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Baltimore's Monster Museum grows at its own pace

L-R: Tracey Buchanan, Adam Smith and Yuri Zietz of Monster Museum play a new song in their Remington practice space on March 12, 2015.
L-R: Tracey Buchanan, Adam Smith and Yuri Zietz of Monster Museum play a new song in their Remington practice space on March 12, 2015. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

In a music climate where acts of all sizes have lowered expectations of what "success" means, the members of Monster Museum — a Baltimore indie-rock trio headlining the Ottobar on Friday — simply want to leave the city once in a while.

Day jobs and budget concerns, according to singer and guitarist Yuri Zietz, have so far confined the band to local venues and festivals. But after three self-released EPs and four years of playing together, the trio — which also includes bassist and singer Tracey Buchanan and drummer Adam Smith — is ready to play to new audiences.

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"It's been a little bit of a struggle," Zietz said from inside the group's modest Remington practice space last week. "I just want to get out of town and play shows, meet people and have a good time."

With measured expectations, Monster Museum operated with a spirited looseness — self-deprecating jokes about genre descriptions and one day making "Mountain Dew money" are often cracked during the full-band interview — even though the group takes songwriting seriously.

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Last August, the band showcased its most dynamic performances to date on the six-track "Safety Dances," a follow-up to the 2013 EP "A Friend is a Killer." The band — which cited influences like Deerhoof, Sonic Youth and Guided by Voices — still maintained its progressive-punk rough edges, but the hooks were tighter ("Don't Answer") and the overall breadth widened (the nearly five-minute "Old Man" finds Buchanan channeling a droning Grace Slick).

"The scope of what we're doing has gotten bigger," Zietz, 34, said. "We're trying different things all of the time. I think that's the thing — just to keep going."

Notable local label Friends Records will release "Safety Dances" on cassette at the end of April, according to label co-founder Jimmy MacMillan. While the band's first release, January 2012's self-titled EP, had punchier pop sensibilities, Monster Museum has since added more texture and darker tones to its sonic palette.

"We still have a scrappy vibe, but we're expanding into tempo changes, movements and things like that," Smith, 36, said. "We're definitely maturing. Obviously, you have to when you play for four years [together]."

Technically, the trio has been together longer. Before they formed Monster Museum, the trio played in Baby Aspirin, a Baltimore quartet driven by its blues-inspired singer Selena Schreyer. After she and the band parted ways, Zietz said, the remaining members realized they wanted to continue playing together. Years later, that chemistry still binds the band together strongest.

"When we started this band, I think the initial thought was we really wanted to push it as far as we can go," Buchanan, 31, said. "Now I'm personally happy putting out a solid record every 12 to 18 months, as long as I get to keep playing with these guys."

Aside from finally playing nearby cities like Washington and Philadelphia, the other goal of Monster Museum is to release a full-length album on vinyl later this year. The trio has been recording in Zietz's Remington basement, and hopes to finish it by summer. There is a pool of 15 or so new songs to choose from, Smith said. The end goal is not a perfect recording, Zietz said, but rather to capture the raw energy when they're on stage.

"The sooner the better [to record] after you write, when you still have that energy and before you've played it out a ton of times and it's rote," Zietz said. "It's still very exciting when it's new. And when you put it out, you can move on from it and that's great. You go to the next thing."

Beyond the full-length album and some touring, the next thing for Monster Museum is up in the air. Toward the end of the conversation, the members wondered what life would be like if the band made enough money for it to be their only job. (Zietz is an academic librarian, Smith bartends at Joe Squared and Buchanan has a job in human resources.)

"I think I'd lose most of my inspiration," Buchanan said.

"This music is this way — our band is this way — because, in a way, we are working poor," Smith said.

Monster Museum's self-awareness speaks to its members' down-to-earth attitudes. These are adults finding a few hours a week to practice for the love of their music and each other, and that is rewarding enough. As the interview wraps up, the members are asked, "So what would it mean to be successful?"

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"Five-hundred Likes on Facebook!" Buchanan said before correcting herself. "No, 700 Likes!"

"Well, let's not get crazy," Zietz said.

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