Shortly after forming in 2005 and releasing two EPs, singer-guitarist Nicole Barille and drummer Sam Meister, the couple that makes up the indie/experimental-rock duo Mr. Gnome, decided it was time for a change. They played a farewell-to-Cleveland show at the Grog Shop, packed up their van with gear and headed west, where they figured they could crash with friends from college.
"We started sleeping on people's couches and writing our first full-length album in these really tiny practice spots in San Diego and Portland," Barille recalls over a few beers at the Grovewood Tavern, the Collinwood restaurant and bar where she and Meister, who currently live in Chardon, are a couple of regulars. "We weren't working jobs, so we would wake up, drink a bunch of coffee and go to the practice spot and play for like five hours. It was the beginning of experimenting and playing 10-minute songs and then realizing that no one probably wants to listen to 10-minute songs."
That initial uncertainty about finding an audience has long since dissipated. Mr. Gnome quickly garnered a small but loyal following, and its new album, Madness in Miniature, is bound to expand its fan base. Recorded at Pink Duck Studios, the Burbank, Calif., studio owned by Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, it's a raw, heavy collection of music that alternately evokes the ambiance of Portishead and the sludge rock of Wolfmother.
"I think this album touches a lot more ground than anything we've done," says Meister. "Even more than the last one, which was rather thematic, this reaches softer spots than we've reached before. And we tend to keep the soft parts softer for a longer time."
The layering techniques that the duo has mastered are the result of years of dedication. When they recorded their 2008 debut, Deliver This Creature, Meister and Barille used a variety of vintage gear to get the right tones.
"We started learning about instruments and amps and different ways to layer our recording, and we kept growing with that and doing more and more fun things in the studio," Meister says.
The band has made its living playing music ever since. The duo hit the road in October for yet another extensive national tour and won't return home until Dec. 17, when the band plays a Madness in Miniature release show at the Beachland Ballroom.
"We get loud, and we get fast, and we get slow, and that messes with your head a bit," says Meister. "I guess it can be weird if you're not used to music that changes tempo and volume. That's just us, and that's how we write. It doesn't weird me out the way it weirds other people out."