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I told somebody at the kitchen that I work in that it was a 'mind-over-matter situation,'" says Caleb Tardio, talking about how his band, I Sank Molly Brown, came up with the name for its new EP, Mind Over Mothra. "She was like, 'Did you say 'mind over Mothra'? That's not what I said, but that was incredible. I knew that had to be something. It's just perfect."
As one of the singers and guitarist/bassists in the cheekily named I Sank Molly Brown, Tardio is no stranger to dry and intelligently absurdist humor. The band's previous album was titled Ishmael Asimov, so named by Dillon Self, the group's other vocalist and guitarist/bassist. For the better part of the past decade, I Sank Molly Brown has developed a style of experimental rock music that is a fusion of contradictions reconciled by close personal bonds of friendship.
Tardio grew up around City Park and was home-schooled. His mother had been a Christian missionary in Peru and was distrustful of public schooling because of her own less-than-satisfying experiences with it. Tardio developed his own imagination through science fiction, specifically the work of visionaries of the genre's golden age such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Theodore Sturgeon.
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"I think it was just the development of a kind of philosophy of mind," says Tardio about the deeper appeal of mid-century science fiction, and Asimov in particular. "He kind of started from the ground level of how we even approach the problems of intelligence, the problems of religion. I remember one story — I can't remember the title — where one dysfunctional robot invents religion, and what are the problems with that? Where does it come from? What are the social implications of that? I was just really surprised you could do that in a story.
"It kind of blew my mind as a kid, because the other thing I read the most of was the Bible, and so here were these different realities and different ways of thinking about the subjective experience of God," Tardio goes on. "Of course, Asimov was very atheistic, so he had an atheist agenda in some of those stories, but even so, I think he was able to talk about the social experience of religion that really touched me as a thirteen-year-old."
Tardio was surrounded by music as a child, as his mother played hymns on the piano and his father played spiritual music on guitar. Though he says he no longer goes to church, it was through his connection to the church that he first became involved in music. "The first time I was in a band, a guy in the youth group I went to, Dan Ray, was a bass player, and one day he asked, 'Do you want to play keyboards in this punk band that I'm in?'" Tardio remembers. "I was thinking to myself, 'I have no idea how to play a keyboard.' But I showed up and I just faked it for years until I knew how to play keyboards. I loved that band."
That band was Rocky's Red Rocket, later Rivers Run Dry. Ben Pitts, a guitarist best known for his stints in To Be Eaten, Vimana and countless other metal bands, was also in the group. Ray turned Tardio on to Murder City Devils while Pitts introduced him to death metal, black metal and grindcore. The band eventually broke up, and Tardio formed an outfit with a softer sound, called School of Floating, with his friend Emily. An experimental-pop group, School of Floating played shows at art galleries and warehouses — places like the Wheelbarrel, a former DIY space in the same building that now houses Glob and Rhinoceropolis.
The band grew when Tardio enlisted Johnny Moses, a drummer he had met at church, and further expanded its ranks when he recruited Ryan Self, who had been playing on a worship team, and his brother Dillon, who showed up one day with a guitar after having moved back to Colorado from Seattle. Emily eventually moved to California, and the remaining members evolved into I Sank Molly Brown.
"Now that I'm older, I realize that I just love those '90s post-punk bands, like At the Drive-In, Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Q and Not U, especially — stuff like that," says Tardio, explaining what inspired the transformation into I Sank Molly Brown. "These bands really influenced the way I think about guitar and songwriting. That music is aggressive, and yet it has a very nuanced aesthetic in terms of how it approaches the scheme of melody and the scheme of rhythm.
"It's not super-produced or anything," he goes on. "It's just what it is; it's not lying about it. I think there's something about that honesty that just makes me feel at home. The mathy parts and the lyrics are intellectually stimulating, and yet it has this aggressiveness that reaches down into the subconscious violence that people feel. It merges this intellectual latent ability with this spiritual aggression. I think it's just perfect. It's really reeled in, but it's allowed to be a little more chaotic. In that allowance for chaos and for energy, so much soul breaks through."
The band's evolution continued with the departure of Ryan Self. After attempting to replace him with another bassist, the group settled on the idea of remaining a three-piece. "Every attempt we made to have another bass player in the band just felt really artificial, like there was something really interfering with the chemistry of the band," Tardio explains. "Once we forgot about the idea of having a bass player, we were able to play music again. It took a while for us to realize that being a three-piece is actually more dynamic-sounding for us than trying to force us to be a four-piece.
"Stylistically, I think we've drifted apart in some ways, but it's actually made us a stronger band," says Tardio about the progression of I Sank Molly Brown's sound. "Now I just kind of write punk songs, and Dillon just writes these post-rock songs, but it works out perfectly, because we complement each other. Dillon thinks about the guitar the way that most people think about a piano, in terms of having complex and tonally varied compositions and dynamics.
"I just think about rhythm," Tardio continues. "I think about guitar like a drum and melodies. It's cool, because when I play guitar, I play more like a punk guitarist, and Dillon plays bass in a very nuanced way. When we switch, I play bass like a more syncopated player and focus on melody. Dillon plays guitar in a melodic, full way. Johnny sits in between those two things. Our music philosophy between the three of us is very different," he concludes, "but we know each other so well, we're able to lock in most of the time."