CAMBRIDGE — Both Nona Marie Invie and Marshall LaCount have a distinctive and unassuming vocal style that’s fascinating in the context of their great music. This pair forms the core of the band Dark Dark Dark. Like many of their fans across North America and Europe, the first time I head them play, I immediately wanted, even felt I needed, more.
Jonathan Kaiser (The Blackthorns, Painted Saints), Todd Chandler (who created the movie "Flood" with Dark Dark Dark and the band Fall Harbor), Walt McClements (Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?, Panorama Jazz Band), and Brett Bullion (Tarton) are other gifted musicians that are part of the Dark Dark Dark line up, each joining the band on the road or in the studio at various times while others veer off on different projects. This band is rooted in the surprisingly cool Minneapolis music scene, but they also have deep connections to New Orleans and New York.
They’re frequently on tour, and I caught up with them recently as they performed in Cambridge at the Lizard Lounge to promote their new six-song EP "Bright Bright Bright" (available from Supply and Demand Music). Compared to their previous release, "Snow Magic," this new collection of songs is more optimistic in its themes and more sophisticated, maybe even serious, in its melodies. Both demonstrate that Dark Dark Dark has a beautiful and original sound.
Describing their sound more specifically is difficult and feels a bit like slapping a cheap label on something precious which really has no name. Their record company has called them a "chamber-folk sextet." That’s okay, but it doesn’t wholly encapsulate them (nor is the group always six in number). Some listeners fixate on their frequent use of accordion-driven melodies and see them as a hip, alternative take on Eastern European music. As exemplified by "Snow Magic," the band could have made this particular characteristic their hallmark and rode it to success. But like many genuine artists, they are eager to try new things rather than repeat the old.
Listening to both these releases, one might notice the subtle and not-so-subtle syncopation that pops up in fun and delightful places. This characteristic connects them to jazz, but also to a wide variety of other styles, from medieval choral music to reggae and ska. Does it seem like the more I describe their music the less you’re able to imagine it? Then check out their MySpace page or brightbrightbright.com instead; both provide means to hear their music, for free, with your own ears.
Into the dark
It was a sunny afternoon in Cambridge as Dark Dark Dark did sound check for their Lizard Lounge gig that night. Nona and Marshall remembered me from a meeting at the Whitehaus artist co-op in Jamaica Plain a few years previous. I had heard them play there on a Friday night and spent Saturday trying unsuccessfully to remember their music that had so impressed me the previous evening. Sunday morning, they visited me in my dreams so that I awoke at noon with full memory of their songs in my head. It was an experience that has forever raised the bar on what I’m able to term "haunting melodies."
Seeing them again, after a couple years of listening to "Snow Magic" and a few weeks of hearing "Bright Bright Bright" before its release, I was eager to express my appreciation. Yet awkwardly, among my first words were an admission that "Bright Bright Bright" didn’t immediately sweep me off my feet the same way "Snow Magic" had. But I explained that it drew me in more deeply each time I listened. It’s melodies, like many things complex and magnificent, can’t be fully appreciated until one has time to experience them.
On first play, I liked it a lot. By my third listen, I loved it. Its dainty syncopation charmed me and even made me chuckle. After I’d described my journey into affection and some understanding of "Bright Bright Bright," Nona and Marshall, with characteristic reserve, looked at me just a little bit funny. Then they looked at each other, they smiled a bit, and Marshall said quietly, "Wow, a reviewer who actually listens to our music!"
Both Nona and Marshall have somewhat soft-spoken, introspective demeanor. To even casual questions, they tend to pause thoughtfully before responding, but that might be a lit bit of a Minnesota thing. Nona told me that she "usually makes Marshall handle the interviews," and something in her voice hinted that it’s a responsibility he doesn’t exactly relish either. Their slight trepidation about the media is surprising since music reviewers seem to adore them. Nevertheless, the press is a weird animal, and Nona and Marshall have the perception to recognize that.
