Dean and Max and Tom are in a band called Quarterbacks. Max plays drums. Tom plays bass. Dean sings and plays guitar and writes the songs and drives the van. They live in New Paltz, a small town in the Hudson Valley two hours north of New York City.
Tonight they’re in Atlanta. They’ve been touring the country all summer in Dean’s dad’s Honda Odyssey minivan. It’s pretty rickety, and the back-left door is sealed shut with some bungee cord. But it’s just the three of them, and they don’t have much equipment, and so if you fold down the very back row of seats, it totally works.
The venue tonight is called Boat Haus. It’s a single-floor, ranch-style home, propped on a low hill between a healthy back lawn and a dilapidated patio with rotted-through beams that don’t quite connect. There’s a porch swing. There are attractive young punks here, flowing in and out of the house, maybe 30, 35 people altogether. Some are in one-strapped overalls, some are in pink Cobain hair, some are guzzling bottles of Sutter House. It’s a hot, humid, weekday summer night in 2015, and this is a house party.
The girl who lives and throws the shows here is named Chelsea. The next morning, she’ll tell me briefly of the visualization exercises she employed to take ownership of the place some months back, and of her plans to moor a small sea-vessel in the front lawn. Tonight she’s running around in her friend’s floppy Stevie Nicks hat. Between the time it briefly goes missing and the time that it is found, there is a mild panic.
The solo act now setting up in the living room is Chelsea’s friend. She’s a college kid in a skirt and bare feet, and while she fumbles with a complicated loop pedal, Chelsea strings along the crowd with a joke, which goes over well.
Q: What’s the difference between a chickpea and a garbanzo bean?
A: I’ve never had a garbanzo bean on my face.
The MC for the night (possibly self-appointed) is MetroGnome. He’s a guy in postal-worker shorts and a tucked-in green T-shirt and Crocs, and offstage he breaks character to wear a cowboy hat and be his normal self. Later in the evening, I’ll see him slink silently out of a side-alley and disappear wordlessly into the night. Earlier in the evening I’ll see him doing non-sequitur stand-up between sets: “So I was in the woods the other day and I was talking to this enchanted caterpillar, right …”
Out back, Quarterbacks’ rhythm section is killing time. Tom is smoking a cigarette and Max is explaining that he suffers from “not bad but somewhat-serious general anxiety disorder,” and that the logistics of touring are basically his worst nightmare. He can’t wait to get home and sleep, but that’s OK because there has been good stuff, like the insanely strong legal weed in Washington and Colorado, and all the kids coming up to say they had a good time at the shows.
There are only a few stops left in the tour. From here, Quarterbacks goes to North Carolina to D.C. to Brooklyn to Philadelphia to home. These days, Dean gets nostalgic about the band he fronts and writes all the songs for: it’s not clear what happens next. Max is beyond burned out; Tom has his own music he wants to play, and a musician girlfriend, Leslie, he plans on moving in with, maybe somewhere in Brooklyn or Jersey City.
Dean is 25 years old, same as Tom—their full names are Dean Engle and Tom Christie. Max is two years younger—Max Restaino. Dean wants to keep doing the same stuff: substitute teaching and going to the swimming hole past the woods past the baseball field near his house, driving around and going to and playing shows. But there’s no particular financial reason to keep playing music. The collective take for tonight will be $43, pulled in by the polite passing around of a plastic jug. And there’s all this ambivalence.
“Let me tell you,” he says, “you can feel like an old man of 24 in this scene.”
When it’s time for Quarterbacks to play, they back themselves into a corner and blast away. Dean writes really short, really good songs about his family and his town and girls. They've released three cassette tapes, and one proper album. It’s called Quarterbacks. It’s got 19 songs and it’s 22 minutes long.
They were touring through Kent, Ohio, once, they’ll tell me later, when they found their sound. They got to the house they were playing and all the punk kids were drunk on the front lawn in the daytime carelessly maneuvering a toy helicopter. “We didn’t know if they’d like our wussy music,” Tom says. So that night, “we played as hard and fast as we could.” It stuck. Now they call it, winkingly, the three boy blowout.
