Nicole Barille of mr. Gnome: "Between two people, it can fall apart at any second, and that's kind of the fun about it"
mr. Gnome (due tonight at the Hi-Dive) tours more than most bands. The act's music is often thrown under the umbrella term "psychedelic." But clearly this Cleveland-based duo isn't really trying to sound like another psychedelic band. From the way Nicole Barille and Sam Meister present themselves in their press photos to the cover art of their albums to the songwriting and videos, one thing is clear: Barille and Meister have cultivated and run with a richness and depth of imagination that escapes many bands.
Because the two came to their music through via the visual arts, a medium that provided an immediacy of experience, their whole presentation has an uncommon artistic totality and coherence. The recent trailer for the song "House of Circles" looks like it could be the next great fantasy movie, and it came out of the songwriting on the band's noteworthy 2011 release, Madness in Miniature. We spoke with the charming and gracious Barille about the outfit's search for thrift-store musical rarities, its videos, its enduring interest in Art Nouveau and Folk Art, and an unexpected gig in Fruita, Colorado.
Westword: In an interview with Indie Rock Reviews a couple of years ago, you mentioned that you like to go to thrift stores to find old music gear for cheap. Do you still do this, and is there anything you've scored lately that comes readily to mind?
Nicole Barille: We've been still going. The one time we found something was in Madison, Wisconsin. We found this huge, old organ for twenty bucks. It has some really awesome, crazy sounds. That was the last thing we found. We still go to them all the time, but we haven't really been as successful, and we'll find stuff, but it's not as rare. We're still looking, though.
What got you interested in looking for stuff like that?
I don't know -- it's so random. I think we had just stopped in, and I don't even know why we first went in there, and we kind of turned a corner and there was this huge, massive organ. It was insane. So we plugged it in to see what it sounded like, and the sounds were amazing. And it had a $20 [tag], so I think that began our obsession with trying to find really cheap things that just sound really cool. Especially for the recording process, where they don't have to be perfect, but if you mike them up, they get the right tones.
With Madness in Miniature, it seemed like you had created a kind a cohesive work with its own internal mythology, if you will, and aesthetic. What inspired the imagery on the cover and in the songs themselves?
We were definitely trying to go for a really cohesive album. I think we've been trying to do that since we wrote our first record. On this one, we had a little more time to make some interludes and really kind of bring the whole thing together. I think we got lucky in the way the songs really just worked together, because they were written throughout the winter, spring and summer time, and in Cleveland, that's quite a climate shift. It's pretty drastic. I think that all blended into the sounds and the dynamics and mood that you're feeling when you're going through all those seasonal changes.
The artwork, Sam actually does all the covers for us. We do this kind of photo collage type of thing. So the background's from...we have a ton of pictures from driving through this beautiful country of ours -- so we have all these crazy pictures that we kind of slap on and just do some effects on them and just throw in some characters. We like dress up and be silly and see what kind of surreal imagery we can create from that. So that's just kind of where that came from. We ended up writing a whole video off of that, too, that's not done yet, but we just released the trailer for that.
Speaking of that, tell me about "House of Circles" and the video you've made for it.
We kind of sat on this record at the beginning of last year because we were trying to figure out how we were going to release it. As with every record we release, we just want things to be a step up. We had been touring so much, and when we recorded that, it was a really crazy time of like constant go, go, go.
So we took some time to chill out, and that's when I wrote those interludes, that segue in the beginning that leads each track into the next. So we listened to the record and started writing a really surreal story based on the lyrical content. It was nothing literal or anything. It kind of turned into this beast that we based on the character from the cover.
Sam's mom does all the costumes from all our covers. It's this weird thing that always fall into place. So, yeah, we based it off these characters from the story, and our main idea was to do a graphic novel. But we were getting really crazy, and we wanted to make a whole movie that kind of went with the whole album, like Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz type of thing.
We were thinking kind of grandiose. But we ran out of time to do that, just because we ended up releasing the record and going on tour, and that turns into touring for, like, a hundred years. But we did want to kind of condense the whole idea and make "House of Circles" the longest song we've ever written. It seems to be a favorite off that album so wanted to apply the whole story to that song.
There's so much more to come. We shot it all over this past winter in this barn we have in our back yard. It was fun, it was a ton of work, and now Sam has, like, 500 hours of editing to do. He was trying to get it done before we left, but that didn't really happen, so we wanted to release that trailer and then we'll finish it as soon as we can. But I'm definitely excited for everyone to see it, because it's pretty tripped out.
Yeah, it's reminiscent of The Dark Crystal, but more, as you suggested, tripped out.
