Living at the Milestone is no picnic. You have to pack heat, says Andy Fenstermaker. He should know. He's worked the door at the beat-up West Charlotte punk club for the past seven years, and even lived there with former owner Neal Harper for eight months in 2006. At night, after the last band screeched to a stop, the two would stake out spots in the bar area and curl up for a little shut-eye. All was quiet in the club except for the furnace, which sputtered hot air into the moldy space surrounded by graffiti-covered walls. They'd wonder if the noises they heard outside were from a prowler or just their own paranoia. Sometimes they wouldn't see the sun for days. But Fenstermaker and Harper rested easier knowing they had pistols by their sides and bar tables to provide cover in case someone broke in.
All that was long ago. Harper's moved on, and the Milestone now has a new owner. Fenstermaker still works the door on weekends, but these days he's better known by his stage name Andy the Doorbum, one of Charlotte's rising stars of the indie-folk scene. "I'm glad I did it, but I wouldn't do it again," Fenstermaker says of living at the legendary Tuckaseegee Road dive. "When you go to sleep and keep hearing someone tugging on the door, it really wears on your nerves. It kind of drives you insane."
Today Fenstermaker channels that insanity into his music — and he sleeps soundly in the home he shares with his artist girlfriend off Central Avenue. That's where he recorded his latest album, a departure for the wild-ass 28-year-old singer/songwriter. It's a double-vinyl LP with a long, Fiona Apple-worthy title: The Man Killed the Bird, and with the Bird He Killed the Song, and with the Song, Himself. It also happens to be Fenstermaker's most somber, soft and accessible set of music to date.
Fast-forward to February 2012: Andy the Doorbum shuffles onto the Milestone stage, his disheveled hair and long, scraggly beard making him look like he just crawled out from under one of those bar tables. He sits down, wipes his hands off on his dirty jeans and plugs in an acoustic guitar. He could be a long-lost Avett brother or a member of Band of Horses gone solo -- that is, until, without warning, he punches his guitar pick downward and unleashes a pained yowl that's more Captain Beefheart than Jackson Browne or Jim James. And if the tones coming from the stage aren't startling enough, the lyrics -- "late in the night when that man's in my dreams, the one I will kill before he can kill me" -- are.
"The approach I took when I started was to hit the acoustic guitar as hard as I would hit an electric guitar if I was playing a punk-rock song, and yell with about the same intensity," Fenstermaker says. He's in his home studio, surrounded by guitars and piles of his paintings. "I always say it's acoustic, but not coffee-shop acoustic or typical singer-songwriter acoustic."
At his shows, Fenstermaker hopes people stick around long enough to pay attention to his music, but his noisy squall has cleared a few rooms. That may not be the case with The Man Killed the Bird ... It's different from his previous releases. There's almost a romantic sensibility in Fenstermaker's voice as he shares the story of a grave digger in "The Ditch." But Fenstermaker is no romantic. He offers a raspier growl on "The End," a tale of arsonists, drug users and whores. Fenstermaker doesn't do foot-tapping front-porch music. This is back-alley folk for people who prefer PBR and whiskey to wine and cheese.
"The new record is a little more toned down, but lyrically, and the ideology behind it is ..." — he trails off — "they're not love songs. They're not the typical [sensitive] subject matter, and I guess that's the punk influence. A dude who looks like me, who gets on stage with an acoustic guitar — people assume I'm going to sound a certain way. With my past releases, I feel like I've made it a point to do stuff that's in a broad enough spectrum. My records are all over the place, but that's because I'm all over the place and my musical influences are, too."
Those influences include Beefheart, Nirvana, the Pixies and Leonard Cohen, which he discovered while growing up and still listens to today, in addition to varieties of indigenous musics from around the world that he finds while scouring the internet and thrift stores. Lyrically, he finds inspiration in his travels — he's been to Europe and Central America — and through his avid reading about world and American history.
Fenstermaker grew up in Gaston County, spending summers working on family farmland in Pennsylvania. Throughout his childhood, he was surrounded by country and gospel music as one relative or another would always have a guitar handy at family gatherings.