Life in Athens, Georgia...

In one sense Athens, Georgia is your typical college town—40,000 students thrown into a town of 100,000 or so people, always in flux, always the same—but in a musical sense the place is extraordinary. You’d have to go 1000 miles west to Austin, or 1000 miles northeast to New York City, to find a music scene that even begins to compare to Athens, a town that’s half the size of Swindon, and one-eighth the size of Nottingham. For better or worse, the history of Athens music—The B-52’s, Pylon, R.E.M., Oh-Ok, Limbo District, Vic Chesnutt, Olivia Tremor Control, etc.—still hangs over the town. Holding out the promise of a career, it draws all kinds of careerists, which is strange when you consider that nearly all of the town’s famous music was created by people with pretty much no ambition beyond having a good time.

It’s my pleasure to report that in my seven-plus years of living here, I’ve met or encountered all kinds of local legends, and without exception they were nice, friendly, humble, and totally down-to-earth people. This does not tend to be the case in New York or Boston, and it’s a big part of what makes Athens special—first and foremost it’s a nice place to live. Which makes it doubly annoying when some up-and-coming local musician acts like they’re too cool to talk to you, but that’s incidental, not integral, to our story.

The Athens Music Scene is too diverse (in the whitest, most indie-rock, sense of the word) too write about as one thing. There are all kinds of people involved in all kinds of genres. A friend of mine who has lived here since the early 80’s said it best, ‘There’s always cool and interesting stuff happening here. It’s just that sometimes people outside of here notice and sometimes they don’t.’ Here’s some stuff worth noticing.

You’ve got the E6 crowd—of Montreal, New Sound of Numbers, and the splinter groups of Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel members. The legacy of psychedelic experimental pop is everywhere in Athens. And with OTC back together and working on new material, coupled with Jeff Mangum’s return to live performance, it’s probably going to continue to exert a strong pull.

However, it should be pointed out that Jeff Mangum hasn’t lived here in ten years, and only lived here for a year or so back in the day. He comes back to visit now and then, but if he’s in town, please don’t take his picture while he’s eating. That’s just rude.

You’ve got your blue-collar guys, the beards and the boots—Drive-By Truckers, Futurebirds, Don Chambers, and you can probably squeeze The Whigs and Dead Confederate in there as well. Hard-rocking heterosexuals subsisting on a steady diet of barbeque and cheap beer, these bands tend to do well with folks from the Atlanta suburbs and people in Europe.

There’s a coterie of female singer/songwriters, each with varying amounts of country in their music—Lera Lynn, Betsy Franck, Thayer Sarrano, Kyshona Armstrong, Hope For Agoldensummer, Madeline.

There’s an art pop contingent—Roberta and Charlene, Tunabunny, Grape Soda.

There’s a college/party group—Reptar, Quiet Hooves, Modern Skirts. Reptar’s probably getting the biggest buzz/hype in town at the moment. NME wrote about their set at last year’s SXSW, and they have an album about to come out on Vagrant Records. Judge for yourself. Clash contributor Will Fitzpatrick was going on the other day about how much he loves Soul Asylum, so who knows what the fuck you people like.

And there’s a hell of a lot more. Athens has punk, it has hip-hop.

There’s all kinds of cool experimental stuff that defies description.

Did I mention that Athens is half the size of Swindon? If you live here, it’s easy to take this stuff for granted, but god-damn there’s a lot of music here.

Athens also has a couple of great record stores, Wuxtry and Low Yo Yo Stuff. And it’s probably due to their influence that Athens has a disproportionately high number of people who like Electrelane, Captain Beefheart, Can, Delta 5, Robert Wyatt, ESG (I mean, we used to have a successful ESG cover band for christ’s sake), Van Dyke Parks, and Sun Ra. Or it could be the crickets constantly phasing in and out of tune. Or it could be the copious amounts of drugs in the water supply.

The place is bohemian as fuck, Portlandia at half the price. The summers are unbearably hot (it isn’t even April yet and it’s been over 80 degrees, that’s 26 Celsius, for the past two weeks). But the weather has a way of keeping you humble—it’s hard to be pretentious in flip-flops and cut-off shorts. And though it’s easy to get cynical sometimes, watching bands get hyped only to fall apart a year later, watching folks (very politely) try and elbow their way towards stardom, or watching them turn bitter when stardom never comes, Athens is still the best.

The rents are cheap, the shows are cheap, and the beer is even cheaper. It’s easy to form a band, it’s easy to start playing shows, and some restaurant/bar/coffee place is usually hiring. You’re as likely to see a great band playing in someone’s living room as playing one of the local clubs. The town may have more interesting people per capita than anywhere else in the country. And if it’s a great place to be creative, it’s also a great place to develop a serious drinking problem. And it’s hard to grow up. And it’s hard to find a career. And you can just forget about health care.

But it’s a great place to live if you love music. It’s been that way for over thirty years now, and as long as the university continues to draw creative people from all over the south, it’s probably going to stay that way. Good thing most of the annoying people eventually move away.

Words by Scott Creney

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