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The Rock*A*Teens: An Oral History

After a 12-year hiatus, the influential Cabbagetown rockers return

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On New Year's Eve 2002, the Rock*A*Teens played what would later be known as their final show. In front of more than 100 people at the Echo Lounge, the swampy, rambunctious rockers wailed through anthemic guitar howls and chaotic sonic bursts like their lives depended on it. Frontman Chris Lopez drunkenly belted lyrics atop his monitor. He vividly remembers spiking his 12-string guitar on the ground and snapping the instrument's head in half "a la Bob Stinson on 'Saturday Night Live.'" The Rock*A*Teens often teetered between transcendence and self-destruction. But on this particular night, no dramatic breakup announcement, farewell tour, or other ceremonious act marked the group's final moments on stage. After eight years, the band had simply run its course.

Formed in Cabbagetown in 1994, the Rock*A*Teens arose out of tragedy and forged a unique sound that tapped garage rock, '50s pop, and rockabilly. The group's reverb-drenched guitar wails and forceful, melodic rhythm section defied the post-Nirvana wave of alt-rock and grunge that dominated mainstream music in the '90s. Buried underneath the band's noise, Lopez's visceral lyrics chronicled tales of melancholy, heartbreak, and weirdness and conveyed a haunted sense of place that was distinctly Cabbagetown.

The Rock*A*Teens' members had played with many other Cabbagetown artists during the late '80s and early '90s. The neighborhood's musicians included performance artist/singer Benjamin of Smoke, Chan Marshall of Cat Power, and musicians within Atlanta's Redneck Underground. The Rock*A*Teens emerged as part of Cabbagetown's second generation of bands and started to make music in the wake of several fatal accidents. Lopez, a local fixture with groups such as Opal Foxx Quartet, Dirt, and Seersucker, found himself bandless when collaborator Allen Page died from a drug overdose. Kelly Hogan, the sultry frontwoman for the Jody Grind, who's since become a prominent solo artist and Neko Case's longtime backup vocalist, lost her friend Deacon Lunchbox and bandmates Rob Hayes and Robert Clayton in a fatal car wreck in April 1992.

Soon after, Lopez began giving Hogan guitar lessons inside his dingy shotgun home at 711 Wylie St. Photographer Chris Verene, a founding drummer of local lo-fi rock outfit Dairy Queen Empire, and lead guitarist Justin Hughes rounded out the band's original lineup. Small, local shows at the Clermont Lounge and Dottie's Food and Spirits, a working-class bar on Memorial Drive that hosted punk shows, eventually landed the band a record deal with Daemon Records, an independent label founded by Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, in 1996.

During their eight-year run, the Rock*A*Teens released five albums, including three on Merge Records, and garnered a devoted fanbase. But the band's music never caught on with a wider audience. In many ways, the Rock*A*Teens were ahead of their time. The band influenced a new wave of indie rock songwriters, including Destroyer's Dan Bejar, A.C. Newman of the New Pornographers, and Okkervil River's Will Sheff, who all cite Lopez as a major inspiration. Both local and national indie-rock artists ranging from Carnivores to the Walkmen remain indebted to the Rock*A*Teens' music.

The Rock*A*Teens' return has long seemed unlikely given the band's initial lack of commercial success. But for the first time in 12 years, the band — which now consists of Lopez, Hughes, drummer Ballard Lesemann, bassist Will Joiner, and keyboardist Michelle DuBois — will make a comeback. The Rock*A*Teens will play their first Atlanta shows at the Earl on June 6 and 7. They'll continue the one-off reunion tour with several other East Coast concerts, including a performance at the Merge 25 Festival in Carrboro, N.C.

In anticipation of the group's long-awaited comeback, we spoke with past and present band members, musicians inspired by the Rock*A*Teens, and others who crossed paths with the rock outfit in Cabbagetown, Atlanta, and beyond.

COMEBACK KIDS: Since going on hiatus, the Rock*A*Teens all have played in other projects, held down day jobs, and mostly moved on from the band’s past. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • COMEBACK KIDS: Since going on hiatus, the Rock*A*Teens all have played in other projects, held down day jobs, and mostly moved on from the band’s past.

Chris Verene, the Rock*A*Teens drummer, 1994-98: We definitely appreciated the town of Cabbage. It was nice to be able to live there and do art and do music there without changing the surface. ... There was no such thing as indie rock. When we were living there, it wasn't like, "Wow, we're here, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is cool!" It would've seemed absurd to call it a movement.

Chris Lopez, the Rock*A*Teens frontman, 1994-present: It was like living on a movie set. There were the mill, the train yard, old houses, and sidewalks. It [had] a different style of houses from the rest of the city. There wasn't anything to do in Cabbagetown unless you wanted to procure a prostitute or buy drugs.

Henry Owings, Chunklet founder and editor: You moved here because it was cheap and you could play with your friends. But you knew why you paid nothing, because it was fucking scary.

Chris Verene: It was a low-income, struggling area. It wouldn't occur to you to have a café there. You would definitely not want to have a café there. No one would've even considered opening something in Cabbagetown.

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