I may be a news editor, but I consider myself relatively well plugged in to the Charlotte arts community. So in hindsight it's bewildering that I only recently became aware of the woman whom I now consider to be the coolest person in Charlotte, especially because I'm (kind of) related to her.
Just two or three years ago, I introduced myself to acclaimed Charlotte sportswriter Tommy Tomlinson at an event. When he heard my name, he immediately said, "Oh, any relation to the guy from Fetchin Bones?"
One confused look and a quick text to my genealogist mother later, and I learned that I was, in fact, the eighth cousin once removed to Aaron Pitkin. He was the co-founder of Fetchin Bones, a band he and his wife Hope Nicholls formed in 1983 that rose to considerable fame and got played on MTV at a time when the country's residents were demanding access to the channel.
A further look into the rabbit hole that is Hope and Aaron's joint career sent me into an "Aha" moment, as I found they had been the driving force behind bands I had been a fan of and even seen play, including Sugarsmack, Snagglepuss and, now, Its Snakes, for which she plays the drums and sings.
Following that realization, I went into the couple's Plaza Midwood boutique, Boris & Natasha, which they've owned and operated since 1999, to meet Nicholls. When I asked if she had a second to chat. Her response shocked me. "Are you a Pitkin? I can see it in your face."
To say I was taken aback would be an understatement, but after a short conversation it became clear that Hope, now 57, is one of the more interesting folks to have blessed the Charlotte music scene; and why not, she helped create it.
As I pored over our 30-year archive over the past month or so in preparation for this anniversary issue, I kept coming across Hope and her bands. Fetchin Bones' Hope on her Christmas wishes for 1988 ("I wish no more old buildings will get torn down,"); a cover story in 1993 about prolific Charlotteans like Sugarsmack's Hope on staying put despite their success ("There's a lot of good things going on now and the city is getting better, even faster than I thought . . . but they tear down all the old buildings,"); and, well, you get the picture.
In a sense, Nicholls and Creative Loafing grew up together, so we knew we had to invite her to our birthday party (this paper is our party). I went and hung with Hope at her store last week to talk about how we, she and Charlotte have changed over the last three decades, for better or worse.
Creative Loafing: You've spoken in the past about how you were not a musician growing up, but once you became aware of the DIY punk scene, it inspired you just to get out there and do it regardless. Tell me a little about that process and how it progressed into making music successfully.
Hope Nicholls: Aaron and I met at Warren Wilson [College, in Asheville] in 1981, and we've been together ever since. I think Aaron and I both were that way where we were just such big music fans and music just meant everything to me, and it still does, really.
Growing up, basically junior high and high school are the worst times in your life, so what saves you? Different people find different things, and music was the thing for me.
It just kind of spilled out, where you love music so much and you're so inspired by it. But hearing some of the DIY punk bands, especially the southern ones like Pylon and B-52s, where I was like, "OK, you don't have to be Elvis Costello. There's a lot of different ways to do this." That's where I was like, "Hell yeah, we're going to do it our way. If the B-52s can do this, then we can do it."
Right at that same time, we moved back from living in Vermont after I graduated from college and a lot of shit was happening here at Reflection [Sound Studios, which operated on Central Avenue between 1969 and 2014], rest in peace. Our friends were hanging out with R.E.M., and R.E.M. was recording their second record there and they were still playing places like The Milestone. We started just getting to know people that were doing the same thing, and that really was inspirational.
When I graduated from college and then we moved back here a year later, my ultimate goal was like, if I could just do a gig at The Milestone, that would be fuckin' incredible. We played The Milestone after we had lived here about nine months.
People didn't really care about us here until we had really already made a strong impression and got signed to DB [Records] in Atlanta. A band called Art in the Dark from Athens came up and watched us play and were like, "We love you." There was nobody at that show, it was at The Milestone, but they were like, "Come back and play with us in Athens." As soon as we played Athens, it was like [makes whooshing flame sound] wildfire for some reason. They got us in Georgia big time. We got signed to DB and really it wasn't until we got signed to Capitol that Charlotte really caught on to what Fetchin Bones was doing.
So Fetchin Bones gained mass appeal into the early '90s, when you formed Sugarsmack. They were gaining a lot of momentum when the band eventually sort of dissolved. What led to that?
When we decided we wanted to have kids is when we realized we had to not be sleeping on people's floors and touring for $100 a day or whatever. With Sugarsmack, we had a good run, we did a lot of cool stuff — Weenie Roast and a lot of good things — but it was much, much harder. When we finally got a great record and got signed to Sire [Records, in 1998], we got screwed because that was just the way that it was, whatever. It's just the mysteries of major labels and deals. There's no telling.
