MusicMusic Features

Catching Up With Rock*A*Teens Drummer and Former Flagpole Music Editor Ballard Lesemann

Editor’s Note: Throughout the 1990s, and during a stint as Flagpole’s music editor from 1998–2002, Ballard Lesemann was a tireless chronicler of, advocate for and participant in the local scene. After 15 years away from Athens, he’s a local resident once again. He plays Nowhere Bar Friday with The Rock*A*Teens, the acclaimed Atlanta indie-rock band for which Lesemann, a versatile and accomplished drummer, pounds the skins. Elf Power frontman Andrew Rieger recently caught up with his old friend for Flagpole.

Flagpole: What brings you back to town, and how does it feel to be back after so long away?

Ballard Lesemann: I’m slowly going in circles! My girlfriend Jessica and I landed in town in January after a stint in East Atlanta, where I recently helped some friends open a small bar and coffeehouse. We liked things about Atlanta, and we disliked certain things about dealing with Atlanta. We’re quite relieved to be in Athens.

I initially arrived in Athens in the fall of 1988 from my hometown of Charleston to attend the university and play bass with some Charleston pals in a poppy four-piece rock band called the Heytire Blowouts. While I dabbled in school work for a couple of years, I dove into the music side of town, playing drums and bass with various garage bands, spinning records at 90.5 FM and attending shows whenever I could. In the mid 1990s, Marc Pilvinsky and Pete McCommons invited me to take a stab at writing record and movie reviews for Flagpole, and that led to more work as a freelancer and, ultimately, a full-time job covering the local music scene. Pete and former editor Richard Fausset gave me a crash course in indie journalism. I learned how to write while on the job, and there was no shortage of band action to cover.

I lived, worked and played music with friends in Athens from ’88 until the end of 2004, when I moved back to Charleston for a job as the music editor at the Charleston City Paper, the Flagpole of the Lowcountry.

FP: What was your motivation for moving here the first time?

BL: The official story was that I was coming to Athens to attend UGA like a normal college kid, but I was equally inspired and and excited by the idea of playing in weird bands and immersing myself in the local music world. I regret wasting tuition money on classes I didn’t take seriously enough, but I’m glad I got to see, hear and experience so much music in those days—local bands and touring acts. If you timed it right, you could catch the bulk of three shows at the three different venues within a three-block radius in one night and then hit a crazy keg party with a townie band playing in the living room on the way home. And only spend $20.

I lived in Normaltown on Oglethorpe when it was dirt-cheap—back in the Allen’s Hamburgers and Black Forest Bakery days. It was an easy stroll down Prince to downtown. Musicians could easily afford to live and play music around town. Every band person I knew seemed to have a job in food ’n’ bev. Every little restaurant was staffed with a weird hodgepodge of musicians and artists. It seems like that phenomenon has not changed much over the years.

FP: Were you a fan of any bands from Athens when you were growing up?

BL: I had started playing drums when I was 11, right before MTV appeared on cable TV—when “Solid Gold” was still on the air. Charleston was way behind the times, music-wise. No college radio, very few original bands, hardly any cool venues or record shops. I happened to catch R.E.M. performing live on their Rickenbackers and Rogers drums on “Late Night With David Letterman” in late 1983, right after I turned 13. They certainly didn’t look or sound like the pop bands on “Solid Gold” or “American Bandstand.” A friend recorded a cassette with Chronic Town on one side and Murmur on the other. I nearly wore that tape out. 

In the mid ’80s, MTV ran a monthly Sunday night program called “I.R.S. Records Presents the Cutting Edge,” hosted mostly by Peter Zaremba of The Fleshtones. This was way before “120 Minutes.” R.E.M. appeared several times on the show. There was one episode that focused on Athens, with great footage of Love Tractor and a few other acts. Athens, GA: Inside/Out lured me into the Athens underground, too. Pylon, the Bar-B-Q Killers and all of it. The idea that you could form a band in Athens, experiment with sounds, get weird, have fun, send demos to the local college radio station for airplay and book real gigs—that all fascinated me at the time.

FP: In the early 1990s, you had an unlikely stint in the Killbillys, a bizarre mutant redneck mix of The Cramps and The Stooges led by the Rev. Larry Turner, who was equal parts punk rocker and backwoods preacher. He and the band’s bassist, his former wife Judy, have both sadly passed away. 

