It was the shrill bird chirps that gave him away. Matt Bishop, lead singer for Seattle's chamber folk outfit Hey Marseilles, had snuck into the garden behind Seattle University's Office of Admissions, his day job, to squeeze in a phone interview. Though Bishop peppered our conversation with university-worthy words like "cogent" and "phraseology," he also showed his humble side, referring to people as "folks" and thanking me earnestly for taking time to talk to him.
Hey Marseilles has been making "Seattle swoon," according to the Seattle Weekly, with its brand of accordion-soaked orchestral pop since the band self-released its debut To Travels and Trunks in 2008. But that swoonitude soon spread to the rest of the country when the seven-piece signed to Fuzed Music and re-released the album in 2010.
"When we released [To Travels and Trunks], it kind of just slowly built up an audience in Seattle over a period of months," said Bishop. "When we finally got to a point where we had met our management and label, they were interested in re-releasing it primarily for the sake of expanding our audience outside of Seattle and having it sound good and having a more cogent effort behind trying to get it out there," said Bishop.
And the band did break out of the Pacific Northwest. Seminal '90s band Toad the Wet Sprocket invited Hey Marseilles to open on a national tour, and NPR called the band "sublime and heartfelt" during a live performance at Seattle's KEXP radio.
"It was hard to focus on any one musician at a time, as they were all playing parts you wanted to linger with, but the wayfaring spirit of the songs drew me quickly from one to another, and I soon found myself drifting off to parts unknown," said NPR's Cheryl Waters. "It's an adventure anyone should enjoy."
Most of the songs on To Travels and Trunks, as the title suggests, are about traveling. On the hip-twisting, handclap-filled, horn-blaring ditty "Rio," Bishop sings "drink 'til tomorrow becomes yesterday / think of the shorelines you have yet to see." And on the softer, guitar-strummed "Cigarettes," Bishop's quivering, Colin Meloy-ish croon echoes a similar theme: "I, I remember / how we, we danced out loud / and safe and solemn harbors / away from windswept towns."
Though the band didn't explicitly set out to make a concept album, Bishop said the album's travel-themed lyrics and French Riviera feel reflected the fact that most members were in their starry-eyed early 20s when they made the record. Over the past six months, Hey Marseilles has been working on a follow-up EP, which will be released this fall, and a full-length album, set to come out in early 2012. Interestingly, the new record also has an overarching theme: the recession.
"I didn't figure out until a few weeks ago what all the songs in relation to each other are all about ... it's not a political set of songs by any means but [reflects economic] stress. A few of us have lost our jobs and four guys moved into a foreclosed house not too long ago, which actually turned out to be a fantastic opportunity--it's where we recorded most of the record."
And while the new album may sound like a weighty departure from the breezy To Travels and Trunks, Bishop assured fans that the band's core sound will remain unchanged.
"I think a lot of our foundational stuff, in terms of the aesthetic of our sound, is going to be comparable--pretty folky and influenced by an eclectic culture of music," said Bishop. "Some of the songs will sound similar to what was on To Travels and Trunks, but we've also got a few songs that have a bit more grit to them."
In addition to learning how to work together more efficiently over the past three years, Hey Marseilles has also started to experiment with the recording process.
"We were just really trying to take advantage of acoustic spaces, so a lot of the second record is being recorded in tunnels and warehouses, and different tracks for different instruments are being recorded in different naturally acoustically beneficial spots," said Bishop.
With half-joking excitement, Bishop admitted, "I know all the bathrooms where you can sing when you visit Seattle."
Though they may lay down tracks in public bathrooms, the band cleans up nicely. The Seattle Symphony recently invited the group to collaborate on a special performance in October called Sonic Evolution.
"The symphony approached us a few months back. They just recently got a new director and they're trying to do some unique shows," explained Bishop. "So that show, about half of it they'll be doing variations of compositions by Seattle artists like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Jimi Hendrix, and then the second half of the show, we'll be playing with them--one original piece that we're writing with the symphony and then a couple of our songs as well."
But before Hey Marseilles storm the Seattle Symphony, they'll pack their trunks and head to Boise. The group will perform for free at Alive After Five on Wednesday, July 27. Though the group tends to play gigs in dark, rock 'n' roll haunts, they're also comfortable getting down with an all-ages crowd.
"One of the weird things about our music, in a good way, is our demographic tends to be pretty varied ... We're fortunate in that our music is super popular with younger kids and their parents, which is great," said Bishop.