SOME YOUNG musicians don't quite know what to do with themselves during a photo shoot. Vulnerable without their instruments to fondle, they look for things to do with their hands. But at a recent photo shoot for the skateboarding magazine Slap, the Mumlers solved the age-old problem by crafting picket signs, each with a letter of the band's name on it (there are seven of them), and heading out to a "Muslims for Peace" protest happening down the street at San Jose's City Hall.
Though the band's jack-of-all-instruments, Felix Archuleta, was sporting a Yusuf Islam–style beard at the time, none of the band members are actually Muslims.
"One of the organizers comes up and he's like, 'What's on your sign?'" says Will Sprott, the Mumlers' founder, songwriter and singer. "I was like, 'Just a letter ... we heard there was a protest and we thought we'd come and support the alphabet.'"
Somehow, Sprott doesn't sound like a smartass—the way he trails off when he says "support the alphabet" makes him sound sincere, if slightly confused.
"He was like, 'Why don't you guys get in order and then we'll take a photo,'" continues Sprott. "So we lined up so it said, 'MUMLERS,' and then he's like, 'OK, you guys spelled it wrong though, it's not 'MUMLERS,' and he starts reorganizing us and he spells 'MUSLEM,' and then there was an extra 'R' so he had that guy turn the 'R' around and just had 'MUSLEM,' and they shot all these photos," says Sprott, laughing quietly. "We're gonna look like this illiterate group of weirdos."
That perception would be only half true, because the Mumlers, an indie-folk band from San Jose, are not illiterate—their name is not "the Mumblers" misspelled; neither is it a reference to William H. Mumler, a Victorian-era New Yorker who claimed he could photograph ghosts.
"Basically I liked it because it didn't mean anything," says Sprott. "Various people with Internet fetishes have decided that we took it from these photographers. I like it, and I've kind of played to it, but it's not really true. I told another guy I got it from a Ouija board, which is probably a good a way as any to describe where it came from."
Sprott's reluctance to explain away a mystery is part of his gift as a songwriter. Abstract but not impenetrable, his tales are easy to get into, but tough to pin down. His voice is assured and consistent in tone—trustworthy in songs of moral ambiguity, steady in a musical and environment where anything goes.
The band itself is a large and unruly jumble of vintage instruments and the people who play them, and seems to have sprung from nowhere. On the strength of their demo and some live shows, the Mumlers' genre-trotting, zillion-instrument folk music won the band a Metro "Best Local Band" award and a weeklong recording session through the Bleeding Edge Music Festival. They played at Music in the Park and were featured on NPR's West Coast Live, then got picked up by the Galaxia record label (which has also recorded Tommy Guerrero, Will Oldham and Brightblack Morning Light, among many others) and recorded their debut CD, Thickets and Stitches. They mixed it with Thomas Monahan, an engineer who's worked with Vetiver and freak folk darling Devandra Banhardt.
The 26-year-old Sprott and his band celebrate their CD release at Streetlight and the Blank Club in February, along with the Dodos from San Francisco and Two Sheds from Sacramento. The Mumlers are off to a hell of a start.
Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
HOME STRETCH: 'San Jose has been very receptive to our music, and just been very supportive of everything we've done,' says Will Sprott (right, with Müller).
I came to this town from beneath the hospital gown/ Into this life of mirrors and smoke/ in 1980, two people had a baby/ I suppose that their condom must have broke
—"Dice in a Drawer"
Like the baby Sprott wryly sings about in "Dice in a Drawer," the Mumlers were not planned—most of the members were recruited piecemeal to help Sprott record a few solo songs. The way he tells it, almost every single development in his life that led to the Mumlers—from getting into old music and learning to play guitar to completing his first record with a group of nine musicians—sounds like a series of happy accidents.
To start with, none of Sprott's cited influences explain the prevalence of the French horn in Mumlers' songs—or, as Archuleta says, why the Mumlers "have French horns for dayyyyys."
That would be because they got an inside tip about the San Jose Unified School District giving away old band instruments. Archuleta and the band's drummer Andy Paul showed up at 6am and drove away with seven French horns and a huge concert bass drum.
