How does a band know it has arrived on the Montana music scene? For most, simply getting paid to play tends to legitimize the hours spent frittering away in a practice space. For others, the first record-release party constitutes a coronation of sorts. But for local no wave, garage rock trio Mordecai, the moment emerged last year when the Boston Phoenix chose the group as Best New Montana Band of 2010 for the paper's annual "50 bands, 50 states" issue.
Early praise for a band that's comprised of two college freshman—drummer Gavin Swietnicki and bassist Elijah Bodish—could have led to infinite ego trips. But Mordecai's modest attitude and insular approach to playing music doesn't lend itself to getting caught up in scenester silliness. The band doesn't play out often. The musicians aren't spamming up your MySpace page with new song announcements or tour info. In fact, they seem more bemused by the Boston paper's acknowledgement of their musical abilities than anything. They aren't even certain how they came to the Phoenix's attention.
"We are not the best band in Montana," says Elijah sheepishly.
Of course, even if the band doesn't gloat, family does.
"My aunt was pretty impressed and posted it on Facebook," he says.
And according to Elijah and his brother, guitarist Holt Bodish, a Facebook post from their aunt—which is surely the ultimate 21st century compliment—carries more cool points than any accolades from an East Coast newspaper.
Still, it's noteworthy that pillars of the Missoula music scene have taken notice of Mordecai. For instance, Josh Vanek, the founder of the annual independent music festival Total Fest, is a big fan of the band's sound. He and his festival committee chose the band out of hundreds of applicants nationwide to play last year's festival with 40 other bands.
"They achieve tones that most people their age can't capture," he says.
Furthermore, the band is set to release an eponymous LP later this spring on Killertree Records, an independent label run by members of Ex-Cocaine and Poor School—longtime institutions in the local music scene—known for selecting experimental, lo-fi, underground and vintage-sounding albums.
It's a fitting partnership. Mordecai recorded that album in the men's shower of the epic YMCA building in Butte—hometown of the Bodish brothers. Holt says access to the space enabled them to learn a lot more about recording. It allowed the band to capture a live sound reminiscent of one of their favorite recordings.
"We recorded some of the worst sounding crap," Holt says in his typical self-effacing style. "We're big fans of the Rolling Stones bootlegged Altamont concert. Jagger's vocals sound so hilariously awful."
Hilariously awful is not unfamiliar territory for the band. It started playing while the Bodish brothers still lived in Butte, and, according to them, the sound wasn't pretty.
"Initially, I sucked at playing the bass," says Elijah. "Holt kind of sucked at playing the guitar. And our drummer was way off."
None of that deterred the band from writing more songs and releasing its debut 22-song LP including covers of The Stooges' Fun House.
The musicians' causual attitude toward "making it" is in direct contrast to Mordecai's musical style, which is aggressive, noisy and raw. While it's not unusual for young men in bands to play loud, aggro rock, there is something different about their sound. It's partially a product of their equipment. Small practice amps cranked up to 11 create a dirty, torn-up soundscape that swells and swirls with feedback and booming drums. And the boys aren't good to their gear. Elijah has broken two amps in six months—though he insists it's because of pre-existing "wiring problems" rather than the aural abuse he perpetrates through his instrument.
Elijah finds inspiration in bands whose music genesis is all in the bass, like, for instance, Flipper and The Jesus Lizard.
"The possibilities seem limited, so you're forced into making sound with a small amount of choices," he says.
That the crushing simplicity of the basslines drives Mordecai's music will come as no surprise to even the most inattentive listener. Due to a broken nut, however, Elijah's bass is missing the E string—a string most bassists consider to be the foundation of their playing. It makes bass-based music all the more challenging.
"If we ever get an E string we could write a hundred more songs," says Holt.
Each and every Friday night, the musicians gather together for workman-like practices in order to squeeze every iota of auditory possibility from their instruments.
"We play the same riff for 10 minutes straight," says Holt.
The regimen of repetition seems at odds with the band's cacophonous haphazard-sounding live shows; instead, it gives them the ability to instinctively communicate within a loud and loose form. The disciplined approach allows Elijah and Holt's familial bond to flourish in a way that gives the band chemistry on stage.
"Since he's my brother, I've gotten so used to where he's gonna go before he goes there," Holt says.
Whether or not the ambitiously unambitious Mordecai is Montana's best new band is a moot point. They're no longer a new band but plodding practitioners of stentorian symphonies. The fact is, the group seems to play music not for the materialistic, "Korny," I-need-to-buy-another-house reason, but for all the right reasons.
"The reason we started playing music was for something to do," Holt says. "We had a guitar and a bass, and it's a lot more fun than going out beering all the time."
No doubt his aunt would agree.
Mordecai plays the Zootown Arts Community Center Saturday, April 2, at 8 PM with Pygmy Lush, Des Ark and The Lion The Tamer. $5.