But that was the last record that we did. And at that point, everyone was getting a little older. Our drummer was actually living in Connecticut. Our guitar player was living in Atlanta. We were like, "We love y'all, but we've all gotta do our own things."
It was time to think about having a family. So we thought, well what can we do? I'd already been running a store called Superior Feet for someone else. I said, "Well let's have our own business." So we opened Boris & Natasha in 1999.
And then you returned to the music scene with Snagglepuss.
Our kind of get-pregnant, have-kids, totally-stick-around-Charlotte project was Snagglepuss. We did four records with Snagglepuss. We didn't really put it out there to the press, we just wanted to do it. After the experience with Sire and all previous experiences with all the other horrible labels that we've worked with — expect for DB, the very first one — we were just like, "We're not trying to get signed." I couldn't even physically pick up a phone or pick up a computer to try to contact a club to book a show — I'm done, damaged, totally done.
That was how that band was, it was just making music with our friends. Everybody switched up instruments except me. It was really experimental. I made little tapes that had The Raincoats and The Slits and Gang of Four: "These are our inspiration points, don't worry about being a virtuoso, just worry about fuckin' rocking out and having fun."
So then, for It's Snakes, I was like "OK, I've asked other people to [switch instruments], and now I'm going to do it myself." I'm a singer that keeps a beat. I'm not a drummer. And some people go, "I don't know how you do it," especially drummers. I'm like, "You gotta realize, I'm not a drummer trying to sing, I'm the opposite." I'm only doing what I want to do.
Over the decades you've been consistently steadfast, almost to the point of being stubborn, about your desire to stay in Charlotte no matter how successful you got. You've cited family, geographic location and lack of oversaturation in the music scene as reasons for this. Still no regrets on that front?
Absolutely, definitely not. I still think Charlotte's way cooler than Atlanta, it's got a lot more soul. I still think it's a place of opportunity. It's home, I love it.
Were you ever tempted throughout your career to move? When Fetchin Bones was at its peak, for example?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. I mean if we had ever moved to New York or L.A., I'm sure we would have had a lot more commercial success, but commercial success has never been the gold standard for me. To me it was always about doing what we wanted to do, and Aaron and I staying together. A lot of the times the more successful your career is the harder it is on your personal life. So, I just think it was the perfect mix to be here.
I think that also translates on the stage. You've always been one of the most fun performers to watch, and you don't leave anything on the stage in terms of energy. Is that something you're aware of or is it just the natural state of things when you're in the midst of a performance?
I have to. The one reason I'm playing drums in It's Snakes is because, unless you're Mick Jagger and you're lucky enough to be 70 years old and jumping around, most people don't really want to see a 70-year-old person going fuckin' nuts. I wanted to have something that had some built-in governance, and keeping the beat and playing the drums, that was a way that I devised that. But otherwise, yeah I'm pretty full of beans, and I get excited when I play. [laughs] It's not anything that was ever contrived. I'm just happy to be up there, happy to be able to do what I love to do.
How have you seen the music scene change over these last 30 years?
I've seen it being built, basically. Now, we're talking about alternative music. Not like the Double Door scene, because the Double Door wasn't trying to play alternative music. But from the DIY, alternative, punk rock perspective, at first, there were just a few bands, and people like ANTiSEEN came around the same time — actually, we started the same night. Our first show was in Boone together. [Lead singer Jeff] Clayton and I had always been good friends. We were outlaws of the scene at that time, so we stuck together. We did a ton of shows together in '83 and '84.
We knew a few bands, bands like The Spongetones and stuff, but there weren't that many bands really being out there. We were never doing avant-garde – but we were always pretty different.
Charlotte's never been a college town, so there was a small number of cool people but it wasn't like it is now, where word spreads with social media and everyone carrying a massive computer in their back pocket, word gets out quickly.
I feel like now, we have an amazing music scene and so many people, and people don't have to leave. We had to go to Athens, we had to go play New York, we had to go tour. Now people don't have to do all that as much, so it's a really different world. But I think, in general, the music scene here is really strong. There's so many good bands.
There have been multiple venue closings here in recent years, and it's all been discussed to death, but do you feel these closings have had or will have a major effect on the local scene?
