Sure, this group pens late bloomers’ anthems for underdogs, but guess what? Those are the songs that so many of us out here are living for in the first place. BLURT’s resident late bloomer looks under the hood of one of North Carolina’s finest bands, period, to see what makes ‘em hum.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Shortly after their opening slot on a recent Bob Seger bill at Charlotte’s downtown arena, an iconic photo of Temperance League singer/songwriter Bruce Hazel, shot by drummer David Kim, appeared on Facebook. Captured alone in a blue splash of arena lights, the 41-year-old bandleader soaks in the moment like he’s conquered Everest or surfed Mavericks, a stand-in for any hard-working musician whose rock & roll dreams suddenly come to life, however fleetingly, in vivid 3D.
And who knows—in a different era, it might’ve been 15,000 fans clamoring for the radio hits off of the Charlotte sextet’s superb new sophomore effort, Rock & Roll Dreams. But timing and fate and the whims of public taste are often unmoved by talent and tenacity; the members of Temperance League happened to have hit their stride now, in their 30s and 40s rather than their early 20s, and done so in an unforgiving business where youth is its own currency.
Temperance League also plays melodic, straight-ahead rock & roll when the fickle roulette wheel of cyclical trends has stopped on 80s synths and dance beats. Loud guitars, big beats and bigger hooks are practically outré. None of that matters much to the band, though, which has turned adversity into musical inspiration, channeling it into narratives that resonate like anthems for underdogs.
“We’re not skinny young dudes, we’re not young, we’re not necessarily hip anymore, our only weapon is that we’re good,” says guitarist Shawn Lynch. “We play our asses off and write awesome songs, so we just need to do that as best we can. If we can’t, then there’s no point in doing it.”
At the Seger gig, according to reliable sources, Temperance League met with the usual mix of mild interest and hurry-up indifference that unknown local bands can expect opening for legendary nostalgia acts. For Hazel, who writes the band’s songs, the real reward resurfaced months later from a couple who were in the seventh row that night and had never heard of Temperance League.
“The guy said from the minute we walked out on stage, just watching the look on my face and my excitement from being there gave them goose-bumps before we’d even played a note,” he says. “That’s all I ever need to hear.”
All of this is gravy, after all. Temperance League features veterans of the Charlotte music scene with extensive CVs in bands like Benji Hughes, Lou Ford, Poprocket, Les Dirt Clods and the Goldenrods, some of them stretching all the way back to the ‘90s. With rare exceptions, though, these acts never matriculated beyond regional or city limits. But the core of Temperance League kept playing in various bands, even as the list grew of former bandmates and peers who’d tapped out.
It’s that tension between the ticking clock and rock & roll defiance that fuels the band’s music. Hazel had cut his teeth as a solo performer, touring the country and even moving to L.A. There, he challenged himself to bring a new song every week to the midnight Sunday showcase he played—typically with just the bartender and a good friend (the subject of “Are You Still With Me?” from the new LP) in attendance.
That punch-the-clock songwriting mentality stuck with him when he returned to Charlotte in the early 2000s. After releasing two LPs fronting an act called The Noise, he made music under the moniker Bruce Hazel and Some Volunteers, and some of those musicians pepper today’s Temperance League ranks of Lynch, drummer Kim, bassist Eric Scott, guitarist Chad Wilson and keyboardist Jay Garrigan (who also fills in on bass while Scott finishes post-graduate work in Louisiana).
Temperance League’s songs also chronicle life in the trenches—the musical one and the workaday jobs familiar to so many musicians who trade dollars for shifts for the occasional week on the road. The band’s music roils and churns between the energy and passion you expect from young bucks trying to make their mark and the even greater urgency that the ticking clock infers: “This is all I know, and it’s unrelenting,” Hazel howls on the ferocious chorus of “Unrelenting” from the new album.