“Dean does things with a guitar that you never see anyone do,” Tom says. “I don’t know if it’s intentional.”
“He still can’t quite play as fast as us,” Max says, “which makes it more interesting.”
Max and Tom are a funny rhythm duo—all calm in person, but a bashing machine behind their instruments. Quarterbacks plays fast. Really fast. As fast as they can. Dean wears his guitar high on the strap. During the Boat Haus set, sometimes he grabs it and juts it, pointing it sideways like a rifle ready to shoot.
They stop only for Dean to banter, which he does like some kind of subtly antagonistic performance art. “Do you know anyone from New York? Yeah. I hate them.” Pause. “I was raised by two of them. They’re probably at home watching Seinfeld.” Pause. “Doing their sarcastic thing.” Pause. “What will he say now?” Pause. “Nothing.”
At the end, he says, “Thanks Chelsea. Great… great show.” She beams. She dies for this stuff.
I first heard of Quarterbacks from a mostly positive 145-word newspaper arts section blurb. I got their album, and I listened to it, over and over. I fell for it hard. In song, Dean’s not a direct guy, exactly, but he doesn’t waste time either.
I made space for you in my tiny room, he sings on “Space.” Made myself small enough so you’d fit in my bed.
I thought I’d see you around, he sings on “Pool.” Not every day but pretty often.
Wanna be the last boy to love you, he sings on “Loveseat.” Wanna be the last boy that you love too.
It felt like he was shooting for the sharp part of your chest—for the moments when you remember love can hurt just as much as it can feel good, and at the same time and in the same way. Compactly, a whole lot gets said.
I went to see Quarterbacks in Bushwick, at a tiny sliver of a venue underneath the elevated train tracks of the J/M/Z. There were maybe thirteen people there. The band seemed frazzled, jittery, out-of-sorts. Later, I would learn that was their de facto mode. Dean bantered with such strange aplomb.
Not long after that show, I got an email from a publicist saying Quarterbacks was touring the country this summer. The tour was vast. But it was the venues that caught my eye. Because more than half weren’t actually venues. They had names like Mr. Roboto Project and Club Scum, Werewolf Vacation and Shaq’s Shaq, Macaroni Island and Babe City. And they had asterisks. And below, the asterisk notation read:
* = house show: e-mail email@example.com for info
These were punk houses where bands can come, play shows, and then, most likely, spend the night on the living room floor, free of charge. The houses were spread throughout all the regular rock & roll urban focal points, but also in places like El Paso and Birmingham and Missoula.
I wanted to know what life was like on Macaroni Island. I wanted to know what intrepid souls would brave the journey. And I wanted to know—why?
In the ’80s, when the ideals and practicalities of DIY were developed, major record labels were as healthy as they’d ever been. DIY and punk were explicitly antagonistic to all that, but the pull of the recording industry and its money was inevitable. Of the thirteen iconic underground bands profiled in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, six ended up signing major label deals.
These days, signing with a major feels less and less important, or desired. The middle class of bands lives with a certain understanding of their limitations: a vibrant artist’s life can be accomplished, but gilded dreams of fame are left back with a previous generation.
Meanwhile, the polarization of the music industry between big-money acts and the rest seems more severe than ever. At the top, you’re touring arenas to squealing maniacs and chomping on green-room shrimp cocktail. At the bottom, you’re just hoping to recoup gas money from the oft-literal hat being passed around at the end of the show.
This was to be a story about the bottom.
“We’re not career musicians. This band will fade away.” —Dean Engle
In the morning after the Boat Haus show I wake up in the living room—next to the unrolled sleeping bags and deflating air mattresses—and realize I’ve forgotten deodorant, toothpaste, a towel, and enough underwear. Sweating through my jeans in the swampy Georgia summer heat, I trek to a gas station to buy toiletries. A man sitting on the curb leers at me while eating a po boy. It is 8:30 a.m.
