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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."