In a college town, music can live and die on the tide of an ever-rotating student crowd. But in Missoula, a handful of mainstay musicians somehow keep the familiarity afloat. Big names like Tom Catmull and the Clerics have been rooted in local culture for years — but even when a band sounds new or unfamiliar, there’s a good chance one of its members is not.
Take, for example, Caroline Keys. She’s is no stranger to the Missoula music scene: she’s been written about endlessly and even called a Missoula all-star. Her name is everywhere, and for good reason.
Keys is everywhere.
The bands she belongs to, projects she works on and collaborations she’s part of cover a fair chunk of the Missoula music scene. The 36-year-old started and fronts astral-art folk Stellarondo, and plays in a harmony-driven string girl trio called Whippletree and the bluegrass band Broken Valley Roadshow. Beyond spending time on her three most active bands, Keys teaches music lessons, belongs to a handful of less active bands and almost continually joins in on collaborations. Keys also constantly books gigs and organizes money for bands like Stellarondo.
“When I’m not playing music, I’m planning more ways to play music,” Keys said.
The bassist in Stellarondo, Travis Yost, is the same kind of musician. He, too, is connected to many projects and always looks for new gigs and bands. He and Keys have played together in a number of collaborations and even worked as a duo for a while.
“Travis Yost would not stop bothering me,” Keys remembered. “I didn’t know what I was building (with Stellarondo) but he wanted really badly to be a part of it. He’s amazing.”
Yost is primarily known to local music regulars for playing drums for the Clerics with Tom Catmull. The 30-year-old also drums for the rock band American Falcon and plays for the two bands he started, Love is a Dog from Nebraska and the New Hijackers, which was the Missoula Independent staff pick for the best new band of 2010. In addition to playing with whatever bands he can get his hands on, Yost also runs a mobile recording studio.
“I’ll start a band a week if I can,” Yost said. “I enjoy working with certain people more than others and gathering people into that is just so great. In a lot of bands, everybody can do anything they want but you mold into something and you have a place.”
Behind Yost’s beard and bearlike form is a man whose excitement about music is ever-present in his voice. His passion sparked in childhood. He sang with his dad on stage when he was 10 years old and started playing gigs as a drummer around 12 or 13. Yost watched his dad work 60 hours a week and then play shows all over Montana every weekend. The idea of fitting as many shows as possible into one weekend never seemed strange to him.
Many of Yost’s band mates overlap between projects, and he said it’s because he surrounds himself with about 10-15 people whom he actually enjoys playing with – Keys included. Yost knows that if he needs something in a band or a song that he can’t do himself, he can call up someone who’ll do it and be excited to help.
“It’s always a joke that three of the bands I’m in are the same people, just playing different instruments,” Yost said “People (assume) then that those bands wouldn’t have their own personality and that’s a lie.”
Keys brings her own personality to each of her bands. Her laugh is as eccentric as her untamed curls. Her speaking voice bounces with passion and perhaps a bit of nerves — but when she sings, it transforms into something confident but calming. She sang in a church choir as a child, and took piano and violin lessons too, but her drive to do music in the long term didn’t surface until she was in college. Keys was attending a party in Missoula when she heard one of her favorite Phish songs floating up from the basement. Initially convinced it was coming from the radio, Keys stumbled upon “just some dudes and a guitar.”
“I thought, ‘if they can do that, I could do that’,” Keys said.
So she did. Overnight, she borrowed a guitar and went back to her dorm room where she spent all night teaching herself chords. By morning, she was playing a song from the Little Mermaid. From there, Keys stayed in Missoula and started to establish her musical career. She said it’s taken her 10 years to become the musician she is.
Both Keys and Yost are making their livelihoods solely off of music. Keys said she decided to try music for a year, and by the end of that year it was paying her mortgage. She has a supportive husband with a “real job,” but who is also musically inclined. Yost wanted to be a full-time musician by the time he turned 30 and quit his job in December of 2011.
He said it’s been the most satisfying year of his life.
“I’m not trying to win a Grammy, I just want to pay my bills with instruments,” Yost said.
