Nothing ‘miniature’ about Mr. Gnome’s ‘Madness’
We’re not huge metalheads over here, but we do sometimes like to crank the stereo and bask in the aural glow of some unadulterated rawk. And for the last couple of years, we’ve followed the avant-metal act Mr. Gnome (singer-guitarist Nicole Barille and drummer Sam Meister), a truly talented duo out of Cleveland. The group’s new album, Madness in Miniature, which comes out in late Oct., features some terrific stoner rock riffs and unbelievably dark ballads. We caught up with the duo, who are actually quite cheerful, if you want to know the truth, the other night at the Grovewood Tavern, a Cleveland eatery and bar where they are a couple of regulars, and did an interview with them for a feature story we’re doing for Cleveland Magazine. Here’s what they had to say about their terrific new set of tunes, which they recorded at Pink Duck Studios, the Burbank studio owned by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme. The ability to experiment with sounds and textures comes across clearly on its fantastic new album, Madness in Miniature, which it recorded at Pink Duck Studios, the Burbank studio owned by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, where it also recorded 2009’s Heave Yer Skeleton.
So when did the band first form?
Nicole: In October of 2005 we released the first EP. We met in high school at Notre Dame high school in Chardon. We met there but didn’t start playing together until after college. We played together a little bit in college, but we didn’t start Mr. Gnome until after we both graduated.
What inspired you to put the band together?
Nicole: I just had a bunch of songs that I was working on and he had a drum set that he hadn’t played since he got it for Christmas when he was 15. He was like, “Yeah, why don’t we try this out?” I could never finish songs, so we just started jamming.
What was your first EP?
Sam: It was just five songs that came in at about 18 minutes. It was short. We self-released it and started touring. We printed 1000 and then 1000 more, and they’ve been out of print since 2007.
Nicole: We ended up releasing a double EP a few years ago and combined the two EPs.
That’s amazing that you sold that many copies.
Nicole: I think the music industry was just starting to crumble. So we thought it was going to be cool that we could sell that many albums. But it started crumbling as we began.
And when did your full-length debut come out?
Sam: That was in 2006, so it was just shortly after. And that’s when we started touring regularly.
Did you sign to a label?
Sam: That’s the funny thing. No, we didn’t. But the label we talked to in Las Vegas set us up with our booker, who is still with us to today.
Nicole: The label just dissolved shortly after that.
Sam: It was a good thing.
Nicole: We fell in love with the West Coast. A bunch of friends from college had moved out to the West Coast so we decided we would couch surf for half a year. That was the summer of 2007. We played one last show at [Cleveland’s] Grog Shop and then threw all our stuff in a storage spot and hit the road and started sleeping on people’s couches and writing our first album in these really tiny, shitty metal practice spots in San Diego and Portland. We had family and friends in both spots and we had friends up and down the coast so we were like drifters for a minute.
What’s your best couch surfing story?
Nicole: It’s not like “best.” It’s more like “weird.”
Sam: It’s more like frightening. There are some frightening people out there who would invite us into their houses. We met a lot of nice people, but we met some scary people too.
So you were writing when you were out there?
Nicole: Yeah, and we got into the Wavelab Studio in Tucson, which is where our booker is from. We also recorded at Jackpot! in Portland. We did half of the album in Tucson and half in Portland. It was all recorded on tape and it was a really cool experience that we just hadn’t had before. We learned about layering guitars and vocals and different recording techniques we hadn’t done on the first two EPs. They had so much stuff there. Pianos and guitars and amps. They had all these vintage amps. Tucson is awesome and we always come through because of our booking agent. I think a lot of people pass it up because they just play Phoenix. We play Plush, which is a really cool club.
What did you take from that experience?
Nicole: So much. It changed our whole approach to everything. We weren’t working so we would wake up, drink a bunch of coffee and go to the practice spot and play for like five hours. We could take it anywhere. It was the beginning of experimenting and playing ten-minute songs and then realizing that no one probably wants to listen to ten-minute songs.
Sam: We did a lot of experimenting to see where things would go.
Nicole: It was weird and scary and awesome. At the same time, we were like “What are we doing?” This is totally crazy. It was totally worth it. We haven’t recorded on tape since then. We were naive enough at the time to do it.
You then released Heave Yer Skeleton, which you recorded at Josh Homme’s studio in Burbank.
Sam: Yeah, he and Brody, the wife of the guy from the Distillers, have this studio and it’s a practice studio. Justin Smith, the studio manager, invited us. It was one of those things were someone gave him a copy of one of our albums and he liked it and gave us a call and we’ve been good friends since then. He has become one of our really, really good buddies. We share a love of dorky things like sci-fi shows.
Nicole: Our friend works on the TV show Community, where he is an assistant editor, and he knew Justin.
And you’ve always produced yourselves?
Sam: The first time we were in the studio, we let the engineers guide us. When we went out west, we started learning about instruments and amps and different ways to layer our recording and we kept growing with that and doing more and more fun things in the studio.
Nicole: And when we went into Josh’s studio, it was like a magic playground.
And how does the new album different from what you’ve done in the past?
Sam: I think this one touches a lot more ground than anything we’ve done. Even more than the last one, which was rather thematic, reaches softer spots than we’ve reached before. And we tend to keep the soft parts softer for a longer time.
Nicole: There’s some more punk upbeat stuff on there, too. It’s pretty all over the place. We were playing Canton [Ohio] not too long ago and this reporter from the paper there said something about how we write dark music. I don’t view it like that. I think people write in different moods. When I write guitar parts, I think of it as a therapy session. I think that’s why it has a moody effect. Some people write in order to feel happy and the music comes out in a happier form.
Sam: What’s interesting is how an outsider sees our music and how we see our music. It’s often polar opposites. I’m really open to music and I don’t put boundaries on what we do and that weirds people out.
Nicole: Indie rock is very happy these days and there’s not too many distortion pedals out there.
Sam: We get loud and we get fast and we get slow and that messes with your head a bit. I guess it can be weird if you’re not used to music that changes tempo and volume. That’s just us and that’s how we write. It doesn’t weird me out the way it weirds other people out.
How do fit in with stoner rock?
Nicole: I think this one is more stoner rock than the last one. When we were writing Heave Yer Skeleton, some people passed away who had been in our lives. It’s a pretty emotional record. This one we wrote in the summer and winter and you can hear the extremes.
You record your own videos, right?
Nicole: Yeah. Sam was doing video work before we started Mr. Gnome.
Sam: It’s just another way we an express ourselves.
What do you hope to achieve and are you happy with the band’s current status?
Nicole: For sure. Every tour has gotten better and better and there are many markets across the country where we show up and it’s a nicely packed room. It’s weird because it will be all the way across the country. It’s pretty random.
Sam: We have fans all over the world. Our mail order goes all over the world. We would like to go Europe but it is just us two doing everything. It’s just something we have to take on. Eventually, we will.