When looking back at the summer of 2011, few locals will forget the swarms of cicadas that staged a brief, noisy invasion. For a few weeks, millions of the chirping insects took root. But where most of us found an annoyance, Amanda Rainey of the Columbia-based label Special Passenger found inspiration.
"Columbia was completely infested with millions of cicadas, so many that it literally hurt your ears to walk outside," she recalls. "Columbia went cicada crazy for a while, and Sparky's Homemade Ice Cream, where I work, made cicada ice cream. It sold out quickly and made national news."
A call went out to Twitter and Facebook: Please send cicada-themed songs for a compilation. Within a few weeks, Amanda had gathered seventeen tracks, ranging from acoustic numbers to a teenage songwriting workshop for sixteen-year-olds at Missouri Scholars Academy. The result, Cicada Summer, is a microcosm of Special Passenger in general — nominally a record label, but actually a loose network of talented friends and relatives between St. Louis, Columbia, Mississippi (where Amanda lived for a while after college) and Tennessee.
"I love the name Special Passenger because we do special and handmade things, and 'passenger' implies collaboration," Amanda says. "We print between 100 and 200 of each release and try to come up with different packaging ideas for each project. [We've done] fabric cases, screen-printed gift boxes, paper plates, homemade marbled paper, cases made from recycled materials and zines with mini CDs."
Special Passenger's roster includes Lizzie Wright Super Space Ship, a Jackson native who sings about people, insects (even when there are no proper insect-related events) and grad school, and Cory Taylor Cox, a Memphis folkie who has spent most of 2011 on tour. They play shows together, visit each other's hometowns and share compilation and split-seven-inch space.
However, St. Louis' Dubb Nubb is Special Passenger's flagship band. Literally keeping it in the family, nineteen-year-old twin sisters Delia and Hannah Rainey have been writing and playing together for four years now. Amanda, their older sister, has released Dubb Nubb's two CDs, 2009's The Best Game Ever and 2010's New Bones. This spring, she officially joined the band on drums and percussion.
Dubb Nubb is that rare band without any obvious musical influences. Hannah and Delia trade off on guitar, mandolin and percussion, while Amanda plays a small standup drum with brushes. Their songs have clear folk and bluegrass twinges but are performed in a way that's closer to boom box-era Mountain Goats or vintage K Records. (It's not hard to imagine them sharing a bill with such K acts as the Softies or Mirah.) Their vocal harmonies occasionally fall out of tune but are absolutely complementary in ways that only siblings can achieve (think Everly Brothers or Carter Family). The lyrics are often reflections of travels and long-lost friends, evoking melancholy late-night car trips through cornfields and past tawdry roadside motels.
"That's a lot of what influenced us, actually," says Hannah before a Dubb Nubb show at Villa Park in Olivette. "We spent a lot of time in cars visiting Amanda when she lived in Jackson, and playing shows there. Originally we started writing just about teenage stuff, but then it got more complicated..."
"Scenery, nature. Heartache," adds Delia.
It's been a busy summer for the Rainey sisters. They spent a few weeks in May and June touring bedrooms, basements, radio stations and record stores throughout the South and Midwest. Highlights included an impromptu set at Nashville's Mercy Lounge and a rare electric-band set on the radio in Knoxville. ("I didn't have my guitar because I thought there was going to be one there," Hannah remembers.) After a few weeks at home, Amanda departed on tour with Jackson electro-duo J-Tran, while Hannah and Delia spent five weeks as counselors at a Jewish sleepover camp in Carbondale, Illinois.
"Camp was really awesome," says Delia. "We basically got paid to hang out with a bunch of kids and our friends in the woods. We taught kids how to play instruments. There turned out to be seven kids in our class. And they were so not talented except for one. He wrote a bunch of songs. All the other kids followed him."
"There were two bands by the end of the summer," says Hannah. "The younger kids' band was called the Hungry Hungry Inchworms, and the older kids' band was Scar of David."
"They were kinda punk," Delia says about Scar of David. "They did a White Stripes cover."
Some of the other venues where Dubb Nubb has played locally since May include a twilight backyard party at eldest sister Nicky's house, the courtyard of Off Broadway in between bands and once more in Villa Park, where they held an impromptu parade/rehearsal. Once in a while they'll play an actual club stage, too. Whereas most bands have never seen the sun, Dubb Nubb is almost always at its best at these makeshift outdoor performances.
"I hate dealing with sound systems. It either sounds really bad or really...good," says Delia, with a mild shudder in her voice. "When you're playing live [outside of clubs], you don't have to worry. Especially us, because we're acoustic, it's easier and more fun."
According to Amanda, their love of music and performance began at home. "Our living room features a piano, guitars, mandolin and shelves of CDs and records," she says. "My parents always had music playing in the house, which was mostly awesome except for when it was Phil Ochs at 8 a.m. on a Saturday and I was in middle school. My dad plays guitar, but mostly for himself in the basement. I also remember being dragged to concerts at the Focal Point in my pajamas almost every weekend as a kid."
Hannah adds, "There's always a CD or record playing in our house, or KDHX."
Dubb Nubb's third CD, Sunrise, Sleepy-Eyed, is currently in the proverbial can. Recorded in Amanda's Columbia apartment last spring by Los Angeles-based Zoe-Ruth Erwin, it contains some of the band's best songs to date, including "Mound City Baby," a loving and impressionistic ode to St. Louis. Sunrise, Sleepy-Eyed was meant to come out this summer, but a combination of technical issues and busyness has pushed it back to fall. Also on the schedule for Dubb Nubb is a spot on LouFest's Area K stage. Meanwhile, Special Passenger is putting out a Lizzie Wright Super Space Ship CD. Then there's Feels Like Coming Home, a combination CD and interview project "exploring the musical communities and towns that give us voice, heart and home." The band's even recorded a session for the music website Daytrotter.com, due later this summer.
Meanwhile, changes keep coming. Later this month, Hannah and Delia will start classes at Mizzou, making both Dubb Nubb and Special Passenger entirely Columbia-based. Delia, for one, is looking forward to this next chapter: "The Columbia music scene definitely needs some work. I have some ideas about a student music venue, which will maybe help out that scene a little bit. Columbia has a lot of potential. But we'll still be playing around here. We want to try to make an album every year. Just keep writing music and making people happy."
Hannah agrees: "We're going to continue playing until people don't want us to play anymore."