On stage, drama comes easily to Pale Young Gentlemen singer Mike Reisenauer. Gesticulating wildly as he simultaneously pounds his electric keyboard from a half crouch and gooses the pop-cabaret act's louche local hit "Me & Nikolai" with his flamboyant falsetto, the 6'5" Wisconsin native is a commanding, charismatic presence. Juxtaposed against the studied formality of the string quartet that forms the seven-piece band's front line in concert, he comes off as the kinked and bent offspring of the young David Byrne and Coldplay's Chris Martin.
But the real Reisenauer couldn't be more different from his stage persona. Before meeting the band's core trio (which includes Bret Randall on bass and Reisenauer's equally lanky brother, Matt, on drums) at a downtown coffee house, I'd imagined he'd be a sophisticated grad-student type with a taste for Rilke, gently warmed Pernod and Lotte Lenya's greatest hits. In fact, Madison's most compelling front man in years is shy, laconic, even a little stiff, and anything but the histrionic swain he plays so deliciously in concert.
Confronted with the disconnect, Reisenauer responds, "I don't know, it's fun music.... About 10 minutes after we're up onstage playing, I start to enjoy it."
"You become so into it that that's what you are," Matt Reisenauer adds helpfully, trying to urge some more commentary from his brother. "And you've mentioned to me before that songs mean more to you when you're playing in front of people than they do when we're practicing."
The big singer-songwriter nods in agreement, then allows, "Yes, everything just falls away."
Mike Reisenauer is more forthcoming about the music that has and has not influenced him. Growing up in Cambridge, Wis., he'd certainly heard Coldplay, but other than the ubiquitous "Yellow," he doesn't recall much about their work. Furthermore, he admits that when local and national reviewers began comparing Pale Young Gentlemen's self-titled CD to Beirut, Arcade Fire and the other acts that move beyond the lo-fi guitar-bass-drums formula that characterizes a lot of indie rock, he was mystified. He'd never paid any attention to other acts that were turning heads with hybrids of pop, classical and Euro folk music, and like the rest of the Pale Young Gentlemen, he doesn't see himself as part of a musical movement.
A self-taught arranger who's had one semester of music theory, the former UW student based a number of the group's songs on European folk songs either written or orchestrated by Johannes Brahms. As for his finely turned narratives about young men dabbling in transvestism while seeking sexual comfort and affairs of the heart upset by the realities of life during wartime, they're derived from a study of Randy Newman as well as Reisenauer's belief that "You have to develop a character and follow through on the story. You just can't sing this vapid stuff."
It's safe to say that pretty much no one who hears Pale Young Gentlemen ever thinks of their work as vapid. While they haven't ventured farther afield than Minneapolis to play live shows, their music has had strong coverage on the Internet. In part, that's because of Matt Reisenauer's efforts pushing their debut album. After graduating college, he made a point of sending CDs to outlets whose reviews are collected and tabulated on the Web-based review aggregator Metacritic.com. A half-dozen responded by praising the band's theatrical presentation, Mike Reisenauer's swooping tenor and the "epic" sound of his string arrangements. That earned them a high spot on Metacritic's list of the best releases of 2007, a list that includes heavily publicized acts like Radiohead, M.I.A., The National and Spoon.
Not that the glowing press has gone to Pale Young Gentlemen's heads. "We sold a few CDs off that," deadpans bass player Randall, explaining the Metacritic experience.
What's next? Mike Reisenauer has penned a batch of new songs, and the band hopes to get into the studio in early 2008. More extensive touring is also on the docket.
Of course, everything depends on keeping their four string players in the fold, and that's never been easy. Players have come and gone, and conflicts with classical gigs have sent the band's core trio scrambling to the UW's music school looking for new recruits.
"That's been the most stressful thing -- when someone has to leave," Mike Reisenauer sighs. "It's always, 'Well, what do we do now?' But at least for the known future there'll be strings."