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.
The Ballad of Sam & Nicole
Barille and Meister found each other in the hallways of Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin High School in the Chardon countryside, where they became high school sweethearts. He was a 6-foot-5 senior guard on the basketball team. Nicole, a junior, was the tomboy kid sister of three older girls who were "into sororities and cheerleading."
Sam had inherited a love of classic rock and an affinity for playing drums from his music-buff father Mark. Nicole found her own way in a close-knit family with no particular fondness for music.
"I started playing guitar when I was 13," she says. "Around then, my grandparents were dying. The process of creating was an escape from losing people who were close to me. I got into playing Neil Young and stupid garage-rock songs I could figure out on guitar."
They immediately bonded over their shared love of music.
"I remember Sam picking me up, and he was listening to Ziggy Stardust," says Nicole, now 30, Sam's junior by two years. "He got me into Otis Redding, early Pink Floyd. He introduced me to the idea of listening to music that was not on the radio." They also started dabbling in making their own music, jamming at home with no intentions of playing out. "We were so bad," Nicole says with a laugh.
A basketball scholarship delivered Sam to the University of Vermont, where he played one season before following his heart back to Columbus, where Nicole was attending Ohio State. A year later, they both wound up at Kent State. Sam earned a degree in video production and soon started making corporate videos; Nicole got her degree in art education, but found academia to be a poor fit.
"If I were an art teacher, I'd be getting drunk in the supply closet," she says. "I'm a terrible authoritarian. I can't tell kids to sit down and shut up."
But she was becoming increasingly serious about music. They would jam at Sam's parents' house in Chardon, often with his father on drums. Still living in Kent in the days following their graduation, Nicole got the duo its first gig in town.
"The Outpost in Kent used to be a strip club with poles and mirrors and a catwalk," she recalls. "We would get drunk and do open mics there. A friend was doing the booking, and he had an opening. I booked us without telling Sam." Back then, the band was raw, and their fans were mainly family and friends. But playing out lit an almost immediate spark: Sam and Nicole had found their calling.
Dawn of the Control Freaks
For Mr. Gnome, jumping into music feet-first in 2005 proved to be advantageous. At the time, old paradigms for how musicians reached listeners were just starting to be upended, as record stores gave way to internet stores and labels began to disintegrate. Mr. Gnome quickly took advantage of the changing landscape, playing off the fortunate combination of creativity, work ethic, supportive family, and an instinct for attracting devoted followers who had something to contribute.
They started out by recording and releasing a couple of EPs in 2005 and 2006 — quick hits of six songs each that were cheap to make and cheap for fans to buy, providing an easy entry into the band's music as well as some valuable studio experience. Almost immediately, they began trolling for out-of-town gigs, making all the calls themselves. Committed to their new life as suffering rock stars, they soon left Ohio behind to test out life on the road.
"We went out to the West Coast to see if we wanted to live there," says Sam. "But we decided we wanted to be from Cleveland." Half a year out West quickly revealed the advantages of cheaper living and talented friends within arms' reach back home.
As Mr. Gnome's gigs mounted, so did support from newfound fans looking for ways to help out. Among them were Kris Kerry and his wife Cathy Rivers, who booked a Tucson club called Plush.
"I usually don't book completely unknown bands," says Kerry, who was converted after listening to an unsolicited demo, then inviting the band to play. "I wanted to be involved with them because I liked what they were doing. So I said, 'I'll help you book a tour.'"
"The first time I heard them was when they played Plush in Tucson," recalls Rivers, a transplanted Clevelander who now handles the band's day-to-day affairs — booking hotels and locking in the particulars of each show. "I was immediately just blown away: the chemistry between the two of them onstage, the power behind the music. I connected to the creativity of the songwriting."
With a pair of road warriors lining up gigs, the next step for Mr. Gnome was to record a full-length album. Given the tumult befalling the music industry, they wasted no time seeking a label — instead forming one of their own and issuing their 2008 debut, Deliver This Creature. They dubbed the label El Marko after a track on the first EP, which they'd named after Mark Meister. (The sparse, elliptical lyrics aren't about him; they named the song after the fact.)
While the kids would tour, Sam's parents held down the fort at home, keeping the books and filling orders and evangelizing for the group.
"We're fans; we love music," says Mark Meister. "I tell people at the post office about them. I tell everyone. The people at the post office bought their CDs."
From the beginning, Sam and Nicole put as much effort into their visual presentation as to their music — a natural, perhaps, given their shared artistic backgrounds. Their videos and photo sessions are carefully plotted pieces of intricate visual art that attract tens of thousands of viewers online.
"We've made quite a few fans off the videos," says Sam. "People were being characters from our videos for Halloween."
Those fans have plenty of options to choose from. The band's first video, for Deliver This Creature's "Night of the Crickets," features a visually complicated Alice in Wonderland scenario that opens with a young man and a life-sized rabbit in a girlish white-mesh-and-pink-flowered bed, and ends in a forbidding forest complete with graveyard imagery (Sam and Nicole being laid to rest?). Then there are the mysterious beings in cricket-like headgear. Juxtapositions of dark and light, soft and hard, masculine and feminine, peril and safety, confinement and freedom course through the five-minute piece.
