Lee Bains caught my attention before I even saw him perform with his band, The Glory Fires. Some guy was out in the audience early for the local openers, and he was really going for it. The place—Atlanta’s Earl, which hosts rising acts like Twin Shadow, was empty enough that you couldn’t help but notice his dancing and screaming. He sang in a way that made hanging back and timidly sipping a PBR feel kind of embarrassing. An hour later, that same guy took the stage, and it’s this contagious authenticity that drove Bains to create music, dating back to DIY shows in high school.
“I saw a bill of four bands, none of which sounded anything alike and none of which sounded anything like anything that was extremely classifiable or popular or whatever at the time,” Bains says. “And that was kind of the moment for me when I began to quit thinking about music as belonging to a genre and thinking about music more in terms of its particular mission or more of a philosophical level… A lot of these bands that were really resonating with me seemed to have a solid vision at their core, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
This devotion to a vision drives Bains and The Glory Fires’ music beyond the momentary exhilaration of any single live performance. Lyrically, Bains tackles tough history in the context of his own experiences, acknowledging the negative in a way that begs for another story to be told. “I know the new architecture’s largely depressing / and the politics are pretty regressive,” Bains sings in “The Weeds Downtown,” a southern-fried rock gem from the band’s recent Sub Pop debut, Dereconstructed. “But ain’t shining a light on what’s dark / Kinda your thing?”
“The South is populated not by a culture but by cultures that play off of one another, and that’s always been the case,” Bains says. “What makes the South so beloved to me, at least in part, is that it is such a culturally rich place as a result of those different people’s interactions.”
A voracious appetite for literature has informed Bains’ respect for the subjectivity of a personal story. With an endearing drawl, he talks about Flannery O’Connor’s “simple, but very pregnant” style as a touchstone for his own storytelling and references Edward Said’s writings about cultural perspectives and marginalized groups of people. In particular, his latest re-read, Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight Children, might strike a familiar chord for those familiar with his lyrical themes: Bains is effusive about the author’s way of undermining “monolithic or homogenous ideas of culture” with his narrators’ “very idiosyncrative, very subjective” perspectives.
“I would hope that this record, in small part, might inspire Southerners who feel excluded from that homogenous notion of Southernness to contribute their own stories—their own versions of what the south is to them, “ Bains says.
?“And, meanwhile, to maybe kind of put a bug in the ear of those who do fit this conventional homogenous definition of ‘Southern’ to consider those other perspectives as in desperate need of being heard, just as valid as any other story.”
Bains is insistent, though, that the story he is telling can only ever be his own, and that any song he writes about history or public figures or marginalized characters can only ever be expressed by him through a lens of personal experience.
“I feel like the last 10 years or so I’ve been working down a certain idea: I’ve been trying to hunt down this kind of budding image that I have in my head,” he says. “And I hope that I’m getting closer to the bone. I’ll never get there, hopefully, but I’ll keep getting closer to it. I guess that’s sort of my back goal.”
Remaining true to his vision—pursuing an honest story and maintaining true artistic motives—is something evident in Bains’ lyrics as much as his actions. During his raucous live shows, his banter mentions the DIY shows that inspire him, creating a metaphor between music’s relationship to corporate entities and stock car racing’s relationship to big business like NASCAR before launching into Dereconstructed anthem “Dirt Track.”
“[Racing] has been described to me as a sport that was built on very much a pastime that was invented by working-class, largely rural communities, and I think it’s always tapped into this populist idea of a normal person achieving heroically,” Bains explains. “I think that NASCAR still sort of portrays itself as continuing that tradition, but from what I understand these days, a ‘normal’ guy—Dale Earnhardt, or Richard Petty, or Red Farmer—would never be able to amass the capital and the crew to compete in a NASCAR race. So to me, the spirit of the thing has been compromised by the consumerist imperative.”
That’s one thing that, talking to Bains, comes through more than anything: remaining devoted to the spirit of creating for intrinsic reasons rather than material ones.
“I am betrothed to the idea of and the goal of creating art for the sake of art, and to detach that from material interests as much as I possibly can,” Bains says. “I would rather just work whatever job for money, and have the art that I create remain un-contradicted, and to remain honest.”
For now, Bains’ honesty is apparent: in his unrestrained lives show, in his wary but boundless appreciation for the city and the region that built him. For music’s sake, let’s hope that his journey towards expressing that honesty is only beginning.