Nicole (IX)

mr. Gnome at The Conservatory, Oklahoma City

The Interview

mr. Gnome Interview

The word “atmos­pheric” gets tossed around a lot when describ­ing Cleveland-based mr. Gnome. Also “schiz­o­phrenic,” “psy­che­delic,” “weird,” “exper­i­men­tal,” “thun­der­ous,” “dreamy,” “loud,” “intro­spec­tive,” “stormy,” “crunchy,” “aggres­sive,” “ghostly,” “sweet,” “dark,” “bright,” and “spas­tic.” Also “cute,” as petite gui­tarist and singer Nicole Barrille is cer­tainly elfin, while her hus­band-cum-drum­mer, Sam Meister, is a hand­some giant (at 6′5″, he was a high school bas­ket­ball guard). Rarely apart from one another by more than a few feet, they cer­tainly are a cute cou­ple.

Then there are the inevitable com­par­isons to that other Cleveland Ohio drum-and-gui­tar duo, the Black Keys: mr. Gnome pro­duces a BIG sound, with Nicole employ­ing a pair of micro­phones and a bank of ped­als for loop­ing and dis­tort­ing both her vocals and the mas­sive power chords that she favors dur­ing live per­for­mance, and Sam beat­ing the liv­ing crap out of his drums while keep­ing pre­cise time with his imag­i­na­tive riffs. It’s all the more impres­sive due to the high-wire act of play­ing to loops live: 1 mis­take and you’re done.

When I saw them at the mer­chan­dise table wait­ing to head­line at The Conservatory in November, they gave no hint that they were Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Band to Watch” in or that they sin­gle-hand­edly blew up SXSW ear­lier in ; they looked like a cou­ple of small town kids who’d just wan­dered into the wrong neigh­bor­hood in the big city. The word “bewil­dered” came to mind.

Maybe it’s because Nicole wound up in the hos­pi­tal with a knee infec­tion the last time mr. Gnome was sched­uled to play Oklahoma City, or maybe they were oper­at­ing on too lit­tle sleep and too much time in the Silver Bullet (their affec­tion­ate name for their “stinky tour van”) rac­ing from venue to venue, but the cou­ple seemed pen­sive and quiet, with no hint of the pow­er­house of shred­ded gui­tars and brick solid drum­ming they would soon become.

Just returned home from mr. Gnome’s Madness in Miniature tour, Nicole gen­er­ously answered a few ques­tions for Mercury Photo Bureau. [Sidenote: Thanks to Mr. George Corona at Terrorbird Media for arrang­ing the inter­view.]

Mercury Photo BureauIt’s well doc­u­mented that you and Sam are high school sweet­hearts. Tell me about the 1st time you set eyes on each other, or about the 1st time you spoke to or hung out with each other.

Nicole BarilleSam was actu­ally too shy to talk to me, so he sent his friend over to flirt with me at a Pizza Hut while he hung out in the cor­ner smok­ing cig­a­rettes with a group of girls. Real smooth.

MPBI read an inter­view where you list all the sto­ries — true and apoc­ryphal — regard­ing the band name; you men­tion that both David Bowie and Pink Floyd have songs about gnomes. The Pink Floyd song, from the Syd Barrett era, isn’t too hard to track down, but The Laughing Gnome is pretty obscure. I used to think it was the worst thing Bowie had ever released, until I heard the sound­track to Labyrinth. What’s your take on The Laughing Gnome?

NicoleI actu­ally had never heard that song until just now. [I] didn’t real­ize there was actu­ally a gnome voice in that tune. Quite inter­est­ing! [I’m] glad Bowie moved onto Ziggy Stardust after this one.

Sam (III)
Sam (III) — mr. Gnome at The Conservatory, Oklahoma City

MPBYour lat­est album, Madness in Miniature, is unde­ni­ably a con­cept album, with a nar­ra­tive tying the songs together. Would you be cre­at­ing con­cept albums with­out hav­ing heard exam­ples from the Prog Rock era, espe­cially Pink Floyd?

