As he did with mr. Gnome's previous releases, drummer Sam Meister designed the cover for the band's latest album, The Heart of a Dark Star (2014). It features a picture of a giant moth-like creature hovering over a golden field as three blonde women gaze up at it. Some might find it ominous, but singer-guitarist Nicole Barille explained that positive emotions inspired the image.
"We were trying to create this pretty, beast-like figure that was kind of representing the heart of a dark star," she said. "We were kind of trying to sum up the journey that we've had over the last year and a half—all the emotions that you go through and the joy that lies in the middle of all that."
Barille and Meister have good reason to feel joyful. Over the past nine years, the Cleveland, Ohio-based art-rock duo has built a devoted fanbase and earned several glowing reviews. NPR made Heart available for streaming on its website on Nov. 9. Consequence of Sound declared that the new album heralds a band "finally blowing past the borders of their home state to knock the rest of us off our feet."
Boise music fans had a chance to get knocked off their feet when mr. Gnome played this year's Treefort Music Fest. They'll get another chance on Thursday, Nov. 20, when the band returns to play Neurolux with local noise-pop project With Child and Austin, Texas-based indie-rock group Young Tongue.
Heart's sound may surprise some longtime mr. Gnome fans. Since the band's early EPs, a key component of its music has been Barille's thunderous, buzzsaw guitar. That guitar gets turned down on the new album in favor of light beats, quirky keyboard noises and playfully off-kilter pop tunes.
According to Barille, she and Meister haven't lost interest in rocking out; they just wanted to do more. The pair wrote more than two albums' worth of material after touring for nine months behind Madness in Miniature (2011).
"We wrote a lot of songs that were kind of more in the vein of Madness," she said. "We recorded them, and then we just kind of kept searching. We felt like we needed to keep pushing the envelope and seeing where else we could take it. And so I think that's kind of how we fell into more of the orchestrated sound for these specific songs."
Part of Meister and Barille's desire to experiment arose from recording the songs on their own in their home studio.
"It was just fun to learn how to get the sounds that we wanted," Barille said. "Sit and tweak them for a couple hours and just really get exactly what we were going for when, at the same time, we didn't really know what we were going for."
That process led to some intense soul searching, some of which could have seeped into the album's lyrics. While mr. Gnome's earlier songs focus on escape and surrealist fantasy, many of the songs on Heart are about connecting with others, a subject which Barille shied away from in the past.
"I feel like the older I get, the more I completely appreciate all the amazing relationships in my life," she said. "And just from touring, all the amazing people that we've met. ... Not to get all corny, but I almost feel like that's how a lot of that came out—not really meaning to at all."
Barille feels especially grateful for the musical career she's had, knowing that mr. Gnome came together when the Internet and file-sharing had shaken the music industry to its core.
"It really became like the Wild Wild West and you had to figure out your own way to do it. Do you want to sign with a label when labels are just kind of totally crumbling? These huge labels are, all of a sudden, closing. It was just very weird, and I think you could get completely turned off by that and run away and be like, 'You know what, I'm gonna get a real job.'"
But Barille and Meister figured out their own way. They toured relentlessly, made their own music videos, did their own photo shoots and put out mr. Gnome's albums on their own El Marko label. Eventually, they started getting attention from outlets like Pitchfork, Spin and Rolling Stone, the latter which gave Madness three-and-a-half stars and named mr. Gnome a Band to Watch. They were also able to record the album Heave Yer Skeleton (2009) at Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme's Pink Duck Studios.
The pair plans to keep mr. Gnome's momentum going. They've already started writing the follow-up to Heart, which Barille said will have much more guitar. Listeners should probably expect some surprises, though.
"It's just so fun to wake up in the morning and not know what you're going to write or what's going to come out of it," Barille said.