Milwaukee synth-pop group NO/NO is calling it quits after five years. While the band has been beloved in the live local music scene, behind the scenes, NO/NO had a private, studio-driven process that led it to create its cohesive albums. And though that process led to a unique sound and loyal fan base, it turns out it may have been too much of a good thing.
“NO/NO has alway worked more so as a studio project than a live band,” says singer/songwriter/guitarist Harrison Colby. “We love playing live but I don’t think that’s really ever been the primary focus of the group.”
That dedication to the production process allowed NO/NO to hone in and perfect its hooky, cinematic, often atmospheric sound that fans around the world became accustomed to. HBO picked up the band’s single “Hardcore” and featured it in the show Shameless. British writer/director Erica Dunton was profoundly drawn to the vivid new wave sound in the band’s first two EPs; she knew the group could create the perfect soundtrack for her coming-of-age film Abigail Falls.
Dunton contacted the band to see if she could use its music in her film. NO/NO had just started writing Sound And Light when she sent the script. “To me, I didn’t see it as writing an album for a film,” says singer/songwriter/synth-player Cat Ries. “And while it is connected to the film, I still completely hold that the album [is good enough to] stand alone.”
Dunton was so impressed with the album—and the trajectory of the band—that she included songs from both Sound And Light and Twentysomethings in the film that went on to be screened in competition in the Milan, Madrid, Richmond, and Cucalorus film festivals.
NO/NO’s songs ended up playing such a vital role in storytelling, Dunton tapped Colby to write the score for the film. “The score-writing process was an interesting challenge. It forced me to strip down the original songs to their most minimal elements, leaving just the bare melodies” Colby says. “I was doing the score while we were in the beginning phases of writing our final album. That process absolutely impacted how I approached Diagnostic. Less is more.”
Challenging the band to step away from the massive, ethereal sound of Sound And Light, NO/NO’s new process was a learning experience. “You can create atmosphere with very little sound. The score-writing process proved that. Our first album would have stacks and stacks of tracks for one atmospheric song, and on Diagnostic we could cover similar ground with just a Casio keyboard and a bass guitar,” Colby says.
However, because of this strategy-driven process, creating NO/NO albums wasn’t necessarily about individual artistic expression. “Most musicians want to play live, and that was always priority number two for this project. It’s not the most interesting way to be in a band,” Colby says. It seemed to be difficult to maintain spirit and enthusiasm in the studio alone.
“The in-studio process that has characterized this band’s releases has been a bit of a challenge,” Reis says. “I’m used to exploring soundscapes as a process and progression with others. With NO/NO it has always been [studio] song first, then learn our parts live, with some changes here and there along the way.”
The very studio-centric method that made NO/NO’s music so complex and engaging pushed the band to run its course.
“Playing live was always where I got my sense of expression,” says drummer Jeremy Ault. “Writing wasn’t the place where I expressed myself—playing on stage and being a part of a larger community is where I was able to feel most fulfilled.”
And while the writing process created the great NO/NO sounds over the years (ranging from pop-driven, synth-y new wave to more experimental and noise-driven), it was hard to maintain between four individuals. “Without a consistent live element, there’s not necessarily a pace to our process, and it led to the degradation of enthusiasm, really,” Colby says. “With any creative project, you rely on drive, pace, and ambition of everyone involved.”
“The NO/NO process has produced some really great work that I’m very proud of,” Ries says. “So while it’s not the way I prefer to create, it’s taught me so much and produced a lot of music I’m truly grateful for.”
Ending things amicably, the members of NO/NO are celebrating their music and their time together with one final show, at Mad Planet on September 21. Holy Shit!, Storm Chaser, and Dirty Dancing will play in support. You can order NO/NO’s final album, Diagnostic, through Gloss Records or stream it on Bandcamp.