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Creators of N.C.

Restless Musical Energy

The moving sound of Beta Radio

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

Ben Mabry, lead singer of the Wilmington-based, two-man band Beta Radio, was 8 years old the first time he was moved by music.

“My mom gave me this old tape from my aunt’s church,” he says. “And it was some kind of gospel. I don’t even remember the name of it, but I remember feeling the movements of the music and just knowing something was happening inside me.”

That something kept happening to Ben, whether it was in response to Christian music, Pearl Jam or the classic rock he listened to with his dad. As a teenager, while attending summer camp in the mountains, he met someone who responded to music the same way. It was Brent Holloman, a fellow Wilmingtonian Ben had never met before.

“I remember Ben being this funny prankster,” Brent says, cracking a smile while recalling their time at camp. “He would carry around a spray bottle and walk up behind people, fake a sneeze and then spray their necks.”

“I just thought you were cool because you could play ‘Stairway to Heaven,’” Ben says. He laughs. “Brent was the first person I knew who was really good at guitar.”

We’re standing in their studio high up in the art deco Murchison Building in downtown Wilmington. The room’s windows peer out on a gray day during a fall holiday weekend. Guitars and banjos are resting in their racks along one wall; a drum kit is set up nearby. Everywhere you look are scribbled scratches of songs, mementos fans have sent, boxes of tea and snacks: the detritus of two old friends who’ve spent long hours making music together.

After their friendship formed at summer camp, it continued when they returned home to Wilmington, and they began playing music together, with Brent joining Ben’s band on bass. The band was all electric guitars and drums, but after practice Ben and Brent would get together to play acoustic, realizing their shared love for artists like Simon & Garfunkel. Nearly two decades later, Beta Radio is still primarily an acoustic guitar band, and with nine albums to their name and hundreds of millions of streams across various music platforms under their belt, it’s safe to say they are now the ones moving others with their music.

Over the years, American Songwriter has claimed the band is “evoking serenity” with “orchestral experimentation” to “emit an incandescent optimism,” and The Vogue has written that their “lyrics and music carve out a space in your head and find a way to fit into your own cosmology.” The praise is both heady and ethereal, much like the band’s previous albums, many of which are dominated by a gorgeous, yet restless, musical energy and lyrics that never quite settle on answers. That sense of struggle reflects the years of spiritual yearning Ben experienced as a younger man searching for answers during time in college and the military, and later during travels through Peru, Hawaii, Costa Rica and the desert Southwest. He was writing lyrics the whole time.

“I think it was 2009 when he went to Hawaii and ended up getting inspired by something there,” Brent says. “He’d send me these a cappella voice memos of songs, and I would write the guitar parts. And then I went to Ireland and picked up the banjo, and when I came back we started adding banjo to a few of the songs. Soon we had five or six songs, and we thought, ‘Hey, these are pretty good. Maybe we should record them.’ And by the time we got into a studio we had seven or eight.”

And then the real work began. The newly minted Beta Radio had official letterhead made, and they spent hours packaging CDs of their debut album, Seven Sisters, and sending them off to music blogs and magazines, hoping for reviews. They also submitted songs to the new streaming services, at the time dominated by Pandora, with Spotify’s reign soon to come.

“Friends were telling us, ‘Hey, I heard your song the other day on some coffeehouse playlist,’” Brent, says. “And other people were saying, ‘I heard you on the Mumford & Sons channel.’”

People weren’t just listening to Beta Radio on streaming services; they were hearing the band and immediately downloading its album.

Over the next 10 years, Beta Radio released follow-up albums at a steady clip, all of them bolstered by the millions and millions of times its songs were listened to on streaming services. Most bands have to tour voraciously in support of their records, but Beta Radio was able to stay home, working on new music.

As the pandemic emerged in 2020, the band began writing and recording the songs that would end up on 2021’s Year of Love. Once the world went into lockdown, Ben’s geographic searching came to a standstill and forced him to investigate exactly what it was that he’d been looking for. The songs on that album are mystical explorations of various forms of love, the music often swelling into sonic walls of strings and guitars, marked by gorgeous, ethereal lines like “In my soul, there’s something I want to say.” These lyrics open the album, and they set the tone for its themes of the intangibility of love and the many ways we search for it while struggling to find the language to express it.

If Year of Love is about searching for something — language, answers, love — 2024’s Waiting for the End to Come is about finding it. The songs feel urgent, tactile, narrative-driven and grounded in a physical space. This album marks the first time Ben and Brent have co-written songs with others, and the experience of spending time in Nashville and sharing ideas with fellow songwriters brought them closer while elevating what they could do musically. The two kids from Wilmington who’d been moved by music found themselves moved once again.

“There’s just no other way to say it: I began to vibrate,” Ben says of those days writing songs with Brent and others in Nashville. “Just like that guitar would if I were to strum it; I was vibrating because I was the energy.”

“That whole week flew by,” Brent adds, “and it was like we were living on a high. It was the first time we co-wrote with other people, and it was the first time we were writing songs this quickly.”

One song birthed from the co-writing experience is “This One’s Going to Hurt,” which will be released as the album’s first single this month. The line itself was written by a co-writer named Henry Brill, and its honesty and directness struck Ben.

“I would never write that line,” he says, “but I love it because it’s an admission, it’s an acknowledgement. And in all the prior stuff — Year of Love, for example — so much of the music up to now was me knowing that I had something to say but being afraid to fully say it.”

The three of us have left their studio space and taken the elevator down to Front Street. We’re sitting at a table inside Drift Coffee, where Ben and Brent regularly drop in for coffee during the week.

I wonder if the people around us, most of them young hipsters wearing headphones and ear buds and no doubt streaming music, would be shocked to learn that a band who’s part of their regular streaming rotation is sitting so close by.

As our conversation wraps up, I say goodbye and make my way back to the counter for a refill to-go. I happen to know the barista, so I tell him who I’ve been sitting with for the past hour.

“Those guys are in Beta Radio?” he says. “Brent and Ben? They come in here all the time. I had no idea. I love that band.”

Another person, moved by the music.  OH

Wiley Cash is the executive director of Literary Arts at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the founder of This Is Working, an online community for writers.