By Brian Tucker
Twenty years ago people were seeing Forrest Gump at the movie theatres, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president, Kurt Cobain died, Hootie & the Blowfish was huge and people watched O.J. Simpson flee in a white Ford Bronco on television. Just a few things that happened in 1994.
Wilmington was a different place and so was the music scene. The city was profiled in Rolling Stone magazine in which it highlighted local venues, restaurants and bands Buzz Junkies, Fluid Grind and Dead Reckoning. There were more bands in town, like Pandora’s Lunchbox and Railroad Earth (RS article clipping is at end of post).
At the time Railroad Earth (not to be confused with Americana/Newgrass band Railroad Earth) was playing local venues and toured the East Coast. They got to play CBGB’s on a tour with Pandora’s Lunchbox, putting together a tour the old fashioned way – making phone calls and mailing cassettes.
They released a 7″ record called Meditations with two songs in the summer of 1994, recorded by Pandora’s Lunchbox sound guy Paul Johnson that spring at Coastal Carolina Studios. It’s caustic, freewheeling alternative rock. “Progression” is a shotgun blast and “Revealed” is a slower, slightly epic song in the vein of Smashing Pumpkins. At the heart of Railroad Earth was singer and guitarist Kevin Campbell, now living in Durham and working as a projects engineer for BASF.
“I have a bunch of videotapes from the tour we did with PLB and a band called Shiver. That tour went up to New Jersey and New York. We used to go up New York quite a bit and all over North Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, a regional circuit people used to go on. Back in those days, twenty years ago it was pretty cool.”
Railroad Earth would have a short life but Campbell stayed involved with music, playing with another local band – Velvet (Eskimo Kiss Records). He moved to Wilmington from Fayetteville in 1990 and lived locally until 2001.
“Something happened in early 90s when there was a lot of venues and musicians there,” Campbell said. “A pretty special scene started in the early 90s and lasted into the late 90s. That was a good year – 1994. 1995 and 1996 were good years for us. We came pretty close to getting some label attention but by that time the grunge thing had played out. Our sound was changing and we actually started on a second record.”
Railroad Earth played frequently at downtown venue Jacob’s Run (now Ziggy’s) and The Mad Monk on College Road (where the bowling alley is today). They played their last show at Jacob’s Run with local bands Brickbat, Pandora’s Lunchbox, and Sweetfeed.
“Jacob’s Run – it was sort of the downtown venue. Mad Monk (on College Road) was the uptown venue. The Monk had more mainline acts and Jacob’s was seen as a seedier joint,” Campbell said. “I have that show on Super-8, but have never converted it to digital,” Campbell said. “I had a Super-8 camera at the time and I videotaped a lot of interviews with people. We didn’t have a drummer at that time and we used Peter Gottovi from Pandora’s Lunchbox. I have a bunch of videotapes from the tour we did with PLB and a band called Shiver.”
Still, booking shows wasn’t as easy. Back then the norm was demo tapes and sending them to venues or labels or just handing them out to people. Campbell had an in with The Mad Monk, a friend named Kevin Potts from the metal band Betrayer who worked there.
“We were both from Fayetteville. I ran into him there and told him I had a band. He was the person who helped me get the first gig there. Once we got the gig they put us on the docket as the house band. Whenever anyone came through town of note they would put us on as opening act for them. They could pay us a hundred bucks and we would play. We opened for Hootie and the Blowifsh, Cravin’ Melon and Three Dog Night. Three Dog Night can you believe that? The Hootie fans especially hated us. They booed us off the stage more than once.”
At the time in Wilmington things were busy with Carolco Studio and movie production (The Inkwell, Radioland Murders, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Crow). Campbell worked as an extra for money, working on Super Mario Bros. and made-for-television movies.
“Everybody thought that it was going to happen,” Campbell said of the music scene. “The Mad Monk would get big national acts. There were a lot of really good bands and we were starting to get some attention. We saw ourselves as an alternative to the Chapel Hill scene because they got all the attention.”
The band found a fan in David Mench, who owned a record store in Valdese, North Carolina – Waggletone Records that would go on to release eighteen records by Subklinik, Pandora’s Lunchbox, Jeff Bright, Rhenium, Flip’n’Boogers, Terry Eckard Band, Johnny Cryboy, Seducer, and ANTiSEEN. The Meditations 7-inch was released on a label with the same name that put out twenty releases. The sleeves for the release were hand cut by Campbell, everything typed up and photocopied. Mench paid for the pressing of the vinyl records.
“I think we did 1000 copies of that 7-inch and a 1000 of the (follow-up) CD,” Campbell said. “Funny thing, I don’t have a copy of either one of them.”
Mench became friends with Railroad Earth through Kenyata Sullivan of Pandora’s Lunchbox.
“Waggletone was a diverse label and had no interest in sticking to one certain type of music,” Mench said. “The label already had released music by Charlotte band Seducer, Pandora’s Lunchbox and Industrial artist Flip n’ Boogers. An Antiseen 7-inch project was also in the works. Money was abundant at that time and working with Railroad Earth came easy for they were so friendly and their music was interesting. It was obvious that they were a hard working band playing out as much as possible.”
Meditations happened because of Mench and people Campbell and the band knew. Paul Johnson, sound man for Pandora’s Lunchbox (he’s credited with “Knobs and Switches” on PLB’s 1994 release Kitchen Beyond) was an engineer at the Coastal Carolina Studio on Kerr Avenue.
“For that we did it live to DAT. We went in like we were practicing and did three or four takes of each song because we didn’t have a lot of money. It was like a few hundred dollars to do that. We wouldn’t have gotten the record put out but Lee Buffalo was instrumental in helping a lot of bands and helping bring W.E. Fest to Wilmington as well.”
Railroad Earth was one of the bands first to play W.E. Fest and Buffalo would serve as RR’s manager “for all intents and purposes,” and helped put together the Meditations project by coordinating with Waggletone.
“When we did the (follow-up) album) at the same studio we self-financed that,” Campbell said. “The CD wasn’t as good as the 7-inch in my opinion, as far as the sound quality is concerned. We put that out in 1995 and used it to make some noise, went to the Philly music conference and played CBGB’s. In 1995 we played one of those big showcase shows, where there’s twenty-seven bands on the ticket and you play at one o’clock in the morning to six drunk people. But it was pretty amazing to stand on the same stage as The Ramones and Talking Heads.”
After Railroad Earth ended in 1996 Campbell travelled overseas. Coming back in 1999 he ran into Jay Manley, a local musician and singer. At the time Manley was running sound at the venue Skylight and he and his wife Jane had started a band. They used to play shows with Railroad Earth years before.
“His band Velvet was a three piece and things weren’t going well and were trying to put out their album Where are the People, Campbell said. “It’s fantastic. My association with Eskimo Kiss Records and Kim Ware was through Jay. Jay and Jane and I got together one evening and he asked me to join the band. I did, as the second guitar player and was until 2003. We ended up moving (Chapel Hill) together because we didn’t feel like Wilmington was going anywhere so we came up here and quickly discovered that Chapel Hill was pretty dead by that time too.”
“As far as Wilmington bands are concerned Jay is definitely a person of note in my opinion because he’s one of the best musicians that came out of there,” Campbell said. “We did a second album called Juggernaut that we did at Mitch Easter’s studio in Winston-Salem. I think it’s even better than the first one. They’re still around and they’re music teachers. Velvet actually did a tour with PLB. We were pretty close with PLB and my old guitar and bass player was in a band with Kenyatta called The Majestic Twelve. (M12’s Mike D’Alassandro, Alex Alexander are former members of Railroad Earth).”