Lines disappear 

Pushing limits in Pale People's cabaret punk

Mack Gilcrest sits at his keyboard onstage at the ZACC Below looking a little lost.

"This song is about the world's greatest Tetris player," he says.

Moments before, he'd looked forgettable and a bit nerdy in white sneakers, jeans and a Big Brother and the Holding Company T-shirt, but when he starts playing, his eyes go wild and his hands go wild. He's a crazed performer possessed by his song. Behind him, music surges from Kurt Skrivseth on guitar and Brian Tremper on drums. Beside him, a table-top lamp—the band's signature prop—trembles and threatens to topple as he strikes the keys.

"The blocks are falling, features crawling," Gilcrest sings dramatically. "Whole lines disappear from sight/ It means more to you than life."

Welcome to a Pale People show. An easy way to describe it is just to say it's weird. But probably the best description comes from Gilcrest who calls it "Broadway punk"demented musical theater fused with rock.

Formed just over a year ago by three University of Montana music students, Pale People is not a typical Missoula band. Or a typical anything. Each of their songs is a living, breathing story written in sharp and moving lyrics, exploring dark thoughts and dark topics, from the narrative of someone trapped in a serial killer's dungeon to a song for Dr. Frankenstein.

"Most of the songs are about people who are marginalized, lonely and suffering from obsessions and psychoses," Gilcrest says.

"They are ambassadors of fringe-living, who are failing to navigate the world in the right way," Skrivseth adds. "They are people fading out beyond the boundaries."

click to enlarge Pale People includes, from left, a lamp, Mack Gilcrest, Brian Tremper and Kurt Skrivseth. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PALE PEOPLE
  • photo courtesy of Pale People
  • Pale People includes, from left, a lamp, Mack Gilcrest, Brian Tremper and Kurt Skrivseth.

The band members consider themselves "pale people," too. Influenced by the punk cabaret band Dresden Dolls and musical theater composer Steven Sondheim, Gilcrest started taking piano lessons at 6 or 7 years old but switched to drums. "Eventually, I started getting back into piano because it's hard to write songs on a drum set," he says.

The result is a piano style that often looks like Gilcrest is beating the keys like drums.

Skrivseth also identifies as an outsider. The bass player, who graduated with a music degree in May, suffered a spinal cord injury at birth that affected all of his limbs except his left arm and hand. His creative solutions for playing bass and guitar are responsible for his distinct sound. In some situations, he tapes a pick onto his fingers. In others, he "attacks" the strings by striking them with his thumb or hand.

Then there's Tremper, a technical drummer influenced by jazz and hardcore. He says struggling with depression often made him feel isolated and misunderstood.

"I don't have any circumstances that make me feel the way I feel," Tremper says. "Kurt has a disability. Mack is messed up. But I'm a normal dude who feels sad all the time but has no reason to."

As a band, Pale People has an underdog quality to them. Despite finishing second in Missoula's Top of the Mic competition earlier this year, they have had difficulty getting gigs. They've gone so far as to deliver handwritten notes to venues asking for dates and, failing that, tried to book under a fake band name.

"A lot of people just want to get drunk and dance," Tremper says. "They don't want to get drunk and get sad and think about something uncomfortable."

But once Pale People do book a show, once they have an audience before them, the magic is there. The little lamp clicks on, the music starts and you feel privileged to listen. Of course you want to hear a song about the world's greatest Tetris player. Of course you want to hear about how Dr. Frankenstein really felt. Of course you want to get sad and be a little uncomfortable. Some nights aren't for dancing. Some nights are for exploring a world beyond the usual boundaries.

Pale People opens for Scuber Mountain at the Badlander Sun., July 10, at 9:30 PM. Free.

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