If that band you formed in someone's parents' basement back in high school had lasted 10 years, you'd have something in common with the four guys in spacey alt-rock quartet Olympus Mons. Formed in November 2002, when its members were seniors at Plum High School, the band stuck together through graduation, college, the start of their careers, three out of four members getting married, one siring a son and another briefly studying in Bulgaria. They've now been together roughly as many years as The Police, The Clash or The Beatles.
"We learned to play together," says singer/guitarist Mike Ummer. "We know each other best. It never made sense to go off and join another band."
Drummer Brian Bechtold goes even further. "For me, us playing together is the creative process. I've never known any other way to make music."
The band, which is unveiling its second album, The Mink Trapper's Daughter, with a show at Brillobox, says the key to sticking together has been keeping things simple. "We always wanted the same things, to just make music and play shows," says bassist Mike Bechtold (twin brother of Brian). "There were never any egos. There was never any success-or-bust mindset. It made it easy not to get frustrated with one another."
In tune with the members' laid-back, self-defined approach, Olympus Mons has had a fierce autodidactic streak. When the band formed, only Ummer had ever played a musical instrument before. They also taught themselves how to record their songs, and they even packaged their own CDs. (Brian Bechtold, an elementary-school art teacher, designed a poster for the band's self-titled debut; once it was printed and the discs pressed, the band members spent many hours folding posters and reassembling the CD cases.) This make-it-up-as-you-go methodology has led to some interesting creative decisions. For example, for its first four years, the front man of Olympus Mons was a lamp.
When Olympus Mons got its first gig, at a venue called the Rea Coffeehouse in the basement of a Chatham University building, it didn't have a lead singer — or, for that matter, any songs. As the visual artist of the band, Brian Bechtold made a decal of the band's name, done in the kind of font you'd find on a '60s psychedelic band's LP, and sewed it onto a lampshade. They set it out front before diving into a song-less set of space rock, a la Syd-Barrett-era Pink Floyd during its underground London club days.
"[D]uring those early years we used to play incredibly loud," recalls Ummer. "It was kind of our way of dealing with not having a singer. ... It definitely helped keep the crowd's attention."
But as they attended Pitt and lived together in a house in Squirrel Hill, the members underwent a maturation process. Ummer volunteered to be the lead singer, and the band started songwriting in earnest, with everyone chipping in. Once focused on actual songs, the sound took on an airy, emotional tone which has garnered comparisons to Joy Division and U2. Their two albums are remarkably cleanly cut and confident for a group of self-taught amateurs. (When Ummer sings the ambiguous chorus of "You can't be stopped!" on the first album's "Take Them All Alone," his intensity makes the phrase believable.)
This may be due to the band's odd choice of recording facilities. They rented office space, just like a small business. First, they had a place in a Market Square building, sharing a floor with an optometrist's practice. "We could only make noise after 6 p.m., and by then they had turned the air conditioning off," recalls Brian Bechtold.
Still, having a recording studio that doubled as a place to get away from it all ensured they'd be spending a few nights a week there, especially as post-graduation career and family stresses mounted. (Mike Bechtold is an engineer for a manufacturing company, and Ummer and bassist Kurt Threlfall both work in finance.) "It's like having a tree house as a kid," says Mike Bechtold. Sometimes they were laying down tracks and sometimes they were downing beers, but music was always at least seeping into their minds, which might explain the polished sound of their two albums.
When rent was raised in Market Square, they found (for $415 a month) a basement below a small theater and an antique shop in Verona, where wires snake across the floor into a hodgepodge of recording equipment. The place also houses the storied lamp (now a proper piece of furniture) and the requisite decrepit old couch.
The reasons for the band's existence are much the same now as when it started. "I didn't want school stuff to be all I did back then," says Mike Bechtold. "Now I don't want my job to be everything I do or contribute."