Mr. Gnome Goes It Alone
Earlier this year, the avant metal act Mr. Gnome released its new album, The Heart of a Dark Star, to wide acclaim. According to the band’s press release, “[Singer] Nicole [Barille] and [drummer] Sam [Meister] are back in their conceptual wheelhouse, but this time their approach is leaner and the gut punches are swift.” Engineer Kevin McMahon (Walkmen, Titus Andronicus, Swans, Real Estate) mixed the album, and the group did its own cover art. The terrific single, “Rise & Shine,” starts with whispered vocals and sparse guitars before turning into rousing rocker that concludes with something that sounds like breaking guitar strings. Barille phoned us from her Northeast Ohio home to talk about the album.
When did you start writing the songs for the new album?
We ended up touring eight of 12 months for Madness in Miniature. We got back at the end of 2012 and began writing at the beginning of 2013. We went to Pink Duck recording studio in June of last year. When we finished we felt like we weren’t done. We got a nice licensing deal so we bought some stuff to complete our studio here. We wanted to give it a shot to see if we could do everything. We wrote a ton of additional material. We recorded everything in three months. It was so much work without an engineer.
What happened to the L.A. session?
It’s still floating around our place. I think if anything, it’ll become B-sides or we might rewrite those songs. We jumped in the studio a little too quickly. We’re always searching for the best we can be in that moment. I think that’s why we thought we weren’t there. That’s why we kept writing and soul searching and trying to find more of a voice in what we were doing.
So what exactly made you change your approach to the writing?
I think having no pressure to write made it the most fun we ever had doing a record. It was just the two of us. It is so much work [when you don’t have] someone running around and tweaking microphones and setting them up. Now, it’s all in your hands. There are pros and cons to that. There’s that type of energy. Living in the middle of winter played a role too. We recorded in January and in the bulk months of where you could get down and sad. It was a good distraction from the gray skies and it kept our spirits up. We were focused and excited about the tones we were getting and being able to layer things. We tried to work on the songs until they were done but not dwell on them for too long.
It was mixed by Kevin McMahon. Have you worked with him before?
We were investigating bands we liked and stumbled upon the Walkmen, who are amazing. We saw that he was running the studio when they were in New York. We saw that he had worked with other bands we like, bands like Titus and Herzog. He was amazing. We hung out with him for a week and it was a great experience. He was so good.
To me, “Melted Rainbow” sounds like the Cocteau Twins. What were you going for sonically?
That was the first one we recorded. I wrote it on the piano originally. I wrote a super stripped down version and then we added drums. When we recorded it, we felt like the orchestration could be so much more. I wrote bass lines that stepped in the front a little more. That was having the time to make something I really like. We were being more creative for it and writing a bass line for it that’s different for the orchestration. When we heard it and realized what we could do to orchestrate it, we just thought, “Let’s not worry about how we play it live and let’s just record an album.” We were just having fun and we gravitated toward what sounded best.
Do you play bass on the song?
I play bass and the keys and there’s guitar on it as well. There are crazy effects on it too. I sprinkle bass here and there if the song needs a low end to it. In the past, I would mimic what the guitar was doing with the bass. For this one, I was writing specific bass parts that were more complementary.
Do you think it’s more accessible?
This record? I don’t know. It’s hard to interpret your own stuff. Because we did it ourselves and recorded it ourselves, you spend more time with it so I don’t think we hear it the way other people hear it. There’s so much associated with the record because of our experiences with it. I know it’s more upbeat than our older records. There are some songs that will end up on the next record that didn’t fit the mood.
It streamed on NPR. I think that will bring in new fans.
We’re attracted to so many different types of music. If we follow our hearts, we’ll touch upon different genres and not just stay in one. It’s been fun. It’s good to challenge yourself like that. That’s what artists do. They try to evolve in whatever way you can just to push themselves.
Talk about your DIY approach.
I think that when we released our first full-length, we wanted to start our own label. We just started getting into touring. We thought we might sign other bands. That was 2008. We had called ourselves a band before that but it was just our EPs. We saw the industry crumble around us. We said if were willing to put in the extra work we could do it ourselves and not have to worry about a label. That’s been our goal with everything. Sam makes our videos and does our artwork and I do the T-shirts. Now, we started to record ourselves too. If you can do that, it’s pretty fun to be able to control everything. Are we control freaks or did we just figure out how to do things and are happy with it? I like having that control. If you have your own vision and can make it work, that’s a good route to go nowadays. The stuff we’ve been offered hasn’t been attractive enough to take us away from what we’re doing. We’ve been doing things our own way for so long, it would have to be pretty tempting.
What do you see as the band’s future?
This was the longest we went without a record. We were trying to write as much stuff as we could. We didn’t want to settle on anything. It is a lot of work. When we’re on the road, Sam’s parents help us out. It’s a family business. They help us tremendously. They even take orders. They’re part of our team. It would be good to get other people involved so they don’t have to help as much, even though I think they like it. It gets to be a lot. All the loading and unloading hits you hard midway through the tour. It’s nice to have people helping us out. We’ll keep adding as time goes on and as we’re able to.
Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates
Columbus OH @ The Basement
Cleveland OH @ Beachland Ballroom