NicoleIt’s a con­cept album only in ret­ro­spect, but it wasn’t some­thing we did con­sciously. We wrote the album in between tour­ing, so there are dif­fer­ent moods through­out the record. [Sidenote: Nicole spoke in detail about this in another inter­view] We wrote the inter­ludes after the major­ity of the album was recorded, [hop­ing] to tie the whole thing together a bit more [to] lend to the con­cept album feel. We are huge fans of albums that flow from begin­ning to end and feel more like a com­plete work than a bunch of songs, so we def­i­nitely embrace those influ­ences, and, at the same time, we always try to make a cohe­sive work.

MPBSpeaking of Pink Floyd, you’ve talked about the con­cert film Live at Pompeii on numer­ous occa­sions. When I was a wee sprout attend­ing col­lege, I heard a nation­ally syn­di­cated show, pos­si­bly the King Biscuit Flour Hour, broad­cast the entire audio from the film. I knew I couldn’t be home to hear it because I had to work that night, so I arranged for 1 of my mom’s co-work­ers to tape it on his reel-to-reel recorder. What do the visu­als add to your expe­ri­ence of the film that I missed, since I’ve only heard it?

NicoleOh man … I highly rec­om­mend check­ing out Live at Pompeii. Sam intro­duced me to that film when we were in high school, and I was just blown away. The mood and energy of their per­for­mance is really amaz­ing, and the movie […] really influ­enced Sam as a film­maker. David Gilmour was a huge inspi­ra­tion to me, vocally and as a gui­tar player. Sam’s main inspi­ra­tion for drum­ming is Nick Mason, and he is quite incred­i­ble in this video. Overall a really unique edit­ing and pre­sen­ta­tion of a live per­for­mance. We don’t rec­om­mend watch­ing the director’s cut … stick with the orig­i­nal release! [Sidenote: The Director’s Cut DVD includes the orig­i­nal 60 minute the­atri­cal cut.]

MPBA lot of artists can’t pro­duce or per­form any­thing worth­while when they’re actu­ally high, but still draw inspi­ra­tion from the expe­ri­ence. You joke about drugs and alco­hol a lot in your inter­views, but how impor­tant is an altered state of mind to your cre­ativ­ity? Does it ever hin­der it? Do you ever worry about the con­se­quences of overindulgence?

NicoleI think an autonomous state of cre­ativ­ity can pro­duce some amaz­ing results. The hard­est part of cre­at­ing is tap­ping into another side of your­self, and although I don’t con­done [drug abuse] in any way, it can help you reach another state of con­scious­ness. Tape recorders are key! Because you prob­a­bly won’t remem­ber what you did.

MPBYou guys write your own songs and pro­duce and record them, cre­ate all the visual mate­ri­als, from album art­work to T-shirt designs and pub­lic­ity pho­tos, pro­duce astound­ing music videos with amaz­ing cos­tumes and visual effects, tour con­stantly (with no road crew), and I’m prob­a­bly leav­ing stuff out. Do you ever sleep? In other words, how do you man­age your time?

NicoleThank you very much for the com­pli­ments! Honestly, we really love the cre­at­ing process. It’s our favorite part of what we do, and the road is such an intense beast that when we finally get back home, we’re so antsy and eager to get back to the draw­ing board. It does take a lot out of us, and we def­i­nitely feel run down from time to time, but it’s all part of the process and [it] all feeds back into the final product.

MPBSpeaking of videos, the House of Circles video is aston­ish­ing, espe­cially in light of the ~$2000 bud­get. Please tell us a bit about it.

NicoleWe came up with a very elab­o­rate fairy tale to go along with our album, Madness in Miniature. We decided the best way to present the story was to focus on telling the end of the story [as a music video]. We shot the whole beast in front of a green screen, [Sidenote: A type of chroma key com­posit­ing — a spe­cial effects tech­nique for lay­er­ing two images together based on color hues. Often used to remove a back­ground from a fore­ground sub­ject.] in a barn on our prop­erty in the dead of win­ter. Sam edited the whole thing in between tour­ing through­out the year, and really had to stretch his imag­i­na­tion to come up with scenes that the char­ac­ters would live in.