At a diner for breakfast I meet Dogbreth, the band Quarterbacks is touring with. They’re from Arizona. Tristan is the frontman: he’s 27, an elder statesman. He’s got a rattail, he was homeschooled, and he has a side project called Purple Palace that does stoner-rock songs about the Phoenix Suns. “Small Ball,” “Cottonmouth Fitzimmons,” etc.
Cesar is Dogbreth’s bassist. He’s got a thin moustache, and he’s an aspiring biologist. Trever is the drummer, and he just joined the band for this tour, which is crazy. “Dogbreth is like my favorite band, and Quarterbacks is like my other favorite band,” he tells me. “When Tristan asked me to join I was like, ahhh! Then he’s like, ‘We’re going on tour with Quarterbacks,’ and I was like, ahhhhhhh!!!”
While we wait for the food, Dean talks of the vagaries of tour cuisine. “If I eat another Pop Tart I’ll scream,” he says. “After a while the Chex Mix just starts tasting like blood.”
He says he met Max in kindergarten, and that he met Tom at Borders. They hit upon a recurring topic of conversation: the impermanence of the band.
“We’re not career musicians,” Dean says. “This band will fade away.”
“You’re predicting your own demise,” Tom says.
“Oh yeah,” Dean says. He has a degree in education from SUNY-New Paltz. He substitute teaches at the place where he went to high school, in all kind of subjects, even gym and Spanish, even though his Spanish is, he admits, no bueno. The sub schedule is good for touring, but eventually he thinks he’ll have to get a full-time teaching gig. “We’re over the hill.”
On the drive to Tennessee, as we roll past giant fireworks depots—Tennessee Alabama Fireworks, Fireworks Supermarket, Big Daddy’s Fireworks—and a giant makeshift billboard promising JESUS IS COMING SOON, Dean talks in a stream-of-conscience ramble. Tom has a gentle, calming demeanor. Max seems glum, but when you speak to him directly he’s engaged and forthcoming, especially when talking the movies he loves (Gummo, number one) and the movies he plans to make. As Dean talks, they’re happy to tune him out.
Dean says he never thought Quarterbacks would put out a record, never thought they’d tour the whole country. “Most people who continue music, at a certain point it comes out of personal cost or subversion or life plans,” he says. “But if you continue to view it as the best, most fun part of your life, I think that’s very sustainable. And that’s the goal here. I don’t know. We play for no reason beyond joy. Or whatever.”
“It’s so hard to keep playing music,” he says. “The world just wants you to drop it.”
The house tonight is called Ten Sproul’s Landing. It’s past a Bi-Lo grocery store, next to an artificial-food-flavoring factory, and at the bottom of a lush mountain slope covered in ivy and giant ash and oak trees. The kids hanging out aren’t too different from last night’s crowd: very sweet, kind of hippie, kind of punk.
Max and Tom take naps in the van. I sit with Dean on the bumper, the open trunk door sheltering us from a soft rain. Dean tells me about his mom, a kindergarten teacher, and his dad, a salesman at a conveyor belt factory, and his younger sister, a junior at SUNY-Binghamton who doesn’t really like Quarterbacks, and J.R. Smith, of whom he has a framed photo hanging in his bathroom.
Tom and Max come from similar backgrounds. Tom’s dad owns an auto garage and his mom, until retiring recently, worked in a school office; Max’s dad works for the post office and his mom works in HR for a retail company. They seem to agree on their view of their hometown, New Paltz: a lovely place with interesting, open-minded people, but also as a place that very much does not make you feel like the world is your oyster.
In its way—the implicit dead-end-ness, the fundamental lack of access to cool shit—New Paltz feels thoroughly American. And, being from New Paltz—it doesn’t mean that their ambitions are stunted. It’s just that there’s a very real, underlying need to be practical.