Joey Running Crane, while not connected to Keys or Yost, is another musician whose various bands frequent flyers and bookings around Missoula.
Running Crane, 23, is in four bands. But unlike Keys and Yost, he isn’t living off the income.
“I’ve been mostly unemployed for the last year. I needed things to fill time with,” Running Crane said.
Running Crane started in a band called Goddamnitboyhowdy from his home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning after his cousin from Missoula got him into music. Their lyrics dealt with social and tribal issues and they played among a few other DIY bands on the reservations. They booked gigs in Missoula and would hitch rides with annoyed family members — and in some cases, strangers — to make it to town for shows.
After moving to Missoula he was picked up as the banjo player and drummer for Bird’s Mile Home, though he was recently kicked out. He also started the “crust” band Gretchen and the pop-punk band King Elephant with his best friend Ryan Bilunka.
Running the bands and booking the gigs have made it hard for Running Crane to find part-time jobs to make money or garner any savings, he said. This summer he helped fight wildfires in Montana, but he often has to choose between money and music.
King Elephant spent three weeks touring. When the opportunity arose for Bird’s Mile Home to play with the Minutemen, Running Crane had to decide whether to play or go fight a fire and make money. In the end, he chose the music and got to play with his musical hero, Mike Watt.
“I consider the alternative of not playing music for extended periods of time and I just feel disconnected,” Running Crane said.
Like Running Crane, Yost can’t stay away from playing. Yost plays multiple shows a week, sometimes three in one day. He said he hasn’t gone on a date on a Friday or Saturday night in ten years because of his constant shows. Of what he guesses to be about 1,000 Tom Catmull and the Clerics shows, he’s only missed three.
“If you don’t walk your dog, your dog is going to eat all the dirty clothes,” Yost said. “If I’m not playing music, I’m pretty frustrated with my life.”
None of the musicians could pick one of their bands as a favorite. For Keys, they each offer their own joys and challenges, but there’s one very special thing about her all-girl band.
“We’re more likely to fart in front of each other,” Keys said, starting to laugh.
Running Crane said he groups them into two categories: bands he drums in and bands he plays guitar for. “They both do different things for my person and that’s the reason to play music. I’d rather not be on antidepressants.
“With drumming, it’s definitely more of a visceral thing,” he said. “But then when I am singing and playing guitar and writing my deepest darkest feelings and singing them to people I barely know — it’s different. It allows me to verbally get things off my chest.”
Yost said he loves all his bands but the Clerics have provided the most stability. The benefit, he said, of having multiple bands is no matter what kind of song he writes, he has the perfect group to play it.
“If it’s a rock song and it deserves the big anthem ridiculousness, it goes to New Hijackers,” Yost said. “If it deserves something more sensitive and I want people to actually hear what I’m saying it goes to Love is a Dog because it’s more story-driven.”
All three musicians have busy springs ahead.
Recently, Running Crane started working at the VFW Post, hosting Open Mic night and working the door. King Elephant started its residency at VFW yesterday and will play there every Thursday night.
Stellarondo released its second album, “Rick Bass & Stellarondo,” at the Festival of the Book last fall but now they are going on the road to promote it to the rest of the Northwest. The unusual album combines the narratives of Rick Bass and acoustic accompaniments. In addition, the band is scoring a short film and will perform visual artist Burke Jam’s MFA thesis “Shadow of Polaris” on March 1 in the Musical Recital hall of the University of Montana School of Music.
Yost said no matter the size of an area, there’s always going to be a small portion he’ll enjoy working with. But with fewer musicians in Missoula, there’s less of a chance of being underbid.
“In Missoula, typically some of the money’s there,” Yost said. “Guarantees are a little better in some places and if you can get people to come into a bar, you can make a little money.”
Although Keys said she has considered moving to a bigger city like Portland, Ore., every time she goes there she said she sees a tour bus in front every fifth house. For her, there’s something to be said for Missoula’s size and isolation.
“In some ways I feel like there might be more or different opportunities in other places,” Keys said. “It’s ridiculous how many artists and musicians and dancers there are in this town. For a person that aches to collaborate, this is just really a fertile place to be.”