Cool. I'm really glad you got that vibe, because we definitely had that as an inspiration that went into it.
You touched on this earlier, but you were also working on a graphic novel for that?
That was another idea, and hopefully we can still make that happen. We didn't intend to go on tour as soon as we did. But we got into SXSW, and we got invited to do a bunch of festivals that were routed around that. I think this summer we'll really just have fun, artistically, and do that and probably start writing our fourth record. Just getting back to work that doesn't involve being in a stinky van and dirty bars every day, you know?
In producing that graphic novel, will one of you do more of the writing and the other more of the artwork?
All the stories that we come up with are definitely collaborative. We have crazy imaginations, and we start talking and brainstorming and coming up with ideas. Sam mainly does the artwork. We'll [both] come up with the concept for everything and then he's kind of turned into a little Photoshop wizard. So it's a lot of photo-collage and stuff like that. He's been growing with his art with the ability to make all of our album covers, and it's been cool seeing where he's taken everything.
How has your interest in graphic novels and science fiction informed your music and vice versa?
Sam is a big sci-fi dork, a little more than me. But he's gotten me into that stuff, too. I was never really into that. I don't know if it influences the music, specifically. We're definitely into psychedelic, spacey stuff. Maybe that's kind of sci-fi? The music is totally separate, but I think it's still that we incorporate surrealism. Our attraction to a certain art style probably seeps into the music a little bit, too.
When you were starting the band, were you aware of the music that has come out of Ohio, and were any of those bands an inspiration, direct or otherwise, on what you're doing with mr. Gnome?
I think the Midwest is a very interesting place. There's a lot of character to it, and I think the weather is definitely a huge influence, especially where we live. During the winter time, you really either go crazy or you can hibernate and get a lot of work done. It kind of goes either way because it's just such an intense period of time. The skies are gray constantly, and you have do something because of that lack of sunlight -- you kind of feel like a vampire.
But, yeah, as far as bands around us, I mean, we're very proud to be from Cleveland and Ohio. We saw the Black Keys in this tiny little room before we had even started the band. It was right at the beginning of us playing music. They were just great. We're definitely influenced by just being able to see two people be able to write and play and be successful.
That whole thing started kicking in shortly before we started the band, and I think that gave us the confidence to just know that we can write with each other. It was working well between the two of us, so we didn't feel like we needed anyone else. So they kind of paved the way. There's definitely a Rust Belt rock style.
In a number of the photos of you and Sam, you're in some sort of interesting costume or in what looks like storybook settings of one stripe or another. What do you find appealing about that visual presentation of yourselves?
I think that we absolutely despise taking press shots because they can be really corny. Just to sit in front of a camera? The whole idea is kind of ridiculous. So I think if we can make it more arty and have fun with it in that way, it becomes a lot more of what we're interested, rather than us just trying to look cute or something. Or like standing in front of a camera. We do them all ourselves, so it's kind of nice that we can edit them and go about it the way we want to portray ourselves, instead of standing there in all black clothing looking angry. Or whatever people do.
Your guitar work and music in general is a little reminiscent of what you'd hear in Mecca Normal. Were you influenced by their music at all?
Mecca Normal? I haven't heard of them. I'll totally check them out.
Nobody sounds like them, and you don't really know where it's coming from. They're a two-piece but if you just heard the music you wouldn't necessarily guess that.
Where are they out of?
Vancouver, British Columbia. They're still around, but mostly active in the late '80s and early '90s.
I'll write that down; otherwise I'll forget it. Guitar-wise, and musically, the way we've been influenced...I've been playing guitar ever since I was thirteen. Playing terribly. Just trying to figure out what I was doing. Never really took lesson. It was more like a therapeutic, fun process of just...I don't know, I just kind of fell in love with being able to write songs, even if they were terrible for the first...really long time.
But just that whole process of being able to make art in that way. We're both artists, and we both went to school for art, so music is this totally different side of art. I started noticing how much more immediate an art form it was for in the way I would react to music right away -- just kind of how it sets your mood or it ends up becoming nostalgic. I started gravitating more toward music than toward the visual side of art even though that's what we went to school for.
I think we're just kind of influenced by absolutely everything. When we met, we started listening to a lot of Pink Floyd and Otis Redding together and Portishead and getting into that whole trippy kind of everything. Like when Queens of the Stone Age first came out -- the stoner rock and all of that. We definitely like the psychedelic side of everything. I think we're both kind of grunge kids. I think there's lots of bands right now that are kind of afraid of distortion pedals a little bit. But I think me and Sam grew up on that, so we love the heavy, dirty side, but maybe that's the Cleveland seeping in once again.
