The Pinhook was just filling up when the Friday night headline band took the stage. People immediately left their bar stools to stand closer to the blue spotlights at the back of the venue where the stage, and the band on it, was located. By the end of the Roman Spring’s first song, the audience was dancing and clapping to the mellow–yet catchy–Americana beat. The crowd cheered when guitarist Sam Clowney finished his first solo.
“That’s my boss!” called a student clad in a Duke hat.
In addition to being part of the band the Roman Spring, Clowney, along with bassist and vocalist Rob Clay, are the owners of Duke’s very own Bella Union, the campus café atop Pitchforks. Clowney and Clay’s rather prolific musical careers began long before they met and much before they started working at Bella. Starting in the 1990s, the then 20-somethings began playing with a variety of bands, performing across the South, Midwest and East Coast.
Clay played bass for Cravin Melon, a Clemson-based rock band as well as Evan and Jaron, a pop-rock duo. And even if you’re not familiar with either of those bands, you’ve probably heard of Train and Matchbox 20, both of whom opened for Clay in years past. Clowney, similarly, played with the Veldt, a Raleigh-based pop rock band. Both Cravin Melon and the Veldt were signed to Mercury Records–the same label that signed Bon Jovi and Kiss. Needless to say, these guys know music.
After either growing-up (Clay) or going to school in the Triangle Area (Clowney at NC State), it was inevitable that the two musicians would bump into each other, especially in the midst of the booming music scene found in the triangle in the 90s. And so they met through mutual friends.
“Everybody kind of knew everybody,” Clowney said.
“[The venues] were packed. You couldn’t get into the rooms. It was like a college celebration you see on TV.”
According to Clay, the local triangle music scene was much bigger then than it is today.
“In Chapel Hill, Thursday, Friday, Saturday night there would be at least five bands on campus playing,” Clay said. “[The venues] were packed. You couldn’t get into the rooms. It was like a college celebration you see on TV.”
Clowney added that other towns in North Carolina, like Raleigh, Asheville and Greensboro also had a variety of thriving music venues.
Once the duo realized their shared music influences and interests, Clay and Clowney decided to start their own rock band, Parklife. At first it was just a side project, but quickly progressed into their main gig.
“We’d work here until Wednesday and then Thursday or Friday got to New York, play shows for the night. Come back [down] and do it again.”
“It was like the greatest time ever,” Clowney said. “We were in our mid-twenties. We had been in successful rock bands and we were starting our own.”
It was also around this time that Clowney and Clay started working part-time at Bella. “We’d work here until Wednesday and then Thursday or Friday got to New York, play shows for the night. Come back [down] and do it again,” Clay said.
A black and white photo in a corner of the café shows the two young men, with long hair and blazers, the bottom of the picture emblazoned with “Bella Union.”
The iconic decor of Bella took off from there. Since their jetting up and down the coast, they have decorated the café with photos and posters of their favorite bands, including Dillon Fence, which Scott Carle, the drummer of the Roman Spring and part-time Bella employee, used to play for.
Parklife released an album in 2003 and an EP in 2006. “We got a little industry buzz and it sort of took us to a different level,” Clowney said.
“I remember talking to a Duke student who had gone to see Radiohead.” Clowney said. “He said he didn’t like it because it wasn’t like the record–it was different. And I was like, ‘Well, that’s the great thing about live music.’”
However, when the album was release in the early 2000s, the music industry was just beginning its rapid revolution to the digital. According to Clowney, with the rise of free music through sites like YouTube, Napster and Spotify, records sales declined rapidly and local music venues started closing.
“I remember talking to a Duke student who had gone to see Radiohead,” Clowney said. “He said he didn’t like it because it wasn’t like the record–it was different. And I was like, ‘Well, that’s the great thign about live music.'”
Clowney said songs that used to be created in a recording studio can now be made by anyone with a laptop. Caught in the turn of an industry, Clowney and Clay decided to end Parklife.
“We got the end of our term and we had the option to continue and we decided we were burnt out,” Clowney said.
Instead, their on-campus restaurant presence grew. Clowney and Clay bought Bella in 2006. Now, between Clowney, Clay and chef Chris Holloway (also a musician), they own Bella Union, Café Edens, Dolce De Vita, Café de Novo and three venues in West Union.
That’s not to say that music was completely over for them either though. After Parklife, Clowney and Clay would still play the occasional gig in the area. The two joined the Raleigh-based, five piece band, the Roman Spring, last year and now, the Roman Spring has released a few songs and is working on an EP.
Their performance at the Pinhook was one of the Roman Spring’s many upcoming performances, including an appearance at Oak City Sessions, a monthly music television show based in Raleigh, in April.
The Roman Spring’s music is more laid-back than the energetic rock that Clowney and Clay used to perform, but one thing has stayed the same throughout their musical evolutions — their desire for Duke students to see their shows.
“Even when Parklife was popular locally, we just could not get the Duke kids to come see us, especially off campus,” Clowney said.
Now, it looks like Duke students are getting a second chance to see their local café owners doing what they love.
Writer: Diana Joseph
Editors: Vivian Zhang and Emilie Padgett
Photo Creds: Diana Joseph
Web: Ali Huang