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Chapel Hill, N.C.: The new Seattle?

Chapel Hill, N.C.: The new Seattle? — The college town has caught the attention of the music industry with bands like Superchunk and Dillon Fence delivering a ”fast, dirty pop” sound

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The next Seattle? For months, music fans and record-company execs have been searching for another town to crown as the alternative-rock capital of the U.S., now that so many feel the Puget Sound city has grown passé. Plenty of places, including Norman, Okla., Portland, Ore., and Brooklyn have been very eager to oblige, but it’s the sleepy college burg of Chapel Hill, N.C., that has caught the fancy of the music world, including rockers themselves. Chapel Hill has all the right stuff — a large (24,000) student population, a humming network of clubs, and a bunch of indie labels — to support evolving rock life forms. Sonic Youth, the current top knockers of alternative music, have even included a song called ”Chapel Hill” on their latest album, Dirty.

Chapel Hill likes to call itself ”the Southern part of heaven,” and its quaint downtown and the bucolic campus of the University of North Carolina support the idyllic image. Like many college towns, there’s an easy mix of frat rats and longhairs, as well as an aura of Slackerville, with ex-students working at odd jobs around town in a kind of endless adolescence. Everyone is unfailingly polite, even the skinheads panhandling outside the drugstore.

But at night, a far more energetic local scene jumps to life. Venues like the tiny Hardback Cafe and the cavernous Cat’s Cradle pack in rock fans who come to hear dozens of local groups, ranging from the beachy-pop Dillon Fence to the high-powered, on-the-brink-of-stardom favorites, Superchunk. There’s no one distinctive sound, as there is with Seattle’s grunge, although many bands share a refreshing abrasiveness. ”To the extent that there is a sound,” says Jim Desmond, music critic for a local alternative weekly, The Independent, ”it’s fast, dirty pop.”

In fact, the Triangle region (Chapel Hill and nearby Raleigh and Durham), is a fertile crescent where a variety of sounds are thriving, and its groups form a very motley crew. Some of the hottest:

· Superchunk is a noisy band that plays superpower-pop by blowing melodies out of the water into a stinging spray. When it toured England last spring, Superchunk gained added cachet by being featured on the cover of the British weekly New Musical Express, but the group and its lead singer, Mac McCaughan, seem genuinely indifferent to mainstream success, despite interest from major labels.

· Dillon Fence, led by Greg Humphreys, are the pure-pop grandkids of the Beach Boys and the region’s hardest-working band, playing at colleges and small clubs around the South.

· Polvo, whose name means ”dust” in Spanish, features detuned guitars that echo Sonic Youth.

· Metal Flake Mother delivers surreal, slow-motion rock.

Fueling the Chapel Hill movement are the highly regarded radio station WXYC, which slips a cut by a local band like Small in between songs by Jesus Lizard and Eugenius, and several local labels. Mammoth, founded in 1988, recently signed a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, allowing its bigger acts — Dillon Fence and Boston’s Juliana Hatfield — to move more smoothly to the big time.

”It’s a great, developing scene,” says Andrew Peterson, whose label, Moist/Baited Breath, organized last August’s Big Record Stardom Convention, drawing 50 area bands as well as attention from big labels and the national press.

Despite that event’s grandiose billing, however, Peterson himself is one of several music types trying to downplay the growing hype about the region. ”It’s really hot,” says Mammoth’s chief, Jay Faires, ”but this ‘next Seattle’ thing is the kiss of death — we don’t want to be the buzz town of the year.”

It’s easy to see why Chapel Hill rockers are already a bit buzz-shy. Superchunk’s McCaughan currently has it made: a steady part-time job in a record store and the adulation of the locals. And the band rehearses in a farmhouse in the country where they can practice without bothering anyone. Why would they want to sign with a major label and get treated like just another alternative-rock band? ”Maybe when our contract is up with Matador (which will release the band’s new album, On the Mouth, this month), we’ll just put our albums out on our own label,” McCaughan says with a shrug.

But if Chapel Hill is so great, why does the soft-spoken McCaughan sound so angry in snarling lyrics to songs like ”My Noise”? ”Noisy music is more fun to play,” he says. ”This may be a beautiful place to live, but everyone’s got their problems.”