“You two have a blessed day and come back and see us,” says the sales clerk at a local music supply store.
“Thank god they had the drum head I needed because there’s no other music store in town” says Ariel Monet, the lanky yet thunderous timekeeper for the electro / punk-hop duo Snailmate, breathes a sigh of relief while riding shotgun.
Monet and vocalist / keyboardist Kalen Lander just finished a 12 hour sprint from Omaha to play their next gig. Not five minutes ago she sifted through a pitiful stack of ten or so drum heads and found the exact one she needed for tonight’s show. These are some of the challenges that a local band may face when touring small town America.
Whenever “faith” is used in a facet of being courteous or gracious here in Roswell, you can’t help but give pause for a moment. For decades now, the people of this bodacious town probably thank god or their lucky stars for a “weather balloon” crashing down, causing a flurry of speculation about extraterrestrial life and if we were, in fact, alone in the universe.
Without it, there would be no justification on this weekend to charge ninety dollars a night for less-than-stellar accommodations or five dollars for a fresh squeezed lemonade. It’s the once-a-year cash cow that a town barely touched since the 50s jumps on and rides dirty. Otherwise, Roswell would be nothing more than a speck on the map with cows, fields…and flies. Lots of flies.
The show in question is an after hours performance at Stellar Coffee, located deep in the green heart of Roswell, New Mexico, home of the annual UFO Festival. This year’s celebration marks the 70th anniversary of the alleged crash landing of an unidentified flying object, and believers come from all over to celebrate a moment in history that forever altered the imaginations of mankind.
Eerily, a mere 120 miles away, a much more definitive event took place two years prior to “The Roswell Incident”, resulting in the birth of nuclear weapons. “Trinity”, referencing a poem by John Donne written shortly before his death, could not be a more apt code name given the “god complex” of the project’s founding father, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
So was it aliens that drew our bombastic duo here, or faith that there’s an audience hiding in the smallest nooks and crannies of America?
“We saw more aliens in Marfa (TX) than here in Roswell,” quips Lander, possibly referencing the “Marfa Lights” phenomenon or strange local traditions. “Marfa was weird because they stop serving alcohol at midnight, but then close the bars at midnight! It was just weird. But we wanna play small towns off the beaten path because they appreciate you. They know that you didn’t have to stop and so many bands will skip them over, so they show their appreciation more and we love it! We played here back in March and they loved us, so they invited us back to play the UFO Festival this weekend.”
The core that Snailmate has built on and around since their inception two years ago has been touring. Not the little cutesy mini-tours of 10 dates within a 500 mile radius of home base. We’re talking thousands of miles being racked up with each leg. The mates stay on the road for months at a time, playing nearly every night. “When we started, we did it to tour. Ariel’s last band didn’t want to tour and I had never gone on tour with my previous band. We planned it out, auditioned a couple of other people, and emphasized that if they couldn’t live in a car for six months at a time, then you can’t be in this band!” explains Lander. “We eventually figured out how to do it as a two piece.”
Wait! Snailmate was going to be a 4-piece rock band???
“Haha, yeah. When we formed the band, I did not know how to play anything. We were going to have a guitar and bass player to help round out the sound.” Lander expands on the earlier days: “I started playing keys and was really shitty at it. It’s definitely a bell curve and started extremely hard. So I thought let’s get a guitar and bass player!”
Monet jokingly adds, “I used to scream at him a lot. Like if he was playing video games, I’d be like “What do you suck at right now? You need to practice not play video games!” But the two constantly push each other to try new things as well to keep things fresh. “He made me do vocals because I would joke around with vocals at practice. And he was like, ‘No! You need to do that!'”
Lander chimes in, “I would say maybe you could play drums and the kazoo or sing? And she would say ‘I can’t!’ “Well you’re gonna fuckin’ tryyyy, haha!”
Trying new things in their songwriting has kept the Snailmate “sound” consistent yet fresh. Over the course of 3 EP’s, 2 split-band releases, a handful of singles, and now their first full-length album, Love In The Microwave, the tweaks made are sometimes subtle, and some are more pronounced. Although sadly “Big Fish Don’t Taste Good” didn’t make the final cut, the selections made for Love are solid choices from previous releases. So why these songs? What makes them so damn special? (Sorry…I’m bitter about “Big Fish” not being included.)
Lander elaborates, “The reason some of these songs reappear is because when we recorded them for the initial EP’s, the songs were very new. So we wrote them and pretty much committed them to record, and then played them out 700 times…and they changed over time. Parts became tighter, other parts didn’t. We cut the fat. So now you get a feel for the natural flow of the song as meant to be heard. We went back and listened to the old versions and were like fuck…this is a different band.”
So of course the die-hards wanna know what was the vibe and experience like re-recording these songs?