With their fans they are less guarded. Their fans are enthusiastic and far-spread. At their Lizard Lounge gig in Cambridge, people came from at least as far away as Northampton, and they were delighted to do it. Other fans, having seen them at AS220 in Providence the night before, drove north the next day to catch their show again. Perhaps recognizing me as a fan of what they do rather than a mere observer, Marshall, Nona, Mark, Todd, and Walt seemed to grow more comfortable with showing me their off-stage ideas and feelings. After sound check, we went to a local taqueria and started a conversation that lasted, off and on, all night.
Getting to where they are
Starting with a report on the tour that brought them back to Greater Boston, Marshall said, "Nothing weird has happened. It’s been totally great. The worst thing that happened was three days of downpour and dangerous driving. And a leaky van. The top seam of the windshield was leaking and filling up the cup holders with water. That’s not that dramatic or calamitous."
A question about the first music they remember owning lightened everyone’s mood. Todd’s first records were J. Guiles "Freeze Frame" and Ozzy Osbourne "Diary of a Madman." Marshall put down his veggie burrito and informed us his were the soundtracks to the movies "La Bomba" and "Top Gun" on cassette. Nona peered over her thick glasses, seemed to suppress a smile, and told us her’s was "Funky Divas" by En Vogue. Walt said his first record was "Come and Feel the Lemonheads" and Rush’s “Chronicles,” his first cassette.
Marshall recalled, "I remember my mom doing the laundry while I was listening to Dr. Dre really loud in the next room and thinking, ‘I wonder if my mom thinks this is weird.'”
Todd said he listened to that type of music, too, but added, "None of the references were anything I could actually relate to."
Nona and Marshall first became friends in Minneapolis. Then, according to him, "pretty fast we started playing something of Nona’s old songs." Not long after, "both of us were without jobs, and running out of options, and becoming closer friends, and just decided to actually travel and make gas money playing. Within two weeks of being Dark Dark Dark we were on tour."
Soon someone mentioned the accordion, and when asked about its role in the band’s image, Todd explained. "It often seems like we get placed with bands of a certain genre because they feel we fit in because we have accordions."
The accordion isn’t featured on every song, but both Nona and Walt play the instrument. Describing how she first came to play, Nona said she simply "moved in with someone who had one, and I just picked it up and started playing." It must have helped that Nona had first learned the piano. Indeed, several of the Dark Dark Dark members are multi-instrumentalists. Marshall plays piano, banjo, and clarinet. Besides accordion, Walt plays the trumpet. As part of Dark Dark Dark, Mark plays drums and Todd plays bass.
Accordions, horns, certain beats — these things tie the work of Dark Dark Dark to some types of ethnic music, but Marshall says he’s a bit tired of people focusing on the Eastern European nature of their sounds "…because it’s clearly not. It’s okay to talk about that as an influence, along with jazz and folk and tons of contemporary minimalist composers. There’s so many influences that it’s a bore to write them all down." When asked if it was fair to note that along this spectrum, "Snow Magic" was more klezmer-y than "Bright Bright Bright," Marshall agreed, saying, "Definitely. But as far as just calling it that, or calling it any other one of these music types? It’s not true about our music and it’s not respecting the tradition."
He further insists that it’s more than a matter of lumping or splitting when one talks about labeling the music of Dark Dark Dark as Eastern European or as anything else. "It’s more with us that we have so many other influences that it feels very strange to us. And we hold in high regard so many other different kinds of artists that it doesn’t feel very true to us." He added, "Klezmer and Eastern European music was the first music we learned to play our instruments on, before we started writing ourselves. So that’s what we grew out of, but calling it Eastern European music in any way is cheating."
Previously, Marshall described some of the songs on Snow Magic as "waltzes." When asked if there were tracks on "Bright Bright Bright" that would properly be called waltzes, he thought for a moment and said, "I believe so. But the one-two-three, oom-pa-pa is not so clear any more. And I guess we no longer really think of them that way because we are doing some three against four things and they’re not so blatantly waltz-y."
