A band's drummer leaves town for 10 months. How are the other two going to keep themselves occupied?
Mack Gilcrest and Kurt Skrivseth of the Missoula band Pale People decided to write a rock opera. About Godzilla.
The drummer didn't end up returning, but they and some new bandmates completed the project, "Lizard Monster Eats Everybody," which is out now.
Their fourth full-length album, is an homage to many things — the joy of bad movies, Stephen Sondheim's darkly comedic musical theater, and the prog excess of 1970s rock operas by bands like Rush and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And it was a test, to see if undertaking an album like this could work at all.
"It was an experiment to see if I could write a song about a kaiju dying in space that would like literally make people cry," said Gilcrest, the band's lyricist, vocalist and pianist.
That melodramatic piano ballad does sound like it was generated by someone who's studied musical theater. Gilcrest, who got a composition degree at the University of Montana, has played percussion in pit orchestra and read Sondheim's books of lyrics and analysis, which he considers a major influence. If Godzilla wasn't a clue already, he takes the art form seriously but has a sense of humor about it.
"I love good musical theater. Partly, I love the camp of it, and I think we lean pretty heavily into the camp on this one in many respects," he said.
"I think we kind of had to," said Skrivseth, who plays bass, guitar and is their recording engineer.
More broadly, it's about B-movies, of which they are fans, and the idea that bad movies are beautiful in their own tremendously flawed way. They were thinking about "the kind of passion it takes to make something in spite of the fact that you know it's not going to be aesthetically pleasing," Skrivseth said. (That part will become even more clear if you listen to the album's postscript, "Roll Credits." Spoiler ahead — it zooms out to a movie set and explicitly addresses those thoughts.)
Since the kaiju storyline is familiar, it gave them freedom to play around without worrying about losing the audience.
"The idea was to include as many perspectives as we could. To examine a story that everyone knows from every possible angle," Gilcrest said.
There are the helpless citizens on the ground and their feeling of "profound helplessness" as destruction occurs, he said. After all, Godzilla movies have often been inspired by real catastrophes, from nuclear attacks to climate change. There's also point of view of the Lizard Monster, who "sees himself as this really tragic, self-pitying … folk hero. Like I imagine him singing his songs accompanied by, like, ukulele."
And then he runs into a conflict with the Mecha Lizard Monster, his lab-created female love interest who becomes an antagonist.
Regardless of the particular song, they're self-contained pieces of writing, a concern of Skrivseth's at first.
"I was amazed that as we started doing it, I became as attached to them as I did our older material. Because initially, I wasn't sure that was going to be the case," he said.
Partway through the project, they brought in guitarist Saje Johns, a friend from the composition program at UM who, appropriately enough, said he's seen one particular Godzilla movie about 50 times.
Skrivseth has gradually convinced Gilcrest to add more guitar to the albums after his initial reluctance, although the band very much sounds like it's centered on piano, a rarity in Missoula.
Gilcrest played most of the drums on the album himself. They found a new drummer, Douglass Barrett, to fill out some tracks, but he plans on moving again soon. Gilcrest and Skrivseth both find it amusing how ornate the album became — with some intricate, long melodies and arrangements — since they'd first talked about making an acoustic guitar record.
"Beyond the profound anxiety I felt about whether or not this was going to be good or worth anyone's time, or worth our time, which is an anxiety that has not quite abated to be honest, but it has gone down somewhat. This is the most fun thing I think that we've done as a band," Gilcrest said