Cute isn’t the first word that springs to mind when describing Cleveland power mr. Gnome– weird, thunderous, or experimental all seem to be better fits- -but cute is the vibe that singer and guitarist Nicole Barille is putting off as she’s catching up on some e-mails and trying to ignore a particularly resonant sound check. Everything about the band, from the ominous, loud-quiet-loud songs on its recent release Madness in Miniature to the Donnie Darko-esque rabbit that graces the cover, would indicate that the duo to be a couple of tortured artists exploring the dark side of life. Instead, Barille and husband and collaborator Sam Meister, who joins us as we flee the drum test to the relative quiet of the city street, look like any couple you might see carefully choosing farmer’s market strawberries on a Sunday afternoon- and this is after having been nearly arrested on drug charges by the Florida Highway Patrol.
For those unfamiliar with your band, who is mr. Gnome?
NB: mr. Gnome is a schizophrenic, psychedelic, art-rocky two-piece. We’ve been around since 2005, when we started playing live and released our first EP. We’ve just been touring like crazy ever since then, really playing nationally since 2006 and then put out our first album in 2008.
So where does the name come from?
SM: Well we have a bunch of stories, so it depends.
I want the real story.
SM: The real story is that there is no story. When we first started, we called ourselves Gnome. We were going to be a real band and buy a website and sell tee-shirts and stuff, and when we started to look around we found out there was a band in Detroit called Gnome. We had already made some promotional materials, so we kind of had to figure that shit out pretty fast. We had to slap something on one end of it, so we were like “What about mr. Gnome?” and then were like “That’s fucking stupid.” We got over it.
NB: There is both a David Bowie and a Pink Floyd song with “gnome” in it, so we’ll go with something like that. We’re both huge fans of both of them.
Was there anything else in the running?
NB: I really don’t think we thought too much about it at the time.
SM: We were doing another band called Draw Down the Moon, which is a much cooler name, where I was singing and playing guitar. On the side of that we started doing Gnome, which turned into mr. Gnome. We played a few gigs as Gnome and then things started growing for that much faster, which is why we wanted to get a website and make tee-shirts. We were already out there as Gnome, so there wasn’t much of a discussion other than to add the “Mr.”
NB: We also had a good story that every time we would do hallucinogenics that there was a gnome that followed us around, and that we were naming the band in tribute to him. I think that’s the best story, really.
SM: And there’s another one where Cleveland is The Forest City, so we decided to pick the most magical creature in the forest to represent our band. That also isn’t true at all.
Your band has recently started getting notice from some national-type publications. How are you dealing with it?
NB: We have steady heroin habits.
SM: It’s been a slow growth, so we’re doing the same shit that we’ve been doing for the last five years- living in the van, going from city to city, playing every night- really building our fan base that way. Having something like that happen makes us feel like we’re not wasting our time. It’s validating, which is nice when you’re living in bars and pouring your heart out that way. It’s nice to have the pat on the back, but other than that it’s not that much different. We’re still here doing it and drinking PBR every night because that’s what they give us to drink. It’s makes us feel good, but we don’t get caught up in it. We can’t. Our lives are so momentary. Tomorrow we could get a horrible review or stop playing music altogether. All of it is so temporary.
What is your situation as musicians right now? Are you full-time?
NB: We’ve been touring so much that we really don’t have time to hold jobs down at home. We’d have to quit them every time we would tour. Pretty much for the last three years we’ve been averaging three tours a year, and then when we get back home we start the writing and recording process.
SM: We’re never home for more than two months at a time, and when we’re home we’re in the middle of something to do with all of this, whether it’s making the album art, recording or writing, or making a video. Or we’re in the van; it’s been that for the last few years.
NB: The stinky, stinky van.
SM: The stinky van that almost got us arrested today. Did she tell you about that?
What happened with the van today?
SM: We got pulled over in Gainesville, Florida by a deputy, and he just insisted we were smoking marijuana.
NB: He separated us and kept saying that the van smelled like pot, which we luckily didn’t have anything on us at the time.
SM: It was the most intense pull-over that I’ve ever been a part of where I haven’t been doing anything wrong. I’ve been in trouble where I have been doing something; I wasn’t doing anything this time, and the dude just comes up and pulls me out of the car, separates us, and then starts this interrogation process.
NB: He kept telling me, “He said you guys did smoke pot.” And I was like “Why the fuck would he say that?”
And this happened today?
NB: Yeah, and it was an eight-hour drive today, and this was slam in the middle of it. We were sure that we were going to be late for the gig and late to come talk to you. I really couldn’t believe it.
It’s like some sort of Seventies road movie.
SM: It really was just so weird.
NB: I was waiting for the dogs to come and sniff out the whole van, and I’m thinking if we have anything at all in there.
Any touring van is probably going to have trace amounts of something in it, if only from the time it spends in proximity to bars.
SM: Yeah. And that thing stinks. It smells so much like garbage. It smells like a garbage dump.
NB: It’s the end of the tour and we’ve been playing a bunch of smoking bars, so you just bring all that shit with you when you load your stuff in the van. The stuff just reeks.
How do you keep it going night after night?
SM: It’s hard man. The road wears you down. I think what keeps me going personally is when people come up before the show and tell me how excited they are to see the band perform. You have to remember that you’re there for that reason. You have to flip the switch and be on for the show. After that, I go right back to being a zombie.
NB: I think if you’re doing this for the wrong reasons it’s going to be obvious right away. If you really love the music, you’re going to want to get out and spread the word. No matter how many blogs or magazines you get on, you’re not going to build a fan base until you get out and play. I love it.
What’s the toughest part?
SM: Of being a musician?
NB: I can name like twenty things.
SM: It’s easier to name the things that aren’t hard.
NB: I worry about getting sick all the time, just because I’m singing like six nights in a row, and I don’t sing quiet or anything. And peeing in public restrooms constantly sucks, and there are some drunk people that say some really mean things to you. But like Sam was saying, there are pockets of positivity that do make it all worthwhile. You can touch people through music immediately. It’s a connection that you can’t make any other way. Balancing that is the fact that it’s tough on the road.
SM: It’s hard to eat good food and not drink six beers a night for fifty nights in a row. Especially at the small level we’re at, we have to eat a lot of crappy fast food during the fifteen minutes we have allotted to eat on our seven-hour drive to get to the club at six. Health is not something you can be hung up on.
NB: The end of the first week of November I got a bacterial infection in my knee when we were in Oklahoma City. I had to go to the ER and we had to cancel some shows. It’s hard to stay healthy in the in the first place, and then shit like that happens where I get a cut on my knee and something seeps in there, and then I’m on antibiotics for twenty-three days. You can’t drink when you’re playing and being around tons of drunk people is no fun.
What do you miss the most about Cleveland?
NB: We got a puppy last year and I miss her like crazy. Sam’s family has been really cool about keeping her, so I don’t worry so much, but it’s tough not having her around.
SM: We got her to be a road dog, but she would eat literally everything if we left her in the van right now. She’s just too little.
NB: And there’s your own shower, your own bathroom, and your own bed. All of those things are awesome. We also miss our families when we’re out on the road. We kept our home base in Cleveland so we’re able to be around them more often.
But it’s worth it to be out there repping Cleveland, right?
SM: Absolutely. Cleveland gets a bad rap, but it’s a great place to live and a great place to play music. I look forward to going back there when we’re done with the tour.