When we caught local Christmas band the Silver Bells last year, it wasn't in the setting you'd expect. No Christmas trees, no twinkling lights, and there wasn't a sweater in sight. Instead, there were tank tops, palm trees, and an ocean breeze — that's because we found ourselves at a kitschy mid-summer Christmas party at Jack of Cups Saloon on Folly Beach. Under normal circumstances, the thought of listening to holiday tunes outside of the season is enough to make even the jolliest of us feel a bit unwell, but the music of the Silver Bells is decidedly different.
Rather than attempting to regale the crowds with traditional holiday standards, founder and frontman Nicholas Doyle has written a collection of Christmas originals that tell real, personal stories. And they really rock — all year 'round. "There's no Jesus in there," Doyle says. "But it's all about the important stuff like making out and being sad and getting presents — all the important stuff about the holidays. It's still Christmas-specific but not at all religious."
The only track on the LP It's Christmas, Everybody! that didn't evolve somehow from a personal experience is "Letter from Mrs. Claus." As a result, many of the songs do take on a more somber tone, and the album runs the gamut of emotions one can experience during the holidays — all of which is evidenced in titles like the hooky and hopeful, "Can We Stay Together Through New Year's Eve?," the upbeat if malcontented track about an ex, "Santa Doesn't Care About You," and even the entirely fictional but melancholy "Letter from Mrs. Claus" ("You left me alone on Christmas Eve/ And you took all the presents, you never make for me/ You fill up the stockings all over the world/ But I still remember when you called me your girl/ Please come home for Christmas").
"Another New Year's Day" is Doyle's most recent composition and one that is still emotional for him. When performing it, he has to clear his head and try to think of nothing — or anything other than what the song's really about. "My wife's mother passed away last year, and I wrote that after that. So it's an actual song and not a novelty," he says.
Other tracks like "How Do You Forward Your Mail (From the North Pole)?," written by Doyle and his wife, Brooke Pennell, are rooted in truth but take on a silly and cheerful twist. "We wrote that one after we moved here," Doyle says. "It was just about moving to a new place and still wanting your stuff." The worry over whether Santa will somehow find them and deliver their presents is palpable in the chorus: "How will he know it? Will he care? Will he show up to my house when I'm not there? What does it matter — am I too old?"
There's also the relatable "Poor Excuse (Merry Christmas)" about being super broke during the holidays. And "Can We Stay Together Through New Year's Eve?," with its all-enveloping melodies, acknowledges the facts of life — getting older and losing close friends who move away.
In 2004, Doyle wrote "I Wanna Love You for Christmas." He had just started dating Pennell, but it's not merely the sentiment that stands out to him now. "I wrote it the week of the election, and the line, 'This has been a hell of a week,' is about Bush winning. I don't know what in the world possessed me to put that in a Christmas song," he laughs.
Though Doyle claims to be the only person on the planet who loves Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," he admits he normally loathes Christmas music. "I don't like the cash-in Christmas music thing," he says. "You know, 'I don't know what to do right now, so let's just make a profit. We're Train — here's our Christmas record.'"
And at times, he can't bear to hear his own non-festive songs. "I've played non-Christmas songs in the past, and sometimes I can't stand the earnestness of some of my songs," Doyle says. "And then I'm like, well, if it's a Christmas band, whatever, that's easy — it's just a fun Christmas band. But then I realized it's actually about this thing that's happening, and I just kind of dressed it up in holiday wrapping paper."
After a successful Kickstarter campaign a year ago, It's Christmas, Everybody! was released on vinyl in April — yep, just in time for Easter — but it was in the making for about a decade. Back when Doyle lived in Virginia, a friend of his, Lee Harris, recorded original holiday songs with whoever wanted to stop by his home studio and make some noise. He'd then give out the mixed CD to friends for Christmas.
Doyle joined in for years and later copied the idea. "I would try to write a song a year, and it ended up being probably like every other year. We would just record them at my house or whatever," he says. "It was really about recording a single and sending it in an email to my friends, like, 'Here's this thing we did. Happy holidays.'"
But it wasn't until Doyle moved to Charleston that the Silver Bells, as the collaborative project it is today, began to take shape. He combined forces with the band's only other core member, guitarist Doug Thompson and, gradually, others joined in. Doyle says, "One of the cool things about Silver Bells is that it's always been an everybody's-invited kind of thing — anyone could join."
"It's a rotating cast of characters," Thompson adds.
In the beginning, that cast included Jump, Little Children's Evan and Matt Bivins. Once the Bivins moved to Chicago, drummer Stephen Young and bassist/vocalist Crystal Floyd got involved, and the Bells made their live debut at an old Cord & Pedal show. The band — in all its various forms — has performed at holiday shindigs ever since.
Though the spontaneity of the Silver Bells' lineup is what Doyle loves best about the band, when it came time to make It's Christmas, Everybody!, he envisioned something a little more consistent. "I kind of wanted to make a record because, A. I never had, and B. I sort of wanted to have a set band — and have other people add stuff — but I wanted the same person to play drums and I wanted to have the same person to play bass."
The album came together last year when Doyle met West Ashley's Ramshackle Studios producer Andy Dixon at a party and the two decided to collaborate. Six months later, they recorded with Burg on drums and Jonathan Gray (Jump Little Children) on upright bass. Bill Carson contributes banjo and guitar, Matt Bivins adds harmonica, Michael Flynn plays keys, and Nathan Kocci sent horn recordings from New York. And "drunken gang vocals" are thanks to Doyle, Thompson, J Chapa, Dixon and his wife, Julia Dixon, Lauren Jones, and Pennell.
As for a sophomore release, Doyle and Thompson reckon that — considering the pace of getting the first album out — they'll need to start now to have another record in 10 years. But that's OK. He's definitely going to keep writing.
For now, Doyle's having a good time performing these songs he's so proud of and that, despite the occasional grim undertone, bring local audiences so much joy every year. Despite the fact that he doesn't take himself too seriously, Doyle is still proud of what he's created. "I don't have any pretensions about any of it," he says. "It's a fun thing. It's a silly thing, and I'm completely on board with it being a silly and ridiculous thing."
Doyle's planned an intimate Silver Bells and Friends show at O'Hara & Flynn with Bill Carson and Evan Bivins sitting in. Carson will play a set of his favorite holiday music, and Rob Daniel will recite some Charles Dickens. Their "loud" show will be at the Tin Roof, where bassist Danny Infinger (Alswel) and drummer Ballard Lesemann (The Rock*A*Teens) will hold down the rhythm section. They'll also be joined by singer-songwriter Laura Jane Vincent and local five-piece, Meowy Catmas.