By Noah Hubbell
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Seamus Kenney, lead singer of North Carolina's SNMNMNM, is attempting to describe the slithery, oomph-like gulp emitted by his outfit's unconventional low-end instrument. Most sane bands use a bass guitar, or, in a pinch, a synthesizer, to pump those subterranean frequencies. But instead, SNMNMNM's Mark Daumen wields a tuba -- that clunky black sheep of the brass family, a perfect accessory to braces and the bane of nerve-shot high school music teachers everywhere.
As maligned or just ignored as the horn is, though, Seamus is quick to stick up for it. "People like the tuba," he insists. "They look at it and go, 'Ooh, there's a weird instrument on stage!' The other night the stage was so small that Mark got stuck playing behind a PA speaker. Nobody even saw him. Then someone in the audience started yelling, 'It's a tuba! It's a tuba!' But we don't really use it in a jokey way. We'd love to see girls booty-shaking to our tuba."
Shaggy, four-eyed and a bit short on sartorial elegance, the men of SNMNMNM -- Daumen; Matthew Vooris on drums; Matthew Kenney on guitar and trumpet; and Kenney's brother, Seamus, on vocals, guitar, trombone and accordion -- employ all manner of odd honks and obtuse hooks in their quest for pop sublimity. Their new full-length, As Best as We Can!, is even better than you might imagine. Rather than getting hung up on chops or gimmickry, the band bends all its various toys and talents toward the creation of a breeze-blown, melodic indie rock that recalls the Bacharach/ Beach Boys whimsy of the Elephant 6 collective even as it wobbles giddily between the Shins and They Might Be Giants. With harmonies that resemble helium seeping from a hundred candy-colored balloons, As Best as We Can! is as sparse as it is sophisticated -- just what you'd expect from a quartet of music-school geeks.
"Me, Matt and Mark all met in Rochester, New York, at a place called the Eastman School of Music," recalls Seamus, a native of nearby Albion. "It's pretty prestigious and tricky to get into, especially for tuba players. They maybe take one or two a year. Around the same time, my brother Matt graduated from high school, and he moved in with me. He and I had played together a little bit before. We did a couple open mikes together, but back then it was more a comedy act than a musical act. I used to play with this guy named Jay, and we were called Seamus and Jay. Then Jay got disinterested, so it became Seamus and Matt."
SNMNMNM is just as ridiculously named: S and M and M and M for Seamus and Matthew and Matthew and Mark. But when confronted with this pattern, Seamus contends, "I never even put that together. Maybe that's just my personality. I was always the class clown."
Seriousness finally struck SNMNMNM in 2000, when the group moved from Rochester to Hollywood in an attempt to make it big. But the band eventually found out just how tough the mainstream music industry was to break into -- especially for such an idiosyncratic act.
"Sony, I hear you like tubas," Seamus cracks. "Yeah, we were definitely a different band out there. We actually used to rehearse in the same building as Crazytown and Linkin Park. One time we were having a party and needed a PA, and some guy was like, 'Oh, I think I know who has one.' It was Linkin Park's. I think we paid sixty bucks to use Chester's PA. They had a demo deal then, but they were still just another L.A. band trying to make it. And then one day, a big tour bus showed up and took them out of Hollywood."
No such major-label rapture gripped SNMNMNM, though. After numerous small tours and months of couch-surfing, the four decided to move to a friendlier, more quirk-embracing climate. "We settled on Chapel Hill, North Carolina," Seamus explains. "It was an easy decision to make. Major labels aren't sending A&R people to the clubs in Chapel Hill these days, like they did in the '90s. But a lot of good musicians come to Chapel Hill and set up bands, and they're a lot more levelheaded. Everyone in L.A. is looking for that big deal, and in Chapel Hill, everyone's just trying to be in a good band."
After settling in Chapel Hill in 2003, SNMNMNM quickly completed work on its disc, Power Pack Horse Crunch. It was with that release that the group started becoming, as Seamus puts it, "a rock band rather than an open-mike novelty act." As Best as We Can! is even more mature -- if that word dare be used -- a poignant, almost melancholic excursion through Seamus's madder neurotransmissions.
"I used to write the most absurd, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, like 'giraffe moped' and weird stuff like that," he reveals. "But how do I properly express 'giraffe moped' so that an audience is moved by it? I like being more literal now. I like to come up with scenarios that are maybe similar to something I've experienced, but let them create their own story. I mean, all my true stories are like, 'Whoa, I got drunk at a party and made out with this guy's girlfriend!' I don't know if that translates into a song well. But I try to get that same feeling across: 'Uh, maybe I shouldn't have done that.'"
There's an even better tale behind "Disco Barry," one of the catchiest, most dance-inducing tracks from As Best as We Can! "It's actually based on a real person," Seamus claims. "He's a parking-lot attendant in Rochester. It's a really tragic story. He was born a twin, and his mother was pretty poor, and she couldn't afford to have two kids. So she had to give one up, and it was him. When this guy grew up, he ended up being a dancer and then a male prostitute in New York City during the '70s. We'd always notice this guy around town. He was always weird, kind of off-kilter."
SNMNMNM's live shows are allegedly just as unhinged -- no doubt thanks in part to Seamus and company's unorthodox choice of instruments. "On early tours," he remembers, "I'd be playing the accordion 90 percent of the time. But this tour, it's been a lot different. Some of the newer songs on the album, I play a lot more guitar on. The other night we played a show in Gainesville, and we were two-thirds into the set before I strapped on the accordion. Everyone went crazy. It was great. I felt a surge of power."
Behold the accordion, conduit of rock-and-roll omnipotence. Still, as wise-assed as SNMNMNM can be, Seamus takes the squeeze-box as seriously as he does Daumen's comically lumbering tuba. "Everyone makes fun of the accordion," he admits, "but I think our fans are the type of people that get made fun of a lot, too. They can relate to the accordion. They arethe accordion."