Monet: “The experience was great! We recorded the album at Royal Recordings in Colorado Springs with Bill Douglas. He’s amazing and has no ego. We recorded all the drum tracks and synths in one take except one song. And I’ve always been a fan of one take because the energy is there and you’re not thinking about fucking up. The album is mastered to flow like a story, and we did it in four very short days.”
Lander: “Yeah, we spent 4 days there basically living in the studio. Bill has a weird way of pushing you, too. Like we would record for a day and he would say “Let’s go drink!” So we’d start drinking and then he would turn around with, “You should get back in the vocal booth and record.” Or he’d have us go play an open mic in the middle of a session and then come back and record some more. It was unconventional. But the songs feel better. So when we went to record them, we knocked them out in one take because we knew the in’s and out’s of the songs.”
To say that the duo treats the band as a full time job is an understatement. When they’re not on the road setting up and striking night after night, the two hold down regular jobs at The Rhythm Room back in their home base of Phoenix. “When we started, we didn’t know if we were going to be any good. We were just about being in a band together and playing some shows together. I fully expected Ariel to join a better band to drum with and do her thing. But it’s definitely a full-time thing now,” says Lander.
And the machine doesn’t quit, even when it’s stationary. A normal 12-hour day usually consists of practicing 2-4 hours, playing a show, screen printing shirts, booking tours, designing fliers – only stopping to eat or sleep. “We eat A LOT” jokes Lander. “Ariel’s a great cook, so she’ll cook an excessive amount (laughs).”
Ariel smiles largely at this fact, “We’ve been starving and eating shitty car food! So I’m like ‘We’re having every bit of food I can make!’ We also drink a lot because we don’t drink on tour. And we love where we work at because they let us come back any time and we’re so grateful for that.”
“You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to work hard…if you want anything at all.” – Depeche Mode
The life of an artist is never an easy one, and great art takes ingenuity and sacrifice. But what happens when hard work is brushed aside in the form of crowdfunding campaigns? The concept of having an artist say to the fans “We’ve got this REALLY great idea, but we need your dollars to make it happen.” seems absurd. What happens when that great idea ends up falling flat and the fans are left downloading binary coded excrement?
“It’s such a strange and backwards thing,” says Lander. “I don’t understand some of these bands that have four or five members, and they all have full time jobs, yet they’re crowdfunding?”
Monet adds, “I think people are gonna get sick of it. We hope to never do it, but would use it for emergencies. I just want people to buy the merch rather than an invisible donation. We feel weird asking people for money…we absolutely hate it. Like if the tour bus breaks, it’s our responsibility to fix it. But we’ll ask around if someone can hook us up with a good deal from an honest mechanic? But we would never ask people for money.”
Ask the band what they love most about running a grassroots style tour, and they’ll tell you it’s the fans. Monet lights up when asked this question: “We love meeting the people who like our music! Keeping in contact, seeing people wearing our shirts when we revisit a town we played before is super cool. Right now we have a remix compilation in the works of “The Waiter”, and some bands are doing an actual cover and writing their own music and not even using the provided stems. And some did remixes as well…it’s been really cool!” Lander states with equal enthusiasm: “I feel like we’re friends with everyone. There’s people out there that we haven’t met personally that appreciate our music from afar and follow us. And when we discover them, it’s super humbling. They’re our homies!”
Watching the band perform live is a spectacle all its own. They’re a completely self-contained unit, traveling with their own lights and PA system for an all-encompassing experience. Monet’s clear acrylic drum kit glows pink, blue and yellow while showing no quarter to the fresh drum head purchased merely hours ago. Broken sticks are one possible souvenir a fan might pick up from the floor, but not tonight.
Lander’s comfort level behind the keys has grown by leaps and bounds. The once static and hyper focused frontman has broken out of his shell, highly animated and throwing in a repertoire of kung fu kicks and chops with the energy of a possessed Good Guys doll. If you look closely, you might catch a glint of maniacal persona on tunes like “Jumper/Cable” and “Suture Self”, while his counterpart twitches randomly without missing a beat. In the end, the only thing missing from this production is the rock cliche destroying of instruments in a glorious haze of artificial fog.
It’s near midnight when the band finishes loading up and saying goodbye to the fans and venue staff. Strong winds whip around a cool breeze and brilliant flashes of paparazzi lightning capture stills of old brick warehouses and loading docks. As we say our goodbyes, the heavens open up with chilly tears… as if the town is somberly saying “You two have a blessed day and come back and see us.”
As sad as it may be, this is rock-n-roll. The show must go on in the next town and the one after that, over and over again. The red tail lights disappear in the rain like the Mothman flying in reverse. Snailmate are wicked, and they’re coming your way.
For more Snailmate, visit their webpage.
Chris Nunley began writing for YabYum in the Summer of 2015 and his latest series The Noise Floor seeks to explore the outer limits of sound. When he’s not popping in for a local show or taking road trips, he devotes his creative energy to his evolving electronic music project, Sliide.