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Nine Months After Bearing Its Debut, Electronic Folk Duo Mom Remains a Force in Denton

Bruce Blay and Joel North aim for comfort.
Melanie Gomez

Mother's Day's coming up this week and—just in case you forgot, you miserable excuse for a child, you—Mom should be at the forefront of your mind.

You do know Mom, right? The folkish electronic and instrumental duo from Denton whose debut EP, Little Brite, is still selling well (well, as far as local albums are concerned—the guys only had 1,000 copies of the disc initially pressed) a good nine months after its September 2007 release? You know, the band that seemingly opens for any left-of-center touring act that comes through Dallas and Denton? The one whose music is so stirringly beautiful you almost drop your jaw the first time you hear it? (Get a taste by downloading Mom's song "Skipping Stones.")

Yeah, that Mom. You've gotta hear them. See them too. It's quite the sight: two thin-as-rails college students on a stage filled with equipment, hustling around, playing violin, cello and acoustic guitar, stomping on foot pedals, twiddling with sampler and loop machine knobs, slurping into microphones and creating a sound you'd never really expect to come from such a combination. It's not dance-y, it's not bass-thumping, and it's certainly not hip-hop, although that's the genre in which most of the equipment this band uses generally finds a home. It's symphonic to an extent and head-shakingly mature given the ages of its players and the fact that, though it sounds so painstakingly structured and thoughtfully composed, these two Dentonites aren't University of North Texas jazz students.

In fact, they laugh at that notion.

Joel North and Bruce Blay, both 23, are just musicians, they say with a shrug, and humble musicians at that, quick to point out how intimidated they are by the jazz performance students at UNT, the ones who jokingly razz North and Blay about having never properly been taught to play the stringed instruments they fake expertise at so cunningly while onstage. And yet, when you catch the duo performing—as they are this week at the Granada Theater, opening up for the Austin-based ambient duo Stars of the Lid—you'd never peg them as "the equivalent of, like, high school orchestra players" that Blay says they are.

Maybe it's the hours they spent preparing themselves for playing live shows—quite the hurdle after amassing a mound of found sounds and jam session recordings and spending hour upon hour recording, re-recording, composing, mixing, re-mixing and mastering the six-song masterpiece of Little Brite.

"That's how band practice used to be," the more vocal North explains. "We'd both put on headphones and get, like, a really nice mic, and Bruce would put it through crazy effects in the recording room, and I'd run around the house and tap on things and, like, shake the chandelier. And we would just record that. We got really into collecting found sounds and other weird things. Like, we'd hear a crazy knock and go, 'Oh, that's perfect for this!'"

Like the water sounds on Little Brite opener "Skipping Stones," one of the more National Public Radio segue-sounding tracks on the disc? That's actually ice, Blay, seemingly the more recording-savvy of the two, explains. But bringing that element to the stage was something else entirely. Hence the hip-hop samplers in the duo's arsenal.

"That was such a big thing," Blay says. "We had to play a ton of shows just to see what it was like."

So far, that's worked out in Mom's favor. In developing a relationship with C.J. Davis of Good Records, whom the duo met while spending a couple hundred dollars on CDs a month, the two found themselves a local distributor, a financial backer and a steadfast supporter willing to offer them up to any local booking agent searching for the right band to fit into an opening slot on a touring act's bill.

Now, Mom is gearing up for the Japanese release of Little Brite, and after having recently signed to Austin's Western Vinyl record label, the band is working toward completing its full-length follow-up (which they hope to finish recording by summertime). North and Blay are also in the process of planning out a month-long West Coast tour (for which their goals remain modest: "breaking even" and "not coming back to town with massive credit card debt") that will take them to Seattle and back.

Pretty impressive stuff for a band that sort of started by accident. After practicing with their former act, a math rock quartet called Meroë, roommates North and Blay found themselves at their shared home, still jamming away.

"We would just play without talking and just improv and jam," North says as he rolls a cigarette of loose tobacco, sitting at a patio table outside of Denton coffee shop Jupiter House, "and we had such a good time, and it was so much easier than the other project we were working with."

After parting ways with their Meroë cohort, the elements of Mom just started falling into place. Combining the influences of found-sound experimentalists The Books and of finger-picking acoustic guitarist Owen, Mom's sound began to meld into what it is today, one that merges the speculative distance of the former with the instantaneous affection created by the latter.

"I like to visualize it as a quilt," Blay says, flashing a knowing smile North's way.

"My mom's a quilter," North offers with a shrug.

"We [Blay, North and their fellow Denton roommates] all have quilts from Joel's mom," Blay quickly counters. "And it's like, I dunno, the coolest art form ever. It keeps you warm."

"It's different pieces that come together as a whole, which is kind of what making an album is like," North adds. "I would see my mom going through fabric stores, trying to find the perfect little piece to fit in certain squares, and that's the same sort of thing we have with our music."

As in quilting, the duo's songwriting process is an organic one, in which the songs just build themselves up out of the elements they've acquired. And that, at this point, barely includes the vocal element. That's one area Mom expects to develop as it completes its new release, though—so long as it doesn't infringe upon where the band happily stands with its current sound.

"It's joyful and somber," Blay says. "It kind of makes me feel like I'm at home."

"We wanted to make music that would be enjoyable, that wasn't taxing on anybody," North adds. "Like, my 70-year-old father listens to that record. And my mom listens to it while she's quilting. So that's kind of the idea."

And that's kind of the idea behind the band's name as well. There's a story there—one the band prefers not run in print—but given the band's comforting sound of soothing repetition and stirring build-ups, the moniker does make perfect sense.

"Moms are big parts of homes," Blay says, continuing the "home" theme.

True. But they're also responsible for a lot of nagging, guilt and eye-rolling.

"Yeah," North says, with a laugh. "But that's only until you're 19, 20. And then, hopefully, your mom has let go and decided to let you live your own life. This is our appreciation of it."

An appreciation about which these young men's mothers must be quite proud.

Happy Mother's Day, everyone.


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