Secret Guest is a Charleston based rock band consisting of Brett Nash (guitar/lead vocals), Andrei Mihailovic (guitar), Michael Milam (drums), and Scott Dence (bass). Their sound is mostly dominated by fuzzed, heavy guitars and Nash’s precise enunciations and vocal delivery (a la Husker Du). The group started out as Nash’s own project with a rotating lineup of helping hands, but since their 2015 release Joker City, Secret Guest has become less of a clever moniker for Nash and more of a clear cut band. On top of that, they have become one of Charleston’s staple rock acts, from headlining their album release show at The Royal American to gracing the cover of the Charleston City Paper’s Music Awards issue this past October as Charleston’s “Punk Band of the Year” (you make the call on whether or not that is an apt categorization). “We’re just a very misunderstood jam band,” says Mihailovic.
While the citywide recognition did not start rolling in until the last couple of years, the members of Secret Guest have a long-standing basis in Charleston’s art/music community. At The College, Nash hosted a show at CisternYard Radio and Mihailovic appeared in CisternYard Video projects. And in just a few years the band’s members have seen drastic changes in Charleston’s culture.
“Starting around 2011, Charleston’s been becoming a global city. People are moving in like, forty people a day is the stat I heard. Meanwhile this is a peninsula built on landfill and there are historic preservation laws keeping from building up and accomodating all of these people on the peninsula,” says Mihailovic, who has lived in Charleston since he was five years old.
Those restrictions he mentioned have quickly seeped into the music community. “There’s this glass ceiling that we’ve reached. Because there’s a lot of really exciting things going on right now but it’s a question of how sustainable that will be in a place like this where obviously the size is limited and there’s the historical preservation laws,” says Milam. “And then there’s the focus on tourism where people aren’t necessarily coming to see original music–they want to see a painting of a palmetto tree.” Going from there, Mihailovic quoted comedian Andy Daly in that “‘the tourist goes to a place that gives him so much hope only to bring home a souvenir.’”
When asked about the future of Charleston’s independent music, Nash replied that “the best part of the Charleston music scene now is house shows.” The band cites local collective/venue Makeout Reef as having played a large role in expanding the city’s house show culture. That said, they have noticed that it is getting progressively harder to host house shows in a city with a noise ordinance.
“The problem with house shows is that when people move into a place that hosts shows, there’s only so long that you can do it. And people do get too old for it, eventually you want to move into a place that isn’t just a party all the time,” says Milam. “There’s always a demand for it, but it’s a question of whether people have someone to pass the torch to once they’re sick of it or they get shut down by the noise ordinance.”
Some of the members of Secret Guest have been in Charleston long enough to remember a time when house shows and venues for independent artists were not readily available.
“There was a place on Ashley Avenue that had most of the shows I went to but that got shut down and there was like this ice age of house shows, but then the Reef popped up and it’s coming back,” says Nash. According to the band, the house shows that Charleston sees now are much more controlled and tame than what used to take place. Mihailovic says that “the problem with the first house shows that were going on in our area was that people would just pee in the streets outside the house and it would attract rats.”
“And then the rats would try to play their music” says Milam.
We are at a point where the city needs to avoid another one of those aforementioned “ice ages” of house shows. Because in Charleston, without house shows we have little to no outlets for independent musicians, which will potentially stunt the cultivation of a larger arts community. It is no secret that Charleston’s community leaders are content with having the culture of the city encapsulated in a history book. It is not a place that is concerned with having an identity born later than 1865, or a sound that does not involve rehashed acoustic versions of “Wagon Wheel.” But that does not mean that the city’s long standing inhabitants or newcomers from other parts of South Carolina are not concerned with constructing some kind of cultural stamp on Charleston outside of those oil paintings of palmettos.
“Personally, with what I’ve seen on the news and what people tend to think of Charleston, I would not really want to be associated with this place right now. There’s Confederate monuments everywhere, the streets are named after monsters, we’re pushing out all of the poor people,” says Mihailovic. “But if we could make something good, and then have people say ‘did you know that those guys are from Charleston?’ that’d be cool.”
It’s easy to be disillusioned with Charleston and its arts community at times. It seems like the city is doing everything it can to smother independent artists who are really trying to put out something new and exciting. And while Secret Guest does fall in with those who are losing hope, they are still trying to make some kind of difference. Regardless, it is about time that people who think like them start to verbalize that and make an effort to incite some form of change. Because if not, we might miss the boat.
Be sure to look out for Secret Guest’s upcoming performance on CisternYard Media’s Take Away a Desk Series. Their newest EP Dry Jest is currently available on Spotify and Bandcamp. The band also has an upcoming show at The Royal American on November 17 with The Old Paints (Birmingham, AL) and Rob Hampton. And Andrei Mihailovic is calling for a global workers strike, you heard it here first.
Featured photo via The Post & Courier