Snõõper’s convergence of puppets and punk

The Nashville-based art-punk group merges whimsical visual art and sounds.

Photos by Connor Weaver and Katherine Oung. Art by Katherine Oung.

Back in the long, long COVID quarantine when no one left their home, it seemed like everyone was making something. Blair Tramel, the frontwoman of Snõõper, was busy building puppets. Blowing up balloons, molding wet, gloopy paper over them, and shaping new creations out of the wreckage: cartoonish faces, three-foot hands, and larger-than-life mushrooms adorned with red spray-painted dots. Then there’s the bug. Enter Tramel’s house, where she lives with guitarist-slash-partner Connor Cummins, and you’re sure to run into the oversized green insect that lurks in her studio like an alien from another planet. In fact, Tramel’s paper mache creations are scattered all around her colorful West Nashville home: a huge stoplight, a comically large dumbbell, the oversized head of a car salesman.

During shows, the bug called Super Snõõper (affectionately known as the “mosh-quito”) takes on a new life. Strapped onto the back of an elated fan, groupie, or friend, its ginormous eyes and gangly nose loom over the crowd. Since the lockdown, Snõõper has emerged as a joyful frontrunner in Nashville’s alternative scene. In a town known for pedal steels, they dress up in Devo-esque tracksuits and fill the room with jittery and abrasive noise, all while Tramel sprints around with microphone in hand.

The mosh-quito making an appearance. Photo by Ben Arthur.

Thirteen years ago, Tramel left California to go to Vanderbilt, a Southern school dominated by Greek Life. She joined a small cohort of studio art majors and recalled “not having many friends.” But when she started going to house shows, Nashville’s musical underbelly opened up to her. There, she met Cummins, as well as future Snõõper members Conner Sullivan and Cam Sarrett. 

“All my good friends come out of artistic ventures,” Tramel said. “The only way that I know how to make friends is by putting something out there that people are like, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’”

Bassist Happy Haugen frequented both Nashville’s underground scene and the downtown public library where Tramel worked shortly after college. Tramel met then-15-year-old Haugen on one of her shifts. It’s a moment she swears she’ll remember forever, because just two days later, Cummins mentioned he’d booked a first show for “this kid who keeps hitting me up online” — who turned out to be Haugen.

Cummins and Tramel in their living room. Photo by Katherine Oung.

Flash forward five years to the height of the pandemic. Bored and stuck in their house, Tramel and Cummins started an experimental noise project where Tramel would hook up the outputs of plug-and-play synths to sandwiches and burgers while Cummins provided background instrumentals. “I could only go so far with the bit,” Tramel said, so the pair dreamt up a new endeavor: Snõõper. Their first demos are lo-fi and minimal: drum machines, crunchy vocals, and punchy guitars reminiscent of the Dunedin scene that birthed the Kilgour Brothers, the Clean, and the Verlaines. These were paired with animated music videos Tramel made; the puppets, which were already lying around, became the leading men (and mosquitos). 

“I never even wanted to play live,” Tramel said. “I was like, ‘let’s make a music video… and then you’ll [Connor] make some music for it.’ It never was the intention to make music for an album.”

Puppets off duty. Photo by Katherine Oung.

The two were also making Internet friends halfway around the world, with Australians who were trying to channel similar sounds. Messages turned into video calls which turned into a collaboration between Snõõper and Sydney-based Computer Human Records, who put out their first two EPs. 

But when Nashville’s post-lockdown scene crystallized, Tramel and Cummins couldn’t help but wonder what it might feel like to perform live. The duo started recruiting friends new and old. The thought of performing in front of people mostly brought Tramel, who’d never sung professionally, intense anxiety. Her bandmates went so far as to book Snõõper’s first show without telling her. The set was “a trainwreck,” Tramel recalled, but a delightful one, crackling with potential energy. Tramel brought the paper mache dumbbell out as a prop, and the band spent their set climbing up and down a pyramid of milk crates with TVs inside. When Super Snõõper — their first album’s namesake — made its debut almost a year later, it became an instant and enduring icon.

“When we brought out the bug, it was on sight. People went crazy,” Tramel said. “It kind of took on a life of its own. People will be like, ‘Is the mosh-quito coming out? Is the mosh-quito coming out?’”

