This is what they want

Most wanted: While recording their latest album, Now You See Them faced some big questions about life, sacrifice and electric guitars.

Once upon a time, all three members of Asheville indie roots band Now You See Them were deported from Australia. But, there’s more to the twisted, meandering tale of how they became the band they are today — and came to record a definitive full-length album titled What We Want (dropping April 20 with a release show at the Grey Eagle that same night).

In a way, it all started when the Steelers won the 2006 Super Bowl.

Drummer Jason Mencer explains, “We met in New York, but we were all from Western Pennsylvania … I called Dulci [Ellenberger] one day to say ‘Yay! The Steelers won the Super Bowl!’ Then we started hanging out more and got these wild ideas to quit being bartenders in New York, and go travel.”

Guitarist/songwriter Shane Conerty joined them — a few months in Hawaii, then to Australia. There, they started experimenting as a band … until Ellenberger and Mencer were deported. They lived in Denver a few months before returning to New York and eventually finding a spot in Asheville. As they were signing that lease, Conerty got deported, too. When he learned his friends were moving to WNC to start a band, he told them, “We’re already a band. Let’s get it back together and do this.”

Conerty had been playing guitar since he was a teenager. Ellenberger — a daughter of two music teachers — grew up singing in choirs before moving to New York to pursue her Broadway dream. Mencer, meanwhile, gravitated toward drums because he always thought “anyone can play drums.” (After listening to audiences try to clap along, he admits he doesn’t think that anymore.) They had some growing to do in order to find a place where their three disparate gifts could meet in one cohesive sound. The best way to do that is to play any chance you get.

So, those early days saw them busking around town, determined to hone their sound, get heard and make rent. It worked. They scored gigs, were voted WNC’s Last Band Standing and earned a spot at Bele Chere. They caught the ears of producer Eric Willson (Ricky Skaggs, Mountain Heart) and got started on their first recording. The resulting EP, Things Change in a Day, says Mencer, was “simple. It’s fun but it’s not musically what any of us wanted.” But, it was good enough to interest clubs and fans beyond Asheville and allow them to maintain their status as highly dedicated road warriors.

It was also enough to set in motion their dreams of making a lush album with strings, horns and complex arrangements for numerous backing vocalists. They set more time with Willson and delved into a year of work on a full-length album.

Getting the songs down on tape is one thing. The business of naming an album is entirely another. What do you want to tell people about your music right off the bat? What single word or phrase encompasses everything you’ve just spent weeks — or, in this case, a year — shaping?

They’re the first to admit there’s nothing glamorous about their life. Ranging in age from 25 to 35, they’ve been through some rough times in the past six years. Sure, there was the deportation, but also heartbreak (Conerty had to leave a girl behind when he was deported), the tiring struggle to get heard, the poverty of choosing one’s art over a life of “normal” hours and reliable income. Any band in its right mind, at some point, has to check in and remember where it stands on questions like, “Why music? Why struggle? Why defy everything seemingly logical to strum this guitar?”

Sometimes the best way to answer that is to just make the music.

Sitting on the porch of what they call their “tree shack” next to a creek on the outskirts of town, the three friends who have dedicated themselves to this journey together consider the meaning of this new album. “[It’s about] the sacrifice you make when you decide to follow your dream,” explains Ellenberger. “Everyone’s always telling you to do that your whole life but they leave out how hard that is … at a certain point you get a sick dog and you can’t pay for his medicine.”

Conerty adds, “We sing about change a lot. The ability for people to change … but what do we want? Do we want acoustic or electric guitar? Do we want to live in this shack?”

After listening to his friends mull over this, Mencer chimes in. “There are so many questions with the phrase ‘What We Want.’ Is this what we want? Or, This is what we want. Really we were discovering [ourselves]. We’ve been chasing our tails — poor musicians living in a two-bedroom tree shack — for four years now. So is this enough? What are we trying to do with this album? Is this what we want?”

Somewhere between all the new instruments and sounds, the challenges which pulled them toward new styles and ideas, growing as individual artists and in one decisive direction as a band … the answer was in the music.

— Kim Ruehl is a freelance writer living in Asheville.

who: Now You See Them, with Uncle Mountain and DJ Kipper
what: CD-release party
when: Friday, April 20 (9 p.m. $8/$10. http:///

About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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