The music made by Portland’s Miss Massive Snowflake – who will be gracing the Kala stage on Saturday, June 9 – is a lot like the name of the band itself: a juxtaposition of elements that, on close inspection, make little or no logical sense, but it hardly matters because it somehow sounds right. The songs on MMS’ latest album, Like a Book (available from their label’s website, www.northpolerecords.org), bear a passing resemblance to pop songs. Put it on as background music and it might seem unthreatening, even innocuous. You will tap your feet, nod your head, and expect it to leave nothing more behind than an errant swatch of melody or two lingering pleasantly in the memory. But pay close attention and your head may freeze in mid-bob. What kind of pop song ends with a declaration like “Takes a lot of talent/To talk a buncha shit/And not get in trouble for it”? And follow that up a couple minutes later with a reference to Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro having sex? As you struggle to get that image out of your head, you start picking up other aspects buried in the mix – odd time-signatures, abrupt shifts in tempo, a blast of dissonant brass worthy of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” – which subtly disfigure the shiny, happy face pop music exists to put forward. At which point you realize that, underneath its passing complexion, this stuff is downright weird.
All of which suits the man behind the band to an eccentrically-crossed T. “I’ve always been kind of a clean-cut-looking person,” says Shane de Leon, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who serves as Miss Massive Snowflake’s auteur. “I don’t have any tattoos; I’ve always kept my hair pretty short. But I do have some pretty weird ideas, and I like the idea of flying in under the radar, being a freak without feeling like I have to advertise it.” No surprise, then, that de Leon’s music contains trace elements of some of pop’s greatest eccentrics, from the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne to The Artist Formerly Known As Something Other Than Prince. Like them, de Leon distinguishes himself by an inability to stand in one place long enough to be identified; just when you think you’ve figured him out, he’s already morphing into something different.
You can trace that elusiveness as far back as 1997, when de Leon followed some friends from his home state of Montana to Portland, where he joined their band Rollerball as trumpeter, clarinetist and sometime vocalist. Founded as a straightforward power pop band, they were already in the process of escaping their three-chords-and-a-straitjacket origins when he joined. Within a year, they had become something else entirely: a relentlessly experimental combo whose music pushed out in all directions at once while mysteriously remaining centered. Yet it says something about de Leon that he could be an important component of a band of infinite possibilities and still be unsatisfied. By 2004, “I was really getting into songwriting, but realized that it was hard to play trumpet and sing at the same time. I had never really played guitar, but decided to start because it seemed like a good way to accompany myself.” Thus, Miss Massive Snowflake. Conceived as “a calm, acoustic side project,” its first three releases were a series of CD-Rs with handcrafted sleeves designed by his daughter and contributions from other members of his family (including his mother on backing vocals). Far more song-oriented than Rollerball, MMS represented a step towards accessibility – “I’ve been challenging people with experimental music for over ten years now, and I’m ready not to have the audience look at me so quizzically all the time” – and a conduit for another side of his musical personality. “I’ve always liked pop music – Michael Jackson, Madonna, even Miley Cyrus. So I’m trying to make something that’s catchy, but we’ll never be too poppy, because I like to mess around with weird time signatures and strange chord changes.”
True to form, even the conventional is unconventional in his hands. Once a solo project with an ever-changing cast of supporting characters, it is now a bona-fide band: its lineup has solidified into a unit featuring bassist Jeanne Kennedy Crosby and drummer Andy Brown. “I’m trying to write more for the band now – more of a rock sound, with distortion pedals and barre chords. I’d never played feedback before! I’ve only started to use distortion and feedback the last couple of years, and I’m in my forties now – I’m starting out at a place where most people would be when they’re eleven years old! I’m way behind the curve.”
Not that Shane de Leon intends to stop moving, literally or figuratively. He continues to run his label, North Pole Records (one of whose bands, Dramady, will open for MMS on the 9th). As we spoke, he had just completed a 29-date tour of Europe (his fourth); plans are afoot to return there in the fall after playing dates throughout the US. And, of course, he intends to keep coming back to Astoria, as he has done twice a year since his Rollerball days. “I’m from a small town in Montana, and Astoria has that same kind of feeling. Especially the people. I think some of the weirdest people in the world, the people with the most creative thoughts, are in towns like this and not the big cities, and Astoria definitely has that. There’s just this great vibe here that I can’t quite define. It’s a pretty magical little city.”