"They were super dusty," says Archuleta, "but I cleaned and oiled everything. And yeah, we got that big old bass drum ... we came up."
"'Cause we need seven French horns in this band more than we need a hole in the head," jokes Müller, and then adding as an afterthought: "My clarinet came from that too."
But if happy accidents are now the band's standard operating procedure, it started much earlier, back in the days of mixtapes, when Sprott accidentally got hooked on Bob Dylan "I used to find tapes on the ground," says Sprott, "or the ones you find strewn around a bush, I'd reel 'em back in and fix 'em with scotch tape and put 'em back together and bring 'em home and see what was on 'em. One day I was walking next to a creek and I found this dirty cassette tape in it. I brought it home and it was Bob Dylan—I had never really listened to him, it was like Desire or something like that, a fairly late album. 'Hot chile peppers in the blisterin' sun,' I think that ["Romance in Durango"] was the first song I heard."
He had taken piano lessons as a kid, but Sprott's obsession with Dylan prompted him to learn to play the guitar in high school. It also led him to delve into his mom's huge collection of vinyl.
"That's how I started really getting into old music."
When he says "old," he means it—he's got a vintage Edison record player and a collection of old shellac records to play on it—but generally speaking, his tastes veer toward the soul, funk and folk from the '60s.
It's not your fault if you feel deranged/ If you got eyes in your head, you know these times are strange/ So grab those pills from the pocket in your pants/ shake 'em like maracas, oh get up and dance.
—"Shake That Medication"
The Mumlers' song "Shake That Medication" is a hardcore funk tune for the medicated set, and it's the clearest reflection of Sprott's love of soul music on their album. He idolizes all the artists from the early years of Stax, a Memphis-based record label that nurtured the careers of Otis Redding and Booker T. and the MGs, and cites Bobby Bland as his all-time favorite vocalist. But instead of trying to imitate his idols, he emulates their recording styles, preferring to record songs to tape as a band instead of track by track, recreating that palpable group feel he loves in the Stax records.
Whereas James Brown was notorious for his insistence that his band keep the funk "tight," the Mumlers manage to pull of a complex and funky barrage of riffs and syncopation that hangs together loosely, a quality Sprott says is intentional.
"You often hear bands described as 'tight,'" says Sprott. "That doesn't describe us at all."
In "Hitched to the Sun," the band plays a country shuffle where rubbery notes bend like a funhouse mirror, crazily reflecting Sprott's sleepy voice careening almost drunkenly out of control, "Through plenty of dark days I've sashayed, oh I've strayed/ through bleached fields heaped high with bones," sings Sprott, "And my aching eyes can't see the trail of grief, I dream of sleep/ Are my eyes made of stones?"
Like most of Sprott's lyrics, these describe an emotion without bothering with literal or even iconic imagery. If the lyrics are somewhat psychedelic, so is the music in the song—a complimentary feat made somewhat unlikely by the Mumlers' songwriting process.
"Most of the time," says Sprott, "I just bring in a song and they'll start playing with it, they'll move around till they found their spot. It's not completely orchestrated in my mind or anything, we just mess around until it's working."
If this house could talk, it would weeze and cough/ And shudder inside, and keep its mouth shut.
—"The Hinge's Lament"
Sprott started the Mumlers as a solo project while he was playing in other bands. He grew up in San Jose, which, like most cities, has an incestuous and cannibalistic music scene where hundreds of bands spring from various combinations of a relatively small cast of local musicians. While recording with another band he was in, Sprott was impressed by the recording engineer, the man known as Müller (his stated preference), who has also recorded local bands like the Shitkickers, A Burning Water, Commercial Static and Careless Hearts. So Sprott approached Müller to do some recording at his house.
"I started recording these things," says Sprott, "and started calling people I knew to come in and play horns here, play standup bass on one song—I called my friend Paolo, who was only standup bass player I knew—and eventually we recorded five songs at this guys' house. When we were done, we said, 'Oh, we learned all these songs, might as well play a couple shows.' Everything started moving along since then."
Sprott's view of the San Jose music scene echoes oft-heard notes of cynicism, but it's also colored by his own positive experiences.