Nona says people notice how "Bright Bright Bright" has moved their sound in new directions. "Someone did a review," she said, "and it was interesting. They did still say ‘Eastern European,’ but then they said it was ‘piano driven’ and they had some other adjectives. I mean, it’s true that’s a part of my life and my experience. And when I was learning the accordion, I did listen to a lot of Eastern European music. So it’s there still." Nona described a review that said something like "moving from Eastern European to something jazzy" and added, "I think I like that."
The first, and title, track on "Bright Bright Bright" is indeed driven, slowly and exquisitely, by a piano. On the second track, "The Hand," accordions kick in with gusto, but their flavor is more gumbo than borscht. Hearing how the sound of these accordions, and a lyric about lights across the water, made me think of Louisiana bayous, Nona said, "Ah cool… that’s great. New Orleans has been a really big part of my life so my time there hopefully comes out in my music. But I actually wrote that song in New York. Half of it I wrote in upstate New York, and I think I finished it in New Orleans."
Marshall said that Walter, who is from New Orleans "is a big influence on us. He’s in the band and he’s an influence on us and his other bands. And the Dixieland and the jazz happening in New Orleans is an influence on us. And I think when Walter’s playing it’s even a little more clear than when Nona’s playing. But it’s definitely there."
"Walter plays jazz music in New Orleans," said Nona. "But I don’t know anything about jazz. I listen to New Orleans jazz and I love it. It’s part of our experimenting with writing music and not trying to write in a certain genre. Not trying to categorize ourselves in a certain way leaves us open to exploring."
Creating Bright Bright Bright
"Wild Goose Chase," the last song on "Bright Bright Bright," is a cover of an Elephant Micah song. Of the rest, Marshall explained, "Nona wrote four out of five of those." Marshall wrote "Make Time," the third song on the EP. It starts with nervous, rolling drums that are soon joined by Marshall’s voice sounding a bit creepy and British. Then, after a change, it becomes a joyous melody that both builds and floats pleasantly in one place in a way that might also be thought of as a Dark Dark Dark trademark.
Explaining their creative process, Marshall said, "Generally if Nona writes something, or if I write something, the other gets a chance to edit, or give feedback. But the primary writer is often Nona, and I get to be the editor, especially in language. And the whole band is involved with arranging the music."
Nona described, "Usually I just get an idea, somehow, and think about it for a long time. Then I sit at the piano and sort of work it out, somehow. I don’t know how it happens. It seems a little different each time." She reads and writes music and says "I write lyrics down right away or I forget them… I think usually I get ideas for lyrics first then I come up with the music. I guess I’ve done it both ways."
As for the themes of the songs on “Bright Bright Bright,” Nona says "if it is about romantic love, I tried to explore different aspects, more complicated aspects of those relationships. And some of them aren’t necessarily about romantic love either." She said "it all comes from personal experience," but I asked how specifically that applies, citing the record’s fifth song, "The Flood," that has a nice little image of someone in the park wearing their collar up. Thinking, she squinted, then explained. "Some of that song was really literal. The first half was really literal and the second half was more interpretive."
"Bright Bright Bright" was recorded at Sacred Heart Studios in a former church overlooking Lake Superior. Minneapolis producer Tom Herbers, known for his work with groups such as WHY?, engineered, produced and mixed the EP on analog equipment from start to finish. Nona says, "I think it just sounds a lot better. I think it sounds beautiful. When you record digitally, you’re trying to recreate the beautiful sounds of analog music and when its possible to do analog it just feels better." She added, "I don’t know that much about recording, and I know it can be easier to do things digitally, but for us to just play all in a room, and to have it recorded right onto the tape, like in two takes or something like that, it was amazing to me."
Still, they are a small group of people, and Marshall explained that "the choir" (actually the band itself) was done on a separate track. Nona recalled, "I think there were a couple of cello overdubs, and the clarinet was tracked separately than the rest because Marshall plays it and sings. But most of it was done at once, and it was really great to perform live together because we were able to feed off each others’ energy a lot more. It felt like it was a more holistic experience when we were all in the same room, playing at the same time, instead of wearing headphones and listening to a click track, which is how it can also be done, but it felt more warm and real this way."
