Or, the unlikely return of one of the great, lost Athens, Georgia, bands.
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
Nathan Webb last sang on record nearly a quarter century ago, back when the Internet was largely a plot point in cyberpunk novels and phones never left the home. In fact, Webb didn’t own a phone of any sort in 1991, nor did he own a TV. If you wanted to talk to him, you had to go to his house.
Now, in the song “Light is the Empire,” he sings of a loved one’s face bathed in the glow of a cell-phone screen, a moment of incongruous 21st Century beauty offered up in a voice only vaguely familiar to those of us who used to follow his band Seven Simons way back when. It is a robust, lived-in voice, bolstered by assured musicianship. Above and around these shimmering notes one discerns phantom traces of all of the albums Seven Simons never made.
Well, they did in fact make two fine records: Clockwork in 1988 and Four Twenty-Four in 1991. And there was a mesmerizing, if little-heard, 1994 set titled Spring Phantoms released under the authorship of Seven Simons’ two chief architects: Webb and his songwriting partner Keith Joyner. But now, with Post, one of the great lost bands of the Athens, GA music scene has returned to deliver new material alongside the very best selections from the wealth of music they recorded but never released. For a group noted both for its abundance of pop hooks and its insistence on quality control, this is as comprehensive an overview of Seven Simons’ recorded history as we are likely to get. (Below: watch the official album trailer.)
The band came into being in 1986 as a Decatur-based power-pop trio comprised of drummer Jeff Sullivan (soon destined for Drivin’ N’ Cryin’), bassist William Mull, and guitarist/singer/songwriter Keith Joyner. Joyner, still in high school yet already a veteran of an early iteration of the Black Crowes, was a Beatles fanatic as well as an avid follower of The Church, R.E.M., and The Three O’Clock. (Mull shared his passions for R.E.M. and The Beatles, and very quickly became a Church convert.) As a trio, Seven Simons specialized in well-crafted pop songs showcasing Joyner’s virtuosic guitar playing and sweet, vulnerable tenor. It sounded good in the practice space, but at unforgiving venues such as Atlanta’s Margaritaville, it went over about as well as Nick Drake in a biker bar. After one especially disheartening gig, Joyner concluded that the band needed something more, and Mull had a pretty good idea of who could provide it.
Webb can vividly recall the night Mull sought him out after a performance in his hometown of Macon. “I remember it was raining heavily,” he says, “and we sat there in Bill’s car listening to this tape while water ran down the windshield. My heart and soul were with the band I was already playing in, but the moment I heard Keith’s beautiful songs, I was ready to jump ship. I said, ‘When?’”
He auditioned for the group a few days later. Webb discovered that he could harmonize with Joyner effortlessly, his powerful baritone providing a just-right counterbalance to Joyner’s higher register, though their personalities took a bit longer to gel. Joyner was quiet and withdrawn, and, with his bowl haircut, nervous demeanor, and tendency to avoid eye contact, “looked like he had walked straight out of Harold and Maude,” Webb says. Webb, in contrast, was very much a “guy’s guy,” albeit one who came with his own grab-bag of eccentricities.
If the extroverted singer and introverted guitarist led outwardly dissimilar lives, their musical points of intersection mitigated such distinctions. “We bonded over the Beatles’ Revolver,” Webb says. That album, with its wide-open creative possibilities counterbalanced against its musical economy, served as an inspiration and jumping-off point for Seven Simons’ own brand of tightly structured songcraft. Add in Joyner and Webb’s literary tastes (Philip K. Dick, Madeleine L. Engle, John Kennedy Toole, and Mark Twain, among other writers) and you had a winning combination of influences. Initially, Joyner wrote the lion’s share of music and lyrics, though Webb’s contribution grew substantially over time. To be sure, they took themselves a bit too seriously—“brooders before our time,” as Joyner puts it—but their chops were strong enough to attract the attention of R.E.M.’s manager Jefferson Holt, who signed them to his fledgling label Dog Gone Records. In short order the band, with new drummer Michael Zwecker in tow, relocated to Athens, lured both by that town’s fabled music scene and the ready source of funds provided by University of Georgia student loans.
Despite its proximity to Atlanta, Athens is an insular town, and by the mid-to-late 1980s the music scene—once distinguished by its freewheeling, anti-commercial ethos—had become fiercely competitive. (“Everyone wanted that [R.E.M.] fame so bad,” remarked onetime Athenian Matthew Sweet). So the fact that Seven Simons, three of whose members were barely out of high school, ended up seemingly on the fast track, was surely remarked upon. But any resentment of that sort was misplaced. It is not libelous to say, at this removed juncture, that Dog Gone was not run with the precision that had characterized the R.E.M. enterprise. That is not to say that Holt wasn’t passionate about his new charges; indeed, he allegedly told one friend that he believed he had found in Seven Simons a “new champion horse.” But Dog Gone’s struggles to secure solid distribution, coupled with the more pressing needs of Jefferson’s “main squeeze,” meant that Seven Simons had to carry their weight like any other band. Sadly, the melodically gorgeous Clockwork, while locally popular, never did secure the wide audience it deserved.
