The grotesque figure in front of us is devouring something. It's hard to be sure what. It doesn't have the normal number of eyes or limbs, although it certainly does seem fleshy enough for a nice meal, provided you prefer your feed gray and nightmare-raised.
"This one's one of my favorites," Katelyn Farstad says appreciatively of Triumphatos, the enormous painting we're eyeballing. The blued-eyed, woolly-haired teenager is an MCAD student, and she's been here before, in the basement of the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, among some of the more bizarre and unsettling paintings of Geli Korzhev.
Two of Farstad's bandmates in the groovy jangle-rock foursome Mouthful of Bees hover nearby. But one member is missing—arguably the most important one. Chris Farstad, Kate's older brother (by little more than a year), is the band's songwriter, and it is his trembling, reedy howl that voices their indie stunner of an album, 2006's The End. Chris got on a plane to Russia the same morning I contacted the Bees' record label in hopes of interviewing the band. He's spending the semester in St. Petersburg, studying art history at the Hermitage. I convinced the remaining members to talk with me in the midst of art that might conjure his spirit. But if anything, the art is conjuring memories of watching Pan's Labyrinth last year. It doesn't seem to matter. Chris is, if not "ever in their thoughts," at least a stronger-than-spectral presence.
"We miss him so much already," says Mark Ritsema, the wavy-mahogany-haired guitarist and occasional keyboardist.
"He emailed me the songs he wants played at his funeral, if he dies," notes Kate.
"He's writing journal entries on his Facebook account," says angel-faced bassist Mickey Alfano.
When I get hold of Chris through email, he reveals that he left his guitar back home in the States. "We played so much this summer, we all felt kind of burnt out," he writes.
When he returns, it will be 2008—not an insignificant chunk of time to pass in the lives of young, creative types. "We're ready to do something new," Kate says. "Mickey and Mark and I were talking about starting a hardcore band."
There's no reason for rigid adherence to any particular form. After all, their best-known song, a ditty in which guitars leapfrog over each other in a joyful, fuzzy race to the end of the pond and back, is called "The Now." Now is how quickly their ideas take shape, it's when they react, it's where they live. Right now, Mouthful of Bees, by a bushel-basket full of ballots, are the most popular new band in town. This time next year, they could be an overlooked hardcore trio called the Yellowjackets.
The Farstad siblings came up playing music together. Since junior high, Kate's been pounding the skins while her brother writes songs on guitar. Their story reminds me of Minneapolis funcore outfit Brother and Sister, which consists of sibs Michael and Katie Gaughan. I ask Kate who would win if the pairs got in a fight, and she laughs.
"Brother and Sister would win! Michael Gaughan is awesome. He would win in some sort of nonviolent way, like maybe he would mesmerize you."
"Kate was into cooler music than me when we were 12. She was all Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins when I was Final Fantasy VII and sweatpants in summer," Chris writes. "Then we had a one-up kind of thing for a little bit. But we agreed on the Get Up Kids and At the Drive-In."
Some of the best cuts on The End were written in these years, before Mouthful of Bees even formed. "We were in a band called Joons when we wrote 'The Now,' and 'I Saw the Golden Light,'" Kate says. "Those [songs] had been around forever."
Ritsema is in another Afternoon Records band, the Battle Royale, where he gets to write his own music. He and Alfano seem perfectly content with Chris's dominant role in Mouthful of Bees. In fact, Alfano was drawn to the band after hearing their songs. In Kate's words, he joined after "he learned all the songs and begged to be in the band. He showed up for the first show and knew everything—it was so cute."
Afternoon Records reprinted The End seven months after the group first released it on their own, and a very successful PR campaign followed. So successful, in fact, that to the band, their "popularity" can seem coldly theoretical.
"When we play shows around here," Ritsema says, "not a ton of people come."
Kate agrees. "There's a lot of hype, but we don't sell that many T-shirts." But the Bees haven't had that much time to build up a local fan base, with Chris off with his nose in one academy or the other for much of the year. And when the members of a band aren't old enough to drink, often their friends will be similarly afflicted, which pinches shut the pipeline of a 21+ show.
Happily, they were well-received on this summer's eastern tour, and all are particularly excited to recount the victory of their New York City gig at the Knitting Factory. "There were 60 kids there, and they told us people had bought tickets online, in advance," crows Kate. "People were calling out song names!"
"And there was this one show in Ohio where someone called out a request. It was like, 'How do you know?'" Ritsema remembers.
That taste of fame might not be enough to keep the band alive. Its four members go to four different schools, and while they share a similar cultural niche (they all support Critical Mass rides, they all love Animal Collective), they seem more committed to engaging in artistic experiment and creative growth than in devoting themselves to any single project. If there's something worth trading for their freedom, they haven't come across it yet. The missive from Russia makes that clear.
"I plan on recording another album," writes Chris, "but whether or not it's a Mouthful of Bees album, I can't say. Maybe it will be, but even if it is, it will sound nothing like The End. That album is just that—my own last call to what you'd expect out of a teenage indie band. It's closing time, at least for me."