The members of Stellarondo shun the notion of being any sort of Missoula "supergroup." Instead, the band demonstrates a legitimate lack of ego—other than bassist Travis Yost's black t-shirt, which states in bold white letters: "Rock Star." That said, there is no escaping the local band's individual resumes. Vocalist/guitarist Caroline Keys and percussionist Angie Biehl are members of the old-timey bluegrass band Broken Valley Roadshow, while Yost and guitarist Gibson Hartwell (formerly of Tarkio) play backup for Americana singer-songwriter Tom Catmull as the Clerics. Bethany Joyce of moody folk bands Wartime Blues and Butter rounds out the quintet on cello and saw. But those are only a few choice examples of the members' current bands, one-offs, puppet shows, commercial jingles and various symphonies.
It's not that they don't love their other bands, but, for the most part, the musicians say they consider themselves support to the lead singers and guitarists driving the other projects—"side-meat," as Yost likes to say. In the collaborative astral art-folk ensemble that is Stellaronodo, everyone gets to make decisions. With an upcoming CD release and a tour on the horizon, the band's testing out the freedom of a democratic regime.
Stellarondo wasn't always a collaborative effort. It began as a solo project when Keys decided to take the 2010 RPM Challenge. The online project challenges anyone to write and record a minimum of 10 songs within the month of February—a deliciously truculent form of self-inflicted torture. There's no monetary reward, just the reward of accomplishment, and Keys saw it as a chance to work with some select guest artists, dabble outside of the rules of bluegrass and, in effect, knock out some musical push-ups.
Two weeks in, the onerous task of writing and recording on deadline began to cow Keys. When Biehl happened to pop in to visit one day, Keys took advantage of her percussive abilities to round out the recording. Biehl's all-the-world-is-a-drum attitude helped define the group's sound, Key says, with what you might call groundbreaking techniques: playing square slate pieces on the coffee table and dropping individual bits of rice onto the floor. Hartwell also came onboard at this time and the music began to gel. Everything was going well as they neared the challenge deadline, says Keys. But something had to give.
Near the end of the month while bustling around her home/studio, Keys broke her right pinky toe, leaving it at a right angle from its normal position. Packing for the hospital, Keys' husband asked her why she was loading up her gear. In what is surely a demonstration of diluted commonsense brought on by artistic endeavors, Keys responded, "I have to write one more song. I don't have time for this." In the end, disaster was averted. The doctors took care of that little piggy and the album was completed on time.
Last September, the current line-up recorded a second eponymous album, Stellarondo, in Northeast Portland (minus Biehl who recorded her parts at Club Shmed Studio in Missoula). Although each band member has a primary instrument, all sorts of devices show up in the sometimes folky, sometimes spooky end product. Some examples: wet wood, boob gourd, xylophone, jumprope and tympani. On the album's first track, "Icarus Stops for a Burrito," xylophone notes fall like the slow, outer part of a waterfall and create a dreamy soundscape. In "The March Brute," quiet guitars balance with the ensemble's backing vocals while mariachi–esque trumpets squeeze out what feels like ultimate sadness. Vivid imagery and some slick pedal steel make "Strawberry Cake" an instant-classic—perfect for the kind of slow dances where the lady puts both her hands square atop the boy's shoulders. But unlike most songs of this ilk, it includes puppet-show dialogue mingling with the outro. This is a Stellarondo album after all.
The band members agree that the most important part of recording was the fact that no one ever said, "No."
"This is the most collaborative group I've ever been in," says Yost, "If you bring a ukulele you're gonna play it. No rules. No one to say, 'You can't do that.' What's it gonna sound like? Who gives a shit? Try it."
"We've all been asked to be in bands because they need something: 'I want cello. I need a drummer,'" Yost adds. "We've never been asked because someone said, 'I need a creative musician. I don't care what you play.'"
For the first time in a long time, he and his bandmates are having an atypical musical adventure. They're not worried about making money. They're not worried about selling beer or getting customers through the door. They're not worried if they never make it big. They're not even worried about making people dance.
"I'm more worried about making people cry," says Keys.
In the Land of Stellarondo, that's a good thing.
Stellarondo plays a family friendly show at the Union Hall Tuesday, Feb. 1, at 5:30 PM with The Scribblers. $5. The band plays an adult show later that evening at 8 PM with Amy Martin. $10.