What Holt was able to do very effectively for the band was provide access to his roster of industry contacts: first Ian Copeland, whose F.B.I. Booking had handled R.E.M.’s tours since the early ‘80s; and, later, engineer and producer Scott Litt, who, in the midst of his high-profile work with R.E.M., assisted Seven Simons in recording several tracks in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to secure a deal with Atlantic Records.
F.B.I. put Seven Simons on the road regularly from 1988 through 1991, though in retrospect it is questionable whether their stint opening for a balding Flock of Seagulls was as beneficial as R.E.M.’s Copeland-brokered supporting gig for the Police six years earlier. (A subsequent tour with The Fixx is more fondly remembered by the band members).
Trouser Press’s otherwise laudatory review of Clockwork homed in on another perceived weakness: “[Seven Simons] lack only the sense of mystery that might ensure high scene credibility.” In one sense, that was not a fair characterization: Joyner’s lyrics were plenty oblique. But one glance at F.B.I.’s publicity photo for Seven Simons underscores Robbins’s point that here was a band that seemed to telegraph its intentions.
If mop-topped Keith looks an adorable 12 in the photo, Nathan doesn’t look a day over 14. With his dishwater-blonde hair, pouty lips, and wide, sullen eyes he channels McCauley Culkin somewhere between Home Alone 2 and the subsequent juvenile delinquency. This is not Hanson, but at first glance it looks closer to that paradigm than, say, the young Gang of Four or Wire. Again, this is a misleading representation. In person, Webb was a handsome and dynamic frontman, and Joyner was a ringer for ’65-’66 era George Harrison. But that’s not the picture that went out.
Perhaps this all explains the blurred and shadowy photos that adorned Four Twenty-Four, the band’s denser, darker sophomore effort, released in 1991 by TVT Records. The music largely traded its previously ebullient jangle for tightly coiled grooves that conveyed dread and claustrophobia, the transformation aided and abetted by the arrival of a new rhythm section in Travis McNabb (drums) and John Gusty (bass). That album’s second track, “White Fox,” may be the definitive Seven Simons song. Carried aloft by its vaguely Arabic guitar pattern, hushed vocals, and lyrics referencing manors, hearths, the midnight hour, the titular white fox “blitzing through the headstones,” and the “dinner guests” who “should just be getting home,” it strongly evokes a sense of place. But what place? If it’s the South, then it is surely the South of literary imagination—Poe’s crumbling gothic South—not the actual geographic Southeast of the early 1990s. Seven Simons were, at heart, Romantics and fabulists—about as far removed from Bruce Springsteen’s blue collar realism as you could get, preferring to navigate their own peculiar brand of inner space.
This dynamic began to shift, ever so subtly, during the band’s twilight. On Post, one can hear the beginnings of a movement away from the abstract and toward the concrete, as songs like “Scepters” and “Those are Pearls That Were His Eyes” give way to “Wedding Day” and “Unrequited.” This was due both to Webb’s growing influence and Joyner’s increasing confidence in reaching outward for inspiration.
We could speculate all day about what ultimately doomed Seven Simons. Journalist Dan Matthews did not exaggerate when he noted in the Athens Banner-Herald that Four Twenty-Four had been greeted by “mass indifference” upon its release. The band’s local following, once sizable and enthusiastic, had dwindled by 1991. By the tail end of that year they were performing to small crowds at the Uptown Lounge when they ought to have been headlining the Fox Theater in Atlanta. To be fair, the lyrics on Four Twenty-Four seemed precision-engineered to stymie audience sing-alongs. Webb sang earnestly about the aforementioned white fox, the “mushroom mother,” “a little black Angus,” and Uncle Fester. (“I can barely begin to fathom what some of these lyrics are about,” Joyner says now). Perhaps, too, the world had simply moved on from this style of music. 1991 was, after all, the year that Nirvana’s Nevermind roared onto the airwaves, shoving aside both hair metal and guitar-based pop (Seven Simons’ specialty). Whatever the reason for the decline in interest, the band at the center never stopped putting in the work. They wrote incessantly, toured frequently, and recorded far more than they ever released. They always performed with energy and commitment regardless of the size of the audience. They seemed to enjoy what they were doing, and Nathan and Keith both maintain that they would have continued collaborating had geography and life events not separated them. Keith was the first to go, enticed by an impossible-to-refuse gig standing in for Johnny Marr on The The’s Dusk tour. By the time he returned to Georgia, Nathan had graduated from UGA and had drifted west. Joyner, too, left the South, eventually landing in Los Angeles. He continued to write and record, first in Revolux and later in Twinstar—whose final album The Sound of Leaving is, in this writer’s opinion, something of an unheralded classic. (Below: Seven Simons performing at CBGB in NYC)
In time, Nathan abandoned the music industry altogether, returned to school, and now enjoys a flourishing career in a field far removed from his previous life. (I am being intentionally vague here, as Webb values the separation between his artistic and workaday selves). He got married and started a family, and his kids and his wife are about the only people that have heard him sing with any regularity during this century.
