mr. Gnome

This week’s featured artists are Cleveland natives Nicole Barille and Sam Meister, better known as the indie band mr. Gnome. Since 2005 they’ve gained a solid fan base through intensive tours and a steady stream of albums. They began with two self-released EP’s, Echoes On the Ground (2005) and mr. Gnome (2006), and then joined forces with El Marko Records in 2008 for the release of their first full length album, Deliver This Creature. Heave Yer Skeleton was released just last year and brought the band a new level of media attention and garnered praise from a variety of industry sources, including a spot on Paste Magazine’s “Eight Criminally Underrated Albums of ’09.” With a sound that’s been fed on influences from early psychedelia like Jefferson Airplane to the more contemporary complexities of Bjork and Portishead, the only appropriate descriptor for mr. Gnome is innovative—both in what they attempt and how they achieve it.

Despite being busy with preparations for a jam-packed two month tour that kicked off on Friday (3/26), Nicole Barille took some time out to answer questions and talk about the band.

BTR: So how and when did the band form?
Barille: We’ve known each other ever since high school, but we didn’t really start playing as mr. Gnome until we both graduated from college. It was kinda like that last year where you’re trying to figure out what you’re gonna do, and we had the first opportunity to really start experimenting with music and have that free time ‘cause college was ending and everything. We actually started out as a different band, where Sam was writing all the songs and we had a couple more members, and I was just doing back-up vocals and playing lead guitar under him. Everyone else was just kind of a lot more busy and wrapped up in other stuff, and the two of us were always left alone to work on stuff. So we started playing songs that I’d been writing and I started singing a lot more and Sam started playing drums. It kind of happened just more through experimentation.

BTR: It seems like a lot of people are really struck by the way you guys interweave delicate and raucous sounds and moments into the structure of your songs. Is that something you found organically or something you consciously wanted to challenge your listeners with?
Barille: I think it really all developed naturally. I think we were very influenced by everything, and we were never the kind of music lovers to just be into one thing or the other. We always listened to heavier music, we always listened to classic rock and we always listened to indie rock, and then would go all the way back to Otis Redding and Billie Holliday. I think our love for music really spans a very large… it’s definitely not based on a certain genre or anything, so I think that started weaving into the music and the way we were writing. We never limited where a song could go. And then, not having a bass player or other musicians, I started doing more of this soft/loud dynamic just to kind of fill in those parts. I think it was just kind of a combination of the music that we love and how we started playing naturally together.

BTR: That actually ties into another question—you’ve just mentioned some of the artists that have influenced mr. Gnome. What did you grow up listening to?
Barille: When I first started getting into music, I was almost becoming a teenager and the grunge scene began. So I think that was definitely influential—when I first picked up a guitar at twelve, I was all into Nirvana and like, ‘Yeah!!,’ you know… (laughing) And that’s kind of cool, being a young kid, ‘cause when you’re listening to that kind of music it’s only based on a couple of chords so it’s definitely easy to figure out. So I think that’s what first peaked my interest, and then I kind of started getting into hard stoney stuff. When I met Sam he introduced me to the whole psychedelic side of things. His dad was a huge, huge classic rock fan and I hadn’t even listened to much Pink Floyd, so Sam got me into him and Otis Redding, and that whole side of it. And then (he) introduced me to Massive Attack and Portishead, and more female artists like Bjork that I hadn’t even really discovered yet. It was cool, just how you can be influenced by meeting someone else and being open-minded about what you’re listening to. Sam has always been more into the classic rock/indie side and I’ve always gravitated more towards the heavier stuff.

BTR: Well, you guys have found a good balance.
Barille: Thanks, it’s definitely schizophrenic! (laughs)

BTR: This might be a harder question, but how do you think your relationship to your music, to each other or to your audience has been shaped by living in Cleveland? Do you feel like there was a connection between the music scene there and what you guys were doing?
Barille: I think more than the music scene here, I would say the weather patterns. It’s almost like the people in Cleveland tend to hibernate more just because of how bad the weather gets during the wintertime and I know that we do a lot of writing. So you can have this somber feel, versus living in L.A. or San Diego or somewhere that’s 85 degrees everyday, where you might end up writing more pop-y stuff. I don’t know, I definitely attribute that to how we tap into more somber moods at times.

