The basement of any house, from pre-fab to pre-Civil War, is an anomaly, incongruous, not in shape, but in ambience to the rest of the structure. You can hear the comfortable din of chatter; you can even see a thin, amber rectangle of light pouring down the steps from the warm kitchen. Nothing to get creeped about. I mean, it's just a room, after all. But suddenly and incomprehensibly, your pace quickens and you're racing as the hairs on your arms stretch skyward, for safety.
The young man sitting across from me spends a lot of time in that proverbial basement. Defying instinct, he hangs around and pokes his fears like a dying animal until they abandon the secrets that he'll reap and craft into fantastically eerie Pop songs.
"It was actually a doublewide trailer in Harrison," frontman Dan Mecher explains of his workspace. His eyes are bright and disarmingly giddy as he and his squad (local Indie rockers, the Turnbull ACs) prep for the night's set. They've just wrapped a self-titled, 11-song disc stuffed to the brim with the shadowy fruits of Mecher's imagination, everything from vampires and lethal love interests to mental hospitals and near-death experiences.
He says that part of the inspiration for Elvis Costello-esque gems like "Red in the Fountain," came from living in his now-deceased grandparents' residence.
"My friends made fun of me for living (there)," says Mecher. "But the seclusion gave me plenty of time to write ... there was a creepy feeling to it all — sleeping in my grandparents' old room."
The virgin release is stunning in this regard: It's an everyman narration of suburban-macabre set to sing-able melodies and subconsciously focus-tilting riffs. At a recent show, as Mecher growls in the foreground of an intensely hammering crescendo ("Teenage death, film at eleven/Pretty girls don't go to heaven/So, tell me where they go/When you hear the casket close"), a fan turns to me and says, "How has no one come up with that before?" And that's just it — no wheels are reinvented in Mecher's songs. The progressions, arrangements and storytelling are fairly simple, obvious even. But if this is art that briefly summons the "I could've done that" adage, then the Turnbulls' passionate delivery is their over-crossed arms, noting, "But you didn't. And we did, so there."
Turnbull's drummer, Matt Retherford says, "From the minute I was a part of this, I wanted to know all the words; I wanted to scream them in my car so I didn't lose any of the feelings. I feel like I got called up to the big leagues (for this project), like I'd been in the minors for so long."
"Well, quit your other bands, then!" Mecher laughingly interjects, followed by a volley of "Slave-driver!" and "Control freak!" from the table. There's some truth to those genial accusations, Mecher admits.
"I was pretty apprehensive going into the studio," he says. "I had gotten so used to the way the home recordings sounded and I was afraid, with the other players and a bunch of expensive equipment, that we'd lose that raw, amateur quality."
"We actually decided that it would be better to leave some mistakes on the record, which was pretty hard because nobody wants to be the guy whose flub stays in," says bassist Chris Rebholz of the album (the group is rounded out by guitarist Mark Diedrichs and keyboardist Alex Bayer).
Capturing fantastic live performance on a recorded disc is often nearly impossible, but in this case, if a marginal loss of spontaneity is the downside, then the add-ins are the upside. What better way to complement phantasmagoric storytelling than with studio tweakage that channels creaking doors in guitar chords and bottom-of-the-well vocal stylings? One way or another, this band will get you.
Their overall attitude lies strikingly between dogmatic and whimsical. They are old enough to have accepted their shortcomings, but still young enough to indulge fame-and-fortune daydreams, which are not entirely inconceivable prospects. In one year, the Turnbull AC's have received high marks from Cincinnati's music community. Hence the reason for such an epic CD release party concept: The band will deliver its finished product over three different nights, at three of the city's most important venues. Encouraged by a friend, Mecher booked a show at the storied Ludlow Garage in Clifton, which, before its closing in 1971, was a regular spot to see national acts play.
"I think my parents may have even hung out there," says Mecher of the Garage. "It's interesting that a few decades ago, groups like The Allman Brothers, Neil Young and The Stooges were playing where the mall now stands. It's a good feeling to become a part of the venue's amazingly cool history."
Playing two additional nights at the celebrated Southgate House in Newport and alchemize in Over-the-Rhine, the Turnbull AC's hope to "involve both sides of the river" in an effort to give back some of the overwhelming sense of inclusion they've received. They wanted to cultivate that relationship and soon carry it into regional touring, as well.
Their individual goals differ (for example, Chris Rebholz is clearest on one thing: "I just don't want to ever be compared to Journey"), but while they sort that out, they are content to be listening to and making music that they truly love ... to death.
TURNBULL AC'S (myspace.com/turnbullacs) celebrate their new CD with shows this week at alchemize (Thursday), the Ludlow Garage (Friday) and the Southgate House (Saturday).