The Memphis Pencils are a multi-member band from Fayetteville, Arkansas that landed a gig at CMJ after getting heavy fan support on a social-networking site called Ourstage. After their performance (in which they played much from their album, Human Trampoline), band members Martin Bemberg, Reed Faitak and Neil Lord talked with us about their influences, how to play a trash can, and what it’s like to be a band in a small town in Arkansas.
Why don’t we start with a quick introduction to the band?
NL: We like to call ourselves the Memphis Pencils Octet. We’ve got Drew Wallis on the crash cymbals; we’ve got Brian Wolf on the keyboards—mostly the black keys—and the boomstick, which is an invention of a friend; Wally Phillips on trombone; Andrew McDougal on MicroKorg, making some weird sounds; James Pittman on banjo and good looks; Reed Faitak on bass guitar; me, Neil Lord, on guitar, glockenspiel and saxophone; and Martin Bemberg here, who is the Memphis Pencil, songwriter extraordinaire.
How did you come about having so many members in your band?
RF: We found a lot of things that needed to be played, and we found that the more different instruments that we had, the more lively it made our sound.
NL: Being a newer member, I think it’s pretty obvious that the social circle alone kind of led to that, let alone the fact that we can all play so many different instruments.
How does having so many members affect your stage show?
RF: The nice thing about having a lot of members is that there is less set changing between songs, and that makes everything more fluid. That, and having people on stage to dance when they don’t have anything better to do is also helpful—it makes us look like a bunch of goofy guys. Which we are, and which I think says the most about the way we approach music: If it’s fun, you might as well give it a shot.
Tell me a little about how you got this gig.
MB: We posted a song called "Un Dandy Dia" on an artists community called Ourstage, and it won the CMJ contest, so they asked us to play their CMJ showcase in New York.
I’ve heard a rumor that you guys drink a lot of cough syrup.
RF: Can we do one interview where we don’t mention the cough syrup?
MB: Yeah, we like to call ourselves dex-rock.
NL: We do a cappella shows on metros under the influence of dex.
MB: I almost got married on dex.
In New York?
MB: Yeah, her name’s Krista. Hello, Krista. I love you.
So what are your influences, other that cough syrup?
NL: That’s a great question, but I wish everyone was here to answer it.
MB: Renaissance choral music.
NL: Bulgarian Women’s Choir.
RF: Dr. Dog, Pavement, Of Montreal, but that was all just discovered through the Beatles.
I hear a lot Pavement in your sound, and a lot of the Beatles, but not so much the Bulgarian women’s choir.
MB: That tells you who wears the pants in this band.
NL: Well, in my music, those are the references I use.
MB: It just needs an audience.
NL: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I can listen to drones just as easily as I can listen to pop music.
Is that why you play a trash can?
NL: Yeah, that’s why I play a trash can.
Did you play anything new in your set, or just older material?
NL: "Sloppy Gospel" is a new song. That’s the only one that was written with all the new members. We also introduced a much older song into our repertoire, "Un Dandy Dia." It was very strange. I don’t know how that came about. I guess we’re just subservient to the idea.
RF: That song has undergone a lot of evolution by itself because we’ve been playing it with so many different groups of people. I think that having more people on some of our songs makes it feel a little bit more balanced. It just seems more balanced having a lot of people making dreamlike sounds.
Tell me about your album art. As far as I understand it, for the new album, you used informational wildlife cards as inserts for all the handmade copies.
RF: Something about animals is definitely very wholesome, kind of goofy, and something everyone can relate to. So that’s been a big theme in our music. And anything that you can find to represent your music, at least for me, needs to have an animal involved. So our album art is comprised of animal information cards that came from a wildlife treasury, which is a children’s animal information set. So we cropped the cards by hand for the purpose of being our CD insert and decorated them as we pleased.
Being from a small town, what’s the process like for getting your name out there?
RF: The people most interested in the music scene and the people that own music venues are the same, so the trick is just getting to know those people and getting them to like our music. Even though we didn’t have a lot of places to play, strength in numbers of performances was certainly helpful.
MB: Performances and performers.
RF: And we did get to know most of the applicable other bands, the ones that are closer to our sound, and have shows with them.
NL: Like Mae? [Laughter]
RF: Like Mae. We got all the Mae fans on our side. I talked to a girl the other day that was at the Mae show and she said that we were the best thing that happened there, so I thought that was pretty cool.