BTR: What do you find is unique about working as and in a duo?
Barille: I think there’s a lot of advantages and disadvantages. Like, we’ve had Sam’s little brother, he’s eighteen years old and he’s a really, really great guitar player and he played with us at our last show we did around here. He just played a couple of songs with us and I was laughing at how it’s so much easier to play with someone else! (laughs) ‘Cause when you’re playing as a two-piece, if you screw up it’s gonna be extremely noticeable. As a two-piece, you’re front and center in all your glory and in all your mistakes as well, so there’s definitely that challenging side of it. But it’s also cool because traveling around with two people, I think it’s a lot less stressful than being in a van with like six people or something, you know. And then there’s the writing advantage, I think we’re both very open with each other if we like an idea or if we don’t like an idea. I think that can kinda creep up between bands with five people, where someone may not speak up and may not like the song as much but those things just don’t get said. But with us we always say what’s on our minds, and I think the songs grow a lot quicker in that way too, because we’re never really holding back.

But definitely the live show, the live show can be intense if you’re not prepared as a two-piece, you kinda have to have your shit together.

BTR: How long do you feel like it took you to kind of find your “sealegs” as a duo performing live?
Barille: I’d say like our first, probably, year-and-a-half, it was definitely a struggle just trying to figure out how to do it, how to make it sound as full as you can between two people. When we first started out I was just playing one guitar out of a tiny amp and now I have two amps—one I use for clean, the other I use for dirty—I have a couple guitars that have a hollow body and then I have a Gibson as well… I have a couple loop pedals that I introduced the last tour, and so I started looping different vocal parts and throwing guitar parts on top of it. So it’s been really fun, it’s cool to see what you can do within two people.

BTR: With that, how do you feel like your sound has progressed since you first started? And is there another kind of sound or direction that you want to go with in the future?
Barille: I think since we’ve started, I’d like to say that we’ve evolved a whole lot. I think you always want to hope that you’re evolving, but the songs have become a lot more complete and a lot less schizophrenic. I’ll listen to our first two EP’s and it’s almost at the point where I’ll forget where we’re gonna take it ‘cause it’s so schizophrenic, you know? (laughing) You could hear us still trying to become musicians and trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing the whole time. And I think at this point, the better that you get at playing your instrument the more you can experiment and you’re not really limiting yourself to where you can take it anymore just because you’re limited on your instrument.

We have had the last couple of months off before we go on tour and we’ve been writing a whole bunch of new songs. The stuff we’ve been writing almost has a ‘60’s vibe to it, kind of tapping into that ‘60’s psychedelia, and then there’s other songs that are straightforward, like what we did on the last record. So I think it will be kind of like a combo of our last two records.

BTR: As you’re writing new material, do you intentionally listen to other music or do you try to kind of creatively hibernate?
Barille: We’re just huge music lovers so I don’t think we could just stop listening to music. I just got a record player, too, so I’m slowly becoming obsessed with vinyl. I’ve been picking up a whole bunch of records. I’ve never been one to shy away from listening to music while you’re writing—I definitely think it helps. I think that’s one of the coolest things about music, it’s just this immediate art form. A guitar only has so many frets, but to always be impressed by what someone else can do with it… just like music in general, how people keep being so innovative within one art form. So I think we’re always being inspired, especially when we’re out on the road—we always find a couple of bands that we really dig and it’s cool to be able to sit and see music every night. Especially all across the country; I think we always try to take advantage of that and really enjoy it.

BTR: Yeah, that must be really fun. I took a look at your schedule and you guys are hitting a lot of places!
Barille: Yeah, it turned into a beast outta nowhere. I think we had some days off and then all of a sudden, they kept getting filled in but we’re happy. When we’re out on the road we like to try to play almost every night.

BTR: Looks like there’s some amazing places that you’ll be—is there anywhere you’re especially excited about?
Barille: We really love the Pacific Northwest region, we’ve made a lot of friends there and it’s so beautiful. I’d never really been there until we started touring—I think we really fell in love with the Portland/Seattle area, it’s pretty unbelievable. We really dig the Southwest a lot, we like Chicago, New York, Nashville. It’s cool ‘cause the more you tour you make a lot of friends all over the country, so it’s almost like you get to visit your friends every tour you go on.

BTR: Cheers to that, Nicole, and thanks for sharing with BTR!

We’ll all keep an eye on the horizon for that next album from mr. Gnome, and in the meantime be sure to stay tuned this week as BTR plays tribute to the band. Hopefully, you can also catch our new friends on their current tour!

mr. Gnome LIVE!!!

March 29 – North Star Bar – Philadelphia, PA
March 30 – The Garage – Winston-Salem, NC
March 31 – The Evening Muse – Charlotte, NC
April 01 – New Brookland Tavern – West Columbia, SC
April 03 – The Drunken Unicorn – Atlanta, GA
April 04 – Backbooth – Orlando, FL
April 05 – The Handlebar – Pensacola, FL
April 06 – Magic City Wholesale – Birmingham, AL
April 07 – The Saint – New Orleans, LA

– Britt Sondreal

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