Cans and Strings and Paper Things: an Evening with Book on Tape Worm

Book on Tape Worm has become as much a staple of the local music scene in the last three years as one could possibly imagine for a band that hadn’t released any recorded music until last month. They have been featured on BYU Radio’s Highway 89 show, Weber State University’s College Radio Day, the 100 Block Podcast, and a number of local papers, including the Daily Herald. Their live shows, if not sold out, consistently draw heavy crowds, like the one that wrapped around the block outside their album release show, which was held at Velour Music Gallery on Saturday the 13th of October.

I’m standing out on the sidewalk, and the talk among the crowd members, many of whom are long-time fans, is staccato, enthusiastic. They’re eager to be let behind the red curtain that covers Velour’s glass front doors and prevents those waiting outside from seeing in, though it doesn’t stop many from trying.

Those familiar with Book on Tape Worm have every right to be anxious. In January of this year, Book on Tape Worm’s third Slumber Party Show drew another large crowd armed with pillows and blankets who were just as keen to get a glimpse inside. (You read that right. Pillows. Blankets. Slumber Party.) But Book on Tape Worm’s sound is so dream-like (though not exactly ethereal) and so whimsical (though never silly) that, when the line finally filed in, there was more delight than surprise when the huge, painted clouds onstage moved to reveal a giant moon. It’s all part of the package, and the crowd drank in every minute of it.

Book on Tape Worm’s close and intimate sound, however, while deliberately augmented by their set design, is not a product of it. Instead, their sets illustrate in concrete terms the close and glowing space their music itself creates.

Later, in August, Book on Tape Worm set up their sprawling collection of instruments (the band plays on cello, keyboard, guitar, glockenspiel, vibraphone, concert bass drum, cymbals, bells, and a handful of other percussion instruments) on the top level of a parking garage for Provo’s annual summer Rooftop Concert Series. This time, their quiet, lullaby-esque music echoed off nothing but a few stage lights and the stratosphere, but their performance was just as warm as their Slumber Party Show and so close that they might have been whispering in my ear.

Finally, later that October Saturday night at Velour, the curtain is moved, the doors are opened, hands are stamped, and the sold-out crowd filters into the temporary seating set up especially for the show, programs in hand. The stage is strung with twinkle lights and flanked by a painted grove of two-dimensional cardboard trees and another red curtain, all of which recalls their (breathtaking, by the way) album art.

The band’s set list is their entire album in order, separated into four acts, just like their record; and, as far as the performance goes, sounds just like the record, but with a more intense concentration of emotion. A product of more than two years, All the World’s a Stage is a four-act, sixteen-song exploration of characters who are disappointed, frustrated, bored, and boring—the ever average. But set against Book on Tape Worm’s lush instrumentation and often playful lyrics, the record is anything but depressing. It’s dark, yes, but actively resists despair. For example, when the situation is at its most dire—“I never thought I’d be an obituary, but a paragraph, that’s me. I’m sorry”—the lyrics are at their most playful—“I used to be as crisp as the ‘shh’ in Madeleine L’Engle’s lisp, but now I’m soggy, oh, I’m soggy.”

Before the show, I met up with two of the four members, frontman Scott Shepard and cellist Ciera Black, at Scott’s home in downtown Provo to talk about books, art, and their album.

Musically, the record pivots around Scott’s distinctive tenor voice and Julianne Brough’s warm alto in duets that are anchored by Scott’s guitar and which ride on Julianne’s occasionally soaring piano. Ciera’s cello and Gavin Ryan’s glittering percussion provide a further level of substance and depth not typically reached in local music. And as far as lyrics go, as Ciera explains, “these aren’t just empty words; they’re narratives.”

Fiction and a certain level of artifice certainly play an important role in Book on Tape Worm’s aesthetic. Scott says, “I’m fascinated by writing a good story in a song—my favorite music takes you somewhere. You start up one place and end up another. And it’s definitely a challenge to turn a song into something that’s both meaningful and a story, to take all your personal experience and put it into a narrative.”

Ciera: “In general, short stories necessarily have to be articulate, and they have to pack a lot of content into not a lot of space. I think that can be a challenge artistically, but also rewarding.”

Scott: “It’s a beautiful constraint. We just try to give real emotions a different frame.”

And if Book on Tape Worm knows how to do anything, it’s how to frame their music. Notorious for their set designs, as I already mentioned, they also put a vast amount of planning and creativity into their album art. Designed by local artist Maddison Colvin, the artwork relies heavily on the use of typography, but mostly on the use of… okay. It’s a pop-up book. You hear that? The album is a pop-up book. Ciera explains the importance of the visual in Book on Tape Worm’s project and how their music, the artwork, and their shows connect.

“We want listening to the album to be an immersive experience. I think Scott would agree with me; we don’t want you to just listen to it but live it, see it, and hold it; and we want the shows to be the same way. You not only hear the music, but you can see through the stage design what we hope you take from it.”

Scott: “You can go to a concert any night of the week, but you don’t go to something that’s an experience every night of the week. I think that for us—where we’re good friends with Corey Fox and we have the use of Velour and he encourages making it a production and he loves to help—it’s a really good asset. If you can bring people into your world for a little while, just for an hour, and you can sing to them and play them songs and talk to them, that is the most enjoyable part of making music—being with people, connecting with them. And if you’re able to manipulate your surroundings and make the live show more immersive, like Ciera said, then it’s just that much more effective and exciting.”

Ciera: “And I think it shows that it’s an investment for us. Each show is not just something we have to do. We don’t just go through the motions; we genuinely want it to be something memorable for everyone involved.”

Finally, curious about their musical construction of space, or the atmosphere they create with their music, I asked for their thoughts. Ciera decided it was “mood,” and Scott agreed:

“I think it’s sort of funny that when we write songs we talk more about emotions than we do notes or about time signatures or anything. We talk more about how things feel. Creating a mood is integral to our writing because we love music that makes us feel things. And I think if the person who is performing feels it, then it’s going to be hard for the people in the audience not to feel it.”

Ciera: “There’s a sincerity there. The reason I’m drawn to music personally is because it is multi-dimensional. You know, it’s not just the auditory part of music and it’s not just the literary part, but those combined—those interactions. Like Scott said, the way you can put a lyric in a song and the way you position it within the notes can give that lyric a whole new meaning—a whole new feeling.”

Scott: “Yeah. As much as there is fiction in it and as much as there is the element of theatrical presentation, I think that the soul of it and the heart of our music is just real experience and real emotion.”

You can order their album on their website at bookontapeworm.com

Written by Lindsey Webb

Photo Credit: Jake Buntjer