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The Prom promo photo

Getting Ready for The Prom

story by tim mcmahan




Lazy-i: July 10, 2002

The Prom
w/Lewis & Clarke
Tuesday, July 16
9 p.m.
The Junction

For The Prom's James Mendenhall and David Broecker, playing at The Junction July 16 is a homecoming of sorts.

Mendenhall 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) Joel Brown."




That 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 ditties.

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."


The Prom -- Under the Same Stars

"We look like a bunch of nerds when we play live. It's hard to look cool with a keyboard."


Mendenhall close-up

"It was always known to all of us growing up that Omaha would be on the map some day."


The 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 of it."

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."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly July 10, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.