Yet the creative bond between the two friends never fully waned, and at Nathan’s wedding in 2013, Keith found himself wondering if they might have some unfinished business to take care of. “There was a moment that really struck me,” Joyner says. “Nathan was never one to break out the guitar and break into song, but I think the occasion called for it. He pulled out a guitar and just began singing a simple folk tune. I had forgotten how beautiful his voice is, and it felt like home, you know? Familiar. I think that went a long way toward motivating me to make this new album happen.”
Webb, too, had always felt frustrated by the fact that Seven Simons had never released many of their best songs. The two began tentatively exploring the idea of finally releasing what amounted to their “lost” album—and, inevitably, that led to a discussion of collaborating on new material. They launched a crowdfunding campaign in 2015—as much to gauge interest as to actually raise funds—and were pleasantly surprised when they exceeded their targets. Both of the band lineups got on board, and by the end of the year several of the musicians—including Webb—congregated in a Los Angeles studio to track as much of the new material live as possible. Those band members who were unable to attend in person recorded their parts remotely.
“To be singing again in a studio after so many years felt great,” Webb says. “But it was also terrifying in a way. I had to relearn the process. I had to relearn how to sing into a microphone. But everyone got along so well, and there was none of the old bullshit. Immediately the question came up: why not do a whole album? In the end, we decided to focus on making these three new songs as good as possible.”
The results are impressive. “Sky Blues” churns along like a hybrid of Abbey Road’s “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)” and the entirety of Plastic Ono Band—all grungy baroque blues, with Webb howling “I can’t forget—you!” during the chorus. Ostensibly a coda to a tumultuous romance, those words could just as easily be interpreted as pertaining to the old band, or the act of music-making itself. “Rhyme of Fallen Leaves” showcases the Clockwork lineup in a midtempo slow-burn of a pop song that steadfastly refuses to over-emote and is all the more powerful for it. “Light is the Empire” manages to fuse the two approaches, veering between bruised emotion and quiet understatement, with the musical shifts to match. It’s a shock to the system when the album jumps from the present back to the older songs. The voices suddenly jump to a higher register, the lyrics become simultaneously more precious and more earnest, yet it’s not really a drop-off in quality; the concentration of hooks is so strong in this material, the performances so assured, it sounds like any other band’s “best of” album.
Here I will paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, who famously dedicated the first published version of Howl to his friends Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady, stating that their signature works—On the Road, Naked Lunch, and The First Third—all unpublished and unread at the time, were nevertheless “published in Heaven.” If it is too grandiose to say that the songs of Seven Simons are “hits in Heaven,” let us at least say that they are hits in some other world, in some other time.
Is there a future for Seven Simons? Certainly not as a performing entity. Joyner is adamant that the album represents a conclusion, not a new beginning. But I can sense, in talking with these two friends, that their partnership may be a lifelong one. The onetime polar opposites have, with the passage of time, come to mirror one another. Joyner has become relaxed and outgoing, while Webb has turned inward and has abandoned any interest in public performance. And when they speak individually, each amplifies and complements what the other has previously said. Post could very well mark the end of Seven Simons, but it would be a shame if it signified the end of Joyner/Webb.
Joyner once remarked to me that Seven Simons were “of their time and place.” He did himself a disservice; much of their material sounds great in the here and now, and the occasional dated production technique or over-emotive vocal can be easily forgiven in light of the overall quality of the band’s output. A compelling argument can be made for Nathan Webb as one of the strongest vocalists to have participated in the Athens music scene, and Keith Joyner as one of its most inventive guitarists. But the high-flying dreams of this long-ago band ran to ground in 1991, when thousands of copies of Four Twenty-Four failed to clear record store shelves. Right around the same time, those student loans came due. And so it seems fitting that one of the final tracks on Post, allegedly Seven Simons’ final album, mashes up some lyrics from the band’s chief inspiration—The Beatles—before acknowledging the reality of a band that had run out of options.
That is you can’t, you know, tune in ‘cause it all works out
But I have my doubts
They may not have realized their full potential—Seven Simons’ own Revolver never came to pass—but more than a few discerning industry professionals saw in Seven Simons the seeds of greatness. And it’s a testament to that erstwhile belief that a number of these people— longtime manager David Prasse; producer and multi-instrumentalist Don McCollister; former Mighty Lemondrop and Blue Aeroplane David Newton; and Travis McNabb (who, in the interim between his time in Seven Simons and now has played with everyone from Better Than Ezra to the Indigo Girls to Sugarland to Beyoncé)—have all chipped in to help make Post a reality. The album is full of the music that animated that faith. And anyone who listens to it with fresh ears will hear what those of us who love this band never stopped hearing.
BLURT contributor Robert Dean Lurie is a musician (he produced and performed on tribute album The Dark Side of Hall and Oates) and author (including No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church and We Can Be Heroes: The Radical Individualism of David Bowie). Track him down at his official website.