Every fall, Coach Mark Richt replenishes the University of Georgia Bulldogs with incoming freshman running backs, linemen and receivers, most of whom dream of following the footsteps of folks like Herschel Walker, Hines Ward and Richard Seymour into the NFL. Meanwhile, less than a mile away in downtown Athens, something similar is happening in a much less organized fashion as would-be musicians attend their first shows at clubs like the 40 Watt, imagining themselves on the stages that nurtured The B-52’s, R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Drive-By Truckers and Of Montreal.
Though William Kennedy didn’t know much about the current state of Athens music, he was well aware of the city’s history when he enrolled at UGA to study ethnomusicology. And he quickly became familiar with the local scene as a DJ for the college radio station, WUOG. But even after meeting his fellow student, drummer Andrew McFarland, it took a Christmas-break reunion in 2008 with some of the musician friends he played with in high school to get the keyboardist in an Athens band. Singer/guitarist Graham Ulicny and bassist Ryan Engelberger moved down to Athens from their respective colleges for the summer.
“Me, Ryan, William and Andrew lived together just working and playing music,” remembers Ulicny as the band gathers for lunch at Athens’ Last Resort. “That’s all we did for the summer. We would go out to shows and do stuff but such a large part of our day was spent practicing with Coco Rico and Reptar recording and just doing that everyday.”
The first Reptar show was an opening slot for New York band Mixel Pixel, which got a nice write-up in the local alt-weekly, Flagpole. “We were just like, jamming,” says McFarland. “We didn’t even have real songs. We had one song we used wine glasses to make sounds. We were filling them up with water and making sounds with these glasses. I remember it was one of the first songs we’d every played. The drums on that were so fun to play.”
While they’re adamant not to be labeled a “dance” band, they were passionate that their music would get people moving. Kennedy had noticed that those early Athens bands like Pylon had been adept at getting the audience involved and wanted to do the same. “That’s the thing I thought was really cool playing in Athens,” he says. “People dance for everything—it’s just like a thing, people just going nuts, flipping their shit. I think that’s dancing and that’s what I wanted to do. There were a lot of bands in the early ’80s and late ’70s here—their music drew you in, made you do whatever and freak out. Making music people freak out to was always the objective.”
To that end, the band incorporated some of the African rhythms Kennedy had been studying in school and delving into during his weekly radio show (in 2010, he’d even go on a study-abroad trip to Nigeria). “I’ve always liked African music. I remember when we were in high school and started listening to Fela Kuti, and we started listening to African ’70s records, and that shit just blew our mind. That changed our perception of what a band could be. Everything happening there was so huge and loud but so rhythmic. It was mind-blowing.”
But summer was ending, and Ulicny and Engelberger had to head back to school. Since none of the shows they’d played had more than about 10 people in attendance, there was little ambition to keep the band going. With students returning to Athens, they played a final show at Tasty World. “There was a ton of people there,” Ulicny says, still a little amazed. “It was a big crowd and it was the biggest Tasty World had ever seen—it was crazy. I guess it got written up in the paper and we’re like, ‘Wow. That’s cool. Maybe we should keep doing this,’ because we had such positive feedback.”
They played a few more shows in the fall, practiced all winter break and played in Atlanta whenever they could. The following summer Reptar hit the road with its alter-ego Coco Rico (all the Reptar members plus frontman Addison Adams), traveling up to Vermont and back. All of them would eventually drop out of school to focus on the band. “It got to the point I was doing all band stuff in class,” says McFarland.
They recorded a four-song EP with producer Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Washed Out, Deerhunter, Matt & Kim), and went out on tour with Foster the People.
Last year, they headed back in the studio with Allen for a full-length debut, Body Faucet, which comes out today. It’s full of more songs designed to get the listener moving, even if the lyrics aren’t always quite as joyful as the music. “Especially on the EP, the music in the songs are in major key—upbeat, happy tempo, grooving—but the lyrics are more manic, crazy, like someone talking to themselves,” says chief songwriter Ulicny. “The lyrics have gotten a little less manic on the record, but it’s always still an inner dialogue. The only way I can really write songs is like, talking to myself. It’s like different parts of me talking to me.”
His favorite lyrics on the new album are on a song called “Ghost Bike” about a girl who watches her girlfriend on a bike get hit and killed by a car. “That’s not happy, but it’s got this kind of groove,” he says. “To me, those two things make sense to me. It’s sadder to me to have it be in this major key groove and having someone emoting over it. It makes sense to me in my head. I don’t think it’s supposed to be ironic either—maybe cathartic.”
Some of the words are just used for their sound. Ulicny is a unique singer, barking some of the words and playing with their shape. Many of the band’s early songs were literally written in front of an audience as the musicians would make up their parts live to a backing track, including the lyrics. “I think it’s part of it in the begging,” he says of his particular affectation, “when it was more on-the-spot, and I was using it as an instrument. In the same way you can bend a note on the guitar, you can bend your voice to make it fit into a groove more. Make it sound like it’s almost meshing into the instruments better. That’s how it was in the beginning but now that’s just how I sing. I was actually talking to somebody yesterday, and they said they saw me singing karaoke, and they said that’s how I was singing, like I was in Reptar. That’s how I sing. I can’t control it anymore.”
On New Year’s Eve, they added another guitarist, Jace Bartet, a UGA journalism graduate who’d stuck around Athens playing in bands. “I make more sense on the newer songs,” he says. “But I like the idea of songs as living objects that have the ability to grow and their own identity instead of just a static thing like a rock. Some of the parts I’m playing are completely new. People are really receptive to that.”
And at a Reptar show, you can see how receptive the audience is by how much they move. The Athens music tradition is in very good hands.