Column 311: Lazy-i Interview: Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship; Live Review: Smith Westerns; Tapes ‘n’ Tapes tonight…
Column 311: Smells Like Noah’s Ark
Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship runs a golden mile.
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
The scene is O’Leaver’s on a Saturday afternoon. How could a bar so fun and full of life in the evening look so bleak and frightening in the daylight? Flat, winter-afternoon sun glared through the dirty windows, cutting the darkness where a handful of faceless people sat stooped over the bar drinking and watching college basketball. The room’s tiny “stage” in daylight was a patch of dirty carpeting behind a couple tiny monitors that I pushed out of the way while dragging a chair up to the table where the boys of Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship sat drinking a variety of tallboys.
Guitarist vocalist Andrew Gustafson was late arriving from a luncheon with his family. We bided time talking about how the band’s music has been influenced by a handful of acts that these guys are way too young to have heard when first released.
“I was in third grade when I first heard Nirvana,” said drummer Rob Webster. “I had a friend whose older brother was really into that shit.”
Guitarist vocalist John Svatos explained how a friend had made a VHS mix tape of “super ’90s bands” that introduced him to Smashing Pumpkins. While bassist Ricky Black professed to being “super into Weird Al. I’m not as cool as these guys.”
Once Gustafson arrived the interview became chaotic, with everyone talking at the same time, made all the more confusing when the jukebox erupted into Thin Lizzy so loud that I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. I warned them that I was going to get the story wrong, but they didn’t seem to mind.
The thumbnail sketch of the band’s history: Gustafson met Svatos during art class at Creighton Prep in 2002. “He had a Nirvana patch on his backpack and was already in (local metal band) Paria at the time,” Svatos said. “We were both into Sonic Youth.”
With bassist Black, the trio played their first gig on the under card of a local metal show at The Ranch Bowl. Drummer Rob Webster didn’t join the band until the winter of 2006, when he was Svatos’ roommate. Back in the old days, Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship was an instrumental noise band, very much influenced by Sonic Youth. It wasn’t until Black returned from the University of Iowa that the band added vocals, which changed everything.
Their discography includes a 7-inch on local Dutch Hall Records and an EP on Slumber Party, the record label that’s releasing their debut LP, Hanga-Fang, at an album release show this Friday night at The Waiting Room. I say “album release” because there will be no CDs — just digital downloads and $15 slabs of 180 gram orange vinyl.
You can get the drift of Hanga-Fang‘s post-punk by playing it on your computer speakers, but you’ll enjoy it much more by dropping it on your Technics turntable hooked to your Harman/Kardon stereo and a pair of beefy Boston Acoustic speakers — or at least wearing headphones — where you can pick up subtle hints of Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Husker Du and Fugazi beneath layers of densely packed guitars and crisp, cracklin’ drums.
Noah’s Ark does more than emulate. They reinvent that ’90s facade in a modern setting without taking their eyes off the past. Their sound reminds me of the Lawrence scene circa 1993 (think Vitreous Humor or Zoom) — noise rock taken to slacker extremes born under a lonely, empty sky.
The album was recorded last spring by long-time Noah’s Ark engineer Mark McGowan at his Suitcase Recording studio, and mixed by AJ Mogis at ARC Studios.
The band pressed 500 copies under the Slumber Party moniker. We talked about the logic of only pressing vinyl, and how they couldn’t afford a distro deal. Money is not high on their priority list. “I encourage bootlegging,” Gustafson said, though I couldn’t talk him into allowing me to post the download link in this article.
Their next step is heading east and south on a tour with pals The Yuppies, followed by a western tour this summer that Black has yet to book. They’ve become renowned locally for their live show, but there also have been miscues, like playing Laslo’s Brewpub last summer, a restaurant where Webster was a cook. He warned them.
“We played to kids and grand parents,” he said. “When we got done, you could hear a pin drop.”
“The guys from Oxygen played after us,” Gustafson said. “They told us, ‘We really love your hard-edged sound.'” Webster quit Laslo’s shortly afterward, and the band never did get paid.
But they made up for it opening for Cursive at a sold out New Year’s Eve gig in Chicago that they nearly missed due to an ice storm. “We almost ran over a cop about a half hour outside of Iowa City,” Webster recalled.
For the band, the best part of the job is touring, and discovering weird new places, like Fairfield, Iowa, “America’s capital for transcendental meditation,” Svatos said, though none of the band knew that when they booked the gig.
Gustafson said Fairfield and that tour stop could be summed up by a conversation between him, a local girl and a guy who had just arrived in the U.S. “We were standing on top of this building, and the foreign guy asked, ‘What is medicine?'” Gustafson said. “I told him it’s like a pill that you take when you’re sick. The girl gave me a stern look and said, ‘NO IT’S NOT.’ And then she pointed at a bird that was flying over and said, ‘Medicine is that.'”
“That turned out to be the best show on the tour,” Svatos said.
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Again, Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship’s album release show is tomorrow night at The Waiting Room with The Answer Team, Ideal Cleaners and Yuppies. $7, 9 p.m.
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Smith Westerns’ current hype caught my attention, but it was opener Unknown Mortal Orchestra that got me to The Waiting Room last night for what turned out to be a well-attended show (150+?, maybe). UMO was a trio featuring two Portland guys and a frontman from Auckland (who pronounced the headliners’ name “The Smith Way-sterns” — Frodo would be proud). Marketed as a psych-rock band, their sound was a ’70s throwback (one guy compared them to Love), but with enough throaty rhythms to make me think of Manchester in the ’90s. They were at their most interesting when they went all proggy on their relatively straightforward songs, and broke down the tempos while adding frontman Ruban Nielson’s intricate and sometimes strange guitar lines, before shifting gears into a groove that The Kinks would respect. Virtual unknowns, keep an eye on these guys.
As for Smith Westerns — I liked their pop-’70s revival stuff more than their pop-’60s surf revival stuff, mainly because of Best Coast and every other band doing that ’60s shtick. When they moved up a decade, and filled their sound with gorgeous, glammy electric-soar guitars and much-needed keyboards, it was like listening to a Titan Records tribute band (more Gary Charlson than, say, Boys) combined with Sweet or T. Rex. They even had some falsetto vocals thrown in for good measure. As for stage presence, it was dominated by frontman Cullen Omori’s tit-length black hair that hung in front of his face throughout the set (a la Joey Ramone), distracting him as much as it distracted the audience. When he pulled his hair back, he looked like a masculine Sarah Silverman. The evening’s highlight was an orgiastic version of “All Die Young,” which would have been a mega-hit in 1974, and hopefully will be the style of song that points their way to the future.
And what’s the deal with no encores these days?
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Tonight at the Waiting Room it’s Minneapolis indie band Tapes ‘n’ Tapes with Oberhofer. $12, 9 p.m.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.