When No-Fi Soul Rebellion takes the stage, vocalist Mark Heimer is rarely anywhere near it. He’ll periodically sprint back to it to pick up his bass guitar and blast out the minuet from Boccherini’s String Quartet in E Major, but mostly he uses the time to come across to his audience in a much more hands-on way. Dripping sweat in his trademark green basketball jersey, he throws his lanky arms around nervous shoulders, playfully grabs people by their shirt collars and gets right up in their faces to testify.
“Well,” says Heimer, “I try not to be too confrontational or threatening. I’m always really nervous before I perform, but somehow I turn it into confidence. And energy.”
If the usual performer cajoling for crowd participation exerts only a mild laxative effect on audience inhibitions, Heimer’s shtick is like a bucket of prunes and a ramrod. If you don’t have a dancin’, singin’ or prayin’ bone in your body, a No-Fi show will make you wish you did.
“I can get pretty cynical sometimes,” Heimer laughs when asked to sum up his worldview in as few words as possible. “A big thing I focus on in my songs is interpersonal relationships and how people disregard each other and treat each other like trash. I see that a lot. But there’s also lots of good in the world, and lots of reasons to be hopeful and optimistic.
“And for me,” he continues, “a big part of my witness is breaking molds of what people think the stereotypical Christian is like. We’re not all Bush-loving flag-wavers, you know? We’re not all super-uptight folks.”
Witness is the term Heimer uses to describe his outward expression of faith. A “non-denominational Christian” who grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and came to Missoula to attend the University, he says he grew up singing and playing in church bands and “messing around” on his sister’s bass guitar every chance he got. He seems to have decided, at an early age, that music was the ideal conveyance for his exuberant brand of witness. Still, it took leaving the Fairbanks church to find his way to musical salvation.
“I grew up going to a pretty tight-knit church where my dad was an elder and a pastor,” Heimer explains. “But I never realized that it really meant anything until I actually moved away from it all. I never really made it my own, and I started college wondering if it was my own, or if it was just a product of being raised in that kind of environment. College was a good time to think about it, and it ended up being very important to me.”
In 1999, around the time Heimer’s first Missoula band, the Stuarts, began to fizzle, he started recording songs for himself. Back home in Fairbanks the next summer, he hit on the idea of performing them live with the Soul System: pre-recorded tracks on an MP3 player hidden in the body of a bass guitar. The first incarnation of No-Fi Soul Rebellion debuted on Sept. 2, 2001, with Heimer’s friend Lucas doing a charmingly unconvincing job of pretending to play the (unstrung) Soul System bass.
“I thought about playing it myself,” Heimer recalls, “but I decided that wouldn’t work because I wouldn’t be able to get hands-on enough with the audience. But it gives you something else to look at besides me—sort of an anchor. Amidst all the chaos, a constant.”
Lucas stepped down from Soul System duties last year. Heimer says he doesn’t blame him—after all, the guy was “playing” an MP3 player.
“It was always kind of weird for Lucas,” he says. “There were times, especially when we were just getting started, when he’d just feel kind of dumb standing up there.”
Nowadays, Soul System duties are handled by the missus: Mark’s wife, Andrea. According to Mark, it’s the ideal set-up.
“When I went on tour, it was really hard on Andrea and me,” he explains. “I’m really glad that we can stay together now—anywhere I have to go she’s going to have to go, too. And she’ll yell at anyone who might potentially pour drinks down my butt or whatever. She’s tough!”
Next spring, the Heimers will hit the road for four months, then move to Bellingham, Wash. “It’s a big shrewd business move,” says Mark, half-apologetically, so as not to hurt Missoula’s feelings. “I really want to do this for a living, and so does Andrea.”
And Bellingham as a home base will put them within testifyin’ range of the whole West Coast. The couple is serious about making it happen, but Mark Heimer still seems an unlikely—almost accidental—pop celebrity, if so far only in Missoula.
“I think about the world that we live in,” he says, “and it seems kind of futile to try and strive for things like status and a legacy when you’re just going to end up rotting in a box under the ground anyway. It seems like there has to be something more than that to work for while we’re here. Trying to make people think might be the most important thing.”