The Boston Phoenix
August 3 - 10, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Dynamic duos

Mishima and Mr. Airplane Man

Cellars by Starlight by Jonathan Perry

One April evening two years ago, two guys in suits walked inside an Elks Club in Cambridge, set up their equipment (basically a small drum kit and one amplifier for the electric guitar), and started playing pop songs for about 20 people seated in folding chairs. Their name was perplexing -- unless, of course, you were familiar with the work of Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Then it made sense (sort of). But the duo's music was still startling.

It wasn't the volume or the lyrics of Mishima's songs that proved so surprising. Rather, it was the quality of that sound, the interdependence and self-reliant completeness of the way singer Arto Payaslian's guitar and Sean O'Brien's drums fit together. Even once you realized there were just two of them up there, you couldn't help craning your neck for a glimpse of a bassist who was nowhere to be found.

Garrett Vandermolen, co-owner of Boston's Catapult Records, had a similar reaction when he caught Mishima for the first time a year later at the Sky Bar in Somerville. "I had heard their music but had never seen them live. I didn't know what to expect, really, and when I walked in the door, there was a pretty big crowd and I couldn't see them at first. But I heard them and they sounded great. When I finally got closer to the stage, I had to chuckle a little bit because it was just the two of them and they were in suits."

Mishima's visual and musical appeal intrigued Vandermolen, as did it his Catapult colleagues. The upstart label has just signed the Cambridge-based outfit to a deal that will send Mishima into the studio this month to begin recording a full-length debut that should be out this winter. For supporters of the band, who've so far had to content themselves with the duo's appearances on several indie compilations and one seven-inch single ("Stop Swerving," released last year on Willard Grant Conspiracy singer Robert Fisher's Dahlia Records label, sold out its first pressing of 500 copies), news of a Mishima album comes not a moment too soon. But that goes double for the two principals.

"I'll get the sappy stuff out of the way," says Payaslian over coffee with O'Brien at the Middle East. "This, for me, is a lifelong dream. When you're little, that's what you think of -- that one day I'm going to grow up and someone's going to put out my record. To me, in my own little way, it's a huge deal. When I hear other records for the first time, they inspire me. I want this to be something that inspires people in the sense that they really get into it and know that these are guys who really care about these songs -- that it's well crafted and as good as it possibly can be."

Mishima, who'll play the Lizard Lounge August 19, feel they've found an ideal match in Catapult, a label that's also home to local folks like Star Ghost Dog and Fuzzy. And the band's crisply humming pop does seem in keeping with the identity the imprint has carved out for itself. Rough mixes of new tracks like "Today Is Atonal" and "Twist My Arm" are by turns self-effacing and ebullient but always laced with an undertow of melancholic angst. "We had talked to other labels too a little bit," says O'Brien. "So many of them have really great intentions, but they work at night out of their studio apartment and don't have the manpower, the time, or the money. Catapult's a really good place for us, because it's a full-time business for them . . . [and] it's really cool to see them in the audience. It's not like they're sitting behind a desk. They're really hands-on."

Mishima's guitar-and-drums format materialized out of a happy accident. Payaslian had placed a classified ad in the Phoenix in 1997 seeking a bass player and a drummer. O'Brien, who by his own eye-rolling admission had previously done time in a succession of miserable bands before opting to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology (which he completed last year), answered first. The two hit it off right away, and they soon discovered that none of the bass players they were auditioning was adding much.

Although he says he initially felt naked being on stage with little more than a drummer (and a backing vocalist in O'Brien) behind him, Payaslian claims that feeling has dissipated: "I almost enjoy it now that there's no one else up there, because I'm challenged and I like that. I've come to realize why I don't need other people up there -- I take it for granted sometimes -- because I look over and the guy doesn't screw up. He's an incredible drummer and he's got my back." All of which begs the question: will there be bass on the album?

"It's not like we're not going to be a two-piece on the record," Payaslian allows. "But at the same time, you can't just say, `Let's take two guys and throw a mike in there.' I think after a while that could be tiresome. We definitely need to flesh it out a little bit and put some meat on there." But though a bass will likely be present on two or three tracks, what he's really talking about is adding a dash of layered guitar here, a spot of cello and a sprinkle of keyboards there. Right now, the ideas -- and possibilities -- are flowing.

"Even though there are a lot of arguments about the dumbing down [effect] of Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit and all this crap, I think that people still know quality when they hear it," Payaslian goes on. "And we're pro-active. We understand that we can't just make the music and expect people to come to us. You have to work on trying to win people over, you have to fight for your music. And we're up for that challenge."

"The Cadillac definitely helped," says Mr. Airplane Man guitarist Margaret Garrett with a laugh, trying to put her finger on how she and drummer Tara McManus hooked up with Memphis producer and Gibson Bros./'68 Comeback alum Jeff Evans this past spring. We're having coffee at the 1369 Coffee House in Inman Square as Mr. Airplane Man prepare to begin a Thursday-night August residency at the Abbey Lounge, and there's a lot of ground to cover -- not the least of which is the band's just-minted deal with the Sympathy for the Record Industry label, which plans to release their new album later this year. That arrangement arose from the band's recording sessions with Evans last May.

And how that happened, Garrett says, had to do with the 1968 Coupe de Ville the duo were using for tour transportation. "They like old cars in Memphis, but Evans is a real Cadillac man. So when he saw our Cadillac, that was it. He didn't really care much about our music. He saw our old Cadillac and said, `I'm gonna record them.' " Good thing the band had spent eight weeks opening shows around the country for Orchestra Morphine -- an experience that had whipped them back into shape after they had taken a hiatus from performing in the wake of friend and mentor Mark Sandman's death last year.

"I think it's been kind of a hard year," McManus says, not far from where a photo of the late Morphine leader hangs behind the coffeeshop counter. "We had to take a break. I feel like he was such a guide for us. It took a while to adjust, to realize that he's really not here and that we're really on our own." Eventually though, the duo knew the only thing they could do was go forward. Last spring, to make some quick cash, they released a wonderfully grimy compilation of demos, rehearsals, and live cuts called, appropriately, Primitive, and hit the road. Even though McManus admits that in opening for Orchestra Morphine "we were playing really big places and people didn't get it," Garrett says by the time they got to Memphis as part of a mini-tour they were undertaking on their own, "it was immediate and mutual love."

Evans caught Mr. Airplane Man's Sunday show, dug their take on rawboned garage blues, and offered to get the tapes rolling. "It's the best stuff we've gotten, and it was the least we've ever had to put into it," McManus says, beaming. "He has this room in his house; he sets up a couple of mikes and you just go and you play. It's no big deal, and it sounds great." The band set up in what amounted to a cramped, makeshift living room littered with amps, a PA, and wires everywhere. For added inspiration, a portrait of Sun Records rockabilly cat Charlie Feathers hung in totemic splendor.

"Usually, the vocals are so separated -- you never just mike a PA," says Garrett. "He just miked the PA and moved the mikes around a couple of times until he got a good sound and that was it, he just let it be. He laid back, he didn't say a thing. No directive, no nothing."

During breaks, Evans broke out his vintage Howlin' Wolf videos. Whatever, the band, feeling relaxed and in their element, were able to conjure and capture the kind of vibe they get on a particularly good night in a club. Or, as Garrett puts it, "that fierce, red-hot thing coming out in all directions."

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