Musing about her preference for analog recording, Nona said, "I don’t know if all the advances in technology are that great for listening to music. People just downloading music and listening to it on iPods is such a difference than taking a record and sitting down with it in your living room with a record player. You give it more attention than when you just plug in your iPod on the subway."
Summing up how "Bright Bright Bright" relates to their previous work, Marshall said simply and playfully, "It’s better. We got better!"
Nona said, "I feel like it explores different emotions and different experiences." I agree with both of them. In its substance, "Bright Bright Bright" has an encouraging relationship to their previous work. It’s built on the same confident foundation, but it towers in good new directions. Their music has some very simple layers and some very complex ones. Their songs, both the slow ones and the faster ones, aren’t just interesting or well-crafted; they’re genuinely catchy.
The fans and the experience
Dark Dark Dark has some deeply devoted fans. According to Nona, "A kid asked me to marry him in Bloomington, Indiana… I said I’m not interested in marriage. That was pretty weird. I guess it was funny… maybe the funniest thing a fan has said to me."
They also have fans abroad, and have played to appreciative crowds in France and Italy. Marshall described, "They were separate trips. It was amazing. We were floating around in the Venice canals in boats that we had built, and pretty much treated like we had the key to the city."
When asked how their European audiences were different, maybe less or more reserved, Marshall said, "Actually it varies. Even the difference between last night and tonight is what you’re talking about a little bit, just because of the way things are set up, and the sound is, and so on." He said their previous night’s gig at AS220 was "louder overall. There were two hundred people there, and we were the last band." He compared that to this particular visit to Lizard Lounge, saying the latter was "more acoustic sounding… it’s a pretty dramatic difference."
Speaking with affection for the band’s followers, Marshall said, "we have a couple fans who have mailed us packages in different cities, or have sent us messages. Quite often, it turns out that some of those might be on different sides of the country. But they end up meeting on the Internet because they’re both talking to us, like say through MySpace. They’ll both comment to us, and realize that they’re both commenting, and end up being friends in the end around us. Some of those people are pretty intense. They’re all really sweet, but sometimes really intense."
Marshall laughed when asked, "What don’t you like to be asked by media?" and reiterated, "Simply saying ‘what are your influences?’ is a strange question because it makes us list bands. And then, I guess, people start putting us in a hole. Whatever that comparison is, it will get used over and over again, and we try to be real careful about that."
Nona agreed and said she’s often asked, "What don’t you want to be categorized as?" or "What bands do you sound like?" I didn’t guess that Dark Dark Dark could get a bad review, but according to Nona, "I think someone said once that they didn’t like my voice. I think people have preferences. They just don’t like accordion, so they’re not gonna like it. They just don’t like us, so they’re not going to like it." More often, Nona said, "I feel like people really get us and get what we’re trying to do."
Dark Dark Dark, again working with Tom Herbers, have a new album due in the fall. Marshall says, "All the recording sessions are theoretically done, and it’s even rough mixed. But we’re taking a bit more time listening to rough mixes to decide if we’re on the right track… I think that with this album, we certainly didn’t repeat ourselves and I hope we can continue growing and developing in interesting ways and not start making the record that sells and getting into an artistic habit because it worked the previous time… We’ve found that formula, but I don’t want to find that formula and stick to it. But that’s a long-distance fear — what happens to my favorite musicians."
Looking into the future, Marshall says, "I hope we can honor all of our friends and fans without getting too inaccessible in terms of venues and prices and stuff. We try to be careful of that, but even now its a little hard to balance… We have so many fans that are close friends. I’m grateful because it’s kind of a huge number. And we also want to reach out to new audiences and not scare off the old ones."
Part of me would like to see Dark Dark Dark become rich and famous as soon as possible so that more people would be exposed to their wonderful music. But fame and fortune might bring them little happiness if it meant sacrificing artistic integrity or alienating longtime fans. Instead, it seems, their career — like their beautiful songs themselves — will continue to grow and build at its own pace, interesting twists and turns not excluded.
If Dark Dark Dark’s upcoming record reflects the same sensitivity and intelligence as "Snow Magic" and "Bright Bright Bright," they’ll be growing in the right direction indeed.