They fought ninjas at Amos' Southend. They experimented with bubbles at Hartigans. They hung glow-in-the-dark records from the ceiling of the Evening Muse. They've tried a variety of lighting rigs to set different moods. And, most importantly, if the music's good, it's not a gimmick. Grown Up Avenger Stuff simply enjoys doing whatever they can to make it a great show. And it works — most of the time.
For six years, the Charlotte-based rock band has been growing and maturing as a quartet. They've undergone a few lineup changes and ended up at what is now a family band of sorts — father/guitarist John Thomsen, and his two sons, bassist Hunter and drummer Tyler, along with singer Deirdre Kroener. As they work to finish an upcoming release — not sure if it will be an EP or full-length album — they're also hitting the road, including a show on Sept. 19 at the Visulite Theatre and a tour of Europe in October. Some of the band's success can be attributed to the support that's started right here at home.
"Part of it is having fans in Charlotte that moved away and wanted us to go there," John Thomsen says about the band's steady touring schedule that's taken them to 27 states and Canada. "We've been a band for six years, so you get excited about going to new places when you have time to plan a nice little indie tour."
Familiarity is something that plays into the band's favor because, as Thomsen notes, Grown Up Avenger Stuff doesn't have a name that readily tells people what kind of music it plays. While some people assume they sing about comic books, others expect metal or something akin to Rage Against the Machine. Instead, it's more of an indie-infused heavy rock that finds influence from bands like Incubus and Rage as well as Kroener's folk-centric upbringing.
The band's three albums — Disagreements with Gravity, Alive and Sparkleton — showcase a consistent sound with an underlying maturity heard through the lyrical content and range of musical accompaniment from mellow to thrashing, melodic to thunderous.
In 2014, Tyler was given a deserved Best of Charlotte award for best drummer — his cacophony of skins and cymbals is easy to see behind his turned-to-the-side drumkit.
"I always liked it, because that's how it looked to us in practice," John says of the position of the drums. "We figured if people could see what we were seeing, they might like it a lot more. When you have a drummer that's interesting, they should be seen."
And visuals are often on the band's mind. Whether it's music videos or stage performances. They brainstorm ideas on a regular basis and though most of them work well, there are some which are better left on the drawing-room floor.
The records that hung from the ceiling of the Muse remain a band favorite. It was easy to do in a smaller venue and set an artistic tone for the night. That time they tried to use glow-in-the-dark bubbles — not as successful.
"We were on a dark stage," Kroener says. "The mic stand was in the path of the bubbles and no one was paying attention. Bubbles were just hitting it and splattering on the floor. It made a giant pile of puke-looking stuff. That definitely wasn't the effect we were going for."
Grown Up Avenger Stuff has come a long way. Musically, the band isn't opposed to trying new things. Some songs only appear on albums, others are only played live. They're aware of how everything they do is presented — if a song will work in concert, or if it might only be played at an acoustic gig. How much should they tease that new video through social media before it's released? What visual aspects can they bring to a show to make it more dynamic and appealing to watch?
"The more that you play — touring, playing shows — you end up being directed by what audiences like and avoiding things that audiences don't like," John says. "I think there are bands that don't care. We like when the audience is having a great time, so that's what we gravitate toward. A lot of our performance is honed to what works with an audience, but we still do our own thing."
It wasn't always that way. One of the first gigs I saw them play was at The Milestone and Kroener looked uncomfortable as she sang. Maybe not uncomfortable — shy is a better word.
"I was in a band as a teenager, but we just played house parties. It was years later that I went on stage with Grown Up Avenger Stuff and I was overly concerned that I didn't want to do anything that was off-putting. I didn't want to make any eye contact with someone," she says. "I wanted to be humble. I honestly questioned whether I should be up there sometimes — is it good enough? At some point, I stopped thinking about that and started feeling that this is what I'm doing with my life. I want to have fun and express myself. If someone doesn't like me, that's their problem. It's not about pleasing everybody. It's about creating something that you're proud of."
These days, Kroener leaps off the drum riser and makes punny jokes while her bandmates tune. She's clearly more comfortable. It's a far cry from the woman who used to make some spare cash singing in the virtual world of Second Life while living in Seattle. She tried to do that when she moved to Charlotte, but her computer didn't work. Instead, she posted a MySpace profile with the name "I need a band." That's how she met John.
Growing up around folk music, Kroener sang some songs for Thomsen, only knowing she wanted to do something different. Now, she's finally found it.
"I used to work with musicians around town who would say, 'You're great, but I don't want to be in a band fronted by a woman because people won't pay attention to us anymore,'" she says. "John was willing to take a chance. It's the second time — after Second Life — where I've found a supportive environment to sing."
Getting past the stage fright was just one hurdle in the band's history that was overcome simply through performing and time on stage. For a lot of bands, there's no other way to do it. At the same time, three family members have an advantage of familiarity, too, and, these days, Kroener feels like a member of the family.
Tyler and Hunter, ages 24 and 21 respectively, were always around when John would practice in their younger days, so it made sense to have them join the band when other members didn't work out. Also, as John admits, it helps that they're talented musicians.
"There's a connection you have musically that isn't there with people you aren't related to," John says. "You take it for granted when you're playing around the house, but it makes a difference when you're on stage. There are times on stage when something goes wrong, but it's ok because we know how each other will react and what will happen. With Deirdre, it feels like family, too. She commits to the music so much."