Back in 1990, I could recklessly drive my crappy Olds down to Vine Street, park illegally and haul a psuedo-laundry bag into Sudsy Malone's, sneaking inside to sit on a washer and enjoy the tunes. Rob Hamrick's band Sleep Theatre had already slipped into Cincinnati's scene by that time, bringing an original version of UK New Wave to town. By 1993, Sleep Theatre was receiving steady distribution, and suddenly the name wasn't sleepy at all.
When Sleep Theatre folded, Hamrick trudged on, later forming Witches Wah, setting up shop in Boston. Telling the story, with wide, open features, and a deep smile, he appears relaxed and certain.
"There were so many Boston bands, it was hard to find gigs," Hamrick says. "I came home depressed. I wanted to give up, but I couldn't stop. Then I thought that maybe it was my whole way of thinking — what I wanted out of it — that was the problem. I used to obsess about commercial success and what to do next.
I decided to chill out on that and wrote some songs I wanted to write, did open mics and a solo CD. Now I just ask myself, 'What's going to be fun?"
Changing his approach, writing gut-level songs, Hamrick (vocals, guitars, sounds) says, "I wanted the songs to mean something. Not just words. A little less predictable."
With that in mind, he created Tonefarmer in 2000. Former Sleep Theatre bandmate John Miracle played drums. Chris Mundy (formerly of Mara) handled bass, guitar and percussion. Working backwards, Tonefarmer recorded first, then played out.
"We popped out Recreation in February of 2001," Hamrick says.
That year, Tonefarmer received a Cincinnati Entertainment Award nomination and was listed among the Top 20 unsigned bands on WOXY-FM as well as the Top 20 artists on Peoplesound.co.uk.
In 2002, Tonefarmer traveled to England, recording the six-song EP, Where You Go, with sound engineer Pete Lewis, whose recording work includes noteworthy acts such as James, Sting, Elton John, Massive Attack and more. After this, Hamrick and Mundy continued as a duo; their first two CDs continued selling steadily on the Web.
Kevin Welch (lead guitar, backing vocals) played with The Underwoods, who shared practice space with Hamrick's band. When that project ended, Welch joined Tonefarmer.
Wearing blue Chucks, Welch talks about his father, a church organist: "I was kind of a flop at that, reading music and doing things right." Instead, he gravitated toward a pawn shop guitar.
Although Mundy plays drums on the band's new CD, Meanwhile, drummer Brandon Schlunt (of Noctaluca) joined Tonefarmer last March. A fire breather on the side, Schlunt wears a long braid; he's rough-edged with tats, but while he talks about liking "heavy stuff" he carries his 5-month-old daughter on his hip.
Hamrick writes the base of the songs.
"I begin with chords, how they make me feel," he says, adding, "Then Chris decides if they're good enough."
"Rob sets the melody," Mundy says. "He thinks outside the box. Familiar but strange. Accessible but unconventional."
"Rob has a distinctive musical personality, a melodic signature," Welch says. "You can tell it's him even if one song sounds completely different from the last one. Since Rob plays acoustic, we can play quietly or build things up to a wall of sound."
Meanwhile was home-recorded and later mastered at Ultrasuede studio. It bare, empty street sound of Elbow, the instrumental nature of Radiohead and the feel of pain and progress, a mature, melodic drawl. All in all, it holds a cohesive feel. No sleeper here.
"Before, we got a reputation for three-minute Pop songs," Mundy says. "On this one, we let things expand more. Instrumental-ish."
"My brother (Donovan Schlunt of Noctaluca) said Tonefarmer's music is like a scene from The Neverending Story," Schlunt says. "It feels like you're riding that dragon. A whimsical, dark journey."
Although Tonefarmer's first two albums have a conventional Pop nature, Meanwhile moves in a way both curious and straying. This CD holds a catchy structure, but it flows in a slow, tame growl. And Hamrick's voice purrs out like a quiet lion.
TONEFARMER (myspace.com/tonefarmer) plays Alchemize Saturday with Noctaluca.