A life-sized cardboard cutout of the Grim Reaper looms behind Karl Kuehn. He lounges awkwardly to one side so the thing shows up on camera, laughing at his own joke. The Museum Mouth drummer is in a Google Hangout with his bandmates: guitarist Graham High, wearing the T-shirt of a public school sharing his name, and bassist Kory Urban, whose sustained deadpan suggests all the chaos and hijinks of a Bill Murray/Johnny Knoxville hybrid. They goof around with the video chat's special effects, and the conversation derails into giggling and stupid jokes.
The members of Wilmington's Museum Mouth know they're a ridiculous little band. For them, it's the only way. And with a rising online presence defined as much by wide-open, self-deprecating Twitter and Tumblr hilarity as by recent mtvU attention, it seems to be working for the pop-punk outfit which performs at Snug Harbor on May 17 as a part of Treasure Fest. Meanwhile, some musicians and listeners are put off by Museum Mouth's silly antics and shameless love of pop culture.
"All the time I've spent playing music, I've been doing it for reasons that shouldn't require a strong handshake and five seconds of eye contact," Urban says. He takes music seriously, sure, but he doesn't see the sense of being over-serious. "Sometimes, it feels like our musical peers are bitter towards us. They see we have some form of mild success, but then they see our Internet presence or meet us in person and see that we're all kind of stupid."
Accordingly, Kuehn happily whips out his iPhone to take "selfie" shots during Museum Mouth sets ("Hell yeah, I'm gonna do it. Who cares?"), while High has tried swinging his head in circles as he plays in tribute to late Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman. It's ridiculous, and he knows it.
"I'm a pretty sloppy guitarist, so it's important to at least show that I'm having a blast being sloppy, and I'm okay with you seeing me be an idiot with a guitar on a stage," says High. And while the guitarist is an avid reader with high lit strewn about his apartment, he isn't trying to make artistic or philosophical statements with the band — "Kory is thrashing like a wild animal, and Karl is doing his best to not drop his drumsticks. We hate ourselves as much as you hate yourself! We're all in this together!"
And this approach is working, at least for MTV's university-oriented subsidiary mtvU. Kuehn cold-contacted one of its programmers and got a reply within the hour. Soon, Museum Mouth's home-shot "Sexy But Not Happy" video won airtime in one of the channel's regular contests. Since then, mtvU has blogged about the band several times — including a "required listening" pick for one of Kuehn's solo tracks as OK McQueen: it's a love song for One Direction's Niall Horan, one of Kuehn's crushes.
"They love Karl, which I think is natural because he's the most visible personality of the band," High says. "He's instantly charming and quotable — practically born to be a prince of the Internet." Kuehn is quick-witted, entertainingly neurotic and hopelessly in love with the overblown kitsch of Top-40 culture.
Appropriately, the whole band grew up on MTV. High recalls watching Red Hot Chili Peppers and Blink-182 videos in the late '90s, while Urban uncritically adored Total Request Live as a kid. He remembers the first time he saw Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time" video. His dad said "This crap is crap," or something to that effect, and switched channels. "Later that week, I waited religiously for that video come on," says Urban. "So, it's cool to be a small part of that history."
The Museum Mouth/mtvU relationship seems more appropriate, then, than attention from the hipper SPIN or Pitchfork would be. Pitchfork, especially. High finds the tastemaker site's reviewing standards arbitrary and ultimately detrimental to musicians' careers. With Museum Mouth unable to tour all that often (though Kuehn says the band has certainly spent some time in a van), maintaining an active, distinct Internet presence seems an essential alternative. mtvU has been a huge help, but most of it comes from the band's own absurd, slightly unhinged social media presence.
Talking to these guys, though, and watching how happy they are goofing off on a Google Hangout, it's obviously not a put-on: these friends would be fountains of social media absurdity, pop-punk band or not. They're invested in Museum Mouth because it's something they find fun and funny. That's the real key.
"I started this band so I could whine — I love whining — about my feelings to people who can probably relate and to have fun with my idiot friends, duh," says Kuehn. "Some bands just take themselves too seriously. It's lame."