In the past half-decade, St. Louis has become a force on the national hip-hop scene (Nelly, Chingy, Murphy Lee) and the national emo scene (Story of the Year, So They Say, Ludo). But save a few exceptions, the city has yet to make an indelible mark on indie rock. Well, St. Louis, prepare for some possible shout-outs in Spin and Paste: The local orchestral septet Gentleman Auction House is about to take the nation by storm.
While the squad overwhelms the majority of tiny area stages, Gentleman Auction House considers its sheer size to be its strength. The band originated with Eric Enger, 25, Steve Kozel, 24, and Mike Tomko, 23 yet eventually fulfilled its potential as a seven-piece (the other members are Kiley Lewis, 22, Eric Herbst, 25, Ryan Archer Adams, 23 and Stephen Tomko, 18).
"The original concept was always to have more people," Enger says. "I liked the idea of a lot of people doing a lot of little things and adding it to the larger part of the puzzle rather than trying to have three people do it all."
To say the band has "a lot of people doing a lot of little things" is an understatement. The number of instruments Gentleman Auction House utilizes is staggering should one count the egg shakers, multiple drum and organ sets, and even the keyboard cases and stage boards used as drum-circle-percussion props. Throw in the occasional trumpet, flute or electric violin, and their sound conjures Belle & Sebastian or the Hush Sound in other words, an infectious, orchestral indie hootenanny with richly layered vocals.
This enthusiasm emerges during Gentleman Auction House's live show, which has earned the band a devout local following. Anthemic and unpredictable as well as exceedingly danceable their style runs the gamut from sea shanties ("Our Angry Town Runs Them Out") to metronomic marches ("Blissful Things Go"). The bandmates' music controls them; they bounce like multi-string marionettes manipulated by percussion. Enger shamelessly struts across the floorboards, Lewis gleefully shrieks like a banshee, and the elder Tomko screams with mirth, although these aren't theatrics. There's no pretension or acting in their performances, just enough vamp to voodoo a crowd. Even the auxiliary Auction Housers without microphones sing along, so strong is the band's unity.
Such a lofty enterprise requires unquestionable faith in each member. Enger, who writes the majority of melodies and lyrics, explains the creative process like so: "I'll have a skeleton, something I could play by myself. If I have an idea of what should go on for the other parts, I won't do it, 'cause then I'm falling back on what I know. I take it in and say, 'I'd prefer to hear what the band will come up with.'"
But while most large bands sit at the far ends of the conceptual spectrum either too monotonous or too scattered Gentleman Auction House finds rare harmony between its individual instrumental voices.
"The song on the MySpace page ["Everybody Has Taken"] is a great example of that," Enger says. "I thought I knew exactly what to do, but it was so typical me, it bored the shit out of me. So I came in with just the guitar part, and then Ryan came in with this crazy drumbeat and Kiley this unexpected keyboard line, and it gave the song that spark I was looking for. Then everybody else kept going; it's a great example of letting everybody do their thing."
Said keyboard composer is Kiley Lewis, a classically trained vocalist and seventeen-year veteran of the piano who's a force of experimental enthusiasm. But she hesitates to give too much significance to her status as the lone female in Gentleman Auction House.
"I never want to be pegged as 'the girl in the band,'" Lewis says. "There are annoying things that come with that. For instance, we played Fair St. Louis and the guy looked at me and said, 'You're going to be selling the merch, right?' And I was like, 'I'm in the band!' There's that attachment to roles that I'm still trying to break, but the band appreciates my musicianship and my musical education. And if being 'the girl in the band' involves scrutiny or people questioning me, let it be. I'm just here to rock."
While the inclusion of Lewis has helped the band draw comparisons to New Pornographers, Enger cites his biggest influence as Self, the multi-instrument-sampling band renowned for transcending genres. ("I love the fact that every one of their songs is a different world. You move on to the next song and you don't need to stick to 'the band' or what you've done before.") Meanwhile, Gentleman Auction House's relentless percussion is, bizarrely, an homage to Ms. Nasty herself.
"I still listen to Janet Jackson all the time if I could sing like her I would!" laughs Enger. "Our more percussive stuff is the influence of Rhythm Nation honest to God, I'm not even kidding."
Indeed, Gentleman Auction House's first EP, The Rules Were Handed Down, fully showcases their musical diversity and we're-in-this-together vibe.
"We picked songs that were all-inclusive in terms of the gamut that we run with our songs," Kozel says. "One of the big things about this EP is that we did it entirely ourselves from beginning to end it was us. The ability to say, 'Hey, you know what, we really can be doing this ourselves, we don't need that much help, but if you're willing to give it to us then we'd love to have that working relationship.' That would be ideal to have this EP be something labels hear and say, 'Do you have a full-length? Let's put it out. Let's go get some ice cream.'"
"Naturally, half our band is lactose intolerant," Enger interrupts. Without missing a beat, Kozel lobbies back: "Right, so, soy ice cream."
Kozel continues: "I would never say that perfection is our goal as much as satisfaction. And I think everyone feels that this is as satisfying as it can be."
And the satisfaction is evident. "Steve tells me he loves me about seven times in the middle of every set, and Mike blows kisses to say how happy he is to be playing," Enger says. "As goofy as that is, it's typical of the inner workings of our band. Everyone is excited to be there. Nobody's bored yet. Hopefully, they never will be."