The Lovely Few plays Art Bar at 10:45 p.m. The Restoration plays Trustus Theatre at 11:15 p.m.
The default stance of indie rock is one of slacker indifference, a calculated cool that flies in the face of the pompous self-seriousness of arena rockers or the market-tested slickness of pop and other, more commercial styles of music.
Local indie rockers The Restoration and The Lovely Few, however, are nerdy — and grand — counters to that narrative. Since both groups got started in 2007, they’ve been notable for both the ambition of and commitment to their thematic concepts. The Restoration, a chamber-folk troupe led by frontman Daniel Machado, writes album-length narratives with cinematic scope and literary detail, arriving fully-formed with 19th century costumes and sacred harp hymns. Blend into to the crowd, they did not.
In a slightly more understated but similar fashion, Mike Mewborne started The Lovely Few as a solo project meant to delve into his fascination with space. It has since evolved into a full-band effort that utilizes sci-fi synths and a kind of orchestrated minimalism over which Mewborne sings with a Sufjan Stevens-like sensitivity about planets and meteor showers. Again, kind of difficult to keep a low profile.
Mewborne says he wasn’t concerned with the nerdiness of making such broadly conceptual music at the time.
“I know we are really nerdy. We embrace it, lean into it. I love it,” he tells Free Times during a joint interview with Machado. “I knew it was going to be a nerdy thing. At best, I hoped it would be a gimmick that would afford us more opportunities.”
“I’ve learned enough about myself to know that there are a lot of times when I want to take myself very seriously and that I’m also terrified of taking myself that seriously,” he continues. “So having the check to be like, ‘You’re writing about meteor showers, I don’t know that you should be.’ But that’s growing up, right? The best part of growing up is to be like, ‘These are the things that I like.’ ... If other people don’t like them, that’s fine.”
Both Mewborne and Machado talk a lot about the kind of freedom that comes from escaping the autobiographical trap of songwriting, of devoting themselves to the realms of historical or science fiction rather than working through more familiar tropes.
“I was around 17 when I started playing music,” Machado says. “That would’ve been around 2001 or so, and the model was breakup songs and writing songs about your personal life, sort of airing your dirty laundry, appropriating past relationships.
“So that was the model in which I was self-taught to do it,” he recalls. “So I just decided that there’s no way I’m going to participate in that model of songwriting anymore. Not that you can’t write about your personal stuff, but I just feel like I need to have a structure and it needs to be outside of my daily life to feel like it’s worth writing about. I wanted to write, but I needed something that wasn’t in the autobiographical love song/pop hit model to do it.”
And like Mewborne suggested, such thematic-heavy ambitious concepts can have advantages. The Restoration, for instance, has seen Trustus Theatre adapt their debut album Constance into a full-fledged musical, a kind of Tennessee Williams/American Idiot hybrid that won rave reviews in the local press. The group collaborated with filmmaker Christopher Tevebaugh to turn part of the follow-up album Honor the Father into a short film that appeared at Columbia’s Indie Grits and other film festivals.
“I’m very inconsistent and capricious and just bad at the continual grind of promoting and putting yourself out there,” Machado confesses. “So I feel like everything good outside an album release that has happened to us has been by the grace, to use Mike’s term, of others who’ve liked what we were doing and saw something in it.”
The Lovely Few has similarly leveraged the uniqueness of their concept to unlock cool opportunities — whether creating elaborate staging and lighting concepts with the production company Fort Psych or playing special concerts at the South Carolina State Museum’s planetarium.
Still, there’s a certain insecurity that comes from having ambitious concepts and playing music on a local level, and both Machado and Mewborne are quick to acknowledge collaborators and bandmates with helping them thread the needle.
“I’m seeing these incredibly talented people come on board and show due deference to [my] vision,” Mewborne asserts, noting that the band currently includes two other strong songwriters in Ben Walker and Phil Windsor. “I was really kind of honored … I don’t want to speak for them, but it’s affirming the general direction. It’s like, ‘This is cool. Let’s keep going.’”
And, perhaps most obviously, it’s the challenge itself that makes it worthwhile.
“I plateaued as a musician a long time ago,” Machado says, “but I feel like the thing that keeps growing with me is an attempt to be even and consistent and pleasant to work with, and be able to solve complex problems and do complex arrangements and projects without ever having any fights or stuff like that.
“It’s the challenge of putting together 10 songs that are tightly supposed to work together in a certain way.”