You have a good combination of atmosphere and something more gritty and textured.
For sure. And I always loved that. When I first went to see Queens of the Stone Age, before I even knew who they were, I saw them in this little hundred person venue. My friend took me to the show. I loved it about them that it was this such badass stoner rock and there were these pretty choir boy vocals over the top. But it was still psychedelic and badass, but it totally worked, and I was really attracted to that style. It kind of opened my mind up to what we could do.
In a 2009 interview with Delusions of Adequacy, you talked about how you're inspired by "surreal art, folk art, and even the whole Art Nouveau period" -- what are a few of the artists from those movements inspire you the most, and what is it about the aesthetic there speaks to you?
We started getting into Art Nouveau and Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt -- we kind of stumbled upon them and loved the colors. Folk Art, there's an artist named Henry Darger -- have you ever heard of him?
Oh yeah, In the Realms of the Unreal and the Vivian Girls.
Totally. I don't even remember how we stumbled upon him, but both Sam and I were totally blown away. And his story is so interesting. He was a janitor and had all this artwork in the basement that no one even discovered until he died. That stuff is very surreal.
I've been thinking about the psychology of how you start getting into art and what you're attracted to. For me it's always been this form of an escape. I started getting into it when I had some family members passing away. I think that music and art became an escape from reality at that time with what's going on. And being teenager, too, and being confused by everything because your body is all out of whack -- I think the art you're into is formed at that time, and it kind of influences how you're going to look at art from then on.
I think that's maybe why I'm so into surrealism and I've been so attracted to that. It kind of takes you away, and when someone puts on your record, it kind of takes them to another place or on an adventure. Those have been the kinds of albums I've been into, where you can just sit down for 45 minutes, and it takes you away from the day-to-day stuff that's just kind of always the same.
You create a definite vibe to your live shows that seems to bear that out.
Yeah, they're a lot more punk rock than the record. It's been a long, and fun, process, because when you record, you get to put so many layers on everything and tweak everything and the live show is just so on the fly. Between two people, it can fall apart at any second, and that's kind of the fun about it. I'm glad we've been touring as long as we have, because it's not really scary anymore.
But there were many a show where we were thinking if you make one mistake that would lead to your whole show recovering from that. Now I think we totally understand what we're going for. And yeah, it's definitely different from the record. We just try to put all that energy in and create energy between us and the audience and figure out what comes out of that.
Scene magazine out of Cleveland called you the "Best Band in Cleveland" in a December 2011 issue. How did audiences receive you earlier in your career and is the scene there pretty supportive of you these days?
We had this one writer, D.X. Ferris, and all the way back from either our first or second EP, he was really awesome to us. There's always been people throughout our career who have, for some reason, inspired us to keep going. In the beginning, we didn't really know what we were doing at all. We hadn't been in other bands or anything. We hadn't played live.
If I knew what it was to be a two piece and be in the music business...I don't know, I'm glad that I was naive as I was because I don't think I would have ever done it. But you always have those people that kind of pat you on the back and give you confidence in what you're doing. The Scene has always been writing wonderful things about us.
In the beginning, especially in Cleveland -- I think maybe some local bands do this in every city, but you want to play out a lot, so you end up playing your home town a lot. That's kind of how we started touring. We did a little too much of that in the beginning and noticing that wasn't really the way to grow and just kind of playing in front of the same people, too.
That's how we started touring regionally. We still had day jobs at that point. It turned into kind of a national thing, and we fell in love with going across the country. It's been this slow, crazy process and quite an adventure.
I see that you played in Fruita, Colorado, of all places, at Cavalcade on March 20. How did that come about, and what was that show like?
The people are all absolutely amazing in that town. They're just trying to open this venue that's all based on arts and music, and they do a variety show there, and they bring in people from the town. They open their doors and everyone plays different instruments. It's really awesome, and I love to see when people do that for their community.
So yeah, they had this little show, and it was totally fun. They treated us really great. We went and got really good sushi and almost got drunk before we played and decided that wasn't a good idea. The drive out there was gorgeous. I've never been to the Grand Junction/Fruita area, but it's pretty awesome.
How did you get that show?
It was totally random. I think what happened is that we played SXSW, and we wanted a couple of days to come down from all that madness. Then our next show was going to be the Treefort Music Fest in Boise. We wanted to play a show before that, and he found Fruita. He asked us to check it out, and it seemed really cool and intimate and different than the normal bar scene. Sometimes it's just cool to play different things like that when you're playing bars night after night, which is totally cool, but it's nice to have a change-up.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.