BL: The Killbillys definitely had a hillbilly-meets-Iggy vibe. Larry looked like a goth roadie from a ’70s Southern rock band. He and Judy invited me to jam at their pad in Five Points with their lead guitarist, Brett Ciaramella. Larry claimed to be of Melungeon descent from eastern Tennessee, and I’m pretty sure he was. He told me most of their songs were “about drinkin’ and dyin’,” and they were. Larry and Judy always drank Canadian Mist whisky and Arctic Bay beer at practice. Everyone was cool. Most of the songs were really fast, four-chord wailers with hilarious lyrics. Larry used to get tempo and dynamics mixed up: “Play this part faster” really meant play it louder. “Slow this part down” meant play quiet. Everything was usually full-throttle, though. 

It was with the Killbillys that I first got to work with David Barbe in a studio—during a demo session at engineer Robbie Collin’s Underground Sound studio, just a block up the street from the Killbillys’ house. He advised us to carefully arrange the songs and solos and keep things simple. I think the quarter-inch master tapes are still in the music room at Flagpole. I hope so. [Editor’s note: They are. Come get ’em.]

FP: One of your first Athens bands, Roosevelt, was really cool and unique, combining math-rock precision with psychedelic jamming and traditional Southern rock. 

BL: John Crain and Daniel Pruitt were great musicians and a blast to hang with. I first saw them in ’88 or ’89 when they were playing in a trio called I.S.S., which stood for Independent Skyleague Section. When their drummer left the band in early 1990, I offered to fill in. We soon worked up a solid set, really clicking together, and we played out as Roosevelt at a keg party on Milledge Avenue across from the Taco Stand. I felt badly about leaving the Killbillys, but I was really excited to work with John and Daniel.

Roosevelt also recorded at Underground Sound with Robbie Collins. Those original demos of “Black Tooth Sally” were among the five studio tracks that ended up on the Shingle album, alongside some tracks we stumbled through with engineer Harper Hug at his home studio. John and Daniel were focused, but the sessions were pretty messy. Tough songs to nail, with all those crazy time signatures and rhythms. Shingle was all DIY, and we barely knew what we were doing. The record press tried to rip us off, and we had to threaten legal action to get our masters and artwork back in hand. By the time we booked a proper record release party, most radio stations and record stores were ditching vinyl for CDs. We managed to earn a few really positive reviews, though. I still have a few boxes of Shingle on vinyl, if you need a copy.

We were gigging a lot with Five Eight, Hayride, Daisy, Greenhouse, Allgood Music Company, The Martians, BOB, Magneto, Bliss, Thornyhold, Harvey Milk and all sorts of creative weirdo bands. Around 1992, I collaborated with Andy Baker and Joe Rowe of Bliss to create a little indie label called Self Rising Records. We eventually enlisted our friends Chris Purcell and Pattiy Torno to assist with the pressing and production of various 7-inch EPs and the two Fuel compilation discs. Chris and Patty knew what they were doing. I’m so glad Self Rising documented some of those bands at the time. Some of them never officially released anything else.

FP: You also played in Vic Chesnutt’s band. What was that like? 

BL: Performing with Vic and his band was one of the most enjoyable live-music experiences of my time, so far. You know what it’s like to travel and play with Vic from some of those collaborative Elf Power tours of the late 2000s. He was a sweet man with a bitter, sarcastic edge, sometimes amusingly cranky, and often genuinely hilarious. I loved his Middle Georgia accent.

It seemed funny to be part of a backing band with two former members of Porn Orchard—one of the heaviest rock bands of Athens band history—in such a low-volume, spare setting. Guitarist Curtiss Pernice and bassist Sam Mixon are old friends. We’d played together in various bands, including Poolside, Subtraction, Rehash and other projects. Their Porn Orchard bandmate, the late Ted Hafer, was a major creative force within our musical endeavors during those years, too. 

FP: You performed with Vic on “The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn.” 

BL: Kilborn was such a prick—he never even introduced himself to Vic or interacted with the band. The show was taped in little bits and pieces in front of a studio audience. We played two takes of “Band Camp,” from the Silver Lake album. The audience had no clue who we were, but they cheered on cue. It was fascinating to witness. The producers gave us each a bottle of rum and a “Late Late Show” T-shirt in the green room. We caught a glimpse of a very suntanned Bob Barker as he strolled toward his “Price Is Right” dressing room with his suitcase in hand. We laughed when Curtiss noticed that Vic looked “a bit like Vincent Price” with his stage makeup on. 

