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No Place Like Gnome

They dropped everything to follow the music. So far, so good

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On a brisk Monday morning in late February, Nicole Barille and Sam Meister are standing on the apron of their century home in Chardon, bidding a visitor farewell. The vista of pine-dotted hills is streaked with snow, but much less than usual in snow-belt Geauga County at this time of year. A TV news chopper — a rare sight out here in the rural countryside — putters overhead.

Early that morning, Sam was awakened by the sound of the first helicopters — life flights heading to Chardon High School a short hop away. Word has spread that a student there shot up the cafeteria before the school day began.

"I have a nephew there; Sam's niece and nephew are there," says Nicole, pensively eying the copter above. "We were just there for a basketball game last week."

Dressed in jeans and winter jackets, with their Rottweiler Scout bounding at their side, they look as any concerned young couple would: pacing and worrying about family members caught up in the unlikeliest of tragedies. They will learn in the hours that follow that while their sleepy community has been slashed by sorrow, their relatives are OK.

And as the eyes of the world begin to descend upon Chardon, Barille and Meister must turn their eyes elsewhere. Most who know the husband and wife know them as Mr. Gnome, the duo Rolling Stone recently proclaimed a "Band to Watch" and for whom accolades have rolled in from all corners of the country.

Sam, groggy from too many late nights spent editing their latest in a string of endearingly oddball videos, has two days to pack up their life into the white Ford van that rests in the driveway — the one that will take them to Louisville for the start of a two-month swing from the heartland to the West Coast, then back again till they reach New York in May, with a quick stop home to play the Beachland Ballroom on April 20.

"Touring is a hard business," says Nicole. "People think because you can bring a certain number of people [to a show] in your hometown, it's like that everywhere. It's like that American Idol generation of 'I'll be on TV and I'll be famous!' But I love the process we've gone through. The music wouldn't be the same if we didn't go through what we went through to get to the point of creation."

Just Two People?

With two EPs and three full-length albums to their credit, Barille and Meister have touched a growing base of fans with their deft blend of light and dark, melody and clamor, accented by mysterious, surreal lyrics. They produce music that's by turns soothing and unsettling, embracing and disorienting.

Critics have groped for comparisons, often with hilarious results. Invariably, someone will name-check Cat Power, and another will say Billie Holiday. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Kills, Belly, Florence + the Machine, and the entire 4AD catalog put in appearances. Nicole's vocals conjure references to Björk, though it's hard to see how her sweet yet steely, intimate yet elusive style connects with the often abrasive sound of Iceland's biggest star.

Whatever the comparisons, the reviews are usually unmistakably flattering. When Mr. Gnome released their third album, Madness in Miniature, in October, Rolling Stone called them "scrappy and dreamily explosive, like they can't decide if they want to represent their hometown or blow it up."

But a glowing review doesn't translate to much in these file-sharing days, when listeners' commitment to a band often ends at the click of a mouse. The money — the means of survival — comes from getting people out to your shows and getting them to buy your shirts. And getting them to do it again.

So far, it's working like a charm. Mr. Gnome's endless string of concerts draws anywhere from 100 to 400 fans a night — respectable numbers for most bands who toil in Indieville — as they've risen from supporting act to headliner in most towns they play.

Last December's CD release show at the Beachland was filled to 500-person capacity, despite a blizzard that struck a few hours before showtime, making the Shoreway nearly impassable.

The audience was a mix of old friends who navigated the storm from Chardon, along with countless new ones — a cross section that's indicative of how the band's star has risen. They make it a point to chat with the crowd before and after shows, and Nicole spends an hour or two each day online, staying in touch via Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail.

Those fans in turn have created new opportunities — spreading the word in their hometowns and introducing the music to new ears, getting the band on the radio and in local papers, finding new gigs, and even helping run the business of Mr. Gnome.

Onstage, the duo projects a subtle intensity. With the lanky, typically shaven-headed Sam on drums or keyboards or guitar — there's only two people making all this sound, y'know — and petite, delicate-featured Nicole flailing on guitar and wailing on vocals, the pair meshes instinctively with subtle cues: a glance here, a head nod there. Although their photos and videos usually involve elaborate costumes, masks, and makeup, their live presence relies on none of these things. They're likely to be wearing jeans, T-shirts, or tank tops, Nicole's thick, dark, curly hair pinned up to stay out of her way.

"I watched a couple of live videos online, and they blew me away," says Justin Smith, recording engineer at Pink Duck Studios in Los Angeles, owned by Queens of the Stone Age mastermind Josh Homme. "The power that comes out of Nicole, such a little package. I was like, how's this little girl rocking so hard and singing so big? I just wanted to be a part of it ... I said, 'How can I get in touch with these people? I'd really like to work with them.'" Smith recorded Mr. Gnome's last two albums and has joined the bursting bandwagon. "I fight for them every chance I get," he says, adding that Homme is a fan too.

"I had no idea what to expect from Mr. Gnome," says Circus Brown, a radio DJ in Salt Lake City who was handed the band's debut album by a fan. "I figured they'd either have a full band to recreate the album or they'd just sound like a stripped-down version with just the two of them. Once the music started, I don't think anyone in the bar moved. I don't think anyone said a word the entire set. We just screamed and clapped happily after every song. I didn't expect looping guitars and vocals at the same time. That shit's hard enough to do in the studio. I couldn't imagine hitting it so easily live."

Therein lies a key facet of Mr. Gnome's appeal: The duo always seem to muster more than anybody expects of them.

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