photo by Shannon Claire
Duffy’s Tavern fills with people early on a Saturday night in October.
It’s the final night of the 10th annual Lincoln Calling, a four-night music festival that, this year, spans six local venues, features more than 100 bands, and houses a nightly audience composed of primarily Lincolnites. Call it a midwestern college town’s best attempt at South by Southwest. The festival boasts a few touring acts — The Kickback, Future Islands, BOY perhaps the most notable among them.
Otherwise, Lincoln Calling’s lineup is populated mostly by local acts. It’s one of those bands, Universe Contest, whose draw fills Duffy’s to capacity during Minneapolis opener Wiping Out Thousands’ set.
In the bar’s basement, five shirtless, glitter-encrusted men add crushed PBR cans to a rapidly growing pile while blowing up white balloons with the help of a few friends. It’s an important night for Universe Contest. Not only are they closing out their hometown’s premier music event for the second year in a row, but it’s also their first show as what they consider their completed family.
In April, six months after their full, onstage debut, drummer Brenton Neville emphasizes sound tech Mark Wolberg and light designer Arthur Mauseth’s inclusion as full-fledged members.
“They’re part of the band,” Neville says. “It’s not five guys and a light guy and a sound guy. There are seven members.”
A familiar sound engineer is needed to navigate the layers of sound Universe Contest will pile on in a set. Before Wolberg joined the band, Neville ran sound from stage, never confident that a venue’s tech could get the sound consistently to the band’s liking. And with Mauseth comes lights. Before that, singer-guitarist Tim Carr ran comparatively rudimentary lights from a switch on his pedal board. Mauseth custom built a light-rig big enough, bright enough, expansive enough to make any major label act blush at its extravagance compared to the venues Universe Contest frequents.
photo by Bridget McQuillan
But Universe Contest is far from a major label act. Bands with a label behind them probably don’t do nearly as much on their own, or at least receive a little more financial support.
“We can’t afford to pay people to do it for us,” Neville says. “So we’re going to do our best with what we have to work with.”
It’s perhaps a more modest sentiment than Universe Contest actually merits, connoting a group of scrappy kids just doing their best to get by on homemade instruments and junky light shows. Universe Contest is more convincing than that.
On that night last October, Universe Contest takes the stage to a bar full enough to give a fire marshall a panic attack. Howling vocals soar somewhere beyond bending synthesizers, reverberating guitars and earnest percussion. Two women in galactic-print leotards and gas masks dance seductively on stage and shake glitter onto the crowd. Bassist Jon Dell has technicolor feathers tied into his chest-length beard. Carr has the same superglued to his shirtless chest and back.
As is traditional treatment for the band, the audience lovingly hurls crushed PBR cans at them. Lights blind and flare hotly. In the set’s chaotic finale, balloons drop. Dell implores the audience to “get the fuck on stage right now.” Somehow, a snare drum is lobbed through the air.
In a way, the set lays bare all the evidence of a key factor and guiding principle for the band: Universe Contest is in almost complete control of what happens regarding Universe Contest, even if it’s chaos.
Meet a lighting whiz? Start a sound and lighting project with him, invite him to join your band as an opportunity to explore his art on a blank canvas. Find someone who can and wants to precisely nail your sound? Make him a member. Bring him on tour. Don’t find people you can pay to do a job, collaborate. Don’t leave anything, sound, lights or loyalty, up to chance. Make it your own.
You want balloons with your lights show? Better get to the venue early to blow them up.
You want to record an album? Do it yourself.
On Friday, Universe Contest self-releases its second full-length album at Vega with The Renfields, Cupcake, Jeazlepeats, Darren Keen and DJ Spence. For the first time, the band will see its work released on vinyl. RSVP for the show here.
It’s the latest climax in a story that’s been officially in the works for about two years now, since Dell and keyboardist John Friedel joined the band in 2012, and one that will quickly be eclipsed in scope by the 37-day Midwest, East Coast and Southern tour set to begin the next day with a show in Omaha at The Sydney with Saturn Moth, Low Long Signal and Manic Pixie Dream Girls in support of the LP, We are the Rattlesnake.
