Ready for The Prom
story by tim mcmahan
Lazy-i: July 10, 2002
w/Lewis & Clarke
Tuesday, July 16
The Prom's James Mendenhall and David Broecker, playing at The Junction
July 16 is a homecoming of sorts.
talked about his Omaha years via the phone from his Seattle apartment
last weekend. "I was in a band called Glen Canyon Dam back
there when I was in high school in the early '90s," he said.
"We even cut a record with Jim Homan."
Remember Glen Canyon
Dam? Mendenhall wasn't surprised that I hadn't. He said though he
attended Creighton Prep, he never graduated, always feeling as if
he didn't belong even though his classmates included fellow musicians
such as Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Ted Stevens (Cursive, Mayday).
He instead got his GED and headed, for the first time, to Seattle
at age 18 to attend art school. But it wasn't long before he was
back in Omaha.
"I had a band offer
so I went back," he said. "I played guitar in Calico with
Vic Padios (The Gymnastics) and drummer Clark Baechle (The Faint)."
But what really lured him back was the chance to play again with
bassist David Broecker. Calico, which Mendenhall describes as being
more like a Saddle Creek Records band, was short-lived. After it
broke up, he moved back to Seattle for good, while Broecker played
in the rural-rock Omaha band Box with vocalist Mark Weber.
"After many phone
calls, I talked David into coming out to Seattle in the summer of
'99," Mendenhall said. "He played with me in a different
band, and then after it broke up we formed The Prom with (drummer)
was also when Mendenhall set down his guitar and picked up a keyboard.
"I started this band to learn how to play piano," he said.
"I just wanted to play piano all the time."
His keyboards are the
driving force behind The Prom's pretty rock songs, forcing the inevitable
comparisons to Ben Folds Five though their music is more detailed,
more complicated and more interesting than Mr. Folds' simple pop
On Under the Same
Stars, the band's just-released full-length on Barsuk Records,
the trio pieces together lush songs with warm-hearted melodies that
bounce casually a-top Mendenhall's bouncing, chiming piano chords.
The music has a dusty, melancholy feel to it like a long-estranged
ex-lover's sad, knowing smile. Maybe that's because Mendenhall wrote
most of the songs while spending a month and a half visiting an
ex-girlfriend in Japan.
"The CD is really
about her," he said. "I'm over her, but the songs are
still there." The tension of the experience is evident on tracks
like the pulsing "Living in the Past," where Mendenhall
laments "In the mornings I wake up / So tired and alone
/ Scared of the outside / And conversations," or on the weepy
"Brighter than the Moon," where he croons "On
a Tokyo train I realized / That I was fighting myself and losing
inside." The pathos throughout the CD is deepened thanks
to arrangements that feature violin, cello, flute and trumpet on
more than half the tracks.
"I always wanted
to work with a small orchestra, but it might be the last time I
do it," he said. The problem is replicating the ensemble sound
live. "Since we're not a money-making band, I can't afford
to bring a bunch of people on tour with us. We recently got a new
member on keyboards and samplers who helps us do more on stage and
even lets me play guitar on a couple songs."
If there's a drawback
to playing piano-based music, it's being trapped behind the keyboards
on stage. "We look like a bunch of nerds when we play live,"
Mendenhall said. "It's hard to look cool with a keyboard. I
bang on it a lot, but there's only so much you can do in terms of
stage antics. It helps that we don't take ourselves too seriously."
look like a bunch of nerds when we play live. It's hard to
look cool with a keyboard."
was always known to all of us growing up that Omaha would
be on the map some day."
tour that brings The Prom to the Midwest runs through mid-August,
eventually meeting up with The Stratford 4 and Archer Prewitt for
a series of West Coast shows before the band heads back home. With
Under the Same Stars, The Prom becomes a member of a comfortable
music scene that includes bands like Pedro the Lion and Death Cab
for Cutie. "It's definitely a pop scene here," he said.
"There's a rock scene and a punk scene, but the pop scene is
pretty strong with bands like Pedro, Death Cab and Rilo Kiley."
Ah, but what about the
old grunge scene that put Seattle on the map in the '90s? "There
are a couple nights a week when they'll advertise something in the
weekly paper about grunge nights, and people come out for the fun
Mendenhall said Omaha's
recent musical emergence is recognized in Seattle and comes as no
surprise. "It was always known to all of us growing up that
Omaha would be on the map some day," he said. "We all
believed in Conor and Kasher and Ted Stevens, and we figured it
would blow up, we just didn't know when. After I moved away, it
took off. It took awhile for the Omaha bands to finally make it
to Seattle. The first time I saw The Faint they played at a little
coffee shop. The second time they sold out a hall and it was huge."
So does he miss Omaha
now that he's settled in the Pacific Northwest? Mendenhall talks
like the lyrics of one of his songs when he describes what he misses
most. "I miss the summer nights and the big sky and the sound
of locusts," he said. "I miss that electric summer feeling."
Published in The Omaha Weekly July 10, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Tim
McMahan. All rights reserved.