This Saturday, one of Memphis' most underrated bands in recent memory will celebrate their 20th year with a reunion concert at the Levitt Shell. In their heyday, the Subteens were one of the biggest draws in town, but for a myriad of reasons, both personal and professional, they eventually fizzled out, unceremoniously leaving behind a legacy of two rock-solid albums and a host of "Do you remember when?" memories for those who were lucky enough to catch one of the band's frenetic live shows.
I first saw the Subteens in 1996 at either Bartlett Park or at a club on Highland, I can't remember which came first. The group's sound hadn't fully evolved into what I think of as "the Subteens" at that time. It was a bit more polished and "college rock-y" back then.
"I was influenced by British punk bands like the Jam and the Sex Pistols, and Kram (Mark Akin) was influenced by punk bands and AC/DC," Jay Hines, the group's bass player from 1995-2002, and again briefly in 2007, says.
"Sean (Lee, the original drummer) was more into bands like the Church and Buffalo Tom. The common denominator for all three of us was the Replacements."
A string of temporary and fill-in drummers followed as Hines and Akin honed their songwriting and started to attract a following. But the pieces never quite fit together perfectly until the emergence of a new, permanent drummer came in 1999 — longtime Memphis music veteran John "Bubba" Bonds.
"I'd like to think I helped them get things together, but it was an easy band to join," Bonds says. "Most of the songs were already written. They just needed a drummer."
"[Bonds] was literally like a god in my eyes," Akin says. "In my mind he was a rock star. He said, 'I'll play with you, Subteens,' and Jay and I looked at each other like, 'Holy shit, really?'"
Almost instantly, the newly solidified trio was holed up at Robbie Pickens' studio NuStar Audio, cutting the tracks for what would become the band's debut, Burn Your Cardigan.
"I had played one show and had exactly one practice with the band before they called me up to record the album," Bonds says. "I think we did all the drum tracks in about three hours."
Say what you will about So That's What the Kids Are Calling It being a better-sounding or more cohesive album. For my money, Burn Your Cardigan is the definitive Subteens statement.
"I'm proud of it. We worked our asses off on that record, and I think it holds up pretty well," Hines says.
Of course, Burn Your Cardigan attracted more than just my attention. Rave national reviews soon followed in Billboard and in CMJ, and the band toured the U.S. extensively. By 2000, the Subteens were one of the biggest bands in Memphis. It was around that time that they added a fourth member, Terrence Bishop, on second guitar.
"Terrence used to hang out with us all the time. He would road-trip it with us and just sort of be around," Akin says. "I really, really wanted a second guitar player in the band. It just sort of hit me — why don't we ask him? The whole thing took like two minutes."
The Subteens played as a quartet for roughly two years. Bishop took some of the pressure of playing guitar off of Akin, which freed him up to be an even more dynamic bandleader. Unfortunately, the four-piece line-up was to be short-lived. Hines quite the band in 2002.
"I'd finished grad school, gotten a real job, and my wife and I had had our first baby," he says. "The Subteens had been plugging away for seven years and it was time for me to make a decision. I could keep stumbling home at three in the morning, smelling like a greasy ashtray, or I could be a responsible husband and dad. No choice, really."
Another factor in Hines' decision was Akin's growing drug problem.
"I was really starting to party a lot, and I think he didn't like being around it, understandably," Akin says. "Some things got easier, like traveling and practicing. No one in the band had a real job, so we could all basically do whatever we wanted. We definitely travelled more, but without Jay to keep us centered, we sort of came off the rails a little."
Two years after Hines' departure (which led to Bishop's switching over to bass), the band was effectively done. Yes, they released So That's What the Kids Are Calling It in 2004, but the spark was gone. The band had blown several big opportunities, including a European tour, and Akin started not showing up for gigs. The Subteens, more or less, just disappeared.
"Bubba and Terrence got sick of it, so they quit," Akin says. "That's pretty much it. I think those guys would have pretty much put up with anything except flaking on gigs."
In 2007, the band started doing the occasional reunion show, once with Hines on bass, other times with Bishop.
None of those mostly one-off reunions lasted very long, which brings us to the present. The Subteens are celebrating 20 years of history together. Bishop won't be there because of scheduling conflicts, but the trio of Akin, Hines, and Bonds will suffice.
"I feel so ridiculously lucky," says Akin, who is now drug-free and has been for several years. "If people keep coming, we'll keep playing."
The Subteens and the Secret Service at the Levitt Shell, Saturday, October 10th at 7 p.m. Admission is free.