Stranger Than Fiction
How the Art Department became a real band out of imaginary origins
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A few years ago, recordings surfaced on the internet of a lost album by the Art Department, a mid-'80s indie band from Carson City, Nev., with a vague backstory and an inscrutably unique sound. The guitarist finger-picked snaky melodies, with a capo placed so high on the neck that the sound almost resembled a ukulele. The bassist skipped all over the fretboard with nimble patterns. And the drummer played a relentless oompah beat while an enthusiastic tambourine player rattled over everything. And two voices, one low and monotone and the other high and strained, sang every line in unison, if not quite in harmony.
Eventually, Maryland native Jon Ehrens fessed up the truth about the Art Department: The mysterious Carson City quartet never existed. He'd recorded the 13-song album, The Art Anthology, one weekend in 2005, after dreaming up the imaginary band based on a peculiar singing style and the way his guitar sounded with a capo. He even laid down each instrumental track like a method actor, getting into the character of each imaginary musician's particular tics and playing styles.
"My new thing was, I'm gonna invent a band, invent a bio, record an album for them, and just forget about it," Ehrens explains. "That was my plan for Art Department, because I was, like, 'I'm gonna come up with other really, really good ideas.' And I came up with a few others, but they weren't as good."
So while Ehrens created numerous fictitious one-off bands, it was Art Department that took on a life of its own, as he drafted friends Mike Meno and Jason Howe to fill out the live lineup. Meno drums in the insistent tempos set by Ehrens's recordings and Howe keeps up with the busy bass lines, but they've gradually incorporated their own playing styles into the Art Department aesthetic.
Even Meno admits that, of all of his friend's songwriting projects, the Art Department was one that initially perplexed him. "I really didn't like it at first," he says. "It took me a few listens to get into. It's an acquired taste."
And while they all play in other bands, the Art Department has become the primary gigging outfit for the three friends. Even more surprisingly, people started singing along at the band's shows, and the band got invited to play as far away as Poughkeepsie, N.Y. So, paradoxically, the high-concept solo project with the oddball sound became something of a crowd-pleasing party band.
Although the Art Department is somewhat wary of being seen as a novelty band, its members also can't resist eccentric touches in their live presentation. The trio huddles unusually close on stage, with back often to the audience, although Ehrens says the band initially aimed for an even more extreme configuration. "I wanted to set up in the back corner of every stage we were at," he says. "And then for us to be perfectly still when we weren't playing. And then when we were playing, we'd do the same movement over and over again, sort of like "Peanuts" characters."
He laughs. "It didn't really work out," he adds ruefully. Early attempts to fill out the band to a quartet with a tambourine player were ditched when it began to feel like a gimmick, and the once-prominent percussion is gone from the band's newer songs.
In a recent performance at the Zodiac, the Art Department demonstrated the appeal of the band's live show, as well as its dedication to brevity: the band raced through roughly a dozen songs in 25 minutes, and would've been even quicker had a bass drum pedal malfunction not held Meno up after the first song. Though faithful to the aesthetic of Ehrens's original recordings, the live trio beefs up the band's sound, erasing the illusion of amateurish dabblers from Carson City: All three are skilled musicians, working their asses off to make compact but complicated songs work.
"Dennis Quaid," which features a hugely catchy chorus that namedrops the actor for no other reason than to fit a rhyme scheme, reflects the project's whimsical origins, while the "somebody wants me dead" refrain of "What's That Writing on the Wall" contributes to the uneasy, slightly creepy ambiance that also surrounds Art Department's offbeat sound. Even a cover of the Tears For Fears' "Head Over Heels" is so thoroughly made over in the Art Department mold that it's scarcely recognizable.
More than three years after The Art Anthology, the band has been gigging more steadily than ever, and plays a string of shows up and down the East Coast this month. But even as the Art Department has become comfortable with its true identity and has begun to expand its sound slightly with new songs the trio has written as a group, it is not quite ready to go professional and abandon its lo-fi roots. Talk of recording a new album this year involves using a friend's 4-track, not booking studio time.
Ehrens still writes songs for other projects and imaginary bands, but appears to relish the formal challenges of composing within the Art Department's narrow framework and exploring the trio's unique chemistry. "It took a while," Ehrens says. "But, yeah, I feel like we're a real band."