Nicholas Robinson doesn't mind admitting that he "kinda stalked" the Southern California indie-rock band Delta Spirit.
Robinson, guitarist and front man for Charlotte indie rockers The Business People, pushes up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a rather large Delta Spirit tattoo. It's just after midnight on a Saturday, and Robinson, 25, is standing on the front porch at Hattie's Tap and Tavern, a little drunk, a little chatty, telling me the saga of how he found himself onstage with Delta Spirit at a majestic synagogue in Washington, D.C.
He'd met the band in Asheville and eventually struck up a friendship with them. When he texted Delta Spirit bassist Jonathan Jameson, in late 2015, to find out when the band would be performing next on the East Coast, Robinson got a surprising text back.
"He said, 'I got your ticket, and oh, by the way, you're going to be singing with us,'" Robinson says, and feigns a look of horror. "I was like, 'Um... I don't think that's a good idea.'"
Actually, it was a terrific idea. In the YouTube video of the August 6 performance, Robinson not only nails his part (the second verse) on Delta Spirit's cover of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down," but he performs a pitch-perfect solo acoustic version of The Business People's best song, "From NC with Love."
About an hour after our talk, The Business People are onstage at Hattie's, and have invited a local harmonica player up to perform on "From NC with Love." The band, recently stripped down to a three-piece after the departure of lead guitarist and co-founder Will Schoonmaker, has a little space to fill in its sound. But harmonica? That wouldn't be an odd choice for a blues-based band slogging it out onstage at the late Double Door Inn, but The Business People are more Strokes than Dirtbombs. And yet, when Robinson begins plucking the fuzzy opening note to the head-spinning, country-tinged, power-pop anthem, the harmonica fills the space once occupied by a second guitar with just the right measure of bluesy swagger.
The Business People may be in a period of transition, but they're in a great place to make it happen smoothly. They've recorded three sets of music since Robinson, Schoonmaker and drummer Anthony Pugliese, all still in their teens, formed the band in 2010. Their most recent set, the five-song EP Dirty Feelings, released last year, is by far the group's strongest to date, its songs more melodic and the guitar textures more in lockstep with those melodies.
What's more, Pugliese, 25, and bassist Hyatt Morrill, 27, make up one of the Charlotte music scene's tighter rhythm sections. In September of 2016, budding Charlotte actor and filmmaker Carolyn Laws — who attended North Mecklenburg High School with the members of The Business People — approached Pugliese about using one of their songs, "Cocaine Girls," in her award-winning short indie film Damiane and Her Demons. The song plays over the film's opening time-lapse sequence shot from the perspective of a car driving through Uptown Charlotte.
On Thursday, May 16, The Business People will be headlining a show at Snug Harbor, sharing the bill with Camp Howard, from Richmond, Va., and the Cornelius band Knowne Ghost.
"We're pretty excited about the next few months," Pugliese tells me the next day over coffee at Amelie's in NoDa. "We're moving forward with a stripped-down aesthetic, focusing more on Nic's songwriting, the arrangements, and the sound that is – and isn't – there." He explains what that means: "As opposed to filling the space left behind by Will's departure with as much sound as we possibly can, we're asking, 'When does it make sense to let the space in between produce an emotional response in the listener?'"
That makes sense in the context of The Business People's sound, which depends on a tight, spare rhythm section and coloring from Robinson's guitar. In "From NC with Love," for example, his fuzzy, staccato guitar line introduces the song and provides little moments of punctuation in between the lyrics. It's a very nuanced technique that only artists with a sharp sense of pop arrangement and dynamics can achieve, but it separates the pros from bands that just plow through songs, making as much noise as possible.
"For the longest time, we were just straight indie rock," Pugliese says, "but now we've been breaking into little blues-tinged things. In a couple of our songs you can hear a little country influence, and we've even got a little doo-wop going in some songs."
To be sure, those influences are only suggested. The overall sound is still firmly in the experimental indie-pop vein, but The Business People have definitely expanded their palette of musical colors, and the fact that a harmonica player felt at home during their set at Hattie's only shows how versatile The Business People are.
Even as teens at North Meck, Robinson and Pugliese had eclectic tastes. Both performed in the marching band – Pugliese as a percussionist and Robinson on saxophone – and say they appreciate jazz as much as they do the rock they grew up loving. "I played the tenor sax for eight years, from sixth grade until I graduated from high school," Robinson says. "I was working to become a multi-instrumentalist, so I also did percussion, taught myself to play the French horn, and can play clarinet and of course, every other kind of saxophone."
Robinson and Schoonmaker were 14 when they formed their first group, which Robinson describes as a "really bad metal band." They covered Metallica and Coheed & Cambria songs, but eventually went their separate ways for a few years. They reconnected three years later at a Silversun Pickups show. "We were like, 'Maybe we should try to play music together again.' We were seniors in high school by that time and we thought, 'Why not give it a chance?' And it just happened to work for a very long time."
Robinson was sad to see Schoonmaker leave The Business People, but he understands why the guitarist chose to do so. Schoonmaker wasn't happy with the direction the group was going in, musically, and left to form the math rock band Cuzco, which plays more pattern-based music than pop melody-based. By all accounts, the guitarist is more content now. "Will seems much happier," Pugliese says. "It was a very amicable split. We just had creative differences."
It may have been amicable, but that doesn't mean it was easy. "When Will first left, we went into practice and said, 'Well, crap! What are we going to do now? What songs can we still play and what songs can we not play?" Pugliese continues. "So we just went through our repertoire and found that a lot of the songs, like 'From NC with Love' and a few others, held up. All we had to do was change a few parts here and there, maybe rearrange them a little."But what we really realized is that the songwriting is what defines this band," Pugliese says. "People want to hear good songs, and that's what we can do. We still have little guitar solos here and there, but now that we have a more stripped-down aesthetic, it puts more of a focus on the songs and Nic's lyrics."
Moving forward, Nic Robinson probably won't be stalking any other bands. By fall, other music fans will more likely be stalking The Business People, who will be releasing all-new music and also have other plans they're not quite ready to unveil.
"All I'll say is that it's going to be an exciting few months," Pugliese shares.
We'll be waiting patiently, biding our time at the tattoo parlor.