By Izzy Cihak
When Boston quartet Mean Creek are asked what the best part of South by Southwest is, they promptly reply: “Cheap beer and cheap tacos.” Though it’s not all about ingestion.
They also talk about the fun of getting to check out bands they’ve seen and played with in the past. It’s like a yearly reunion of all those who matter (and many who don’t) in independent music, when seemingly every space (including coffee shops, bakeries, and pizza joints) in Austin is turned into a venue. They tell me they’re especially excited to catch up with their friends in Athens-based Dead Confederate and The Whigs.
On the other hand, the festival, which is a week’s-worth of festivities, apparently brings out a douchier element than usually found in the indie scene. “Sometimes it’s more of a party than people being there for the music,” vocalist/guitarist Aurore Ounjian tells me, admitting that there are generally a handful of people who show up for the wrong reasons. That, and apparently the keynote speakers go on at about nine in the morning: “Anything before 10 AM is totally not Rock’N’Roll,” says drummer Mikey Holland.
I caught up with Mean Creek (who proved to be one of the most socially cohesive bands I’ve ever met) in the wake of February’s blizzard, with 4-foot-high piles of snow lining the city streets, and an atmosphere that generally kept the population indoors. Hailing from New England, I figured they’d be a good group to ask for advice for keeping toasty when it’s in the teens outside: “We cuddle,” Ounjian confidently spouts. I met the group downstairs at the Khyber before they soundchecked for their gig later that evening. They were happy to be out and about again after being trapped in a New Jersey hotel room for two days due to their show the previous day at The Ottobar, Baltimore’s legendary punk club, getting cancelled. Though they managed to make the most of it. Apparently the foursome spent the day hitting up the hotel bar and spending $14.95 to watch Paranormal Activity, which Holland claims is the scariest movie he’s ever seen.
This past October Mean Creek released their sophomore LP, The Sky (or the Underground) on Old Flame Records. Proving to be one of 2009’s best releases, the album blends alt country with rock Americana in a way that is both ineffably epic and satisfyingly gritty. Ounjian was impressively honest when asked about how the promotion of the release is going: “It could always be better.” (It was later hinted that the two days spent in the hotel room didn’t exactly help to lift the band’s spirits). “It’s hard to promote our band because of all the different influences,” says Holland. They tell me that their influences “vary across the floor.” “We all love In Utero and the Pixies,” says Ounjian. “But we also listen to folk music,” adds vocalist/guitarist Chris Keene.
The band, whose name is derived from Jacob Aaron Estes’ 2004 film, has a lot of influences from outside the music world. “I’m a huge Charles Bukowski fan,” says Holland, who then goes on to discuss how inspiring he finds the process of jewelry making (something his girlfriend does) and the notion of the extraordinary time someone takes to craft something to then never see it again. Keen also adds that he finds late comedian and junior cultural theorist Bill Hicks to be quite inspiring (not a new notion for a rock band; Amanda Palmer, Built to Spill, and Radiohead have created famous homages to Hicks). He also notes of writer Alan Moore: “Me and Erik really like his graphic novels.”
Although the band has more or less remained on tour since their last release, they already have another in the works. They say that fans should expect a new EP or something of that nature in the coming months with a slightly new sound to it: “We’re so excited to put out the new songs we’ve been writing,” says Ounjian. Holland tells me that they’re working on something rawer than their last release.
Mean Creek take great pride in their live shows: “You have to see us live to understand the record,” says Ounjian. Although he was wary of sounding like a possible cliché, Holland added, “We want it to be more like an experience. Not just assaulting you with fifteen different rock songs.” Unfortunately, the snowy streets put a bit of a damper on Mean Creek’s performance at the Khyber. The venue boasted about a dozen in attendance, including tour mates Destry, the indie folk project of Michelle DaRosa (the girl from Straylight Run). Mean Creek’s relatively short set was, however, certainly sonically captivating. Relying mostly on material from The Sky (or the Underground), the band drifted through moody balladry (“Strange Man”), anthemic folk (“Light Into Dark”), and brilliant Southern-twanged pop that sounds like an outtake from Damn the Torpedoes (“It’s Good to be Back Again”). The simplistically bold “Face of the Earth” proved to be the highlight of the night, embodying a sound that could engulf a soccer stadium.
The band agrees that their constant touring seems to be what’s most helpful. Over the years they’ve shared stages with Mew, Buffalo Tom, Bishop Allen, and Black Lips and even toured the UK with The Ting Tings. Since the release of their latest they have done a handful of gigs with Cave Singers and Everyday Visuals and also opened a string of dates for The Whigs (including an apparently successful show at the North Star Bar in December) that had them playing to hundreds of people every night. The band agrees that, at this point, they prefer opening for bigger bands than trying to headline across the country. “Best case scenario would be opening for a big band,” says bassist Erol Wormwood. With a hint of cool Rock’N’Roll arrogance, Ounjian coyly adds “It’s nice to win over other people’s fans.”