Playing on a carpeted living room floor in a shaggy house at the foot of the Appalachians, Quarterbacks find themselves in front of a tiny—there are maybe seventeen people here—but loving audience. At one point, as Dean’s glasses begin to slip off his face from the sweat, he leans forward, using the microphone to nudge the lenses back over his eyes. Then, offering some banter he says, possibly not joking: “When you’re standing there, and you’re looking up at that mountain, you think.” Pause. “I can be anything I want to be.”
Charlie and Noah, the kids who live here, are bouncing around and elbowing each other like can you believe this? They demand an encore.
Dean turns to Max and asks, “Do we know one more song?”
Max answers, with a rare onstage smile: “We know one more song.”
On the drive, the guys discuss their band’s press attention.
Dean: Tristan texted me a photo. We’re in a magazine? It looks like… Time Out New York?
Tom: Is that the one they give out for free when you get off the subway and you wipe your butt with?
Max: You’re thinking of Metro.
Dean: Metro, Time Out, New York Times—it’s all the same. You can wipe your butt with any of them.
We get to the downtown strip of bars. It wasn’t so long ago that Peyton Manning likely hovered over these very bar tops for a body shot or two; in a few weeks, this place will be crawling with the excitable young blood of the University of Tennessee. Before we rolled into town, someone on the punk scene had warned Dean about the bar the band is playing, the Longbranch Saloon. The rumor was that people had seen neo-Nazis there. But here we are, at the Longbranch Saloon. And there are zero neo-Nazis in sight.
Some residual Svengali in me, stemming from some very non-DIY part, can’t help but feel excitement. I keep buying people dirt-cheap beers, or trying to. A venue! An actual venue!
Upstairs, the balcony is studded with glitzy Christmas lights. As dusk settles, the air is hot but gentle. There are cute punk girls here, with shaved heads and armpit hair and jean shorts. Dogbreth is soundchecking with Third Eye Blind’s “I’ll Never Let You Go,” and from a vantage point on the balcony you can see a shining Taco Bell next door. It seems like an auspicious sign for the night.
At the bar, the floppy-haired bartender earnestly promises us that “sleazy girls” will show up tonight. From there, things go south.
The crowd’s not the problem—it’s another light pack of young dweebs with bad haircuts who love music and love the internet and love that you can use the internet to find music that you love. But as a tiny little baby moshpit pops up, something is off. Dean’s banter has a strange edge to it.
“As usual at our shows, you can’t touch anybody,” Dean says. “It’s a good rule in life. You can jump around, but you can’t touch anybody.” The kids keep going, taking it for the joke that it sounds like. And Dean seems increasingly uncomfortable. “I told you guys,” he says. “I’m trying to play my three chords.”
“Metro, Time Out, New York Times—it’s all the same. You can wipe your butt with any of them.” —Dean Engle
The night before in Nashville, playing a modified arts space in the pawn shops and scrap yards part of town, Quarterbacks did what they do: they nearly fell apart. In person, Dean is magnanimous and warm. On stage—well, figuratively: there are no stages in most of the places they play; Dean actually despises playing on real stages—he’s all raw nerve endings. The whole thing hangs together in an odd way.
There were superfans there: a girl named Ari in eyeball socks and a forehead piercing who drove from the other side of the state; a kid named Bo in an Alex G shirt who brought Budweiser and Sun Chips for Dean and who hugged him for a long time after the show and told him “your records have meant so much to me.” Standing right up close for the Quarterbacks set, they nearly bop their heads off. What they heard was Dean sing, Cause I don't have/ A life plan/ I just have/ This little band/ Simple songs/ With simple chords. And what they saw was one of the best young bands in America slaying.
But in Knoxville, on this godforsaken stage, Dean perhaps doesn’t want to play the part of knobby-kneed nerd heartthrob. He’s not working his guitar with his usual facility; he’s a few beats further behind Tom and Max than usual. He seems annoyed at himself, annoyed at the setup. He recoils inward. In response, Max, the onstage malcontent, bashes his drums harder. After one song ends, Max keeps going, alone, wailing on the snare with one stick and with all the frustration of every night spent away from home.
