizza place decided to have shows in the basement of the club. The guy that we dealt with to book the shows, his name was Fred. I don’t know if he was just the owner of the building or if he owned the pizza business. I’m not sure, but it was like this family friendly restaurant upstairs, and downstairs there were really low ceilings, it was unfinished, and it was a really, really fun place to play. It was really, really free for all, and they set up a little tiny bar down there. and I saw a lot of good bands there. It was almost kind of dangerous. It had this kind of dangerous element.
WUOG: Dangerous? How so?
Rowe: Well, at least to me. Maybe it was because I was younger and things were newer to me, you know? The music scene and everything. It seemed like there was a more dangerous, punk rock thing going on with a lot of bands at that time, and Club Fred was a place that fed that really well. For one thing, it wasn’t downtown, it was on Baxter street, so it was a little bit more lax. People were smoking and drinking in the parking lot. So it was little more looser, there weren’t as many rules. You weren’t worried about the law so much, being out of town a little bit. That was one of my favorite clubs in Athens, for sure. I saw Sebadoh there. I saw a band called Rain Section there. I saw Royal Trux there. I saw a lot of great Athens bands play there. Another club I liked a lot was called the Uptown Lounge. It was right downtown. I don’t know what’s there right now. I think maybe there’s a brew pub there right now. I can’t remember what street it’s on. Well actually I think it’s on the same street as the Forty Watt club [Washington]. It’s just up the street it’s up the block near the end near city hall. That was a really good club to see a band. It was two different clubs after that. It was a place called the Atomic and it was a place called the Shoebox, but when it was the uptown lounge it was a really great place to see bands. It was small, considering the bands they had in there, it was a small club. I saw Sonic Youth in there. I saw Jane’s addiction in there. There were a lot of great bands around from Athens that played in there, whom I really really liked at the time. There was a band called Seven Simons. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them. They really had their shit together, I thought. There was a band, all black guys from atlanta, called Father for Now, and they used to play there a lot. You ever heard of them? They were really good. They were kind of doing the Fish-bone kind of funk-rock kind of stuff kind of like Faith No More. Usually when people bring up the “good old days” i always think of Club Fred and the UptownLounge for some reason, because i liked those places so much. The old Forty Watt was where the Caledonia is now. That was a really great club. It was just kind of a hole in the wall, and there were a lot of good national bands that would come through there.
WUOG: Were there a lot of house shows going on or did people try to play more in venues?
Rowe: I don’t remember playing a lot of house shows, actually. I’m sure that we did. I know that we did, I can think of one right now, but not a whole lot. It seems like they’re doing that more now than they did back then, or at least from what I know of. We didn’t play a whole lot of house shows. There were always some outside things. It seemed a little bit easier at the time to play outside and to play outside downtown. I remember some people would put together like day and night long events and have bands play all day and night. You don’t see that much anymore, except for the stuff that’s sanctioned by the city.
WUOG: Like Athfest?
Rowe: Yeah… There were a lot of bands playing at fraternities and sororities too. It was an interesting mix of people.
WUOG: Andy went on to be involved with Chase Park?
Rowe: Yeah, Andy started Chase Park with the other Andy, andy Lemaster, and David Barbe, but he always had a studio somewhere. He ran a studio out of the house that we lived in for a while. Then, he built a studio at a house he bought at the end of Boulevard. I don’t know if it’s still being used as a studio, but it was being used as a studio for a long time after he moved out of town. He’s been in Taiwan for a number of years now, working over there, producing. He was recording bands. From what I’ve heard, he’s gotten mainly into the mixing and mastering side of things. He recently built a studio specifically for mixing and mastering. I really haven’t talked to him much over the last several years. He’s not in the states very often anymore.
Interview conducted by Alec Livaditis