The album’s origins can be traced back further than 2012, though. Carr recalls playing with Neville in Mücho Goot, while Neville also played with Universe Contest’s other singer and guitarist, Joe Humpal in a project called Gooses. The two acts played together a couple times at the Box Awesome in Lincoln. The Box Awesome closed in 2009.
Neville says he and Humpal wrote the final track on We are the Rattlesnake, “Remember,” around that time.
Circumstances eventually brought Carr, Neville and Humpal together for a series of shows with former Universe Contest guitarist Dan Schmidt. Universe Contest hosted two other members between Schmidt and the addition of Dell and Friedel. Ultimately, changes in the lineup always came down to the same thing — commitment.
But committing to Universe Contest isn’t the same as committing to finish How I Met Your Mother on Netflix. It’s probably not even the same as committing to love and remain faithful to a partner. How I Met Your Mother won’t require you to maintain dead-end jobs for the sake of binge-watching. A new boyfriend won’t ask you to quit your job to be with him.
It’s a conversation the band has found themselves having again and again for a few years. How committed are you willing to be? Often, the answer is departure from the band.
The last time they had to have that conversation was after Dell and Friedel joined the ranks, prior to a summer tour culminating with their 2012 appearance at Maha Music Festival.
“We decided to book the shit out of this tour,” Carr says. “So it’s like, can you save money, can you get the time off work, will you quit your job if you have to? Without batting an eye, everyone was like, yeah of course. That’s hard to do.”
From the outside, it almost appears that they’ve effectively destroyed any viable and fulfilling pursuits other than Universe Contest. Sever all your ties, and suddenly faith and commitment seem a little more compulsory.
“We’ve all drastically altered our lives,” Neville says. “Relationships, divorces, everything. Quitting jobs, dropping out of school. We’re all in debt. Arthur and I don’t even have cars anymore. Tim and all those guys, they work their fucking asses off so they can do this.”
Neville and Mauseth run a sound company, Vessel Live, together. Carr and Friedel work at Yia Yia’s in downtown Lincoln as a cook and bartender, respectively. Dell books shows at Duffy’s Tavern, and Humpal works at a group home with three developmentally disabled men.
photo by Chris Dinan
“I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but it’s why I work dead-end jobs, so that I can do this,” Carr says. “I don’t expect it to take me anywhere other than getting to see new places and meet new people and play music with my buddies.”
It’s for that approach We are the Rattlesnake was named, apparently. Dell remembers Humpal talking about an old wive’s tale after “a lot of things had fallen apart, relationships and things.”
“Joey was sitting around one day and he goes ‘There’s this woman who finds a baby rattlesnake on the side of the road and it’s dying. She takes it home and nurses it back to health, feeds it, loves it, takes care of it. It gets full grown and it bites her. She’s laying on the ground, dying, and she says, ‘How could you do this to me? I loved you and took care of you and fed you.’ And the rattlesnake says, ‘You knew I was a rattlesnake when you took me home.’ We are the rattlesnake.’”
After that tour in summer of 2012, the band began work on recording We are the Rattlesnake. With the collective taste of an improvisational perfectionist and a totally democratic process, recording the album took more than a year. No band of Universe Contest’s means can afford that kind of studio time. Instead, the group rented rooms in an abandoned high school in Malcolm, Nebraska, a small town northwest of Lincoln. They drilled holes and ran cables. They built an isolation booth and a production room. As always, they did so with mostly scavenged or borrowed equipment.
The result is eight tracks plus an introduction, each vetted and selected from somewhere around 20 songs. As on previous releases, vocal duties are split almost in half between Carr and Humpal and their distinctively different styles guide the timbre of the album. Humpal’s more traditionally structured tracks, like “The Day the Earth Took Pills,” soar on both vocals and instrumentation. Like an ice cube in a glass of water, Humpal’s voice sits equally above and within the water. Carr, on the other hand, with a voice that’s more yelping than singing, finds strength in standing apart from rhythmic and punctuated instrumentals.
