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Big in Baltimore

Local stalwarts stumbled upon new project

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Mt. Royal, left to right: Woody Ranere, Mike Lowry, Katrina Ford, Ed Harris, and Matt Pierce

Sometimes things come together when you’re not even looking for them. Such is the case with Mt. Royal, the recently minted name for the project you might have previously heard referred to as Big in Japan with Katrina Ford.

The collaboration started in 2009, when the improvisational offshoot of ambient-rock group Lake Trout approached Ford, lead singer in Celebration, about adding vocal parts to otherwise wordless songs for a residency of shows at the Windup Space.

From those performances, more ideas sprang up, leading to more and more writing, and—as three of the band’s five members, seated upstairs at the Dizz on a snowy January afternoon, tell it—an altogether new sound coalesced in a natural way.

They didn’t set out to start a new band, but a new band is what they got. Hence the need for an actual name.

“We just kept writing more stuff and then it just sort of became, This is totally different than this other thing we used to do,” says drummer Mike Lowry. “It needed to be called its own thing. It was a natural—we didn’t have any designs or a direction.”

“Like, ‘Let’s start a band!’” Ford finishes.

But the results couldn’t be ignored. Even without any type of endgame in mind, songs came quickly and easily, a testament to the decades of songwriting and performing experience between them.

With everyone playing in other groups and holding down various day jobs, they didn’t even get to practice the songs that much, running through them three or four times before heading to the studio.

“Things just happened almost effortlessly. I think if they had taken any more time it would have been really difficult for this to happen, because we all have busy lives and lots of other things going on,” says Ford. “But because it’s so natural, organic, and easy, it’s almost like, the universe opens a door, so you have to keep walking.”

The universe’s intentions became even clearer when the stars seemingly aligned to get Mt. Royal signed to Bella Union, the indie imprint that puts out many of Sub Pop’s releases in the U.K., including the last two albums by local dream-pop duo Beach House.

Ford sent a few songs to a 22-year-old woman who’s a Celebration fan and longtime pen pal, without even knowing, she says, that the woman worked for the label. The pen pal played the songs for her boss, and it just so happened he was a fan of Lake Trout’s music. They were signed, and their debut, The Mt. Royal EP, was released on Jan. 27.

Pinning down the style on the six songs on the record is a little bit more complicated. Keyboardist Matt Pierce cited styles as disparate as Tears for Fears, Can, and Nina Simone, a combination Ford called “amalgam futuristic pop,” a description which actually works quite nicely.

Once again, the lack of any sort of restraint proved creatively liberating.

“The cool thing about this band is you kind of have no idea, the style of music is creating itself just based on ideas we come up with,” says Pierce. “We have no idea where it’s going to go, really, and there’s no restrictions as far as type of feel or type of song. We just do whatever we feel like.”

This much is certain: The songs are incredibly catchy, from the fuzzy, soulful pop of “Missing Reward” to the psychedelic stomper “Yes Your Majesty.” There are a lot of ideas at play in the cascading arrangements, but no one part or instrument threatens to engulf the others, allowing for the ear-candy melodies and Ford’s powerful pipes to percolate.

This is a sign of seasoned songwriters coming together and working like a well-oiled machine, sure, but it also shows that, after years and years working as musicians in different groups, there’s no room for egos and what Lowry calls “typical band bullshit.”

“I think that’s why the process tends to move at a quicker pace, because everyone’s just so open. And it’s just like, ‘Yeah, great, alright.’ I trust what everybody thinks implicitly.”

That’s not surprising coming from a group that likened the Baltimore music scene to one giant collective, where musicians are constantly playing in each other’s’ projects and care little about superficial artifice. Days before he took the stage at Floristree to perform a tribute show to Gene Clark’s No Other with an assembled band of Baltimore talent from over the years, Lowry said: “I know for me, and I can only speak from my own experience, I feel like now more than ever, everybody—we’re all involved and there’s this sort of circle of people that everybody plays with. Everybody’s doing stuff together and putting stuff together to play together. Everyone just wants to . . . ”

“Make shit,” says Ford, finishing his sentence.

“Life is short. Everybody just wants to get together and play together,” Lowry continues. “It’s really kind of amazing.”

Mt. Royal plays Ottobar Saturday, Feb. 1, with Raindeer and Gage.

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