When art project the Snails decided to reunite, it felt like a bit of a lark. The band notably features members of Future Islands, including frontman Sam Herring, which has spent the past two years enjoying the breakout success of 2014's Singles.
Then last December, the Snails revealed their reformation with a press release cheekily announcing the band as "Baltimore's answer to the California Raisins." In addition, the advance single bared the adorably quirky title "Snails Christmas (I Want a New Shell)," and each of the supergroup's members (players in Wing Dam, Lonnie Walker, and Lower Dens, among others, have been part of the crew over the years) got a snail-themed pseudonym. The whole thing felt a bit lightweight and frivolous.
As for the advance track itself, Herring does his trademark messiah-style emoting, although instead of delving into the ponderous depths of his emotions and soul, he's celebrating mollusks wish lists. The music itself follows suit, as the frontman sings over what feel likes a surf-inflected take on the Future Islands' new wave-noir sound, along with an almost gratuitous level of saxophone soloing.
But when the full-length, Songs from the Shoebox, landed on Bandcamp on Valentine's Day, the record was surprisingly good. Although the recurring snails theme remained largely intact, the freewheeling nature of the proceedings seemed to enliven the weighty minimalism that Herring and bandmate William Cashion typically bring to their main gig. The Snails' rollicking guitars and plethora of horns were a wonderful foil to Future Islands-style machinations, and as a whole seemed to suggest a more exciting, eclectic path forward for a group clearly capable of doing far more than the darkly sublime bedroom synths-meets-stadium emotionalism.
When you talk to one of the band members, who all perform wearing colorful, plush antennas, it's hard to break through the snail veil.
"I've never heard of Future Islands," deadpans "Snailbraham," a.k.a. Abraham Sanders, drummer for Wing Dams when he's not pounding the skins in his snail antennas.
Throughout our interview, Sanders never breaks character, reveling in the absurdity of the group's goofy concept.
"As far as the meta-concept behind being a snail, there really isn't one," he says. "We were just born this way, snails. The music that we breathe out is pretty natural, mitochondrion and all that stuff."
Fortunately, there are still some details to be gathered. Sanders freely admits the Snails started as a "cover band" of Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, the rock act that Herring and Cashion started as undergraduates at East Carolina University before moving to Baltimore. Sanders wasn't in that group, although he also attended ECU.
"Every member [of Art Lord] is a Snail, and every member since has been a Snail," he acquiesces. "There are certainly members who aren't Snails anymore, but that's because those Snails went on to do their own thing."
The group only covers one Art Lord song in shows now, leaning almost entirely on the originals from Shoebox, which was actually recorded more than three years ago.
"We recorded in a warehouse where Snailbraham actually used to reside. We did it with Chester Endersby Gwazda, who is a fine producer and musician himself. And when he produces [us}, he is a Snail," says Sanders.
Admitting that snails don't have very big brains, Sanders says they'd forgotten about the record. "Somebody was like, 'What are we gonna do with the Snails?' And it was like, 'Oh yeah, we recorded an album three and a half years ago. We should probably get moving,'" he says. "So now we got the wheels rolling, the scales sliming things up — got the shells on the road rollin'."
And the tour thus far has been quite the party. The band performs in snail costumes, and Herring's trademark charisma blends well with the wacky tone and rave-up energy of the Shoebox material. Though antennas remain intact, they apparently remove their shells before each show.
"We keep our shells off, which is a good thing — although I know it seems a little sketchy for snails not to have shells," explains Sanders. "All shells are coming off at the shows, I'll tell you that. It's not a good show if the shells don't come off. But they've all been good so far."
This two-week string of dates does not presage bigger plans for the Snails, though — this is a one-off, low-stakes tour that is, in the end, more about having fun and blowing off some steam away from the members' other projects. It's just that, for some folks, that means pretending to be snails.
"I think of the Snails as a rock band. You have performance in their somewhere, but we're not conceptualizing anything that's not real, because we were born snails," Sanders concludes. "It's pretty simple, straightforward snails music."