Bird Names, Chandeliers, Golden Birthday
WHEN Mon 9/3, 9 PM
WHERE Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
When I get to Smith Park to meet the Bird Names, it’s after dark and only three of them are there–Colin Hartz and David Lineal are sitting on a bench under a streetlight and Albert Schatz is riding a bike in circles on a small piece of pavement. (There’s no point trying to identify these guys by their roles in the band–they all play everything and they all sing.) Considering that it’d be easy to pigeonhole their woolly, experimental psych-pop as freak folk–a young genre that’s already earned a reputation for obnoxious affectation–and that I’m much more used to meeting bands in bars, the Bird Names’ suggestion that we get together in a park looks like a bit of self-conscious quirkiness. But when I arrive they’re just chilling like dudes who normally hang out in parks instead of bars. I should know better than to second-guess them anyway–their new album, Wooden Lake Sexual Diner (Unsound Records), is too good to have come from a band that wastes energy fronting.
Though the Bird Names have released a stack of recordings, Wooden Lake is only their second album on a proper label. It’s not the kind of record with a ready-made audience: cheaply recorded and packed with unidentifiable sounds and junky rhythms, it’s too noisy and unhinged to register as pop, but at the same time it’s too reliant on familiar genres (psych, folk, vintage country) to impress anyone as truly avant-garde. Take “Nobody Loves Me,” for example. It starts with a simple stomping riff and a four-way vocal part built of repetitive cells moving at different speeds, simultaneously recalling Philip Glass, gamelan music, and doo-wop, then suddenly turns into a twinkly, fluffy-cute folk tune a preschooler could get into. Despite its abruptness, the transition doesn’t feel forced–in fact it’s one of those rare moments of nonchalant brilliance that can have a more profound effect on me than some whole songs.
The band’s still learning how to play the tracks from Wooden Lake live for a release party this Monday, since they weren’t so much written and rehearsed as collaged together on a four-track in Lineal’s bedroom. It is, Schatz admits, a “pretty ass-backwards” way of working. A tune tends to begin as a single rudimentary line and then accumulate layers. “There’s a couple of songs,” he says, “where the way they were written is I would come in with one guitar part with two chords. And then, ‘I’ve got an idea! Why don’t we throw on a distorted shaker?'” Because the recording setup is so simple and nobody’s too possessive of the tracks they’ve laid down, on-the-fly experimentation is the rule–anybody can add a vocal line, play a percussion part, or pick up whatever instrument seems like it might fit. And because Lineal only has one microphone, there’s none of the inertia and fussing around that can bog down a session in a pro studio. “It’s like, ‘I want to record me just hitting this hubcap, like, twice,'” says Schatz, “and they’ll have to bring out three stereo condenser mikes and placement takes half an hour. And then, like, ‘dink’–that’s the track.”
Nora Brank, who mostly plays drums, couldn’t make it to the park, but she calls halfway through the evening to make sure she’s not missing anything important. She’s sort of the odd one out, not because she’s a woman but because she’s new. Though the Bird Names have existed under that name only since 2004, Schatz, Hartz, and Lineal have been playing together since high school, in various combinations and with a busload of collaborators. (They’re all 25 now, and so is Brank.) The Bird Names’ lineup has always been “nebulous,” in their words–it once swelled to 12 for a show in LA, thanks to a crowd of friends and friends of friends–but most versions have included at least one woman. Lineal says, “In a more ideal world, we’d all be women.” Everyone cracks up at his pseudo profundity, and I ask him to explain. “I’d rather just let that stand,” he replies.
Nobody in the Bird Names claims to be a technical wizard, and if you pick apart the songs you can tell that the individual parts are consistently pretty basic. But the dense, complex compositions the band assembles from those parts don’t sound amateurish–they can either overwhelm you or hypnotize you pleasantly. The new album’s instrumental palette isn’t terribly broad–aside from the usual guitar, bass, and drums there’s just the occasional keyboard and a mess of odd percussion–but the microphone distortion, tape-saturation noise, and crazily layered arrangements can make it impossible to divine exactly what you’re hearing. Lineal admits that Wooden Lake is pretty exhausting to listen to. “Putting it on and listening from beginning to end takes some patience,” he says. “And it’s only half an hour of music–it seems like more than an hour.” I ask what kind of reaction they’re hoping for. After a few seconds of silent consideration, Schatz offers, “I’d like to go to a party where they’d toss on some of the tracks on there.” Everyone laughs. “It doesn’t seem like it’s very social music,” Lineal says. “I don’t know, I feel like it’d be a good soundtrack for doing cough syrup.” Hartz suggests a new name for the genre they play: cough-syrup pop.
“I think freak folk is sort of off the mark,” says Lineal. “I don’t know how folky . . . I mean, maybe we’re a folky kind of band.” They are folky at times, it’s true, but their material doesn’t have much in common with the pastoral psychedelia that’s come to define the freak-folk scene–it’s undomesticated, raucous, urgent, and alien, more like the 20s and 30s stuff on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. In their hearts if not in their sound, they consider themselves a punk band, with all the distaste for affectation and preconception such a stance entails. “I feel like that punk . . . punk rock is all about attitude,” Lineal says. He and the other guys excel at this kind of philosophical conversation. “The attitude steers the music. You’re filling out silence. You can use musicianship to fill that, but more importantly I think attitude . . . it takes a certain kind of attitude to make the aesthetic decisions that we make, I guess.”
The decisions that the Bird Names make result in difficult, often experimental music, but it’s also surprisingly engaging and fun–largely because the band’s so playful and earnest. “I feel that dramatics, dramatic and angry music, are easy emotions to invoke,” says Schatz. “Like, ‘This is an angry chord, this is a dramatic vocal line.’ And that doesn’t seem sincere to me.”
“I feel like the music itself exists independently of me, and at the same time it’s some mysterious core element inside,” says Lineal. Schatz holds up an actual apple core, right on cue.
These guys are pretty good at witty banter–their conversations are as confounding, entertaining, and enlightening as their music, and I feel like we could just hang out all night. But then a city truck rolls by, fogging the air with mosquito-killing chemicals, and the atmosphere starts to change. We segue into bad tour stories and anxiously check out the storm clouds moving in. Eventually we have to call it quits–it’s like last call for dudes who like to hang out in parks instead of bars.
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marty Perez.