Lyrically, Humpal paints with an impressionistic brush — personal and vague imagery suggests rather than tells, as in the first verse of “Squirrels”: “I steal all the food that I eat, I run this house like a town, I come in the door and I sleep.”
Carr’s lyrics are populated more concretely. He connects through specificity. There is little room for interpretation in “The Question Part II: Lousy Dreams” when he sings, “Snorting drugs off the floor tom, nobody knows where it came from.”
Still, both Humpal and Carr manage to dig toward the same kind of longing for purpose and fulfillment. These aren’t the songs of people who have failed, but of people who maybe never knew how to try.
If there’s a single element responsible for that continuity, it might be Friedel’s synthesizer work. Neville calls him a “mad scientist.”
Anymore, it’s hard to imagine Universe Contest songs without a sweeping synthesizer part, sometimes carrying the song on gigantic wings, sometimes weaving in and around vocals and guitars and drums. With Friedel’s work, more depth, more space, more sound are available than Universe Contest could hope to produce without him. And they’ve had to.
Less than an hour before a show at the Waiting Room in Omaha last year, Friedel fell from a tree and cracked his head open on the pavement, earning him a trip to the hospital. After a discussion about whether the band should go on without him, they eventually did.
“We did it as best we could. We just picked our least synthy songs and went with those,” Dell says.
“People enjoyed it, but it was missing that huge synth sound. It feels weird when one of the other guys isn’t there,” Carr says. “The songwriting is still OK, but I don’t like doing it.”
To hear Friedel speak about his work with the band, he sounds as much technician as he does artist.
“Guitars sound a certain way because there’s a string going through a pickup. That’s how you’re getting that sound. You can put it through whatever, but that’s how the sound is created. It’s a certain waveform. Something like a synth, you can adjust a waveform to do anything. I can play an electric guitar solo on a synth if I wanted to, it would sound pretty damn close.”
It’s that nearly infinite potential, that opportunity for exploration and discovery that keeps Friedel interested in the instrument. Both he and Neville note that he rarely plays a song the same way twice. Friedel compares it to throwing a baseball as far as he can. He’ll throw it, and then give him another one and it’s possible to hit that exact same spot, but very unlikely.
photo by Daniel Muller
The opportunity for improvisation and the necessity of chance are part of what’s elevated the Universe Contest live show to recent storied status in Lincoln. You never know exactly what you’re going to get. Sometimes there’s a drag show, sometimes it’s a troupe of burlesque dancers, sometimes they’re in thongs, sometimes they’re in feathers. Sometimes a snare drum is hurled through the air, sometimes Carr falls off the stage. No matter what, it’s not the same twice. Like Friedel’s baseball, even if they wanted to, how could they hit the same spot?
But probably they don’t want to, because repetition isn’t as fun as spontaneity, and that’s what each member of the band says they want from their live show: universal fun.
Carr calls it accessibility. They have fun playing their songs and they want other people to have fun. Dell calls it a party. Mauseth calls it a freak show.
During the last two years, Universe Contest has been nothing if not deliberate in the shows they play. Carr says at some point the band made a decision not to play more than six or so local shows a year. Recently, those have all been special events: headlining the closing night of Lincoln calling 2012 and 2013, Jake’s Block Party, a backlot show at Duffy’s, New Year’s Eve at Vega.
“We put on a fun show. When people go to Duffy’s and see that we’ve redecorated the whole band room, they can tell,” Carr says. “People just know that something weird is going to happen.”
photo by Michael Thurber
It’s something of a reputation: anyone can go see Universe Contest and get hammered with them. That’s the idea of Universe Contest.
“A lot of the shit that I write about is the concept of people having an idea of who you are,” Carr says. “It’s a case of mistaken identity, and we run with it. Anybody who knows us on the surface thinks we’re wild and crazy and obnoxious. There’s more to it than that, but it’s fun to fuck with people. We do like to party, but we also work really fucking hard. But people think they know, and we’ll let them.”
