Nicole Barille of mr. Gnome: "Between two people, it can fall apart at any second, and that's kind of the fun about it"
mr. Gnome (due tonight at the Hi-Dive) tours more than most bands. The act's music is often thrown under the umbrella term "psychedelic." But clearly this Cleveland-based duo isn't really trying to sound like another psychedelic band. From the way Nicole Barille and Sam Meister present themselves in their press photos to the cover art of their albums to the songwriting and videos, one thing is clear: Barille and Meister have cultivated and run with a richness and depth of imagination that escapes many bands.
Because the two came to their music through via the visual arts, a medium that provided an immediacy of experience, their whole presentation has an uncommon artistic totality and coherence. The recent trailer for the song "House of Circles" looks like it could be the next great fantasy movie, and it came out of the songwriting on the band's noteworthy 2011 release, Madness in Miniature. We spoke with the charming and gracious Barille about the outfit's search for thrift-store musical rarities, its videos, its enduring interest in Art Nouveau and Folk Art, and an unexpected gig in Fruita, Colorado.
Westword: In an interview with Indie Rock Reviews a couple of years ago, you mentioned that you like to go to thrift stores to find old music gear for cheap. Do you still do this, and is there anything you've scored lately that comes readily to mind?
Nicole Barille: We've been still going. The one time we found something was in Madison, Wisconsin. We found this huge, old organ for twenty bucks. It has some really awesome, crazy sounds. That was the last thing we found. We still go to them all the time, but we haven't really been as successful, and we'll find stuff, but it's not as rare. We're still looking, though.
What got you interested in looking for stuff like that?
I don't know -- it's so random. I think we had just stopped in, and I don't even know why we first went in there, and we kind of turned a corner and there was this huge, massive organ. It was insane. So we plugged it in to see what it sounded like, and the sounds were amazing. And it had a $20 [tag], so I think that began our obsession with trying to find really cheap things that just sound really cool. Especially for the recording process, where they don't have to be perfect, but if you mike them up, they get the right tones.
With Madness in Miniature, it seemed like you had created a kind a cohesive work with its own internal mythology, if you will, and aesthetic. What inspired the imagery on the cover and in the songs themselves?
We were definitely trying to go for a really cohesive album. I think we've been trying to do that since we wrote our first record. On this one, we had a little more time to make some interludes and really kind of bring the whole thing together. I think we got lucky in the way the songs really just worked together, because they were written throughout the winter, spring and summer time, and in Cleveland, that's quite a climate shift. It's pretty drastic. I think that all blended into the sounds and the dynamics and mood that you're feeling when you're going through all those seasonal changes.
The artwork, Sam actually does all the covers for us. We do this kind of photo collage type of thing. So the background's from...we have a ton of pictures from driving through this beautiful country of ours -- so we have all these crazy pictures that we kind of slap on and just do some effects on them and just throw in some characters. We like dress up and be silly and see what kind of surreal imagery we can create from that. So that's just kind of where that came from. We ended up writing a whole video off of that, too, that's not done yet, but we just released the trailer for that.
Speaking of that, tell me about "House of Circles" and the video you've made for it.
We kind of sat on this record at the beginning of last year because we were trying to figure out how we were going to release it. As with every record we release, we just want things to be a step up. We had been touring so much, and when we recorded that, it was a really crazy time of like constant go, go, go.
So we took some time to chill out, and that's when I wrote those interludes, that segue in the beginning that leads each track into the next. So we listened to the record and started writing a really surreal story based on the lyrical content. It was nothing literal or anything. It kind of turned into this beast that we based on the character from the cover.
Sam's mom does all the costumes from all our covers. It's this weird thing that always fall into place. So, yeah, we based it off these characters from the story, and our main idea was to do a graphic novel. But we were getting really crazy, and we wanted to make a whole movie that kind of went with the whole album, like Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz type of thing.
We were thinking kind of grandiose. But we ran out of time to do that, just because we ended up releasing the record and going on tour, and that turns into touring for, like, a hundred years. But we did want to kind of condense the whole idea and make "House of Circles" the longest song we've ever written. It seems to be a favorite off that album so wanted to apply the whole story to that song.
There's so much more to come. We shot it all over this past winter in this barn we have in our back yard. It was fun, it was a ton of work, and now Sam has, like, 500 hours of editing to do. He was trying to get it done before we left, but that didn't really happen, so we wanted to release that trailer and then we'll finish it as soon as we can. But I'm definitely excited for everyone to see it, because it's pretty tripped out.
Yeah, it's reminiscent of The Dark Crystal, but more, as you suggested, tripped out.
Cool. I'm really glad you got that vibe, because we definitely had that as an inspiration that went into it.
You touched on this earlier, but you were also working on a graphic novel for that?
That was another idea, and hopefully we can still make that happen. We didn't intend to go on tour as soon as we did. But we got into SXSW, and we got invited to do a bunch of festivals that were routed around that. I think this summer we'll really just have fun, artistically, and do that and probably start writing our fourth record. Just getting back to work that doesn't involve being in a stinky van and dirty bars every day, you know?
In producing that graphic novel, will one of you do more of the writing and the other more of the artwork?
All the stories that we come up with are definitely collaborative. We have crazy imaginations, and we start talking and brainstorming and coming up with ideas. Sam mainly does the artwork. We'll [both] come up with the concept for everything and then he's kind of turned into a little Photoshop wizard. So it's a lot of photo-collage and stuff like that. He's been growing with his art with the ability to make all of our album covers, and it's been cool seeing where he's taken everything.
How has your interest in graphic novels and science fiction informed your music and vice versa?
Sam is a big sci-fi dork, a little more than me. But he's gotten me into that stuff, too. I was never really into that. I don't know if it influences the music, specifically. We're definitely into psychedelic, spacey stuff. Maybe that's kind of sci-fi? The music is totally separate, but I think it's still that we incorporate surrealism. Our attraction to a certain art style probably seeps into the music a little bit, too.