Sam’s mom, Barb, did all of the cos­tum­ing and helped with pro­duc­tion as well. She is quite the trouper! It was really fun and excit­ing to see the whole thing come together.

mr. Gnome — House of Circles

MPBYou’ve spo­ken in the past about the painters and illus­tra­tors who inspire you. Who are some of the film­mak­ers you admire? — or maybe name some films you love for their visuals?

NicoleJulie Taymor (Frida, the stage ver­sion of The Lion King), Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill), Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior, Heaven), Lana and Andrew Wachowski (The Matrix), Roberto Rodriguez (Sin City) … the list goes on and on.

MPBI’m ashamed that a res­i­dent of my fine city stole a T-shirt from your mer­chan­dise table. Was Oklahoma City the only stop where you were the vic­tims of thiev­ery on this tour? Do you think there’s a con­nec­tion to the cul­ture of steal­ing music online that makes this sort of thing more likely going forward? 

Sam (I)
Sam (I) — mr. Gnome at The Conservatory, Oklahoma City

NicoleThat was pretty crazy, wasn’t it? Unfortunately, that was not the only […] theft along this tour. Someone stole some­thing off of our table on the very 1st night of the tour in Louisville, Kentucky. I think it has more to do with the fact that peo­ple are drunk and stu­pid than any­thing else! But yeah, it’s unfor­tu­nate that peo­ple […] steal from musicians.

MPBTell us about the newest fam­ily mem­ber (your dog).

NicoleWe love her and she is a huge, lov­able beast. [We’re] happy to be reunited after this long tour […].

MPBYou’ve said in other inter­views how much help you get from friends and fam­ily. Sam’s mother, Barbara, makes all of your cos­tumes, which are really ter­rific. Did she have any expe­ri­ence as a cos­tumer before she started help­ing you? How many has she made for you, so far?

NicoleBarb has […] been an amaz­ing artist her whole life, but wasn’t able to cre­ate as much for the past few decades because she was busy rais­ing chil­dren. Her cos­tum­ing […] started with us [on] our first video for Night of the Crickets, and has grown from there. It’s been won­der­ful to watch her grow as an artist, and her imag­i­na­tion and cre­ativ­ity blow us away. She always exceeds our expectations.

mr. Gnome — Night of the Crickets

MPBAre you get­ting any bet­ter at eat­ing health­fully on the road?

NicoleYes, we’ve become veg­e­tar­i­ans and [we] hit up a lot of Whole Foods on this past tour. No more gas sta­tion hot dogs!

MPBNicole, you’ve cited Otis Redding as some­one whose music Sam intro­duced you to, and also as a cre­ative influ­ence. Have you seen the D. A. Pennebaker film Shake! Otis at Monterey Pop? I see the same kind of energy in your per­for­mances as in his at that his­toric festival.

NicoleThank you so very much. That is a huge com­pli­ment … Otis is the best.

MPBCould you tell us the inspi­ra­tion for the Vampires video? — and also a bit about mak­ing it?

NicoleWe just wanted to make a video that really [con­trasted with] the poppy vibe of the song. So we came up with the premise of a kid’s show that turns into a bloodbath.

The mak­ing of the video was quite extreme. Again we shot it in our barn, but this time in the swel­ter­ing heat of August. We totally tor­tured our friends that week­end, but they for­gave us when we got to watch it in a the­ater on a big screen as part of the Cleveland International Film Fest. What bet­ter way to say thanks for let­ting me pour red sugar syrup all over you in a 100° [Fahrenheit] barn than with a party bus tak­ing you to watch your­self on the sil­ver screen?

mr. Gnome — Vampires

MPBNicole, who are your gui­tar heroes?

NicoleI’m mainly inspired by gui­tar play­ers [who] are in the bands I love. [I like] the moods they cre­ate … not nec­es­sar­ily their tech­ni­cal skills. Pink Floyd, Radiohead, the Flaming Lips, Built to Spill, Tame Impala, Queens of the Stone Age, Portishead, the Beatles … I could go on […].

