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On a freezing evening in February, the Galaxy Hut is filled with the warm-moist emissions of a packed house. Young hipsters smoke, tip back drinks, and generally create a din, but most are turned toward the front window.
There is gathered the Lil’ Hospital, looking shy and sweating lightly. At first wary glance, the threesome is your typical indie g-b-d trio: Chucks-wearing, adorably floppy-haired frontman; cute-girl bassist dwarfed by her instrument; bookish chap with good posture sitting at the tubs.
“Yeah, Kevin!” someone yells from the back. There is shuffling, shoving, spilling: an agoraphobic’s nightmare.
Then the music starts. The Lil’ Hospital runs through one jangly, sunny pop tune after another, bracketed by minimal but endearingly aw-shucks patter. “Um, thanks for coming out here, guys,” mumbles singer-guitarist Kevin Alvir. “Here’s another one.”
More hoots from the audience.
Later, the 23-year-old Alvir blushes when reminded of the rowdy support of that crowd. “Yeah,” he says, glancing down and twirling the hair over one ear, “a lot of my friends were there that night.”
He and his bandmates are gathered in a spare, neatly kept house in Arlington; they’ve just finished a post-practice meal, and their easy laughter bounces off the walls and hardwood floors like that of college kids gathered in a dorm lounge. It’s drummer Niko Tombras’ house, and the order makes sense given the soft-spoken percussionist’s career as an architect.
Alvir, Tombras, and bassist Lynne Anderson have been playing together for almost two years. They’re joined tonight by former Girl at the Bus Stop keyboardist Bob Klossmer, 28, who’s just finished his first practice as a Hospital guitarist. “We expect to regain some momentum now that we’ve got Bob,” says Alvir, grinning.
The joke is that the Lil’ Hospital has never really been too concerned about momentum. The group began with a 16-year-old Alvir, a four-track, and some space in the basement of his parents’ house in Annandale. Seven years later, only Alvir’s age has changed, though the project has slowly evolved into a full-fledged band with a sound that the singer-guitarist thinks “has really rounded out.”
The evolution started in January 2001, when Alvir saw a notice that Tombras, now 25, had posted at the then-thriving Now! Music and Fashion in Arlington. Inquiring about potential bandmates, the flier name-checked several groups Alvir had long admired: the Apples in Stereo, Rocketship, Lilys.
And admiration is something that Alvir takes seriously. The 27-year-old Anderson, for example, joined the band after Alvir discovered that she was holding her own in a Magnetic Fields cover band with boyfriend Tombras, even though she’d been playing bass for only a month. “I was, like, ‘She can play and sing at the same time?’” Alvir remembers. “‘She’s in!’”
Alvir’s musical appreciation is also evident in the Ramones-cribbed title of the Lil’ Hospital’s debut CD, I Wanna Be Well, as well as in the band’s moniker. “I got the name from a Modern Lovers song, ‘Hospital,’” he says. “When I first started making tapes, in high school, I would tell people that my band’s name was the Hospital. Then one night I was driving around, and I figured that if it was just me, then I was just the Lil’ Hospital.”
That small-scale approach remains, despite the group’s expanded lineup. When asked how the band members collaborate on songs, Anderson and Tombras break into laughter. “Kevin writes a song and tells us what to play,” says Anderson.
“Kinda like a dictator,” says Alvir.
“We just call him the Lil’ Napoleon for fun,” laughs Anderson.
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In fact, Alvir, who also plays guitar with March Records outfit Sprites, recorded the entire new record on his own, using a “cheap” drum machine, playing guitar and bass, and singing all of the harmonies. Though he enjoyed the creative control, he looks forward to producing a more collaborative effort in the future.
“Different hands make different sounds, y’know?” says Alvir. “Even if the others aren’t writing their own parts, I think the next record will sound fuller.”
For a one-man effort, I Wanna Be Well showcases a sound that’s already remarkably full. The 11 tracks, which Alvir describes as “really just simple little songs that I think are catchy,” offer up surprising sophistication under cover of such breezy titles as “Busybee” and “Kampus & Katy.” In long-standing DIY tradition, the homemade quality of the disc merely adds to its charm.
As does the cover art of a bandaged duck, which was rendered by the Lil’ Napoleon himself. “As a kid, I used to draw all the time,” says Alvir, who earned a degree in fine arts from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2002. “I think it was my substitute for making music. Once I figured out how to make music, I didn’t need the drawing so much.”
But that hasn’t kept the office temp from contemplating a career as an art teacher. “I don’t think I could teach music—I don’t really know scales or anything like that,” he laughs, reaching up to play with his hair again. “My dream job would be to be an illustrator…but I don’t have much confidence in my drawing skills. Which is kind of odd, because I did go to art school.”
In fact, none of the band members have designs on the big time. “No way,” they answer, nearly in unison, when asked if they hope to become full-time musicians. “If I did it for a living, I’d get frustrated with it, because it wouldn’t be a hobby anymore,” points out Klossmer. “A lot of people I know in bands practice, like, three times a week for three or four hours a day, and they want to move to New York and get really big….Uh-uh.”
Klossmer and Anderson butter their bread with solid day jobs. He’s a programmer for Fannie Mae; she’s an examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. At the group’s urging, she launches into a description of one of her favorite patents, for a device that keeps dogs’ ears out of their water bowls. Clearly tickled, her bad mates begin to trade ideas for alternate ear-propping designs.
This blithe spirit inflects most Lil’ Hospital discussion topics, including one that can ruffle the feathers of even the mellowest musician: the local scene. Alvir is casually pragmatic about what many consider a cryin’ shame: “I think the more [the scene] sucks, the more it makes me feel better….’Cause then you can be more like, Whatever, we’re just doing our own thing up there.”
“There are only a few [local] bands out there who are really good, who I make a point of seeing when they play,” says Klossmer. “And I’m completely fine with that. I don’t want to see a band every other night.”
Names of local bands the group enjoys are tossed out: the Carlsonics, Metropolitan, the now-defunct Black Eyes. A debate about the relative merit of Dischord bands ensues. Alvir and Klossmer don’t really see the allure. “There are a lot of bands on Dischord that I like,” counters Tombras.
“Yeah, I’ve seen Fugazi, like, maybe twice,” says Alvir.
“I don’t think you can live in D.C. and not see Fugazi play,” says Anderson.
“They played in my closet,” deadpans Alvir. “I woke up, and there they were, jamming.”
A few weeks later, Alvir is back at the Galaxy Hut, settling in at a table with a glass of pinot grigio to talk about his family, the members of which have provided levels of musical influence varying from crucial to none. An older brother taught him how to play guitar when he was in high school, and it was that brother’s four-track that gave birth to I Wanna Be Well.
Alvir’s parents, who own and run a urology practice, are a different story. “They’re pretty supportive,” he says, “but I don’t think they really know what my music hobby is all about.”
In fact, they were unaware that their youngest son spent nine months recording an album in their basement. “When I showed the CD to my dad, he was pretty impressed,” Alvir says. “He goes, ‘Where did you make this?’ ‘Uh, in the basement, Dad.’ They didn’t have a clue what I was doing down there.” —Anne Marson
The Lil’ Hospital performs at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 17, at the Galaxy Hut, 2711 Wilson Blvd, Arlington. For more information,
call (703) 525-8646.