We met some guests, too, including bassist Randy Jackson, who was an “American Idol” judge at the time, in the elevator. I offered Randy Sam’s spot as our touring bassist, but he laughed and said, “Naw, I’m good, dog.” We watched from the van as Jane Seymour exited a limo. We greeted Paul F. Tompkins as he boarded another elevator. Vic called him “that funny motherfucker from HBO.” We laughed when Bill Walton greeted Vic in the lobby and nearly crippled Vic’s left hand with a strong handshake: “You’re crushing me, goddammit!” I think we each received a paycheck from CBS for like $400 for playing one song.

FP: One of my favorite live shows I’ve ever seen was when you performed Chronic Town at the Engine Room to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Can you talk about how you prepared for this show, as well as your reaction when Michael Stipe appeared unannounced to sing backup vocals?

BL: I’d been playing for years with Kevin Sweeney and Nick Bielli in Hayride, one of this town’s longest-running rock groups that’s still solidly together. We had a gig booked in a small space behind the old Engine Room bar—behind Max these days—on the Chronic Town release date. I thought it might be fun to cover those five tunes as part of the set. Hayride did tribute gigs for Halloween—covering Cheap Trick, the Minutemen, Mötorhead, etc.—but they weren’t interested. They did give me the green light to work something up on my own, so I enlisted Trey McManus to help me record the bass and drum parts on his four-track machine. I practiced guitar to those tracks and attempted to play and sing along. I’m a terrible guitarist, as you probably remember, and Pete Buck’s guitar stuff on Chronic Town was terrific, so it was a challenge to wing it.

At the gig, I think I miked a jambox with a cassette tape of the bass and drum mix and played my Danelectro through Kevin’s amp. Pretty no-frills. Somehow, word reached the R.E.M. office that this little tribute set was happening. By showtime, a surprisingly big crowd crammed into the small room. It was nerve-racking. Michael showed up just as I was plugging in, standing near the front. I hit “play” on the box and had to strum and sing along, no stopping. Luckily, the music sounded pretty cool, but I was terrified to sing R.E.M. while playing guitar in front of an actual member of the band. Michael jumped up to sing Mike Mills’ backing vocal to “Stumble” and “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars).” So, I was trying to sing like the guy who was harmonizing with me at that moment, Totally weird. Thank goodness he had a sense of humor about the whole thing. 

He corrected some lyrics, too. On “Stumble,” I was incorrectly singing, “We stumble through the A.T.P,” but he guided the line back to, “We stumble through the A.P.T.” I finally got it right on the last verse. He explained that “A.P.T.” stood for “Athens Party Time,” referring to Michael Lachowski’s outgoing answering machine message back in the day.

FP: You’ve been playing with The Rock*A*Teens since 1998, including the amazing new album Sixth House.

BL: Thanks for the compliment. I’ve had a blast keeping time with the band since stepping in for original R*A*Ts drummer Chris Verene. The musical acts and artists in the Cabbagetown/East Atlanta scene back in the 1990s seemed very far away from much of the rock-star high-end Atlanta stuff. I enjoyed joining in with The Rock*A*Teens’ echo-wrapped, wounded-heart journey. The lineup changed a bit over the years, but guitarists Chris Lopez and Justin Hughes have always been the guiding musical force of the band. Bassist Will Joiner probably doesn’t want me to mention his old power-pop pop Athens band The Twigs, but too bad. He and I played in that project years ago before rejoining in The R*A*Ts. He oversaw much of the recording and production of the last few albums. 

FP: You filled in on bass with Elf Power for a few tours in the early 2000s. Any particular memorable exploits from those jaunts? Was I a harsh and cruel taskmaster?

BL: You were a kind and patient bandleader, thank goodness. I regret not offering to drive the van more often. My eyesight was weird back then. Domestically, I remember getting tight with the band—with you, Laura, Aaron and Adrian—by around week two out of five, and crashing with really nice folks from town to town. And getting ripped off at the New Brookland Tavern in West Columbia, SC, on the last night of the tour. 

In Europe for two weeks, I remember things going horribly wrong with travel arrangements, accommodations and backline. It was like Spinal Tap meets European Vacation meets Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The band’s record label in Oxford, England, Shifty Disco, essentially did no promotion and didn’t even offer to put us up when we performed there. We missed a few gigs, made a few friends, crashed with my brother Stewart in Switzerland and killed it opening for The Flaming Lips in Barcelona. The rest is a blur.