The thing with outsiders is--absent the tomato cages of peer pressure--they tend to grow in glorious and unexpected ways. Such is the case with Cleveland husband-and-wife duo Mr. Gnome.
The band's music doesn't squeeze into any easy mold, balancing thundering onslaughts of guitar with gauzy drifting passages of great delicacy and beauty. Singer and guitarist Nicole Barille lies in the storm's eye--her breathy vocals vacillating between wispy croon and sultry banshee wail. It results in an arresting mix of menace and mellifluousness.
"We've never really cared about fitting into one simple format. As a result, the albums tend to be all over the place ... We don't want to have them be heavy or soft all the way through," Barille said, motoring out of Cleveland toward the band's first tour stop. "I always liked albums that kind of take you on an adventure, and that's what we were going for."
Barille and drummer/hubby Sam Meister grew up in the shadow of grunge, which Barille said may have inspired some of their approach. Mr. Gnome utilizes a loud/soft dichotomy with slow-builds of intensity that culminate in colorful sonic firestorms. But it's not that simple, if only because the songs are never that straightforward. There's a prog-inflected windiness to the sound that's a lot closer to a three-act opera than a three-minute pop song. Barille gives credit to Massive Attack for opening her eyes to different possibilities for a song, and Queens of the Stone Age for cluing her into the intoxicating mix of power and prettiness.
"It was really cool to hear stoner rock with these really pretty choir boy vocals. I really dug that juxtaposition," she said of QOTSA. "I also think it's about the music that Sam and I were digging when we met and kind of introduced each other to. I was definitely into heavier stuff and he was into the lighter, spacier stuff, and that's just a fusion of the beast Mr. Gnome has become."
The couple met in high school but didn't get together until they had finished college. They married in 2005 and instead of going on a honeymoon, spent the time in downtown Cleveland working on their first EP, Echoes of the Ground. A second self-titled EP arrived in 2006, followed shortly thereafter by their first national tour. Two more albums--Deliver This Creature (2008) and Heave Yer Skeleton (2009)--followed, accompanied by near non-stop touring. For a while, the couple's only home was a Cleveland storage facility or friends' couches.
The hard work has paid off with dramatic growth. While Mr. Gnome has always made intriguing, theatrical music, it has begun to master pacing and spacing. Not only is there greater concision to the arrangements on Mr. Gnome's latest album, Madness in Miniature, but they're full of sound without being overcrowded. Indeed everything's crisper on this new album, which heightens its impact. Like Heave Yer Skeleton, Madness in Miniature was recorded at QOTSA's Josh Homme's Pink Duck Studios with studio manager/engineer Justin Smith. But this time, the band felt more comfortable and focused in the studio.
"I think with this album, we knew exactly what we were going for when we went out to L.A. So maybe the huge amount of layering on Heave was just like another step of us figuring out how exactly we like our sound," said Barille. "I think this one, we scaled back a little bit. I don't know. There are still a lot of tracks."
The album's title is taken from a line Barille read in a Time magazine article from the '60s about Timothy Leary. It spoke of psychiatrists taking small dosages of LSD in their practice, which they described as "madness in miniature."
"I just thought that was awesome," Barille said. "It's all very fitting because we always feel a bit crazy."
That attitude is mirrored in the band's live shows. Unable to replicate the richness of its albums, the live shows have assumed a life of their own. Over the last couple years, Barille has begun to collect looping and other effects pedals to help recreate the widescreen breadth of the band's sound.
"As far as the live show, it's been a growing process of adding so many pedals that I'm probably going to fall over many times. It's a bit crazy on stage and it's always teetering on falling apart. It's kind of fun that way," she said. "We've added a ton of looping. Sam's actually looping a few things, too. We just want to have the option ... to build guitar parts on top of each other like all these different kind of instrumental harmonies. And then we're always working with octave pedals for the low-end because we don't have a bass player. Yeah, it's total madness on stage for sure."
But whether it's total madness or just madness in miniature, Mr. Gnome remains dedicated--like any long-standing freaks--to doing just what it's always done.
"We really like to experiment with all different sounds. I think that confuses some people because they really like to put on a record and want it to all be the exact same thing. And we're all over the place," Barille said. "But I just think that's because we are really open-minded music listeners. I love distortion pedals, and I love an acoustic tone and a soft voice. It's just whatever moves you."
Let the moving begin.[ Video is no longer available. ]