The Out-of-Towners

For indie bands like Gainesville's Morningbell, Tampa has become a home away from home.

Those predisposed to taking in Tampa indie rock shows may have noticed an interesting trend emerging over the last year.

These days, a lot of the favored local bands aren't really local at all.

Acts like Gainesville's Dear & Glorious Physician and the Orlando area's Summerbirds in the Cellar have become as much a part of the New World Brewery/Orpheum Axis of Indie as hometown groups like Auto!Automatic!! and the nationally registering Candy Bars. And why shouldn't they be? These other markets aren't too far away, and their bands make the drive regularly enough to appear on underground bills as often as homegrown talent. It's a mutually beneficial symbiosis — they make new fans while contributing to a scene that seems to be growing vibrant after years of comparative dormancy.

"I think when we first started coming [to Tampa], it was a little more closed," says Eric Atria, bassist for another "adopted" Gainesville band, Morningbell. "But the last year and a half, something's really happened. Either more people are going out to see good music, or there's more good music to see. I couldn't say which happened first, but it's been very good for that scene."

The personable, visually engaging psych-pop act began gigging in Tampa sporadically in early '04, but it was an appearance at this year's installment of WMNF's annual Tropical Heatwave festival in May that gave Morningbell a solid foothold in Tampa.

"We started getting offered all these shows," Atria says. "I haven't had to book a show myself in Tampa in, like, four months. It's amazing. We've been playing as a band since 2000, and nowhere else has really ever hit as hard, usually because we're not able to get back as frequently."

The members of Morningbell are no strangers to having their music embraced by a fanbase in a market distant from its origins. Atria and his brother, singer/guitarist Travis, originally founded the project that would become Morningbell in Miami around the dawn of the new millennium. A year later, however, graduate school beckoned; the band (which now includes drummer Evan Mitchell and keyboardist Stacie Thurshman, who is Eric's wife) collectively chose Gainesville, nearly as much for that city's storied local music scene as for the University of Florida.

"This is a town that's got some sort of magic when it comes to music," Eric affirms. "And even whether it does or not, the fact that other people think it does has been a good thing for us."

It wasn't easy at first. Morningbell's eccentric-yet-accessible melodic meanderings and pop-/ performance-arty character (highlighted by what's known as "The $100 Light Show") didn't jibe closely with Gainesville's reputation as a home for gritty, rock 'n' roll-injected punk. The group also arrived in the midst of a lull in the local scene, following the closing of several of the area's best-loved live music spots.

"It took a lot of work," says Eric. "No town is looking for a brand new local band. There's no town where people are lining up to see a band they've never heard of before.

"But it being such a small town, with such a big school community, you're able to eventually get the attention of enough people."

And the right people. Like Tampa, Gainesville's scene has become noticeably more alive in the last year and a half, so much so that not even the local press could ignore it. Lately, much of that city's local music ink has been spilled in adulation of Morningbell. The band's second album, Forgetting to Wake Up, was the only release by a local/unsigned outfit to find its way into Gainesville Sun Entertainment Editor Dave Schlenker's end-of-the-year top 10 for '05.

In the press Morningbell has garnered thus far, a certain comparison crops up again and again. Let's see — what's a comparatively huge, nearly household-name act, with a sing-songy frontman, that also blends elements of pop and postmodern psychedelia with a penchant for quirky, even goofy stage spectacle?

"I think it's an honor to be compared to them," says Eric of the seemingly ceaseless comparisons to The Flaming Lips. "I don't think we sound like them, and we don't try to sound like them, but it's an easy thing for people to say."

On one hand, Morningbell's style is often more rooted in guitar-driven pop-rock, and more flat-out rocking in a live setting, than the famed Lips' more esoteric material. On the other hand, to whom else are you going to compare a band with synchronized blinking lights all over its members' clothes?

With the $100 Light Show making trips back and forth between Gainesville and Tampa with encouraging regularity, it's doubtful that the comparisons will stop anytime soon; in fact, they'll probably be heard more and more often as Morningbell's local popularity continues to increase. But the group brings something perhaps even more vital than skewed, catchy music and an onstage visual freakout to our scene every time it graces a local stage; Morningbell brings a sense of humor and unpretentiousness that can only be good for community-building.

"To tell you the truth, that's one of the big reasons why we do it. ... Obviously, I'm not gonna look cool when I dance around, so why don't I try to not look cool?" says Eric Atria. "If you can make somebody think you're having a good time, they'll probably have a good time, too.

"Being serious onstage is for other bands. It's for The Strokes or something."