For his part, Friedel tends to speak theoretically. He’s not making a point unless he can get at the philosophical root of the problem. He sees their popular local performance at the crossroads of occasion and intention.
“Do you intentionally play a rock show? Dropping balloons at a show, that’s programmed to happen at a certain point. That’s planned. The incidence of it is it actually happening and what that creates. They follow each other, hand in hand.”
Where two of Universe Contest’s seven members have roles that pertain exclusively to live performance, it’s fair to call that the centerfold of the band. In fact, until We are the Rattlesnake, Carr says their recordings were often done for the express purpose of having something to give away or sell at live shows.
With such a locally renowned live show, a record presents its challenges.
Mauseth describes his role in the band as helping audiences to see the music as well as feel and hear it, and his light rig has decidedly become as integral a part of the Universe Contest set as Friedel’s synthesizer. But on the record, Mauseth isn’t there. Neither are the balloons or the costumes or the hundreds of other audience members. It cannot be replicated on record.
Past Universe Contest releases have maybe been more of a companion to the live show. See them live, buy their EP Discovering and Deciphering Your Value as a Human Being as a token by which to remember the show. The hope with We are the Rattlesnake is that they’ve constructed more of a two-way street.
Now it’s less like replication of one or the other and more like a sculpture: it’s the same piece of art, but it can mean something different from each angle.
“If you try to capture (the live show) and make them one in the same, you’re going to always fail. I like that we have a very distinct line between our recordings and our live show,” Neville says. “I don’t think it’s a big priority to any of us to actually have many similarities. The songs are going to be the same. Everything on the record, we won’t do it unless we can recreate it live. But I like that there are two different worlds. There’s the sit-down-with-the-LP and examine it and, like Tim likes to say, take your time with it. That’s one side: get introverted with us. The other side is to go to the shows and get wild and party.”
While costumery and lights could make a convincing argument that Universe Contest is theatrical, character-driven art, Neville is sure to note that the only difference between Universe Contest on and off stage is the presence of instruments.
Maybe Universe Contest is an intricate piece of performance art that extends before and after the stage, away from the recordings, a natural product of the artists involved. If the guys are sometimes over-indulgent in their personal lives, then why not over-indulge in your art?
“Tim Carr on stage is the same crazy motherfucker that he is before and after or that’s cooking you pizza at Yia Yia’s.”
Carr is the easy example. Last time Universe Contest played The Sydney, he fell off the stage. Even he admits, their shows always go pretty well as long as he doesn’t drink too much.
photo by Bridget McQuillan
They’re taking that haphazard, accidental art piece to full immersion on a massive tour for a band of any scale, a handful of days shy of two and a half months, mostly into uncharted territory, a tour they painstakingly booked themselves.
Universe Contest has played as far east as Chicago and as far south as Fayetteville, Ark. Come Boston, Baltimore, New York City, Atlanta and everywhere in between, they have no idea what to expect. Not that they care. The responsible thing to do might have been to schedule a series of brief Midwest tours, slowly but surely expanding their reach from a base in Lincoln. But that wouldn’t have been the Universe Contest thing to do.
“At the end of the night, I might be like ‘ah shit we didn’t make any money,’ but at the end of the night, guess what? I’m playing music with my buddies and I get to hop in the bus and do it again the next night and meet more new people,” Carr says.
The band recently acquired a tour bus, though less out of necessity than pure desire for decadence, how cool would it be if we had a bus?
Neville secured the bus through a straight-across trade for his refurbished sailboat, mediated by Craigslist. It needed engine work, brakes, tires, and the interior had to be gutted of its sixty passenger seats and refashioned into about ten sleeping bunks, a kitchen and a commons area. Logistics bedamned, a band in debt after finishing We are the Rattlesnake is going to take this on tour, because why the hell not.
Against probability, after a couple short months, the bus, affectionately named Dharma 2000 after the band’s broken-down van Dharma, is somehow leaving on tour Saturday morning.
Jacob Zlomke is Hear Nebraska’s staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com.