They're not the teenagers you see on TV. Their hair is dyed pink or clumped together in dreds or tied loosely in shaggy little pigtails. They hug each other and exchange goofy, secret handshakes. About half of them wear glasses. Many sport hoodies. Others wear both skirts and pants. They smile and laugh and occasionally wrestle each other to the ground. They have the world's narrowest hips, the world's worst body odor. It's poignant to consider that we once smelled as they smell now. This is what we're thinking as they encircle us. My friend and I whisper back and forth, daring one another to ask how old they think we are. Neither of us has the guts. We know we seem ancient, and we're not even thirty.
A few of these teens will write about the night in online journals, which we later end up reading -- just because we can. They have a need to analyze Trix commercials, and they believe that their classmates are copying their wardrobe ideas. Reading all of this feels like prying, but it's not. It's just the Internet. It's just what Google turns up when you search for local art-rock protégé Ashley Miller.
Miller is only a few years older than his fans are. He's not performing alone, as he does much of the year at downtown art openings and hole-in-the-wall bars. Instead, he takes the stage with Pewep in the Formats, the members of which have been scattered across the country by a pesky relocation program called "college." But like we said, it's winter break. Miller runs around in a long, flowy skirt, intently focused on testing equipment. Then he vanishes, and the really little ones up near the stage are instructed to sit cross-legged with their hands in their laps.
When the four lithe musicians finally come out to perform, three of them are dressed in white blouses and matching white pants. The other guy wears lederhosen. Miller bounces around, his scratchy, excitable voice ricocheting off Matt Greenblatt's smooth, choirboy bow-bow utterances. Glam rocker Paul Brennan, whose layered brown hair flops around his face, looks so happy he could burst, which is probably because he plays the maracas. They look and sound like a strange, magical barbershop quartet set to video-game music. These songs have no melodies; they're fast, then slow, and they start and stop over and over again. Every time the pace changes, it's like the video-game player has moved on to the next level.
Miller sings fast -- we figure that's why we can't tell what all the songs are about. Later, studying the liner notes for the band's new two-disc set, The White Waterfall of Oblivion, we realize that even if we'd been able to hear all the lyrics, we wouldn't have entirely understood what these guys were trying to say about their fucking rummy team, what the communists ever did to frustrate them or precisely what a hot tub just for Pewep time is.
Miller, Greenblatt and Brennan dance and clap in unison, clapping being a major component of their band's percussion section. When these guys are onstage, everyone in the audience is transported to a place that feels like a set for a wonderful, nonsensical cartoon. Garrett Peek, the one in lederhosen, stays behind his keyboards.
After a few songs, Miller looks out at the tots sitting where storytime usually happens. "That was a song about being eaten by worms!" he shouts. "The next one's about playing in the sprinkler!" Kids cheer. Teens laugh. The band sings. In a room full of adults, this might not work.
Miller has a gift for connecting with people from the stage, but he struggles to communicate in what most of us would consider easier ways. Over the phone, he has no instruments, no facial expressions, no costumes, no dance moves. These are his most effective tools, and he doesn't always make complete sense without them. When we call to arrange an interview, he looks for a pen to write down our phone number, then finally gives up, saying, "I'm gonna have to write this in perfume."
When he walks into Y.J.'s Snack Bar for our interview, we spot him right away. He has a disheveled Brennan and a denim-jacketed Greenblatt in tow. Peek tried to join in by way of a cell phone, but we couldn't hear him at all.
The first thing we learn is that Brennan and Greenblatt have been friends since they were seven. Miller met them at Kearney Junior High. "He didn't have any friends back then," Greenblatt says. "He wanted to hang out with us, but we totally didn't let him." This moment would feel awkward and sad were it not for Miller's irrepressible good cheer. "That's true," he says.
How did this evolve into a working band?
"Larping," Miller says.
Larping -- live-action role-playing -- is how these guys decide everything. They pretend they're in a band, and they take turns being in charge, suggesting approaches to songwriting, costume ideas -- everything. They also take turns playing the crowd, so they can determine which approach gets the best response. Most of it comes back to their formative Ratlin Bog larp, which they describe as though it really happened.
"The Ratlin Bog," Miller says, "is this wide, very, very sparse landscape with lots of little sinkholes, and it's got these little bubbling tar sections, and it's really sort of perilous, and you have to trudge a lot very slowly. You have to be careful. There are all these insects out and -- "
"And all the animals are albino," Greenblatt interjects.
"So what I'm thinking when we're in this Ratlin Bog," Miller continues, "is that we have to make do with what we have. I don't have access to all this plastic molding or machinery. All I have to grab onto are weeds and reeds, so that I can tie my hands up, because I've been cut. I have to make these gloves."
All of this provided inspiration for The White Waterfall of Oblivion's hand-illustrated, Shel Silversteinesque packaging. "We now know what it means to build 250 double-disc albums, and I mean, it was a hellish sort of process, but we all dug our claws into it to pull those resources out. We didn't just stick it in one slot and have it pop out the other one," Miller says.
Rehearsing with his distant buddies by Web cam hasn't been easy for Miller these past three years, but it's the best he can do; Greenblatt is at Yale and Brennan is at the University of Chicago. Miller is a physical person, and he likes to look people in the face and get really close to them. ("It's kind of creepy," Brennan says.) But being forced to temper that hasn't been all bad.
"When you talk to Ashley one-on-one, it's like he's speaking a foreign language," says Recycled Sounds owner Anne Winter, one of Miller's most vocal fans. "But when he can speak his own language, when he's performing, it's very clear." And when fans come to all his shows to bounce up and down alongside him, that's very clear, too.
It's just a good conversation -- a kind of conversation most of us wouldn't have any idea how to start.