Tim and Susan Lee Find New Ways to Have Fun in Garage-Rock Duo Bark

In Music Stories by Matthew Everettleave a COMMENT

Tim and Susan Bauer Lee were already among the hardest-working people in the Knoxville music scene when they built a rehearsal space for their band, the Tim Lee 3, in their basement. Two years later, what seemed at the time like a simple home-improvement project has led to a new band, new songs, new tours, and, sometime soon, a new album. And an entirely new creative focus.

After the new rehearsal space was finished, Tim bought a cheap drum kit so TL3 drummer Chris Bratta wouldn’t have to bring his set in and take it back out again for every practice. Within a few weeks, though, Susan had been inspired.

“It had been down there for about a month and I was like, aw, I should learn to play drums one day,” she says. “I started talking to Chris and he started writing out charts for me and teaching me to play, and then I was like, oh, I can do this! … It was almost the exact same way I started playing bass. I just woke up one day and said, ‘I want to learn to play bass.’ Tim got me a bass and I started playing. That was 13 years ago.”

For 10 years, the Tim Lee 3—Tim on guitar and vocals, Susan on bass and vocals, and Bratta—has been a mainstay of Knoxville’s rock community. They’ve released four full-length albums of smart, punchy, straight-ahead rock with big guitars and big hooks. The band has played at dozens of benefit shows and local festivals, and Tim and Susan have made guest appearances on albums by Todd Steed, Jeff Heiskell, Leslie Woods, Kevin Abernathy, Plainclothes Tracy, and many other notable local artists.

The band came about unexpectedly. As half of the indie/power-pop duo the Windbreakers, Tim had flirted with success on the college-rock circuit in the 1980s. But he’d been silent for a decade when he and Susan moved to Knoxville from Mississippi in 2000. Here, he picked the guitar back up and recorded a couple of low-key albums. When Susan took up the bass, the Tim Lee 3 was born.

The couple’s new project, Bark, features Tim on bass (well, Fender Bass VI, which is more like a bass than a guitar, strictly, but is functionally a little bit of both) and Susan behind the drums. Bark has offered them a new outlet; it’s a lo-fi post-punk garage-rock combo inspired by American blues and roots revisionists like the Cramps, the Gun Club, and R.L. Burnside, originally conceived as a side project.

“We’re going for that vibey, swampy thing,” Tim says. “Anything you can steal, wherever you can steal it from, you take it and put it in your thing.”

But the Lees don’t take half-steps, and Bark has gradually become a second almost-full-time-band. “Susan learning to play drums—it was really that simple,” Tim says.

At the same time that Bark is playing more live shows—they’re hitting Atlanta, Nashville, St. Louis, and Winston-Salem, N.C., this summer and early fall, with a slot for BlankFest on Market Square scheduled in late August—they’re also finishing the fifth Tim Lee 3 album, tentatively scheduled for release in October. After that, Tim and Susan will head into the studio for the first official Bark album. (They released an EP last year, but it was only available as a premium for the crowdfunding campaign that paid for the last TL3 record, 33 1/3.)

“The first record we did live in a day or a day and a half,” Tim says. “It was just the way to do it—knock it out, let’s get it done. Now, we’ll put more thought into it. We’ll futz around with it more, because we can.”

The way they describe their working relationship in Bark, it sounds like it would be harder for the Lees not to play together than to keep up their hectic schedule of local and out-of-town shows and recording sessions.

“We’ve been together our whole adult lives,” Tim says. “For us to get in a van and go somewhere, it just takes no thought. We go take the back roads, we’re not on anybody else’s schedule, we just go and drive—it’s so natural. The road work we’ve done so far with Bark, most of it’s been in Mississippi, where we both have family. So we’ve actually been able to climb in a van and go see family and then it’s like, oh, yeah, we’ve got to go load gear and play. It’s almost a vacation, in way.

“The Tim Lee 3 is not hard at all, but as easy as it is, this is easier. They’re both fun, but this is fun in different ways.”

Bark plays with New York punk-blues guitarist Johnny Azari, Will Fist, Karl Mountain, and Steve Gigante at Pilot Light (106 E. Jackson Ave.) on Sunday, July 10, at 6 p.m. Admission is $5. 18 and up. 

Photo Gallery: Barking Mad: Tim and Susan Lee Play Scruffy City Hall

Senior Editor Matthew Everett manages the Knoxville Mercury's arts & entertainment section, including the comprehensive calendar section—Knoxville’s go-to guide for everything worth doing in the area. You can reach Matthew at matthew@knoxmercury.com.

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