They’re good, and weird. They have some doting fans, and some serious press attention (NPR: “there's a dizzy little thrill in [Quarterbacks]”). But whatever deep reservoir one draws from to do this kind of thing, they don’t have. If Kobe Bryant and Bono are one side of the room—locked and loaded at all times and ready to kill—Quarterbacks are way, way on the other, huddled and laughing nervously among themselves.
Afterward, loading into the van in flustered silence, we peel out quick. Too quick: Max, in a rare appearance in the driver’s seat, accidentally rams the Odyssey into a parked car while backing out. The townies smoking cigarettes in front of the bar—bleached blonde dudes in tye-dye shirts and thin gold chains; the phrase “Tennessee tweakers” comes to mind—hop to attention in an eruption of oh shit oh shits.
Fuck. I think. Fuck. Are we in trouble?
Wait. No. The tweakers are cool. The tweakers are cool. They jump off to inspect the damage, and see none to report.
“Ahhh naaahh, ya’ll are chill,” they say. Then, “You should probably tell Chris, though.”
With this, Dean shakes off some of the bad mojo of the show, and gets back to his endearing droll self.
“Who is Chris? Is he as nice as you? Was he raised in a similar way?”
Quarterbacks and Dogbreth head back to a fan named Andy’s place, make spaghetti and salad, unroll the sleeping bags. Andy puts on Annie Hall, and we all pass out. A few hours later, before the sun rises, I tip-toe through the lightly snoring bodies and walk out the door and into an idling cab and I go to the airport and fly home.
A few weeks after Quarterbacks finishes their tour, I drive up to New Paltz. It’s a fertile and inviting little town with just the slight air of menace. At one point a chubby blond kid carrying his bike vertically, minus the front tire, passes me on the sidewalk. About ten feet behind are two or three of his brothers or cousins: all chubby, all blond and crew-cutted, all, it seems, vaguely capable of a stubborn evil.
Dean catches me up on everyone. Tom’s been working like 70 hours a week at a Japanese restaurant to save money for when he moves in with Leslie. Max is back at work at a health-food store, and has brightened up a bit. “He said he was happy that we’d gone out and done it,” Dean says, “and it made me feel really good because I’d been feeling really guilty.” Dean’s been watching a lot of late night Golden Girls on the Hallmark Channel.
I forget to tell Dean the nice thing that Max had told me on that first night in Atlanta: how the band worked because “we know that we love each other.”
In a few weeks, Dean will have moved to Bed-Stuy on a whim, and the band—the three-boy blowout—will effectively be over. Those last days I slept on living room floors with them, it would turn out, were also their last days. They’d clawed happily forward, fingers knuckle deep in the dirt. Now it was over, and there was peace. “Shouldn’t we stop dragging the band towards some Goal ??” Dean would email me. “What do we want that we don't have?” He was looking for work, he explained, although he wasn’t altogether putting down the guitar. On his own, he said, “It’s time now to write new songs.”
That day in New Paltz, though, we’d end up walking around town, past ancient Huguenot Street and the old crooked graveyard markers of Walloon Church. “It’s strange to think that leaving New Paltz would carry so much weight,” he’d say. “People are always coming and leaving. People do it all the time.” We talked a lot about the summer shows.
“As modest as some people may view it,” he said, he’d “never imagined” something like the tour. We talked a lot about what they’d accomplished, what makes him feel proud when he looks back.
“This is like, off the record. I mean, not really,” Dean said. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to have this on my tombstone.
“This is what I think about a lot when I see a band. I… I see them ripping and I think, ‘This band can play whatever they want. They know all the chords. This is conscious.’ Whereas with me, I’ve just so slowly developed. Personally, because of my own limitations musically, and not really being too talented and smart…”
He trails off. I think what he’s trying to say is, he did the best that he could.
“That’s part of our success. My sort of limited imagination for possibility.”