Cleveland-based duo mr. Gnome are a perfect example of the paradox of modern music. Listening to their albums before their show at the Nomad World Pub Sunday, my mind conjured images of sprawling stage shows and cult-sized bands like Arcade Fire, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and the Twin Cities’ Cloud Cult. What I found was real-life married couple Nicole Barille and Sam Meister, hanging out in the bar before the show, talking to patrons, and helping their crew set up their own merch table. They even took a few moments before the show to chat.
mr. Gnome are a band of the moment in the best way. They’ve taken full advantage of modern recording technology to forge massive fantasies that wouldn’t have been possible for even the most resourceful “band in a van” ten years ago. They release their music under their own label, El Marko Records, and have a hand in numerous other streams of media, producing their own music videos, artwork, and short films. They set an intimidating precedent for everyone wondering just how much creative freedom the Internet gives to those willing/able to harness its powers.
And then there’s that sound. Just as purists would love to separate twee pop from honest-to-God rock n’ roll for good, here comes a band equally comfortable with pounding drums and toy pianos. 2011’s Madness in Miniature found a sweet spot between blues, gospel, electronic psychaeldia, and full-on tabletop RPG geek fantasy. “There’s no turning back. The sky explodes,” Barille chirps sweetly during “Watch the City Sail Away.” The cover art, fittingly, looks like a post-apocalyptic Velveteen Rabbit.
That album got them labeled as a “band to watch” by Rolling Stone. Last November’s The Heart of a Dark Star, which the band is currently touring behind, is better in every relevant way.
An Empire Strikes Back-style sequel, Star doubles down on the success of its predecessor while also going much darker and expanding its mythical universe. Barille and Meister amped up the intimacy, recording from their Ohio home and finding whole new sonic palettes over years of experimentation. They also enlisted the help of Kevin McMahon, who worked on Swans’ The Seer and Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor, two albums high in the running for most dense and expansive all time.
As a result, a quiet, three minute interlude like “Sail Away” becomes the mythical five minute “Light,” a melodrama that treats the life and death of one small emotion like all the good stuff from Genesis and Revelation combined.
They rock harder this time too. “Star Stealers” could easily be the theme song to an as-yet-unproduced movie adaptation of Space Mountain (the roller coaster). “Rise and Shine” sounds like Jack White dropped acid and tried covering Of Monsters and Men. It’s got a whimsical “whoo doo doo” chorus, but undercut by a thudding, hard-rocking glee so carefree it almost feels like menace. We might be in Oz. We might also be in the head of a munchkin about to go postal.
Since Led Zeppelin first namedropped Tolkien, fantasy and rock have been inextricably linked. The bands touring the country today are all, on some level, following the examples of mythical figures like Elvis and Buddy Holly, who themselves roamed the folk land freely like Greek heroes and Arthurian knights; living simply to raise people’s spirits from one town to the next. We go in for that same quixotic journey every time we hit up a bar to see some new band. It’s quaint and unrealistic and it elevates the banal to the supernatural, which is why rock can and should never escape its Midwestern or Middle Earth roots.
It’s also why you can have two people on a cramped bar stage playing music that could easily pack First Avenue with Flaming Lips level excess. How much longer that will be the case remains to be seen.
Ryan – So the two of you write and record everything together. On this album you even recorded in your own home. What’s your process when you collaborate?
Nicole – I usually will write an idea that’s really stripped down and then bring it to Sam. For this particular one he actually wrote a few of the songs first just as music. We usually start pretty simply and then kind of jam on something forever. We’ll layer garage band demos and I’ll layer vocals on top of each other and just see where things are going to go. With this record it was different because we had the time to sit and layer stuff on top of it. We didn’t have to map out every single part before we got into a studio and then freak out because we had to get it done in a certain amount of time. So that was really nice. We could have fun and make it more orchestral.
Ryan — You guys have also done a graphic novel and some short films. Are there any other artistic endeavors you’d like to try your hands at?
Nicole – I want to make a cartoon. That’s one that I’m all about. I don’t know when we’ll have to time to do that.
Sam – I pretty much do everything I try to do. I make it happen somehow. I want to do a children’s book, probably. That would be my next big thing.
Nicole – It was fun when we started playing because there were so many opportunities to make things like posters and videos. That’s something about already being an artist. It’s nice to be able to do all that stuff.
Ryan – What has changed the most since you first started as a band?
Nicole – Well we started in like 2005 so we watched the music industry wildly change and then rebuild itself. And I think there are pros and cons to that, but the pros are that if you can figure it out you can do it all by yourself. You don’t really need anyone anymore, especially with the Internet. If you really want to do it and you don’t mind working 24/7 you can really make it work.
Ryan – You guys have a very unique sound, and when I read about you one of the things I’ve noticed is writers love to describe you with other bands, like “It’s Portishead with a little Tegan and Sara mixed in.” So what other bands would you use to describe your sound?
Nicole – That’s so hard! I could tell you the bands we’re influenced by. Everything from Otis Redding to Pink Floyd to Tame Impala to Queens of the Stone Age. I think that we have always been attracted to all different types of music: heavy, quiet, soul, Portisheady… When we’re making music we’re not really setting out to sound a certain way. It’s more that we’re just letting all those influences kind of sink in.
Ryan – The new album does sound different. For instance you got Kevin McMahon to do the mix on it. He did The Swans’ The Seer which is a lot like designing New Zealand, and I think in the same way this is more complex and dense. So what was the inspiration for that?
Sam – I think what always inspires us is the life we live. We live in a van. We drive all over the country. We listen to music. We are surrounded by art all the time. And just being able to do that, then coming home and being able to create together, all of that goes into every album we do. It’s not one major thing. It’s just all those things. Our life is crazy. It’s really crazy. And then we get to come home after we do all these crazy things together and try to make sense of it all. These albums come out of that.
Ryan – Last question. Did you actually meet the kid from Gummo?
Both – Yes!
Ryan – That’s awesome.
Sam – The rabbit kid in the first scene.
Nicole – He hangs out at some dive in Nashville. He came in and he yelled… he yelled something.
Sam – It was Cinco de Mayo.
Nicole – Yeah everyone was wasted. Someone was like, “Hey that’s the rabbit from Gummo!” and we did a double take.
Sam – It was pretty awesome.
Nicole – I love that you know Gummo.
Ryan – I went through a Harmony Korine phase a couple summers ago. It’s important to keep your eyes open for good cult art.
Nicole – Gummo is probably one of the grossest movies I’ve ever seen. It actually takes place in Xenia, Ohio, which we drive through every time we have to go south through Ohio and there’s this one bridge and we’re always like, “I wonder if they shot that opening scene there.”
Sam – I think they shot it all in Nashville.
Nicole – Yeah I don’t think they shot any of it in Ohio which was disappointing.
Photos Shot by: Ryan Sanderson
Album Artwork Courtesy of: El Marko Records