In the beginning the name Now You See Them was the inside joke of a band that never intended to be a band. As in “Now you see them, now you don’t.” As in, they rarely played in the same town twice. The irony is, these days Now You See Them is oft-seen on Asheville’s streets and increasingly in its clubs. Despite the tentative name, this band claims to be in it for the long haul.
“Our goal in Asheville was to make a home base,” says multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Shane Conerty. The trio, including guitarist/vocalist Dulci and percussionist Jason Mencer, has accomplished that in the past year—enough so that their dream of making a living as a band (albeit a meager one: “When we shop it’s sale meat,” Mencer jokes) has become a reality. There’s no turning back, Mercer insists. “I could go back to video production,” he muses (that was the drummer’s previous field), “but this is too much fun.”
Mencer adds, “Asheville is fantastic because [busking] pays pretty well and the shows are starting to pay.”
NYST, regularly on the Pack Square sidewalk, is foremost a street act. “We can transplant the street show into a bar setting,” Conerty explains. “What you see on the street is what you see in the bar.” A lot of that flexibility comes from the group’s acoustic setup. Conerty plays guitar and ukulele, Dulci plays guitar and melodica, Mencer plays a drum kit fashioned from a djembe and a tambourine. Necessity is the mother of invention, and from low-fi instrumentation sprung NYST’s folk-pop sound.
“I don’t think we’ll be changing anything soon,” Mencer admits. “I wouldn’t play a kit; Shane wouldn’t play an electric guitar. We’re not afraid to grow with instruments, but we drive a Volkswagen Cabrio.” Like a clown car stunt, the three pack themselves and their gear into the diminutive vehicle.
“If we wanted a fiddle,” Mencer quips, “it wouldn’t fit.”
But NYST is used to making due. The three musicians (who all grew up within 30 minutes of each other in Pennsylvania but didn’t meet until later) came together by chance in New York City. Dulci was just out of college pursuing a career in musical theater, Conerty was just out of high school and Mencer hoped to work in video production. They pooled their savings for a move to Hawaii, but dead-end jobs and tatty digs soon had them searching for cheap plane tickets to anywhere. Turned out $300 each got them as far as Australia.
While living down under, NYST busked and played clubs sporadically. Mencer and Dulci ran a bed and breakfast in Melbourne, making occasional international jaunts for the purposes of renewing their visas. It was one of those trips that raised red flags with immigrations officers: The musicians found themselves unceremoniously kicked out of the country.
“At the time, it was pretty bad,” remembers Conerty, who was detained in a minimum-security prison and deported a few months after his friends. “But we wouldn’t be here otherwise. The day I got deported was the day Jason and Dulci signed their lease in Asheville.”
Finding himself at loose ends, Conerty joined his friends in N.C. and the three decided to make a serious go of the band—but it wasn’t a completely arbitrary decision.
“Everywhere we traveled, people said, ‘Your music belongs in Asheville,’” Mencer recalls. That, and the trio all seem to share (along with a car and a one-bedroom rental) a belief that “All of it happens for a reason” (says Conerty), “We’ve had ridiculous obstacles but the end result is when we get back together, we’re stronger” (says Dulci), and—as Mencer puts it—“I go with the flow.”
If the NYST backstory seems like a Wes Anderson-directed film, their quirky, subversive pop would make a suitable soundtrack. Themes touch on travel and social commentary, but always with a darkly humorous spin belied by bubbly harmonies and pleasantly bombastic rhythms. There’s a sense that (though the musicians claim to get sick of each other) this 24/7 dedication to cultivating the band is paying off. NYST’s members finish each other’s sentences, balance each other’s musical aesthetics and seamlessly blend their singular talents to build a whole larger than the sum of its parts.
Now, if the universe that threw them together would just deliver enough studio time to record a demo and a van to carry them around the eastern seaboard … all things considered, that actually seems pretty likely.
who: Now You See Them
what: Subversive indie-pop
where: Root Bar (Wednesday, April 22, 9 p.m., free. 299-7597); Town Pump (Saturday, April 25, 9 p.m., $3. 669-4808); Mo Daddy’s with Brad Dogget (Sunday, April 26, 9 p.m., $5. 258-1550)