I do think there's a dearth of the middle range. There's The Milestone places, and there's The Fillmore, but there's no Tremont, there's no Chop Shop. So I think that's a problem. There's the Visulite [Theatre], and there's Neighborhood [Theatre], so there's still some of those great mid-range venues, but, you know Tremont was awesome. We helped Penny [Craver] design it. It had the Casbah side for the small shows, and then she could open up the big room if she needed to. That was done really, really well.
But I don't worry too much about venues. I feel like the market, there's a lot of savvy business people in this town, a lot of young ones, too. Somebody will open something if it's needed, and they will soon.
Fetchin Bones had already gained good momentum by the time Creative Loafing dropped into Charlotte in 1987. What did it mean to have a rag in town dedicated heavily to the arts and music scenes?
It meant a lot for Charlotte, because it was already in Atlanta. We'd already been touring a lot down there and to have it finally come to Charlotte, I was like, "Alright, we're finally getting some indie cred." The [Charlotte] Observer's always done a pretty decent job with local music. They always were very kind to Fetchin Bones and to all my bands, so I'm not going to slag them, but of course, the 'Loaf had a different perspective; it was the indie perspective, it was the alternative perspective.
It's Snakes is named after Linda Berry's Life in Hell, the comic strip. The 'Loaf was the only place you're going to read Life in Hell. For some people, it's like The Approval Matrix on the back page in New York Magazine. It's the kind of thing you turned to and you always read those comics, or whatever it was that you turned to.
Let's switch gears to a cause you've spoken a lot about in our pages over the years — starting very early on — and that's Charlotte's tendency to knock down historical buildings. In the last 30 years, things certainly haven't gotten better in that sense.
[Pause] So my question was going to be whether it's still something you feel strongly about, but I guess you just answered that.
Absolutely. I rant and rave about that to anyone that wants to hear me. If I thought I could fucking tolerate it, I would run for office. But I don't think I possibly could stand it. I'm not a meetings kind of person.
I figured it out, the reason why, well, it's a multi-faceted reason. I like places like Asheville, which was really down on its luck. When we went to Warren Wilson, Asheville was so on the skids, the whole downtown was like skid row. When things get bad like that, it just becomes like a time capsule.
Charlotte's never been on skid row, we've always had savvy business people running this town, but they're not savvy enough to keep it like Charleston was kept. They're only savvy enough to think, "This time we're going to do it better." So every time they do it, they say, "Well, this time it will be bigger and better." And if you're a banker, it's not only going to be bigger and better, but you're going to keep making money for your friends and for yourself, because you always make more money tearing shit down than you do preserving it.
You've been a business owner here in Plaza Midwood for nearly 20 years now, and its seen drastic change just in the last two years. What's it been like to watch it grow over two decades?
I think most of the changes are fabulous. Having a brewery and some of the best restaurants in Charlotte, three nightclubs within basically two blocks of each other, it's awesome.
But again, you tear shit down, it's demoralizing. I wish Charlotte would learn — I wish all of America would learn — that history is vital. We're wired to love the things that we've seen, even if it's just an ugly mall like Eastland or whatever it is. When it's gone, it's irreplaceable, because it's memories. It's in your brain, it's your wallpaper. We don't have any wallpaper. It's been ripped off and painted over and shellacked.
You grew up in Davidson near a lot of rural areas, and have spoken fondly of those times, driving around drunk with friends in the back roads of north Mecklenburg blasting Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith. How do you stay connected to that in this growing city that's increasingly surrounded by suburban sprawl?
We keep property out in Virginia. [exposes her scabbed up and bug-bitten arm] I'm covered in poison ivy and bites and scratches right now because we spent our spring break clearing our land there, like how they clear the rainforest. We were mowing, cutting, sawing, making tiny piles and burning it. The land there got logged really irresponsibly so we're trying to bring it back. Aaron and I are just those people, like I said that I could never do a meeting, I could never have a fucking all-day computer job or anything. I do best if I'm sweeping or if I'm digging a hole. And music does that for me, too.
So as we hope to keep pushing toward 40, and It's Snakes continues to rock in venues new and old, do you have any parting words for now to help us ring in our 30th?
I'm so blown away that it's already 30 years, but I'm so proud and happy for you all. [claps] I think the Loaf continues to be relevant in a time when print media is challenged because y'all have some really good reporting that is not done in other media. NPR serves the same purpose. God bless the Charlotte Observer for doing whatever they can.
Anything that has people paid to be reporters, we have to be thankful for in this day and age. So I'm very glad and I'm proud that we can have supported Creative Loafing so far.