Astronomers know sunspots as cool, dark areas of the sun's surface that result from a mother lode of magnetism. But here in Madison, stargazers of the musical variety think of local band Sunspot before they look to the heavens.
The trio have established their reputation as cool, dark and funny rockers over the past 14 years, and their magnetism is on the rise thanks to a new project that's redefining what it means to go to a concert.
That project, Major Arcana, is not an album but the title of the group's newest live show, which incorporates Sunspot songs old and new, as well as theater, videos and lots of mystical symbolism.
"It's a concept show," explains Mike Huberty, the group's bassist and co-vocalist. "We put the songs together as a story, and there are videos that go with each song that play before the song and during it. We interact with the videos, and so does the crowd. It's kind of like Rocky Horror, except each song has a tarot card associated with it, and the story revolves around an IT guy named Joe, not a bunch of Transylvanians."
The tarot cards serve as clues to what will happen in the plot, as well as reminders of a pivotal scene in which Joe (played by local actor Matthew Schraeder) visits a tarot-reading psychic online. The crowd follows him as he fulfills the psychic's predictions, losing touch with his friends and getting caught in a sticky web of web addiction.
But the audience doesn't just watch the plot unfold: It serves as a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book for the tale, helping the band decide which song - and which part of the story - to unveil next.
"We really wanted to take audience interaction to a new level," Huberty says. "Concerts are one of those rare places where you still can have a real, face-to-face encounter with other people, so they seemed like the place to start."
Plus, having an everyman character like Joe makes the show hit home for quite a few people in the audience, Huberty says.
"I don't know any hookers or prisoners or people who have murdered. And I haven't been in a lot of high-drama situations, so I think it would be hard to represent those kinds of characters," he says. "But the theme of disconnecting from the world and reconnecting, that seemed like something almost everyone could relate to, including me."
After coming up with the concept at their South by Southwest appearance in March, Sunspot put together the show's songs, videos and other details, then set up a tour to find out how the idea would fare in cities across the country.
Getting folks to listen up at a bar can be challenging, but the band's found that the show's format - plus handouts that tell the tale behind each song - gets visitors hooked on the story.
"Every night, after the show, people have been like, 'You're doing something I haven't seen before,' and for us, that means we're on the right track," Huberty says. "After all, you can't just expect people to pay attention to your songs. You've got to capture their attention and give them a reason to listen."
Getting bar-goers' noses out of their glasses wasn't Sunspot's only goal for Major Arcana. They knew that performing the show dozens of times would give them something slick enough to archive once they returned to Madison.
And for this task, Sunspot want Madison's help. They'll be filming a live DVD at the Annex when they bring Joe's story home on Aug. 14. Local music fans are needed to determine the latest trajectory of his adventure, as well as the band's set list for the evening.
Huberty says that once the footage from that night is edited, the band will most likely package it with some new songs. And if all goes according to plan, Madison will add a new type of live music to the mix: shows that transform fans into directors and local actors into film stars.