“Let’s meet up at Big Tree Park!”

Stephen Lighthouse, a lanky, ardent bassist just old enough to drink in the bars he plays at a few times a week, stirs me from my midday doldrums with a breathless phone call. I’d mentioned that I wanted to meet with him and his band, Mirror Pal, at some point. Their downtempo indie rock impressed me with its patient ambience, their paranoid fretboards begging to hitch a ride on the gelled light beam from a stadium stage rather than bouncing back at them from a dozen ass-soaked barstools. The Jeff Buckley countertenor of singer Drew Yardis, also only 21 and a proud father, somehow makes come-on lines like, “The universe begins and ends in this room/Slow your spinning eyes and place your head back in the sky,” seem as though they’re delivered by a trusted guru rather than a steely assailant, and there’s a dangerous thrill in knowing that the song could take him in either direction.

In their short existence, the quintet hailing from various suburbs of Seminole County has found itself in the fortunate position of being lauded and misunderstood all at once. For starters, they’re not from DeLand, as some early web reports (and this writer) first assumed thanks to their buzz-heavy shows at Caffe da Vinci, their performance at the DeLand Original Music Festival and some recording they did at Stetson University. For another, they’re not nearly as dark as they sound.

This is more like it. Big Tree Park off Thornton, the smallest park I’ve ever seen: just a lonely bench underneath a lumbering cypress tree. The sunlight has trouble penetrating the thicket and that’s how I want it today. Mirror Pal is late.

“I guess there are two Big Tree Parks in the area,” Lighthouse phones in. They’re waiting for me in Longwood, 45 minutes away at this time of day.

I finally arrive and this Big Tree is warm, inviting. Sunny. It’s nothing like their music, or my mood, since I’ve been listening to their atmospheric tunes for a couple of days straight. A doughy father swings his little princess in the backdrop as Lighthouse, Yardis, guitarist Kevin Cash, 21, and drummer Ranson Vorpahl and keyboardist Aaron Randall, both 20, stretch out on wooden tables. They look like my sophomore-year summer, and that depresses the hell out of me.

Cash, Lighthouse and Vorpahl are clean-cut and wear the perpetual half-grins of full-time surfers who only glimpse ambition when it serves to stick it to imagined authoritarians. (Vorpahl’s permamused expression, in particular, is Apatovian in scope and just as disarming.) Yardis, however, is more reserved, and despite enduring his first press sitting, employs a practiced, hiccupped pause before speaking – a veteran’s control move.

“I think one of the major things we hope to accomplish in the band is positivity, through the beats and the lyrics,” says Yardis. “Kids `say they’re` not listening to the lyrics, just listening to the beat. Well, you are, and you really have to question how you’re living your life. There’s a whole spectrum of life that our generation’s totally missing out on.”

“Because the light isn’t being shone on it,” adds Lighthouse.

“Everybody is so beautiful in their own way and it’s being shut down by lyrics that are senseless.”

“We have this amazing technology – the Internet, MySpace, TV – messages can be put out there and the whole world can hear it,” says Cash. “And what are they putting out there?”

“‘Drink as much as you can,’” concludes Yardis.

I ask Yardis if he considers himself a Luddite and he denies it. “He still has a MySpace,” Lighthouse laughs.

What have I walked into, and how did I get their music so wrong? Here I am, wallowing in sonic despair – something I enjoy very much, by the way – through Mirror Pal’s rabbit-hole tracks: the foreboding trip-hop of the aforementioned “When These Walls Are Down,” the sarcastically midtempo “Shoes and Socks” (“This sidewalk ends on this first floor/Just write it off like you don’t care/’cause you don’t”), which devolves into a minor-chord nightmare of clutter and primal cries, or the Kid A anxiety of “Hands Behind Your Back” (“I give out/I give in/What you took from them isn’t that which you intend”). Yet Mirror Pal unanimously contends that their music is about peace and happiness. A glance at their online blog confirms their nirvana. A sample entry from February 10, in full: “we love life.”

“We’re getting spread thin,” relates Cash. “I personally feel every day I’m pulled all these ways to rush, rush, rush. Have this job to make this money and do this. Go to school. It’s not really a reason, it’s just ’cause we’re being told `to do it`. I want to make music that `tells people` you are in charge of your life. It’s up to you to feel how you want to feel and do what you want to do.”

Perhaps it’s not unusual that college-age musicians profess a different philosophy than their music suggests. Emotional turmoil doesn’t manifest itself in what we say. It’s found within the creases of an existence, between the strums of blinding visibility and dire reverie. Mirror Pal’s true musical selves are still under that cypress tree at the other Big Tree Park, just out of sunlight’s reach.

“I think the ideology should only be explained in interviews, not onstage,” says Yardis. “Onstage you’re an entertainer and you should be entertaining. But what you’re saying is important because it’s out there. It’s pleasing to the ear and that’s what you surround yourself with. I hate to sound like a parent, but I am, and I can’t stand to hear the stuff being put out there that might influence you.”

Cash agrees. “What’s that song out there now? ‘I wanna fuck in this club’? I’ve heard that song on the radio like 10 times a day. Why do people want to hear about fucking in a club?”

Damn, I love that song.

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