Guitarist Gibson Hartwell takes a long pause before answering the question: How does it feel to be part of a nationally released CD? He’s excited, giddy almost, about the fact that Missoula’s former pop/alt-country darlings Tarkio are being brought into the limelight with a mass-marketed release of the band’s entire catalogue, but…
“It’s also just a little bit weird,” he says, kicking the reality of it around after attending a friend’s potluck dinner. “It’s old, you know? I mean, what were you doing seven years ago? I still feel good about most of it, but you move on. For it to all come back now is great—I mean, really great—but it’s also just a little bit surreal.”
It’s not every day that a fleeting college band from Missoula is resurrected by a national label—in this case, Kill Rock Stars—seven years after everyone dispersed. Even rarer that the release is given such A-list treatment: a comprehensive double-CD containing tracks almost impossible to find anywhere else, and 18 pages of full-color liner notes complete with three different accounts of the band’s history, old photographs, local concert posters and other nostalgic tidbits, including a rejection letter from Arista Records and a poster from the Independent acknowledging 1998’s “Best New Band.” Omnibus is a Tarkio full monty, a “This Is Your Life” retrospective, and it’s being released to capitalize on the ever-increasing success of the band’s former frontman and current leader of the Decemberists, Colin Meloy.
“I really have no idea [how Omnibus will be received],” Meloy writes in an e-mail interview, admitting some reluctance about the project. “I feel like my approach to performing and writing music has changed a lot in the last 7 years. [But] some of the performances are really good…”
While Meloy, currently on a solo tour along the East Coast, continues to play rock star, Omnibus’ release catches some of Tarkio’s former members in a VH-1 “Where are they now?” type situation.
“I have [my drums] out at home, and within the last year I’ve sat in with The Hayrollers, but that’s about it,” says former drummer Brian Collins, now a father of two and a Geographic Information Systems Specialist in the University of Montana’s Department of Geology. “I just don’t have time to really play anymore. I’m overwhelmed by work and family life now.”
Hartwell, who helped create the band with Meloy in 1996, is an environmental consultant by day and still plays music locally at night with either Tom Catmull and the Clerics or his new band, The Countryists. And bassist Louis Stein recently relocated to New Orleans, deciding to settle down in the recuperating city after doing months of reconstruction work on an American Indian reservation there following Hurricane Katrina. Tarkio has come to feel like ancient history as each has grown older, started families and launched new careers.
“I always thought this stuff would float around the Internet forever—Colin’s old band, something for diehard Decemberists fans to chase after,” says Hartwell. “I don’t think any of us ever expected there would be enough interest to make something bigger out of it.”
Part of what makes Omnibus so improbable is that although Tarkio enjoyed a loyal local following, it never really reached star status. The band started when Meloy and Hartwell met at Java the Hut’s open mic night during what Hartwell describes as “one of those slow Missoula summers where you hang out with people you normally wouldn’t.” The two hit it off, recording songs that night on Hartwell’s four-track (briefly considered for inclusion on Omnibus until the rough cuts were deemed unlistenable), eventually recruiting the rest of the band (Tim Bierman was the original bassist) and playing modestly attended shows around town. As with every local outfit at the time, the first gigs were at Jay’s Upstairs—“but we never really felt like a part of that scene,” says Hartwell—and then the Top Hat, Union Club, Old Post Pub, Out to Lunch in Caras Park, and anywhere else they could find a gig.
Tarkio recorded one full-length album, 1998’s I Guess I Was Hoping For Something More, one EP, 1999’s Sea Songs For Landlocked Sailors, and then released a copy of a 1998 live show on KBGA; all three efforts are included on Omnibus. But whenever the band ventured beyond the Garden City there was rarely more than a tepid reception.
“I don’t think we made a huge impression at the time,” says Hartwell. “I never felt like we were totally kicking ass—it was friends and some fans, but that seemed about it. If someone was to ask me back then who would [get a label-supported, nationally released CD], I would have listed a bunch of bands before ever even considering us.”
Nonetheless, Tarkio was pretty damn good, and in hindsight it’s easy to see how the Missoula band’s sound translated to Meloy’s current success with the Decemberists. Omnibus is full of his nasally vocals, poppy hooks and signature old-world lyrics, including such whimsical favorites as “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” “Tristan and Iseult” and “Neapolitan Bridesmaid.” Meloy qualifies the early work, but is still proud enough to put it back out there.
“While some of the stuff I tend to look at as typical gestating-songwriter material,” he writes, “I think we were doing some good stuff for being a band in our twenties in Missoula, Montana.”
Decemberists fans should be pleased with the additional material, and that means the potential for sales. (Each band member received a royalty advance and will share in Omnibus profits.) After all, the critical and commercial success of the latest Decemberists album, Picaresque, led to the band leaving Kill Rock Stars at the end of last year and signing with industry giant Capitol Records.
The extent of the Decemberists’ popularity hit Collins recently when he and his wife were at Southgate Mall returning a gift from the über-trendy teen clothing chain Buckle. Collins noticed something familiar on the stereo system before it donned on him that, oh my, it was Meloy crooning a Decemberists tune.
“It just seemed like the antithesis of Colin—to have his music being played in a place like that, you know?” says Collins. “But I guess it’s a sign of how big the Decemberists have become that they’re now on in-store soundtracks.”
And what about Tarkio’s prospects with Omnibus of one day serenading teenage shoppers in malls across the country?
“I can’t wait,” laughs Collins. “That’ll be even stranger than everything that’s already happened.”