"You can say San Jose is not the most hospitable place for music, and it's not," says Sprott. "But on the other hand, San Jose has been very receptive to our music, and just been very supportive of everything we've done."
In less than a year, they got signed to the Galaxia record label on the strength of their live shows "I really liked the feeling of the group because they're not like super hipsters," says Galaxia co-owner Thomas Campbell, who watched the band's Music in the Park performance. "They're playing very incredible indie music, but a lot of bands in the indie world are so, like, hipster and just kind of so concerned about their image, but [the Mumlers] seem like a big band just having a really good time, laughing and kind of being nerds and just not even caring."
The band is an odd collection of talents. James Fenwicke, who plays keyboard, French horn and guitar, is also an IMAX console operator. Mercedes El Vencere is in charge of tambourines, harmonica and laughter for the band, but also works as a receptionist at a plastic surgeon's office. Archuleta works at a children's hair salon. Drummer Andy Paul works as a library clerk, and upright bassist Paolo Gomez is a bookkeeper.
Sprott is 6-foot-4-inches and would make a commanding substitute teacher—he used to be one—were it not for his gentle, undisciplined demeanor and his tendency to get frustrated with jobs fast. In the past five years he's worked as a movie theater projectionist, a tent pitcher (hard to explain, but true) and a beer, coffee and wine slinger. He tried to get a job at the San Jose Museum of Art working as one of the people who stand near the art to make sure people don't touch or vandalize it.
"They didn't hire me," says Sprott. "I had an interview, but I think they thought I was a weirdo."
His weirdness is another gift that makes him a strangely compelling presence onstage. But as popular as they may be live, it was their demo that won them a weeklong recording session from the Bleeding Edge Festival and ZeroOne.
"They gave us the opportunity to record for free," says Sprott. "But we had to get to Montana."
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For so many years I have been a pup, but now I'm fully grown/ And if goin' away's a part of growin' up, then it's now my time to roam.
Seven people and their guitars, bass, horns, accordion, melodica, marimba, saw, dobro, autoharp and tambourine in a seven-person van generally requires at least one person to ride on the floor.
"Floor is the new bitch," points out Müller.
"Bitch is a luxury I can't afford," adds Sprott.
The band also couldn't afford a hotel for seven people for their week in Montana, so Sprott asked the studio owner if they could just sleep on the floor of the studio. Happily, the studio is located inside the large mansion of a hospitable owner.
"It ended up a being a very comfortable situation," says Sprott, appreciative of his lucky streak. "We all had our own rooms."
But they worked hard, recording 16 songs in four days.
"By end of it, we were like zombies," says Sprott, "But it was just sort of like, we're never gonna have an opportunity to record in a place this nice for free again, so let's just take advantage of it. We got to record on 2-inch tape, which usually costs a fortune, but the whole recording session literally cost zero dollars."
Perhaps as a nice "thank you" for getting their recording session for free, Galaxia hired Monahan to mix it. At the Hangar studio in Sacramento, the band got to use real reverb tanks and an vintage compressor, rather than synthesized equivalents.
They had [tracked] it really fast," says Monahan, "so there was a certain energy from that session that was definitely great. We wanted to keep that energy but sort of refine a few things."
In particular, Monahan was intent on creating a sonic pocket for Sprott's vocals so that his voice and lyrics penetrate the mix.
"At the center of it," says Monahan, "Will—his singing and his playing—that's kind of the core of what's going on, and then the band, it just had a really great cohesive feeling, so we were just trying to make sure that we didn't clutter it up."
Sprott doesn't dress up his voice to sound much different from the way he talks. Sounding naturally unaffected, it cracks on its way to the falsetto range and tends to lag lazily behind the rhythm of a song. Sprott says he's always liked to sing, but always thought he was a much better singer than he was ... until he heard himself recorded professionally.
"You know how it is when you hear yourself recorded for the first time?" asks Sprott. "When I first heard my voice, I was like, 'Whoa, I sound like a weirdo.'"
THE MUMLERS play on Friday (Feb. 18) at the Blank Club, 44 S. Almaden Ave, San Jose. Tickets are $8. (408.292.5265)
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