It's always been a challenge to pin down Marionette's sound. Its debut EP, “You Are Here,” sailed through indie-rock, folk, French pop and post-punk with ease. “I told a girl it was pop the other day,” says drummer and lead singer Kevin Cornell, and she was like “‘Fppppst, I don’t want to listen to that.' So, we're a rock band.”
After a lineup makeover left Cornell and keyboardist Marshall O'Leary as the only original members, Marionette renewed its emphasis on song writing. On the first full-length album, “Facing You,” the five-piece band finds its own voice within the history of rock music. Guitarist Adam Rose explains, “Think about all of the things that have come out of rock 'n' roll -- psychedelia, incorporating noise, big guitars, soft parts, alt-country. There are all these little subsegments of rock and I think we borrow from a lot of them.” Marionette sprinkles in horns, strings and musical hubcaps.
With former Broken Hips member Tom Brickman on bass and dual vocals now sung by percussionist Kerri Helsley, Marionette has a lot of range for a rock band.
Style: Tell us about that one song…
Cornell: “Facing You” is the title track to our new record and probably the most representative of the band. It also has the most going on. We have Toby Whitaker and Bob Miller from Bio Ritmo playing horns on that song and Steve Presley of the Oregon Hill Funk All Stars playing sax. It's a big anthemic song like we've been doing recently.
Rose: The song also sets the tone musically for the rest of the album. I think it's really raw sounding, with a lot of muscle behind it. During the recording, a lot of the colors came out with the horn section. I think it plays well with the psychedelic aspects of the album -- a stripped down bass-drums-piano song that has a strut to it. It reminds me of the Stones or PJ Harvey, mixed with giant colorful choruses that have a lot going on.
Cornell: It's all about the existential crisis. When you hear it, it sounds almost like I'm talking to somebody. But I thought of it more as me looking at myself in the mirror and asking “What am I doing?” It's that existential angst, which is a predominant theme, along with escape, in a lot of the songs. There's a little bit of subtle sarcasm in the chorus, which says “everything is gonna be all right.” Then, I go back to the crisis, then, everything's gonna be all right. I end up summing it up by saying to myself, “everything you think is completely legit.”
O'Leary: That's one of the ones we weren't torturing ourselves over lyrics on.
Rose: The way we got to the lyrics on this album was pretty cool. Kevin is an amazing fake lyric singer. When we're working on songs musically, he starts singing melodies. He has a rhythm to them and they almost suggest words, but when we're playing, it's hard to know if they're real words or not.
Cornell: There were a couple of songs I gave to Kerri and she deciphered what I was saying, but I wasn't saying anything. I would have half of something and Kerri would help finish it.
Rose: She'd put mood lighting on to chill out and then she'd come up with these lyrics that were these amazing poems, all based on Kevin going “gibba, gibba, gibba.”
Cornell: She'd bring ideas and we would sit down to pick through what made sense and try to keep with a theme. Usually, I have a basic concept of what I wanted to say, but then that's one clear line out of 25 of me speaking in tongues.
Rose: For some of the newer songs we've been working on, we're doing the same kind of thing. We're playing and Kevin is singing a melody and all of sudden there's words attached to it. Kerri has one line, then Kevin has one line.
Cornell: The whole process is changing, it's become very organic. I'm excited about the next thing we do.
What is one thing you think would help improve the Richmond music scene?
Cornell: I've met a lot of bands where I'll talk to them and they give the cold shoulder. It doesn't make any sense. It's not like a sporting event. I'll go up to people and tell them how much I liked their show, sincerely, and then ask them to collaborate on something. I wish there was more of that happening. A lot more support of everyone versus a competition.
That's what was cool about using Bob and Toby and Steve on the record. We didn't really know these guys, we knew of them. We just called to see if they could do it and they did. It was such an easy process and it created community. Elizabeth Jaffe from Richmond Symphony was also a shot in the dark. We asked our friend Prabir (Mehta) who works for the symphony and he suggested we try her out. She was totally gung-ho and did a kick-ass job.
Rose: We didn't know her at all and she offered her own ideas for the song. Same thing with Josh (Quarles) of Jonathan Vassar's band, who plays cello on some songs. Once we asked them to play on the recording, when we went with hat in hand, everybody was like “Yeah, sure!” But it can be hard, too, because all of the musicians in Richmond are so busy. People are having their own shows or their own rehearsals. Brian Hoffa at Sound of Music is another example of getting great contributions from people in Richmond. He ran live sound for us a few times and we built a relationship around that. He has a daughter around my son's age.
Cornell: He has such a good ear. We learned that when he ran sound for us. He just got the songs and he supported our music, so we had him mix the album. The whole process was very creative. He got his wife to play musical saw on the album. For the song “Wavering,” he had the idea to use a tremolo box and it just fit the song perfectly -- great aesthetic ideas.
What is your most outrageous moment as a band?
Rose: One of our most outrageous moments is one nobody else got to see. When we were recording “Facing You,” we were out at MonkeyClaus Studios in the middle of nowhere. Recording was really intense. We had a lot to get done. We were conscious of only having a few days to do all this stuff. This was the third or fourth night we were there. We had been making good progress, so we all hung out and let loose. I found this link to David Lee Roth where it was just his vocal track of him singing “Runnin' with the Devil.” It's hilarious, just his vocal track, with all of the (screaming) “aaaahs” and “hehhhhh” and him panting and breathing heavy, letting everything hang out, completely ridiculous.
Cornell: At the same time it was really impressive.
Rose: It was ridiculous and awesome. We listened to that right before Kevin had to do some singing, just as an example.
Cornell: It turned out to be very inspirational. I never thought I'd be inspired by David Lee Roth.
Rose: So then I ended up pulling out “Van Halen I” and blasting the whole album in this huge, acoustically wonderful studio, over these huge speakers. All of us were rocking out, playing our instruments and talking. It got silly in lots of ways.
What are your first musical memories?
Cornell: My dad listening to records, classic stuff like Creedence. We'd be riding in the car and he'd have a tape in and just blast it. I remember going to school and standing up in the seat, back in the '70s you know, no seat belt, sucking my thumb. My dad would be beating on the steering wheel and we'd just be singing.
Rose: It's so cool because I don't know your dad like that.
O'Leary: My granddaddy would sing old cowboy songs and what you would call standards now, like “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Sentimental Journey.” They were two of his favorite ones. All of my cousins know the words to those songs, which is a weird thing to know. And “Red River Valley,” my mom would sing the words to that as I fell asleep.
Rose: I grew up in a big Italian family in New York, where everyone played instruments. Music was just a part of life. Some of the guitars they'd play are my grandfather's. It'd be Sunday night and somebody would be cooking a big pot of sauce and my grandfather and all of his brothers, sisters, and cousins would be singing everything from “Blue Moon” and standards, to Italian songs and cowboy songs, Chet Atkins and Les Paul. It was neat to have live music around all of the time, not trying to play bars, but just used as a way to be a family.
The CD release show for “Facing You” will be Saturday, Oct. 24, at Poe's Pub, 2706 E. Main St. Also on the bill: Cities for Small Towns and Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird. The show starts at 10 p.m. and the cover is $5. For information call 648-2120.