With an impressive assortment of pedals and guitars in tow, Nicole Barille of mr. Gnome looks like she’s setting up for a four-piece band at sound check.
Indeed, mr. Gnome’s huge sound seems to come from much more than two people, but only Barille and her husband, Sam Meister, are behind it. The Cleveland duo has played since 2005, putting out four full-length albums that entirely defy categorization. The duo’s juxtaposition of styles and sounds culminates in a unique aesthetic that is equal parts frenzied and gloomy, heavy and soft, fast and slow. Barille’s beautiful and haunting vocals range from childlike and playful to crooning and melodic, contrasting with her thrashing, distorted riffs and Meister’s powerful, lightning-fast drumming. Taking inspiration from a mixture of the music from the grunge era they grew up in as well as bands and artists like Portishead, Björk, and Mazzy Star, mr. Gnome creates a sound that is unclassifiable and completely authentic.
I sat down with Nicole and Sam before their recent performance at Dante’s in Portland to talk about their newest album, their fierce DIY spirit, and what they’ve learned from ten years of playing together.
She Shreds: Tell me about your label, El Marko Records.
Nicole Barille: When we were doing our very first full-length, we decided that we wanted to start our own record label and run it ourselves. That was in 2007, when everything was just crumbling around us in the music industry, so we thought that if we could figure out right then how to do it all ourselves, then we wouldn’t have to worry about it. We thought that if we were willing to work hard, we could definitely make it happen. It’s a ton of work but it’s really fun. We pretty much run the label… Sam’s parents help out a ton—they do a lot of the stuff when we’re touring that we can’t do when we’re away, like running the store and packing orders.
Sam Meister: It’s a family business, for sure. We just brought my little brother on. It definitely keeps us busy. When we’re not doing the art, we’re doing the business. It’s 24/7.
There is definitely a DIY attitude about the band. Where does that independent spirit come from?
NB: I think we’ve just always known what we’re going for. We’ve had people come from labels and offer us things, but to just give away all of that…it would have to be a really amazing deal. Never having to answer to anyone else and not having to worry about what anyone else thinks while you’re creating is really valuable. But I mean, maybe we are also kind of control freaks.
SM: I think at this point we are. It started out as necessity—no one wanted to have anything to do with us when we started because…well, we sucked and we were just getting started. So we just did it all ourselves, and then when people started to want a piece of it, we didn’t want to give it away at that point.
NB: Yeah, you learn how to do things yourself and then you can’t imagine doing it any other way. We were willing to put in all the work to run everything and then we were able to have all that control. It’s been worth it.
What have you learned from almost 10 years of playing together?
NB: I’ve learned the most from touring. I always tell people that if you want to get better, just tour your ass off. You get put into a million awkward situations and you just have to get good in order to be good. Not having monitors forever from only playing in crappy clubs, it really does make you better. You just have to figure out how to go about everything. It makes you troubleshoot a lot more and helps your muscle memory, all that stuff. You watch other bands all the time and start to pick up tips here and there, like figuring out what pedals you’re attracted to, and then you try to work all of that into your own set.
How did you decide to play as a two-piece?
NB: I don’t think we knew what we were getting into when we started, honestly—we didn’t have any idea how hard it would be. It really happened by accident. We were playing in a band with a bunch of other people and the two of us wanted to play all the time, but the others had different schedules. I had a ton of songs that I hadn’t finished that I brought to Sam and he decided to start playing the drums with me. We saw other bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys doing the two-piece thing and we thought we could do it. We just kind of stumbled into it, not really knowing how difficult it is, how much pressure is on when you don’t have other people to lean on.
What do you think is the biggest difference between the new album, The Heart of a Dark Star, and your last, Madness in Miniature?
NB: I think that this one is definitely more heavily orchestrated, and that’s because we did this record entirely by ourselves. We had done a bunch of the quieter interludes on Madness by ourselves, but we had never done the drums. So we decided to take everything to our home studio instead of paying for studio time, and just took our time and had a lot of fun with it. So I think that’s why it ended up being more heavily orchestrated—we had the time to really layer and tweak all the tones exactly how we wanted them. It was a self-discovery process. We weren’t really worrying about how we were going to play it live between two people. Madness was a little more guitar and drum centric, and this one has a lot of keys and a couple other additional instruments.
I read that a couple years ago you had a puppy that you wanted to turn into a road dog. Did that ever happen?
SM: Well, we had a Rottweiler when we were 19—we saved a dog and he was our best friend and went everywhere with us. He passed away when we were on tour, so we didn’t have a dog for three years, and we were like, we’re gonna get a dog again and we’re gonna make it a road dog just like he was. So we got a little girl Rottweiler thinking she would be small and calm like he was.
NB: She’s not at all. We call her a Spazzweiler because she’s such a freak. She’s massive, too. We really should’ve gotten a French Bulldog.