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 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”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.