One night a year it is perceived socially acceptable to release our inner freaks from their cages. As children we dress up in costumes and go knocking from door to door, shouting “trick-or-treat” whenever someone appears with candy. When we are thrust into adulthood, our perception of Halloween tends to warp a bit, but costumes are still a must as is celebrating a night of indulgence. With good friends aplenty, a few cups of poison, horror movies galore, and chilling live music, the empty warehouse of Space 13 will transform into an ultimate ZombieFest, thanks to rockabilly band The Phantom Playboys.

Southern Culture on the Skids. Courtesy photo

Founded in 2009, ZombieFest took off thanks to the vision of the Playboys, including lead frontman and saxophonist known simply as “the Phantom,” Jake ‘Hot Rod’ Horton on the screamin’ guitar, Jones “Jonesy” Smith on the slappin’ dog-house bass, “Jungle Jim” Kaylis on the drums, and Maaike Brender À Brandis on the trombone. They have welcomed renowned acts to take over the space each year, including nationally known msuician Dex Romweber, and local groups like the Barnraisers and Carvers. This year the spook rock of Deadly Lo-Fi returns, along with headliners Southern Culture on the Skids.

“We’ve had some great ZombieFests but it falling on Halloween [for 2014] is proper,” Brender says. “Plus, having a big name band like Southern Culture on the Skids will surely provide a great turnout. One year there was a hurricane blowing through and turnout was still great!”

Coinciding with the live music, local and regional craft beer will pour from the taps. Chef Tony will cater the food, and funds from beer sales will support Step Up For Soldiers—a nonprofit that benefits recently disabled veterans. As always, the costume contest returns with one lucky winner leaving $100 richer. In previous years, standout costumes ranged from Doug Selfe as Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” to Jamie Clayton as Skeletor, to Tony Ronca as The Jagerbomber.

The Phantom Playboys have define amped-up ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, which always blows out the good-time meter measuring every show. “We’re a very close band, a family,” Brender says,
“and the audience really gets that feel from experiencing our our performance.” Musical influences run the gamut, as the band loves Elvis Presley, The Stray Cats, Reverend Horton Heat, Robert Gordon, Johnny Burnette, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and especially Southern Culture on the Skids. They even have played with Southern Culture numerous times over the years.

“We’ve really refined our sound” Brender says. “We have a very dynamic stage presence. Slower tempo songs are very driving and moody, and at times very sensual. Upbeat faster rock ‘n’ roll songs are very danceable and energetic.”

The Playboys will be promoting their recent album, “Baby Likes Booze,” which they released with an in-house show at Gravity Records last spring. They even produced the record with the help of Rick Miller, frontman for Southern Culture on the Skids. They recorded it at his studio, Kudzu Ranch Records, in Chapel Hill last winter.

“We were incredibly pleased at how the recording and mixing went with him,” Brender explains. “He put additional guitar tracks on a couple of the songs. Both of our bands have a similar quirky stage show that engulfs the audience. We wanted to get Southern Culture on the bill because they’ve got a great sound for the event.”

Influenced by his childhood upbringing in Henderson, NC, Miller remembers how the only AM radio station in town would play soul music and R&B, mixed with rock ‘n’ roll and country. It made him appreciate a variety of genres, all of which are reflected in the band’s style. Miller first established Southern Culture on Skids in graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill in 1984. Though his original members quit upon graduation, Miller (guitar/vocals) still found success with Mary Huss on bass and Dave Hartman on drums.

For more than a decade, they’ve churned out music across 12 albums. Miller mostly wrote all of the band’s songs, while Hartman and Huss refined harmony and arrangements. And they’ve worked with the same booking agent for 20 years—based completely on a handshake. “We have a good accountant and a good lawyer,” Miller says. “That is all you need—aside from a reliable running van.”

After working with several labels, in ‘99 the frontman opened his studio, Kudzu Records. He also started to take control of the band’s entire enterprise: the producing, banking, accounting, and managing.

“I think a lot of problems arise when you have third parties making crucial decisions for your band,” he says. “If they start telling you what to do, you lose interest. I think that contributes to a lot of breakups in bands, and we’ve gotten around that by working to take control of it. It’s a lot of work, but it keeps us going.”

Needless to say, they’ve continued to grow in their 32-year history. Lyrics come from everyday people and places that have inspired Miller along the way. They’ve even received attention from Hollywood, as songs like “Liquored up and Lacquered Down” appeared in “Miss Congeniality,” with “Soul City” in “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Pass the Hatchet and Cheap Motels” in “Super Troopers,” and “Strangest Ways” in “I Know What You Did Last Summer”—the latter which the band appeared in as well.

“We’ve always had a punk-rock, do-it-yourself work ethic,” Miller explains. “Some of our songs have that edginess of punk rockers, even though we’re much more influenced by older genres like rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, and rhythm and blues.”

With a new album coming out in January, “Party at My Trouse,” the band will take on dance-club beats that reverberate beatnik vibes—a very different sound than they’re typically associated with. The album is a collaboration with Fred Schneider of the B-52’s  and includes DJ remixes.

“Raise Your Freak Flag High” is one of Miller’s favorites from the album. In fact, he was inspired to record it after performing at his son’s elementary school.

“It’s got a real upbeat vibe with a surf beat on the drums,” Miller explains. “It’s very danceable and has a nice melody. The kids loved it.”

However, the band plans to leave songs from their new album a surprise for its later release date. They will stick to playing well-known tunes at ZombieFest. A mix from their previous and most recent albums, “Zombiefied” (2011, Kudzu Records) and “Mondo Zombie Boogaloo” (2013, Kudzu Records), will be familiar to fans—especially the finger-lickin’ love of “8 Piece Box.”

“Sometimes we get fans to eat chicken onstage while we play the song,” Miller says. “It’s a Southern thing. Food is a big part of who we are, and we like to celebrate that fact in song and dance.”

Though the band is known for their funky style, concert-goers will be able to see them take it one step further as they dress up for the party. “Halloween is definitely our favorite holiday as a band,” Miller says. “We’ve got plenty of spooky songs. There are a lot of freaks out there that I’m very proud are our fans.”

ZombieFest is a no-kid zone; ages 21 and up can attend. It is strictly a cash-only event. Doors open at 6 p.m. with a $15 cover. Deadly Lo-Fi takes the stage at 8 p.m., the Phantom Playboys at 9 p.m., and Southern Culture on the Skids will rein in the finale at 10 p.m. Though ZombieFest hosted up to seven bands in previous years, Brender makes it clear the Phantom Playboys are focusing more on quality rather than quantity in 2014. “At this point, ZombieFest is a well-oiled machine,” she says.

“One thing we’ve learned is to keep very, very low expectations,” Miller says. “Wilmington’s a good town for us and for the Playboys, so I’m sure there’ll be a lot of fans. And wherever there are a lot of fans, we seem to have a lot of fun. Plus, it’s hard to have a bad Halloween show.”



October 31, 6 p.m. doors;
8 p.m. show
Tickets $15 at door
Featuring Deadly Lo-Fi, The Phantom Playboys, Southern Culture on the Skids
Space 13, 1827 Burnett Blvd.

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