"Really fun" may seem like a counterintuitive way to describe a verbose concept album informed as much by the narrative traditions of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica as by those of post-Beatles North America, but that's just what Beyond the Bells is. The first fully realized album by local violin-guitar-and-drums, garage-twee trio the Maybe Happening, Beyond the Bells winningly weds the literary ambitions of a latte-sipping Powell's regular with the punk rock abandon of a Pabst-swilling house show hoodlum in its tale of an underage suburban Portlander's first encounter with urbanity. Violinist and singer Nathan Langston took some time to talk with me about the album before it's released, and performed in its entirety, at Rotture on Saturday, February 2.
MERCURY: Given that the three of you in the Maybe Happening have known each other most of your lives, when would you say that the band actually started as a consistent project?
The Maybe Happening didn't start as a band at all. It was a poetry performance with musical accompaniment that we figured we would only do once, at a large arts festival I was throwing in Eugene. I would read Jonathan [Andersen] a poem and he would come up with what it sounded like on guitar, I would add a little violin, and PRESTO! We played as a bizarre two-piece for a few years and people didn't know what to think. By the time we asked Parker [Dutro] to sit in on drums, we were already leaning toward becoming more musical, more band-ish.
How did Beyond the Bells come about? Had you always intended to write a narrative album—whether you want to call it rock opera, rock musical, or what have you—or did you stumble into it?
We knew the entire story in detail before we wrote a single note. It is based, very loosely, on a Tzutuhil Mayan long story whose main character is "Raggedy Boy." We just call him "A Boy." The love story is devastatingly beautiful, told with an unfathomable number of layers so that every word means seven, or 10, or 20, different things. When I hear the album now, it feels like I'm listening to 10 albums at once. When we sat down to write it, we wrote each song in order, from beginning to end, so that the whole album would feel like a single gesture.
Did you have a transformative, definitive teenage night like Raggedy Boy? Did you make the mystic journey from Beaverton or Hillsboro and get seduced by the city?
We all did. As a story of initiation, coming to the city for the first time was the closest thing we had. A rather paltry substitute, but a substitute nonetheless. The beginning of "Tunnel Under Mountains" is about coming to Portland from Beaverton and how you're out in the forest basically and then, all at once, the city leaps up before you in all of its glory, shining and resplendent. And I would say the journey was mystic, one that bewildered us with the possibility of a life larger than that of our childhood. And I would agree that it was a seduction, the way that the city enveloped us in its many layers and began to draw us toward the center. When I see kids out at all-ages shows around town, my heart is happy remembering that initial burst of fabulous eagerness.