Asked how he and his wife and musical partner, Gretta Rochelle, met, My Gold Mask guitarist Jack Armondo admits, "We were both kinda drunk." It was at someone's Fourth of July party in 2002, and after discovering that they were compatible musically as well as romantically, they got serious on both fronts. Their first project became the popular local "sex rock" band Bang! Bang!, with Rochelle (aka "Gretta Fine") on bass, Armondo (aka "Jack Flash") on guitar, both on vocals, and a series of drummers behind them. Late last year the group just sort of fizzled out, the couple say; after nearly a year of inactivity, they got together for one final show this past August.
In the interim, Rochelle and Armondo had formed a new band—just the two of them—by the name of My Gold Mask. They released an album this past spring, and then got married in June. It goes to show, Armondo says, that drunken meetings at parties "actually can work sometimes."
My Gold Mask, which they released themselves as a download and on cassette, is an odd record. Most songs consist of a skeletal guitar part—mostly leads rather than chords, doused in effects that usually seem to include an octave pedal—drums played on a two-piece kit, vocals by Rochelle with occasional backups by Armondo, and almost nothing else. The combination of the primitivist thump they kick up and Rochelle's showy, nasal vocals makes me want to coin a new genre for them: Delta cabaret.
Rochelle says it came together by accident: Armondo "was just playing some acoustic stuff in the house and I was singing along in a totally different room. And he was like, 'This is interesting.'"
"It was amazing," he says. "I'd never heard her sing that way before." Rochelle's voice is noticeably stronger and more self-assured than it ever sounded in Bang! Bang!, and she's exchanged her snotty punk delivery for a theatrical, vibrato-laden style of belting.
They started demoing songs at home, then moved into a practice space to work on them in earnest. For the sake of simplicity they wanted to keep the project a two-piece. "Originally we thought we'd add electronic beats," Armondo says. "At first we just had the guitar and her singing, and I didn't know what to do from there." They asked friends with better programming skills—Armondo describes himself as "untechnical"—but he says the situation was starting to feel "like other bands, where you're relying on someone else and then getting into them being like another member. We got kinda frustrated."
So Rochelle, who had almost no experience at all playing drums, set up a kick drum and floor tom a former tenant of the practice space had left behind. "I took the kick and I figured out how to put the pedal on," she says. They recorded more demos with Rochelle on drums and took them to an engineer friend, Balthazar de Ley, to see if he could replicate them electronically. "He said, 'Did you do this live?' I was like, 'Yeah.' He said, 'If you can pull this off live you should just do that.'"
Rochelle's unexpected transformation to singing drummer is just one of the ways the couple have stepped or tumbled outside their comfort zone. Armondo, for instance, switched from electric guitar to an electroacoustic Spanish model with nylon strings, and he's moved away from the straight-ahead rock style of Bang! Bang! toward material heavily infused with jazz, blues, and folk influences.
"It all grew out of not having anything" particular in mind, he says. "It grew out of trying to figure out how to make this work. A lot of the things that people compliment us on or focus in on are all things that happened by accident. We didn't sit down and say, 'You're going to play drums and I'm going to play this weird guitar.' It was, 'I don't know how to do this. Let's figure it out.'"
The freedom to experiment is one of the things Armondo sees as an improvement over his experience in Bang! Bang! "When you're in a rock band like that," he explains, "people expect something from it, and if you go off on a tangent or something then the people that are going to the show are like, 'What is this?' And the people that might appreciate that, they aren't going to expect you to be doing that so they're not going to be at the show to check it out."
So far they're doing a pretty good job of getting people to check out My Gold Mask—they just returned from the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, where they played a showcase organized by the popular blogs Culture of Me and Sheena Beaston.
The couple are currently in the middle of recording a five-song EP at Engine, where de Ley works, that they'll finish with de Ley at his home studio, Audio Bordello, and while they continue pushing their own musical boundaries, for the time being at least they're content to do so without any additional members. They say they don't want to be defined by their married state the way that, say, Mates of State or the Like Young has, but the simplicity of the situation really appeals to them. "There are a lot of times when we're sitting on the couch and I'll say, 'Grab your guitar,'" says Rochelle. "It could be two in the morning, it could be nine in the morning."
"We love to create," Armondo adds, "and that's part of why we're together."
"Like 90 percent," Rochelle says, then pauses as if performing some complex mental calculation. "The other 10 is our pug."