Good Neighbor Policy—featuring, left to right, Bethany Joyce, James Palmer, Thomas Pendarvis, Pete Shanafelt and Rob Mottram—have come a long way to become one of Missoula’s best live bands. “It’s a good feeling when you play one night and then the next time you play there are more people, and then the next time even more, and then the next time even more,” says Pendarvis. “We’ve worked hard to get to this point, where there’s actually a little bit of a buzz.”
On a February weekend night last year, the Elk’s Lodge was packed for KBGA’s End-of-Thon party, and Good Neighbor Policy, still a newer band on the scene, took the stage in front of one of their biggest crowds to date. But what should have been a coronation for Missoula’s most promising band turned into a Britney-level disaster. Their usually full-bodied sound—a taut mix of country songsmithing, indie-rock flare and sonic bourgeoisie courtesy of a prominently featured cello—turned into a garbled mess. Buzz-killing lapses followed every song as problems begat more problems. Frontman Thomas Pendarvis even had two strings on his guitar break mid-set.
“Not that anyone noticed,” he says now. “We were honestly awful.”
“KBGA never invited us back for anything,” adds keyboardist James Palmer, “and I don’t blame them.”
Good Neighbor Policy had hit the slums. But every band worth a cover charge experiences an unmitigated mess as a right of passage, and the KBGA fiasco proved especially poignant for the local quintet. The show prompted a full-out band intervention, a shuffle in their lineup and, most importantly, a rededication to their live sets.
“We had to really sit down and discuss things,” Pendarvis says. “I mean, we laid out new rules: no more drugs before we play, a little less drinking before we go on, and, personally, I needed to get a new guitar. It was all of that or we were done, and that was just the start. I don’t think any of us could handle another embarrassment like that.”
Fast forward to another weekend night eight months later at the Badlander, with Good Neighbor Policy playing the second half of a double bill. The venue is full, and a throng of fans at the front of the stage sing along with the rollicking chorus of “You Go Your Own Way” off the band’s new CD, Kill: “You go your own way, and I’ll go mine / I’m gonna pull through, I’m gonna pull through, like I always do.” Pendarvis, dressed in a three-piece thrift store suit and sporting a silly “Deadwood” mustache (he’s since shaved it), moves to the side of the microphone after stretching out “do” in his raspy baritone, and the band breaks into a honky-tonk fill brimming with a perfect accord of cello, keys, guitar, drums and bass. This is Good Neighbor Policy today: as tight and polished—in a hipster rock saloon sorta way—as any band in Missoula.
“It’s a good feeling when you play one night and then the next time you play there are more people, and then the next time even more, and then the next time even more,” says Pendarvis. “We’ve worked hard to get to this point, where there’s actually a little bit of a buzz.”
The band’s come a long way since Palmer and Pendarvis were junior high cohorts in Hot Springs, Ark. They first met while playing on opposing basketball teams, and only started playing music when Palmer joined Pendarvis’ group for a local battle of the bands. They coined themselves Good Neighbor Policy a few weeks later after Palmer fell asleep in history class and woke up with his textbook turned to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s foreign relations plan.
“We were Samurai Deli before that, so it was a good change,” says Pendarvis.
The two moved to Austin after high school to further pursue music, but the city wasn’t welcoming. For three years the duo struggled to find steady gigs that could draw even their best friends.
“Austin is a great place if you love music,” says Pendarvis. “But if you play music it’s a fucking nightmare. We’d finally book a show and then find out that Nada Surf and Death Cab for Cutie were playing right down the street. I mean, I’d rather go see them than see us. It was impossible.”
So Palmer left Austin for Missoula, in part to follow a friend, Cameron Kerr, who was starting Habbilis Records. Pendarvis struggled in Austin and Orlando before finally calling Palmer and asking if there was anything going on in Montana. Palmer, who’d yet to catch on with any local musicians, told him to come up so they could restart Good Neighbor Policy. Things quickly fell into place: The day after Pendarvis arrived in mid-2006, they met bassist Rob Mottram, who in turn introduced them to cellist Bethany Joyce. Drummer Pete Shanafelt joined the band after the fateful KBGA show.
“It’s been a blessing,” says Pendarvis. “To come from Austin to here, where people actually like what you’re doing and come out to support the new bands—it’s great. If I wasn’t here now, I’d be pumping gas or working at 7-Eleven.”
But Good Neighbor Policy may be outgrowing Missoula’s nurturing nightlife scene. Citing cold winters and the appeal of testing a larger market, the band’s contemplating a move at the end of the summer. Where isn’t exactly clear—Bellingham, Wash., or somewhere back south are the leading candidates—but a change seems imminent.
“We’ll be somewhere else, definitely,” says Palmer, 26.
“Missoula has been great to us, but I don’t think we want to stay here,” adds 25-year-old Pendarvis. “You don’t want to get an ego, you want to stay humble, but if we stay here I’m afraid we’ll be like the [Oblio] Joes or the Volumen. Next thing you know, we’ll get a family or something. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think we have bigger plans. We want to at least try.”
The band released Kill last October—they’re finally getting around to a formal CD-release show Friday, Feb. 22, at the Red Light Green Room—and spent three weeks touring to support it. Palmer calls the effort “more of a ballad album” compared to Good Neighbor Policy’s live sets, with a bevy of slow-building, brooding tracks like “Manatee,” “Back on Track” and “Imaginary Line.” Pendarvis, who writes all the band’s lyrics, has already penned a new set of songs that get back to his “good-ol’ country, soul and blues” roots, and the band is eager to hit the studio again. Depending on how quickly that happens, they may be hyping their next CD release from somewhere else.
“I think we’ve become a really tight band, but there’s always room to get better,” says Pendarvis. “I think we owe it to ourselves to keep working at this. We’ve come this far.”
Good Neighbor Policy plays a belated CD release show at the Red Light Green Room Friday, Feb. 22, at 10 PM. Black Velvet Elvis, The Pillar Saints and other special guests open. $5.