When the duo in Mr. Gnome, a fine local band that's turned into a national act over the course of the past couple of years, set out to record its new album, The Heart of a Dark Star, it followed the same path it has for the past couple of albums: It took a handful of songs out to Pink Duck studios in Los Angeles. The group had just finished a lengthy tour in support of 2012's Madness in Miniature and had spent the beginning of 2013 writing new material. But something just didn't sound right when the band emerged with what it thought would be its next album.
"We got done with it and felt like we weren't done," says singer-guitarist Nicole Barille. "We got a nice licensing deal so we bought some stuff to complete our studio here to complete [recording] the drums."
Once back at the Hudson farm it calls home, the duo started writing new songs. By January of this year, it was ready to record. And Barille and her husband, drummer Sam Meister, realized they had fixed their studio up to the point where they could cut the record at home.
"We wanted to give it a shot to see if we could do everything ourselves," says Barille. "We wrote a ton of additional material. We recorded everything in three months. It was so much work without an engineer."
Enter engineer Kevin McMahon (Walkmen, Titus Andronicus, Swans, Real Estate). He stepped in to mix the album and has done a remarkable job. The compelling single, "Rise & Shine," starts with whispered vocals and sparse guitars before turning into a rousing rocker that concludes with something that sounds like breaking guitar strings.
"We were investigating bands we liked and stumbled upon the Walkmen, who are amazing," says Barille. "We saw that [McMahon] was running the studio when they were in New York. We saw that he had moved to upstate New York and we saw he had worked with other bands we like, bands like Titus Andronicus and Herzog. He was amazing. We hung out with him for a week and it was a great experience to mix the album with him. He was so good."
Recording at home meant there wasn't the usual pressure of having to meet a deadline. That definitely worked in the duo's favor.
"It was the most fun we ever had doing the record," says Barille. "It was just the two of us. Even though it was so much work because we didn't have someone running around and tweaking microphones and setting them up. Now, it's all in your hands. There's pros and cons to that."
And recording in the middle of a brutally cold winter helped too.
"We recorded in January in the bulk months of where you could get down and sad," says Barille. "It was a good distraction from the gray skies. It kept our spirits up. We were focused and excited about the tones we were getting and being able to layer things. Usually, we have everything mapped out and once we record it, that's it and there's no going back. That can be a good thing and that can be a bad thing. You can dwell on things for too long. We tried to work on the songs until they were done and not dwell on them for too long."
So what happened to the L.A. session?
"It's still floating around our place," says Barille. "I think if anything, it'll become B-sides or we might rewrite those songs. We jumped in the studio a little too quickly. We're always searching for the best we can be in that moment. I don't think that's why we thought we weren't there. That's why we kept writing and soul searching and trying to find more of a voice in what we were doing."
Mellow album opener "Melted Rainbow" features so many layers of guitars, it sounds like a Cocteau Twins tune.
"That was the first one we recorded," says Barille when asked about the song. "I wrote it on the piano when I originally wrote it. I wrote a super stripped-down version and then we added drums. When we recorded it, we felt like the orchestration could be so much more. I wrote bass lines that stepped in the front a little more. That was having the time to make something I really like. We were being more creative for it and writing a bass line for it that's different for the orchestration. That was the template. When we heard it and realized what we could do to orchestrate it, we just thought, 'Let's not worry about how we play it live and let's just record an album.' We were just having fun while making it and gravitated toward what sounded best."
Barille also plays a bit of bass on the tune. While that's nothing new for the duo, she took a different approach to her playing on the song.
"I play bass and the keys and there's guitar on it as well," she says. "There are crazy effects on it too. I sprinkle bass here and there if the song needs a low end to it. In the past, I would mimic what the guitar was doing with the bass. For this one, I was writing specific bass parts that were more complementary rather than the exact same thing as the guitar."
The album might be the group's most accessible yet. Even NPR has gotten behind it and streamed the music on its website prior to its official release.
"I don't know if it's really that accessible," says Barille. "It's hard to interpret your own stuff. Because we did it ourselves and recorded it ourselves, you spend more time with it, so I don't think we hear it the way other people hear it. There's so much associated to the record because of our experiences with it. I know it's more upbeat than our older records. We're attracted to so many different types of music, if we follow our hearts, we'll touch upon different genres and not just stay in one genre. It's been fun. It's good to challenge yourself like that. That's what artists do. They try to evolve in whatever way you can, just to push themselves. You can do the same thing all the time, but that would bore everyone including yourself."