When it comes to music, Land Lines' Martina Grbac has wanted something bigger for as long as she can remember. When she was in the fifth grade, her elementary school set out dozens of instruments in the auditorium to help students decide which ones they might want to play. Grbac had decided ahead of time to get a flute, which she thought matched her personality. "At first I thought, 'Yeah, okay. That's obviously the instrument to play,'" she recalls. "You wear Keds, you play the flute." But when she walked into the auditorium, she was immediately drawn to a large and imposing black case in the corner of the room. "As soon as I saw the cello, I knew that was the one," she says. "I was 100 percent sold. I don't remember seeing any of the other instruments. It was pure magic. It was the only choice. "
Decades later, she's still playing the cello, commanding its massive, strong body in her own original and inventive style with the Denver-based Land Lines. The band will celebrate the release of its second album, The Natural World, with a show this week at the Larimer Lounge. For Grbac, it's the latest development in a music career that began with that alluring black case all those years ago.
Like many musicians who grew up in the '90s, Grbac discovered Nirvana and other alternative-rock groups in middle school. Inspired, she set down the cello and picked up an electric guitar, a move that led her to join her first bands. "Growing up in Parker, there wasn't much to do, so I just came home and yelled and screamed and played guitar," she remembers.
But while playing angsty guitar riffs in bands allowed Grbac to express herself emotionally, cello was her first love, and she returned to it after high school, transcribing several of the songs she'd written on guitar for the instrument.
The next step in Grbac's musical evolution came when she moved to Fort Collins and met fellow cellist and songwriter Anna Mascorella, whom she describes as a "musical life partner." The two recruited bassist Matt Ragan and drummer Ross Harada (who also plays with Grbac in Land Lines) and formed Matson Jones.
"We didn't even have goals. The idea was to play some shows and have some fun," says Harada of those early days. But the band took off, soon inking a record deal with Sympathy for the Record Industry, an imprint that put out early recordings by the White Stripes and Hole. Matson Jones gained traction locally, too, earning a Best New Band award from Westword in 2005.
In retrospect, Harada and Grbac say, the attention came too quickly. "When you weren't planning on being anywhere as a band, and all of a sudden you're on these big tours and on that grind, you realize what it's really like," says Harada. "You ask yourself, 'Can I see myself doing this forever?' A lot of hard questions come up."
The answers to those hard questions caused Matson Jones to call it quits after just a few years. Following the split, Harada moved to Denver, Mascorella left for grad school in Chicago, and Ragan pursued other musical interests.
For her part, Grbac never stopped playing the cello, and she continued to write songs. Eventually, restlessness spurred a move from Fort Collins to Denver. By then, Mascorella had also returned from Chicago, and the musical life partners joined up with Harada once again, calling their new project Land Lines.
Structurally, Land Lines was similar to Matson Jones, with Grbac and Mascorella sharing vocal duties and playing cello and Harada playing drums. But the new sound was different: darker, slower, more complex.
Land Lines found success on the Denver circuit, releasing a self-titled full-length in 2013, drawing attention and buzz in the same way that Matson Jones had. But the musicians were older and more aware of their own goals this time around.
Just after Land Lines was recorded, Mascorella left the band to further her education. The resulting transition wasn't easy, but the bandmembers took it in stride. "We always knew that school was Anna's number-one priority," says Harada. "That was true for both Matson Jones and Land Lines. Her educational pursuits were always most important."
"I'm always devastated to see Anna leave," adds Grbac, "but I never feel like we're not going to play music anymore. We'll just do it another time. We're soul mates. It can't be any other way."
Still, Land Lines couldn't be put on hold. The band's next show was with Slim Cessna's Auto Club -- a group for which Harada and Grbac had built a deep respect over the years. They decided not to cancel, knowing it would test their resolve. "We thought it would be the kick in the pants we needed to keep going," says Grbac. "Ross and I knew we wanted to keep playing, but it's tough to restructure after something like that. We welcomed the challenge, though, and I think it really helped us stay positive and distracted so we didn't dwell on our loss too much."
To fill some of the musical space left by Mascorella's departure, they asked keyboardist James Han to sit in for that first show. Han was dating Grbac at the time (they're now married), but his musical credentials are plenty impressive on their own. He's a veteran of the Denver scene who has played alongside Nathaniel Rateliff and Gregory Alan Isakov, among others.
Although Han couldn't replicate the missing parts exactly -- he and Mascorella play different instruments -- the show was still a success. But because of his relationship with Grbac, the band was hesitant to make the substitution permanent. "We tried to keep it at a very light mood for a long time, so we didn't make anything official," says Han. "But we wanted to remain positive about where it could go. Things kept getting better and better."
Han did more than just fill vacant spaces. He started painting sprawling musical landscapes that fit perfectly with Grbac's staccato cello plucks and Harada's compelling, unique drum structures.
Harada and Grbac eventually asked Han to join the band full-time, and the trio began working on new material. The result isThe Natural World
, which expertly showcases the talents of all three members. "I have a history of being very controlling with my creative stuff," Grbac says. "There's a certain way that I see that I want it to go. It's been a hard process, but I've been trying to loosen the reins a little bit, especially on this recording. Rather than trying to be super-rigid, I was very open. It was nice to let go a little bit."
The Natural World starts with a simple, repetitive stick tap from Harada, but its seven tracks swell and build into thrilling apexes made possible largely by Han's sonic contributions. "Playing in Land Lines is a unique experience for me, [one] that allowed me to speak a little more musically," he says. "As minimal as Land Lines' songwriting and arrangements are, this record still gave me a platform where I could say a lot more."
Alongside that newfound depth, Harada offers innovative timekeeping that marches playfully around the band's orchestral underbelly. Grbac's cello remains at the album's core, delivering dance-like precision on songs like "Limb From Limb," and elsewhere resembling low, wolf-like rumbles, as on "Logic." With Mascorella no longer there to share the vocal load, Grbac demonstrates new range as a singer, harmonizing with herself on several tracks and switching from earnest to agitated, depending on the mood of the song.
Lyrically, The Natural World explores some complicated themes. "It's a mixture of naturalism, reason, doubt, acceptance, origins," Grbac says. "The push and pull of biological forces and will; our desires to gain understanding and control. It's a splendid struggle, a good fight against the forces that rule us, and a welcome release as we succumb."
The new album shows the band's growth since its self-titled debut, and Land Lines may soon find accolades and opportunities similar to those earned by Matson Jones. This time, though, the musicians bring a newfound perspective and conviction to the experience. "We just want to make good art -- that's the most important thing," says Han. "Even if nothing else happens with this record, we know we've done that."
Land Lines LP release: With Snake Rattle Rattle Snake and Porlolo, 8 p.m. Friday, January 30, Larimer Lounge, $10, 303-291-1007.
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