"CLEAR THE DUST from smiles in boxes/Pass a patterned wall recall their voices . . ." So goes 17-year-old Natalie Merchant's first song for an eclectic young band named 10,000 Maniacs. Inspired by a high school English course assignment, the impressionistic lyrics found Merchant wandering through her grandparents' home, picking up dusty curios and hearing the voices of her past again.
Nine years later, singer-songwriter-MTV oracle Merchant is chatting on a "primitive" rotary phone in her father's house in her native Jamestown, N.Y., where she and the other four members of the unusually named folk-rock band have been rummaging around in their collective attic, dusting off nine years of memories and holding them up to the light.
Merchant and the other four Maniacs are back in upstate New York rehearsing for their current "Time Capsule" tour (which kicked off earlier this month at Jamestown's Keg Room, where the band played its first gig), which marks the simultaneous release of "Hope Chest," a reissue of two early, long-out-of-print records; and "Time Capsule," an hour-long video retrospective compilation directed by Merchant. The tour, which arrives Wednesday at GWU's Smith Center, is also a reunion of sorts with guitarist John Lombardo, a founding member who left 10,000 Maniacs just before the band hit it big.
"On the tour we'll do a little bit from every record," says Merchant, who sounds faintly distracted in conversation, like a shy person who's called on to talk in class, someone who spends a lot of time in the public library.
"There'll be no 'magic show' . . . 10,000 Maniacs was never really known for its theatrical elements," she says chuckling.
Merchant says Lombardo wrote most of the songs on "The Wishing Chair," the band's first major-label release, but left the band soon after the album's release.
"He was tired of being in debt," Merchant says. "We all, in a naive way, thought when we signed with Elektra that all our troubles would be taken care of.
"We'd become employees of Elektra Records, i.e. Warner Bros. Communications, now Time-Warner," she says, her voice tinted with irony, "and that we'd have pension plans and insurance plans and we'd all be able to buy houses and we'd all be set for life. And we found out very soon that we were artists for hire, and our first record wasn't a favorite at Elektra, which was having financial problems that year, and all our projects got kind of pushed under the rug.
"So we toured for a year with no support from the record label. And we became very discouraged with still playing the same bars, and still losing money every night. John was older than everyone else in the group, and I think he was frustrated with living with his father, and he had to sell his car. So he quit, and he went back to teaching for awhile, then got back into making music."
But then came the Peter Asher-produced "In My Tribe" and a couple of sort-of hit singles, which turned 10,000 Maniacs into college and alternative-music favorites.
"We all started moving out of our parents' homes," Merchant says. "I think now everyone owns a car, and for those material comforts we're all grateful, but we're not even quarter-of-a-millionaires."
Witnessing the band's subsequent success was painful for ex-Maniac Lombardo. "We've talked about it," Merchant says. "I think it was very hurtful to see the band become known after he had invested years of effort. He just signed to Rykodisc and his songs are going to bring him some notoriety, we hope."
Now, with the Maniacs in a between-albums hiatus, it seemed a good time to exhume "Hope Chest," which combines the first Maniacs EP, "Human Conflict Number Five," and the album "Secrets of the I Ching," both recorded by student engineers at Fredonia State University and released on the band's own Christian Burial label.
Some bands try and sweep this sort of early stuff under the rug -- the evidence of the search for a distinctive sound and personality is deemed too embarassing.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of," Merchant laughs. "I think people mostly are going to be surprised by the reggae element . . . . What we used to do mostly was reggae covers. When we started writing music, one of the first songs we wrote was 'Planned Obsolescence,' which was very dub reggae.
"I was surprised at how pleased I was at the performances," she says. "I think those records are like looking at a photo album of yourself as a child. I was only 17 when we did the first one. So as far as technique, I really hadn't developed one yet. We wrote songs and then immediately went into the studio and recorded them."
Lately Merchant has been getting involved in directing -- she helped assemble the "Time Capsule" video package, which includes 16 music videos plus early 8mm home movie footage and international concert footage, and recently directed a public service announcement on homelessness and children for Michael Stipe's new C-00 Direct Effect film company.
"I think I've made a decision to devote more of my energies to children," says Merchant who is writing and illustrating a children's book, and, like the rest of the band, has been quite involved with social-issues groups. "And I'm becoming more educated. I went to Washington actually to visit with a woman who works for the Children's Defense Fund, and I was involved in that children's day care bill rally that took place on the Mall last month."
She rattles off an impressive and alarming list of statistics about children and poverty, illiteracy, health insurance, teen pregnancy -- the sort of subjects that appear in such uncommonly affecting pop songs as "Cherry Tree" and "What's the Matter Here?"
"I feel like my primary use of the information is to become a better informed citizen and a better informed artist," Merchant says. "If I'm going to make any kind of statement through the lyrics, or through music about the state of the nation, I want to know the truth."
10,000 MANIACS -- Appearing Wednesday with John Lombardo and Mary Ramsey at George Washington University's Smith Center. Call 800/543-3041.