MPBOn The Way, from your sin­gle Softly Mad, you seem to be chan­nel­ing David Gilmour on the gui­tar; your vocal reminds me of the Cocteau Twins. I think the famous thrift store organ is on that track, too. Are you using a slide? What’s going on there?

NicoleThanks very much […]; David Gilmour and Otis Redding com­par­isons? You may be my new best friend!

I wrote the idea of that song [on the] thrift store organ … the melody and chord pro­gres­sion all came together at once. When we recorded it, we did the ses­sion where we live and [we] wanted to layer up gui­tars and bass so that the song started much more stripped down and just kept build­ing on top of itself. No slide … just got some good gui­tar tones goin’ and went with it.

Nicole (XIV)
Nicole (XIV) — mr. Gnome at The Conservatory, Oklahoma City

MPBWhat media does Sam use for the illus­tra­tions? Does he start with pen and paper or paint and brush, or does he stick mainly to the dig­i­tal realm?

NicoleThe whole thing starts out as a pen and paper con­cept and then it’s cre­ated digitally.

MPBI started Mercury Photo Bureau as a show­case for my pho­tog­ra­phy, but it acci­den­tally became a music mag­a­zine. What’s Sam’s pho­tog­ra­phy back­ground? He’s really good, if your pub­lic­ity pho­tos are any indication.

NicoleSam went to school at Kent State [University] and grad­u­ated from the School of Journalism with a focus in radio and TV broad­cast­ing, but he got to dab­ble with pho­tog­ra­phy dur­ing that time, and [he’s] kept up with it ever since. The extra cre­ative push behind the press shots comes from us being uncom­fort­able pos­ing in front of a cam­era, so we always try to do some­thing spe­cial with it.

MPBDo you have favorite tech­nol­ogy or toys, either for mak­ing music or for pho­tog­ra­phy and video?

NicoleYeah, we have lots of toys where we live, and that’s the best part about cre­at­ing … we built a stu­dio around us and just kind of bounce from 1 media to another.

MPBYou recently had a close call with a school shoot­ing. In light of the recent inci­dent in Connecticut, do you have any thoughts on guns in America?

NicolePeace and love … peace and love. Turn on, tune in, drop out!

MPBNicole, how did you fig­ure out all the loop­ing and the other tech­ni­cal stuff you have to do to per­form live? Did you get in much prac­tice before you got thrown in the ring?

NicoleI started loop­ing when we started play­ing songs from our 2nd album, Heave Yer Skeleton. I had been turned onto loop­ing through a won­der­ful [New Orleans-based] musi­cian friend named Kevin [Comarda] (he does a project called Self-Help Tapes), and I just really loved the way he cre­ated mul­ti­ple lay­ers in a live set­ting. He helped me get started, and I knew it would allow us to take our live show to another level.

The first few times I did it live were extremely nerve wrack­ing, and it’s still a lit­tle scary now and then … with loop­ing, any­thing can go wrong at any time. But that’s true with live music in general!

MPBWhat’s the weird­est thing that’s hap­pened on tour, that you haven’t spo­ken about pub­licly yet?

NicoleIt’s a secret. If we told you, this email would self-destruct. [Sidenote: We are still try­ing to get Nicole to tell us; stay tuned for updates.]

MPBWhat’s on your iPods now?

NicoleEverything from The Frogs to the Beatles to Tame Impala to Beat the Devil to the Footloose sound­track … we love it all, and [we] pretty much have every genre cov­ered in our music collection.

MPBIn lieu of ask­ing about your musi­cal influ­ences, which are well doc­u­mented else­where, I’d like each of you to redeem a song. Take a song that you might think of as a guilty plea­sure, and tell me what’s great about it.

Sam MeisterThe entire Footloose sound­track … need I say more?

Nicole[Anything by] The Frogs. They are awe­some but not some­thing I can play for many peo­ple. [I’m] not sure how PC they are. [Sidenote: Not very — ed.]

MPBThank you for play­ing Oklahoma City and for tak­ing time to talk to me.


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About Chris J. Zähller

International Man of Mystery. Cocktail Nerd. Occasionally designs websites. Sometimes snaps a picture or two.

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