The mosh-quito lurking. Photo by Ben Arthur.

Less than a month later, Snõõper played at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in Los Angeles, a venue typically reserved for magicians and singer-songwriters. “We were the first punk band that played there,” Tramel said. “The puppeteers were doing their own beautiful job and we just wanted them so badly to like us.” In fact, everyone was freaking out — one guitarist threw up before the show, and seconds after Snõõper played their first note, the sound tech plugged her ears as if a bomb had exploded. 

Look closely at a video of the show, and you’ll see Jamin Orrall, a fellow Nashville punk, infusing life into a ladybug. At the age of 12, he began creating music with his brother Jake as JEFF the Brotherhood, which led them to appear on Letterman and be immortalized on GTA radio. Since college, he’s also been making puppets. Eventually, Orrall started coupling puppets with his music, a captivating pairing that’s taken him across the world: the sticks of Tennessee for a Bonnaroo exhibition, a small town in Vermont for the famed Bread and Puppet Theater, and an even smaller town in Northern France for an esteemed fellowship.

Tramel and Orrall would meet years later at a show in Nashville. Most people hadn’t bothered to ask Orrall about his puppets, but not Tramel. They could both chat for hours about their process, their inspirations, and the political potential of puppetry — from Bread and Puppet’s 1996 show celebrating Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata to Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s surrealist take on the fallout of Hurricane Katrina. Orrall never saw himself as a mentor, just a fellow enthusiast, but Tramel credits him as one. Orrall inspired her to retrofit her props into full-fledged puppets, using contraptions made with PVC pipes and old hiking backpacks.

“It just opens up a whole new world of performance,” Orrall said of integrating puppets into live shows. “I always feel a new sense of magic when I’m watching anything like that, and they [Snõõper] definitely made me feel that way.”

Blair Tramel and work-in-progress prop. Photo by Katherine Oung.

With a bit of cash, courtesy of Jack White’s Third Man Records, Snõõper released a full-band LP in 2023: a flurrying array of wax that makes every thirty seconds count. Black Flag’s Henry Rollins said of the record, “Snõõper is a band who, in a 33 1/3 rpm world, make 45 rpm music they play at 78 and it completely works.”

Snõõper’s nervy, volatile energy emanates from Tramel. Artistically, her biggest fear is getting “locked in” to anything, whether a genre or a bit. Her studio is a mess of perennially in-progress projects: the cardboard frame of a car meant to be wrapped around a drum set, a prop vending machine that Tramel imagines Haugen could dispense merch from by dropping it down a chute. The band envisions their music getting faster and heavier, with more experimental samples and more electronic drums. Lyrically, Snõõper’s ready to close their chapter on themes of infection and at-home fitness, subject matter born from the pandemic. Newer singles like “Waste,” “Company Car,” and “On Line” examine ideas of excess and consumerism. Above all, they believe that a live set should be more than just a group of musicians standing on a stage. Instead, it should be an invitation to a new world, one that’s always evolving.

Happy Haugen playing bass. Photo by Ben Arthur.

In mid-April, Snõõper and the Orrall brothers reconvened for a hometown gig. The crowd held every type of Nashvillian: old heads congregating near the bar, college students moshing in the front, friends applauding from the side. For the second time ever, the brothers played warbly drones as part of Vorhex Angel. 

Snõõper tried something new, too. Halfway through their set, the three guitarists sprinted off stage. The two remaining members began a musical interlude, with Tramel triggering phased effects from her sample pad while Sarrett laid a backbeat. After a few minutes of improvisation, the full band returned, their distinctive tracksuits gone. Instead, they wore matching fluorescent polos, the type usually donned by crossing guards. 

“That was the first costume change we’ve ever done,” Tramel revealed, launching into the song “Subdivision.” Just as the first few notes rang out, a giant yellow bedbug peeked out from the side-stage. The mosh-quito emerged from behind the bar and lumbered into the crowd, carried by none other than Haugen’s little brother. No matter what new directions the band takes, a few of Tramel’s weird and whimsical creations are bound to show up along the way.

Thoughts? Let us know