It started as a joke that turned into a song, and from there Eau Claire’s latest duo, the Gossips, was formed.
Local musician Brian Bethke was working on a song with fellow musician Nici Peper when Peper, in her trademark random way, asked Bethke, “You ever hear that story about the British Natural History Museum, where this guy went in and stole all these rare birds?”
Bethke hadn’t, but after she told him — the true story, according to an article from National Geographic, about a young musician who broke in to the museum, stuffed a suitcase with 300 rare birds and then used them to create lures for salmon fishing — they both decided to write a song about it.
“So we wrote that song and found out we are just completely hilarious,” Bethke said with a laugh.
That song turned into “British History” on the Gossips’ debut record, “Flagship.” It and seven other songs make up a compilation of lighthearted tunes designed to inspire laughter and smiles in their audience.
“We’d call it more of an art piece than an album because a lot of it was improvised, just hitting record and seeing what happens,” Bethke said.
Between mid-September and mid-October, the two wrote and recorded their music, Bethke said. They sent out one song to places around the country, and he said it “took off like a rocket ship.”
Before they knew it, the Gossips were booked through November. In the past week, they’ve played shows in northwestern Wisconsin, Stillwater, Minn., Chicago and two shows in Nashville last weekend.
They’ll be back in Eau Claire for an album release show during FMDown’s Bad Art Festival, which takes place at 7 p.m. Friday at Pablo Center at the Confluence, 128 Graham Ave.
The Gossips’ set will be at 9 p.m. that night.
They’re one of several groups performing that evening — all musicians Bethke and Peper are familiar with — which Bethke said seemed like the perfect fit for their “homecoming” show.
“Flagship” is a mostly upbeat take on life, offering funny takes on stories they’ve heard — some audiences will be familiar with and some not. It was written in the span of two sessions between lots of laughter at Bethke’s father-in-law’s recording studio. The natural humor the two share is evident on the album.
“We have one song where we get really heavy, and then we start cracking up at the end,” Peper said. “It goes off the rails.”
Peper called the album “circular” in that it starts out with lighthearted songs such as “Monkeys of Zanzibar,” then moves into a few more emotional, serious tracks, before ending on a happier note. In that regard, Peper compared its movement to that of how, she thinks, people should be living.
“We touch on the heavy, but then at the end we remind ourselves that darkness will never win, and with that we can smile,” Peper said. “It’s like smiling in the face of adversity.”
Bethke and Peper as individuals have been performing in the Chippewa Valley for years, but this is their first duo project with one another.
The two had been planning another project to highlight local musicians in September, but upon that first evening chatting about the British Natural History Museum, both agreed they wanted to make music together.
“It’s blown me away because I’ve never had a project where I’ve rolled it out this fast,” Bethke said. “We got a tour booked, and it just kind of fell into our laps.”
Bethke said he refers to Peper, who is six years younger, as his “kid sister.” Both knew early on the connection they had was going to be great for making music. It happened quickly and naturally.
“I’ve never worked with someone who is just so open to new ideas,” Peper said. “There was no ego. It was really cool just bouncing things back and forth.”
Plus, it has allowed them to shed the serious side of themselves, something Bethke said both of them as solo musicians focused on.
While that seems to come naturally — solo artists have a tendency to lean toward the personal, emotional core of things — Bethke said the partnership has been a breath of fresh air.
“We’ve both been doing full-time musicians on the road for a long time, and after a while you do get beaten down by that,” he said. “The cool thing (with this) is someone is there to take up the slack. We keep each other focused and remind each other we’re awesome.”
He believes that connection is evidenced in their music and hopes listeners can take something similar away. With the mounting political tension nationally, Bethke said the country is facing some “dark times.” And while he thinks we are facing issues that, ultimately, are necessary for us as a nation to overcome, it’s always a good reminder that being happy is O.K.
“I just hope it puts a smile on people’s faces and makes them take life a little less serious,” Bethke said. “It is such a heavy period of time right now that we’re going through, and I think we have to go through that, but we need to remind ourselves too that it’s O.K. to laugh, it’s O.K. to be a little childlike at times.”
Their focus now is being that light in the world, and both agreed they don’t know where the Gossips will take them next.
But Bethke said the end goal is pretty simple.
“Our mission is to take over the world,” he said. “Just to make people laugh.”
Between laughter, Peper added: “Just a heads up for everyone.”