Why Hey Marseilles Makes Seattle Swoon

That old-world Europop charm doesn’t hurt.

As Seattle indie-rock band Hey Marseilles knows all too well, picking the perfect band name takes time. A name leaves a crucial first impression, providing a glint of insight into a band's personality; a really clever name can inspire folks to pick up an album blind, while a spectacularly dumb one is like buyer repellent. Lame band names don't always prevent groups from succeeding--just look at Pavement--but you can imagine how it might take a while for five people with strong personalities to make a decision. "We argued about it for, like, two months," Hey Marseilles guitarist Nick Ward says. "The band name is pretty essential, so there were some intense conversations," vocalist and fellow guitarist Matt Bishop adds. "[Nick] wanted it to just be Marseilles, and I was like, 'No. It needs some vibrato, it needs some rhyme, it needs some chutzpah,' and I was like, 'Hey Hey Marseilles!' And at the time, four out of five of us were up for that. Nick was not. So we truncated it." As for other potential names: "The only other real possibility was Left Out Counties," Bishop says sheepishly. He pauses and laughs a little to himself, shaking his head. "Now that's embarrassing to admit."Left Out Counties wouldn't have encompassed the band's Francophile leanings nearly as well. "[Hey Marseilles] kind of fit the aesthetic of the accordion, and the European vibe that we were going for, so it ended up working well," Bishop says. It's funny that he mentions the Euro-vibes, since the band bristled when a recent Seattle Times mention referred to Hey Marseilles as cabaret pop. That might not have been so offensive if that description hadn't been sandwiched among a long list of mostly derogatory summations of other local groups.Thing is, designating the band "cabaret pop" isn't entirely unfair. With an orchestra's worth of instruments at their disposal, the septet (two more members joined after the band's naming) comes off like a contemporary pop group inspired by French cabaret classics from the '20s. Accordion, mandolin, and organ drive the Old World sound, but there are also guitars, a cello, a bass, percussion, a trumpet, and a sousaphone that previously belonged to the UW Marching Band. Trumpeter Patrick Brannon mans that particular behemoth. Funny enough, they're even sticklers for pronunciation, they're so Euro. "The other thing we've learned [about our band's name] is that it's a good test for the...degree to which our audience is educated," Bishop says. "Because a lot of people don't know how to pronounce it."Pronunciation problems aside (just say "mar-say"), Seattle's taken a shine to Hey Marseilles' orchestral-pop style. Given the Northwest's fondness for like-minded bands—the Decemberists, Loch Lomond, the Builders and the Butchers—that isn't totally unusual. What is peculiar is that an unsigned, greenhorn Seattle band could make such a splash with their debut album, To Travels and Trunks. Released in December 2008, not only did it rank seventh on Three Imaginary Girls' best-album-of-2008 readers' poll, it also ranked more than once on Sonic Boom Records' weekly best-selling albums lists. At its best, Travels made it to the third spot, beat out only by Neko Case and Fleet Foxes. Some of that success must be credited to Unjin Lee, the band's bubbly, dynamic manager, who helps get the band's songs noticed more quickly than they might've been otherwise.Yet the biggest reason Hey Marseilles stands out in Seattle's saturated pop scene is its innate knack for crafting sincere songs that rise with anticipation and recede gracefully. It's a quality as necessary to a great pop song as a story arc is to a great work of fiction.Although almost every song on Travels pertains to movement and travel, the band says that wasn't intentional."I don't think we're quite smart enough to actually sit down and say 'We're going to write a whole record about this theme,' and go through with it and do it like a concept record," says Phil Kobernik, a keyboard player with a quick, slightly sardonic wit. "That's a little bit beyond our means." Except it's not, especially when it comes to Kobernik. Later on, he has the whole band laughing when infamous music-review site Pitchfork Media comes up in conversation. "Maybe Pitchfork should start appending words instead of decimals," he muses. "Three point shit. Four point almost. Eight point jizz!"After 20 minutes of being interviewed, the band grows impatient with the process, making restless little squeaks and squawks on their various instruments. The message is clear: They want to wrap things up and get cracking on their upcoming EP. But first, I must know: Knowing how far they've come without a record label, would Hey Marseilles ever consider signing to one? Drummer Colin Richey shakes his head a little. "They would have to really bring something to the table," he says. "We wouldn't just be hunting out indie record deals."Kobernik chimes in. "There's sort of this tilting point where it becomes more practical to be on a label than for you to be doing it yourself. But I think the truth of it is that a lot of bands got shitty deals. We have friends that got bad record deals and got horribly screwed. Or they just didn't go anywhere because they didn't have enough momentum before they signed... [in our case] we have to decide where that point is and whether it's practical to be on a label."If the band continues doing as well as they are without label help, there may be no reason to employ one. At the end of the interview, the band begins working on an arrangement for a wistful new song that reminds me a little of French cafe pop. Meanwhile, vocalist Matt Bishop, who's mainly sitting aside watching, offers me a ride to the April 15 Fucked Up show at Neumos—on a scooter. It's clear that Hey Marseilles won't be shaking the European comparisons anytime soon. But that's OK. I still love the Old World.sbrickner@seattleweekly.com

 
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