As aficionados of sugar-frosted entrees well know, there's nothing inherently sinful about indulging in the occasional dessert for dinner. The Dinnermints -- composed of Carnovale, guitarist/vocalist Sara Mesmer and Doo Crowder on bass -- speckle edgy, hook-driven punk rock with sweet spots, ending up with the audio analogue of a sugar-encrusted lemon wedge. Equally accessible and aggressive, the trio's sound neatly interlocks guitar crunches and driving rhythms with lively vocals and elusive lyrics; the result is a product that's strong enough to be a meal in itself.
The Dinnermints' brand of honey-dipped punk emerged from what could be classified as its antithesis: the decidedly difficult duo the Twins. Musically remote from rock, Carnovale initially envisioned the Twins as "conceptual artists working in the medium of sound." Comprising Carnovale and Mesmer, the Twins' music -- unlike that of the Dinnermints -- was never geared toward everyday consumption.
"Basically, the idea behind the Twins was unavailability, inaccessibility and invisibility," Mesmer explains. To this end, the Twins' first show, on St. Patrick's Day 2000, simultaneously bewildered and broadened the cultural horizons of a house-party audience feasting on corned beef, cabbage and intoxicants. Encased in a translucent fabric corral as a means of perpetuating the duo's tenet of invisibility, Mesmer and Carnovale melded samples from records with dead copyrights, abstract devil-and-angel costumes, and Kabuki-influenced chanting into a production that was anything but pop. The reaction was favorable, albeit a bit confused. After the show was over, "people were asking, 'When is the curtain going to open?'" Carnovale says, laughing.
"We try to do Twins performances seasonally, one per season," says Mesmer. Thus, following the Twins' St. Patty's debut, Carnovale and Mesmer organized a June show at the multicolored amphitheater in Boulder's Central Park. "After the first [Twins show], we decided we needed a joke opening act, which would be us playing punk rock," Mesmer recalls. "So that's when the Dinnermints were born."
While the Twins provided the spark that got the Dinnermints going, don't look for a repeat of last June's double bill anytime soon. "We had to haul so much equipment...it was insane," says Mesmer. "We were so sore afterward. Never again will the Twins and the Dinnermints play together." Because of those aches and pains (and the favorable audience reaction to their sugary, "one-chord" rock), the band "became its own entity," free from the Twins' anti-pop ethos.
Described on their first flyer as "pop trash," the Dinnermints' sound evolved from a melting pot of far-flung influences: obsession over a half-century-old Kabuki record, Carnovale's early-'90s mini-stint in a Pittsburgh hardcore band, and Mesmer's former profession as a licensed tarot card reader in New Orleans, to name a few. Says Carnovale of studying the rhythms of the Kabuki record in question, "That's how I got started with the drums, because I didn't play." Didn't play, that is, with the exception of the aforementioned experience with an outfit called Slag. After a dormitory inferno rendered him homeless while attending the University of Pittsburgh in 1992, Carnovale received an intriguing offer. "I had really long hair, and these skinhead guys said, 'Hey, if you don't cut your hair, you can live here and be the drummer in our band.' There was a guy in the band named Handcuffs. That's the only time I played drums [before the Dinnermints]."
Mesmer hails from the same small town in Pennsylvania -- Warren -- as Carnovale, where the longtime friends "both had bad reputations" as teenagers in the late '80s. (At that time, their parents were desperate to keep the black-garbed, Smiths-obsessed duo apart. "We were forbidden to speak to each other," Mesmer recalls, "but we were friends anyway.") Prior to Y2K, Mesmer's musical resumé consisted of a decade studying classical cello ("I was never that into it, because I don't like playing by myself," she notes) and a more recent hobby -- the acoustic guitar. She brings a bright-eyed, mischief-spiked charisma to her role as frontwoman, a style perhaps enhanced by her days hawking prophecy to tourists in the French Quarter in the early '90s.
Following their Boulder-bandshell birth as a musical duo, the Dinnermints gigged as a two-piece for several months, drawing the occasional "Where's your bass player?" heckle. Early on, however, they set their sights on bassist Crowder. After seeing him play a solo set at an open stage at the Mercury Cafe last July, Mesmer and Carnovale approached Crowder to anchor the Dinnermints' underbelly, but he "didn't get with us right away," Mesmer notes.