As they did with their self-titled debut in 2012, the band recorded with Mitch Easter at his Fidelitorium studio in Kernersville, North Carolina. Under the guidance of the former Let’s Active member and R.E.M. producer, Temperance League takes a confident leap forward from their gritty MC5/Ramones-flavored debut. The new songs explore the band’s on-their-sleeves Springsteen/Heartbreakers/Byrds influences while branching out into new sonic textures and balladry.
The new LP took the same amount of time to record as the debut (a week), but the band’s familiarity with Easter, and each other, raised their game considerably. Hazel and Lynch, for instance, spent hours on YouTube after practices honing in on elements that they wanted the new songs to include.
“Part of our evolution is having him in our corner,” Hazel says of Easter, who’s credited as “Recording Manager” a la George Martin on the early Beatles LPs. “We got a lot better at explaining what our vision was, and he knows exactly how to accomplish it.”
“Basically,” Lynch chimes in, “our mantra for recording is, ‘if Mitch says to do it, just do it.’”
Whatever its constituent parts, the formula scores a direct emotional hit, starting with the plangent title-track opener. Accenting songs for the first time with strings (via Easter’s classic Chamberlin), a piano melody leads to a cathartic crescendo highlighted by a brief guitar solo; this is as close as Temperance League gets to a power ballad. But the goal here isn’t to seduce some nubile groupie; it’s to acknowledge—without despairing—that “time is a thief” who will inevitably force everybody “to hang up their rock & roll dreams.”
Coming to terms with these temporal insights infuses all corners of the record with urgency — it’s there in the ‘ah, fuck it, let’s celebrate’ mad-preacher sermon of “Are You Ready?” just as it is in the harpsichord-accented plea for patience, “Are You Still With Me?” On “The Hunger,” over Byrds-like 12-string, Hazel concedes he’s wasted time. But rather than wallow in regret, he encourages anyone in similar circumstances to use the epiphany to get up off the mat one more time: “I’ve had more advantages than most/never amounted to much/hey, maybe you’re like me/so pick yourself up and shake yourself off/and learn humility.”
That these realizations come only with age is the subject of songs like “Now I Understand,” where over a slide guitar’s cry Hazel sings a paean to his parents’ sacrifices, thanking them for “never showing a moment’s regret/for all the things you’d never have.” Similarly, “Too Much Time” reads initially like a cautionary tale for young musicians not to get sidetracked by rock & roll’s extracurriculars, from in-fighting to excessive partying—“Don’t you take too long, you might never get it back again,” Hazel sings, shadowed by “Oooo-ooo” harmonies as Chamberlain strings and guitar-jangle adorn the mid-tempo beat. Here, as on the rest of Rock & Roll Dreams what could have come across preachy or scolding, or as just banal carpe diem-ism, is instead expressed with enough honesty and passion that the sentiment transcends music.
Rock & Roll Dreams closes with “Everybody Dreams,” a Roy Orbison-like ballad with “Be My Baby”/ Phil Spector drumbeats that perfectly bookends the LP even before the outro refrain from the opening track drifts in to signal the circle’s closing. Hazel reflects on how much the Temperance League means to him now that he appreciates how important music-making—and specifically being in a band with like-minded musicians—has become.
“The only reason I ever stopped being a band guy was because it was so hard to keep one together. People got jobs and people went to college and people moved on with their lives, and I was the last man standing,” Hazel says. “When I met these guys, I realized, ‘Man, there are still people that really want to do this.’
“I’m enjoying myself right now. I really just love doing this. And there’s no reason to stop— it’s not keeping me from doing anything else, and it doesn’t hinder my life in any other way. It fits perfectly in. So if we can just gradually become maybe a little bit more successful, or make it easier on everybody…”
Yes, those rock & roll dreams never go gently—and sometimes that turns out to be a very good thing.
Below, watch a “Take One” video feature on the band. Temperance League’s official album release party is Friday, October 18, at Snug Harbor in Charlotte. Opening act is another BLURT fave, The Sammies. Details at the TL’s Facebook page.