Their latest clip, for the new song "House of Circles," features ominous figures in metallic cloaks and headgear inhabiting an eerie blue sci-fi underworld. That's the one Sam's been editing during those late nights before the start of their current tour.
Making such elaborate productions reality is an enormous undertaking, and the band draws on a team of family and friends to get them done.
"We sit at this table and go over scripts," says Sam's mother, Barb Meister, sitting with her husband in the cozy dining room of their Chardon home, beaming as she talks about what "the kids" have accomplished. "Sam does the script. Nicole does the storyboarding. I do the costumes. Anything they do with photo shoots, I work closely with them. They feed me ideas, and we see what we can come up with for the least amount of money. Like they had a vision of Nicole's hair exploding in the new video. We found Christmas ornaments in a sale bin, and we put them in her hair with glitter." (The resulting imagery can be seen on the opening page of this story.)
The process resembles a full-scale Hollywood production, minus the budget. When they filmed "Vampires," from their second album, Heave Yer Skeleton, 20 people toiled for three days.
Barille and Meister are admitted "control freaks," and so the creative side of things — recording, writing, touring, filming videos — has come to occupy more and more of their time. Last year, Kerry and Rivers formed a management company called Shlomo Diego, primarily to manage Mr. Gnome. They landed them three showcases at Austin's fabled South by Southwest music conference in March. A third partner, Dan Coleman, works on publishing and licensing. (Money from snippets of music used for the TV show Final Witness enabled them to buy home recording equipment.) The band has signed with a press company, which has just begun the task of landing performances on late-night TV.
"Our next job is to find them a larger booking agent, so they can go out with larger bands with larger audiences," says Rivers. "They don't need a larger label that's going to change them. And when you are on a major label, they want you to utilize their people. Mr. Gnome doesn't need that. They're a complete package. They handle all of their own creativity, and I don't see the talent running dry."
Meanwhile, Back in Chardon ...
Deciding they'd had enough of their vagabond life, Barille and Meister returned to an apartment in Chardon, where they quickly found the confines too cramped to run a business, create music, make videos — and live.
That's when Sam's parents happened upon a property in town that included two houses and a barn that had sat empty for years. It would become the perfect spot for two families and a burgeoning music business.
Nicole and Sam immediately moved into the back house — the former Chardon town hall — and set up their new life there; after months of renovation, Sam's parents moved into the front house. The two homes reflect the residents: Barb and Mark's is neat and traditional, with antique furniture, cages filled with chirping birds, and prints and ceramics with animals of various kinds decorating the walls. A couple of dogs wander around, leaving chew bones under the dining room table.
Nicole and Sam's place feels like a combination ski lodge and urban loft, with rustic beams and open space. Everything here is redolent of their constant creativity, whether it's the artwork by friends on the walls and shelves, or the rack of costumes from their videos and photo shoots in the corner of their downstairs work area.
On the landing are shelves and boxes stuffed with vinyl and T-shirts. A small office, with a table piled with CDs Nicole's been stuffing for the upcoming tour, leads into their living area, where the kitchen table is stockpiled with healthy snacks and energy drinks soon to be loaded into the van. (They make an effort to eat well and stay healthy on the road — Nicole's even "trying to be a vegetarian," but says they both like their meat.)
The adjacent barn, with its green screen and lighting equipment, is their video studio. Step carefully, or you'll trod upon their "underworld" — a two-by-three-foot construction of cardboard and dried plants made by Sam's mom that sits on the floor just inside the door. Incredibly, what looks like a middle school science project in person comes off onscreen as a jarring scene from an icy hell.
The Meister estate gives everybody the gifts of proximity as well as distance. It also gives them plenty of space to indulge their creative whims, whether it's Barb's informal costume shop in the basement or the ground-floor rehearsal space that allows Sam and Nicole to roll out of bed, head downstairs, and work on their music without disturbing the neighbors. Though the neighbors are eating it up.
"As parents, we're amazed by the success they've had," says Mark Meister. "It's amazing stuff that comes across Facebook, what people say about them as artists. Kids are going to be playing their music in 20 years because it's important to them at this time. That's so cool. It would be nice if they made a million dollars. But how you measure success is, are you doing something you love?"
Shortly before Mr. Gnome embarked on their current tour, they needed an audience to test-drive their music.
"They came over and said, 'Do you have time to listen to our set?'" says Barb. "We were like little kids: 'Can we? Can we? Can we?'"
Nicole is acutely aware of the exceptional situation they enjoy.
"Our life is this," she says. "We have just two people in the band. We're not dependent on other people to come for band practice. I think that's why we write as much as we do. It lets us be more experimental."
That the two are so obviously in sync with each other is another bonus. Whether onstage or hanging out at the house, they're relaxed and respectful, keying into each other's remarks without stepping on them, each one speaking admiringly of the other's contributions.
That's probably how they survive the tens of thousands of miles logged each year, the constantly changing venues, the hundreds of new people they meet. But it's clear they like to be home too — writing music, filming videos, tramping the countryside with Scout, and playing for the friends and families who will turn out for their Beachland show. Soon enough, they'll be back in town.
"The tour has been amazing!!" Nicole e-mails from the road. "But so very long ... can't wait to come back home. Currently making the very long drive from Salt Lake City to Denver today.
"Please hug Cleve-o for us."