Joplin, Mo.-based Me Like Bees hit the Midwest music scene with their 2013 debut album, The Ides, combining their growing knack for enticing musicianship with thought-provoking lyrics.
The band — Pete Burton on guitar and vocals, Nick Bynum on bass and vocals, Luke Sheafer on vocals and guitar and Timothy Cote on drums and vocals — plays the Beachland Ballroom on Tuesday, March 3.
We spoke with Luke about the band's debut album and the 2011 Joplin tornado, among other things.
What's the Joplin scene like? And how did that place influence what the band sounds like?
Joplin's kind of an odd town. When we started, there were a few of us — this is my first band — so we were starting at square one. We were all a little older; I had just gotten out of college and hadn't really been in the music scene at all. We were kinda the outside kids coming in. No one knew who we were as people, let alone who we were band was, you know? There are some big acts that came out of Joplin, we knew that — like Never Shout Never, who we became friends with. Ben Miller Band. Carter Hulsey. There are some big names that were kind of becoming national acts, but we didn't really know anyone else.
Joplin is a small town; there are like 50,000 people here. But there's a significant amount of really talented musicians for having such a small population. When we first started we were just trying to get a gig. Anywhere. We ended up playing a small Christian music club called the Salvage Yard. That was our first gig ever, with like seven songs that we probably played really poorly. Some of our friends were even like, "Yeah, sure, that was music, I guess? (laughs)
Just like everyone else who plays music, that's kinda the name of the game: not quitting. We played benefits for Missouri Southern — that's a college in town — and a battle of the bands event. We just built a crowd from there.
How long ago were these early shows?
You know, we started in April 2009. Actually, I lied to you about that Salvage Yard thing. Our first show was actually that battle of the bands in June. We had to pay to get into it! That's how dumb we were. Since then, we've discovered that that's never a good idea. We only played like four shows the first year we were a band. We went through a few lineup changes; our original drummer lived in Kansas City. We were in Joplin, so we were driving up there every weekend. It was an arrangement that was pretty rough. He left — not for any bad reasons or anything.
Six months after that, we found Tim — our current drummer — and that's really when the band began to play out.
How did you guys go about cultivating a sound? There's a well defined thing going on throughout The Ides, but what forces pushed you all to that identity?
It wasn't so much intentional; a lot of it was messing around. If it got through every one of our filters of "Do we like this?" then it must be OK. If me and Pete would go into the music room and kind of hash out ideas, if we like this idea and stick with it, well, then if we go to practice and they hate it, well, then maybe it wasn't as good as we thought. Then we bring another idea and everyone likes it, well, then there we go.
Lyrically, there are lots of interesting images and themes on the album. Were you into songwriting or poetry growing up?
Yeah, I mean, I try to take a direct path. That was much more deliberate than the music. I was writing poetry and songs forever, way before I was writing music. As far as getting a message across, the whole album is about dealing with sorrow. It's about going from lifelessness and recovering from that. There's certainly a spiritual element that I'm trying to get across too. You know, you find hope in faith and things like that — finding a way to crawl out of it and not thinking that you have to do that by yourself. I don't think has ever gotten over something horrific by being by themselves. You know? That'll just drive you crazy.
I use some vehicles to talk about that — talking about Lazarus coming out of the grave. That's not really talking about coming back from the dead, that's just talking about coming back from lifelessness and being numb to things.
I'm certain that you touch on this at least in one song: the tornado from a few years ago. I'm wondering how much that event impacted you?
I think that put everyone here in a state of hopelessness for — it felt like a couple years. Especially right afterward, that was horrific. The amount of death and destruction was — you can't even write it, as far as what you're looking at. It was horrible. Obviously, we have a song that's complete about the tornado. I had actually started writing the ideas for the album before that. It was natural to include that, and there are other references to the tornado in a few other songs.
The Ides - you know, the middle of the month — for Caesar that meant death. We're talking about those days that kill you and test your character. The day of the tornado was definitely one.
For me personally, my step-father passed away the day before the tornado. I was in Kansas City with my family. We were all grieving, and we actually had a huge tornado up there. There was a huge outbreak around the country, if you remember. During all of this, we had to go to the basement and stay there. The next day, the Joplin tornado happened. In the midst of all that, I had to leave because I was working for a guy and I couldn't get ahold of him. I was working as a gas station, and we couldn't get ahold of anybody. We didn't know who was still alive. It turned out that all of our employees were fine. It was a hard conversation to have with my mom, to tell her, "Sorry, but I'll be back in a few days. I have to go to Joplin right now and search for these people." When I got ahold of my boss, he basically said that he needed me to run the store while he sorted everything out. It took him a few days to get ahold of everyone, but they were all OK in the end.
With that in your past, how about the future? What's coming up this year?
We're all in the process of quitting our jobs and becoming full-time musicians. So our goal is to survive. It's a big leap of faith, man, to say that this what I want to do with my life and put your money where your mouth is. It's a very urgent, we-gotta-sell-some-t-shirts kind of goal.
That's always a point of fascination for me. Could you elaborate on the factors that make that goal a possibility?
I love it. There's a clock that ticks, and you can't do this forever. If you're not U2, the Rolling Stones, you're most likely gonna be doing something else in 10 years. I was 23 when I started. I'm 29 now. Now's the time. There's no other way to put it. If we fail, we fail, and I'm perfectly comfortable taking that risk. I don't think we'll fail; I think we have something real to say.
Never Shout Never, Hayley Kioko, Me Like Bees, 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 3, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216-321-5588. Tickets: $20, grogshop.gs.