Jukebox Jury: Bowerbirds

Ashley Melzer

By Ashley Melzer

on 03.09.12 in Jukebox Juries

In 2005, Bowerbirds – Phil Moore and Beth Tacular – wrote their first songs while squatting in an abandoned schoolhouse in South Carolina. Two years later, they released Hymns for a Dark Horse, their debut full length, and moved to rural North Carolina. Their new digs, a small silver Airstream without running water, gave them a place to hang their hat when not touring “like crazies,” or recording their follow-up, Upper Air. It also put them close to a new sort of project: building a cabin by hand.

These days, the two rent a 150-year-old farmhouse that sits just across the way from their construction venture. Erecting the cabin is slow work. In that way, it’s an apt mirror of their other job: building an audience for their striking indie folk tunes. Their songs are an artful assembly of elegant melodies, bowed strings, crisp guitar, and close boy/girl harmonies. The music resonates the pastoral ease and DIY resolve of their off-stage life.

With a new album, The Clearing, out on Dead Oceans, eMusic’s Ashley Melzer touched base with Moore and Tacular to talk influences, friendships, and the song that makes them cringe.

The Carter Family, “Keep on the Sunny Side”

Beth Tacular: I think my mom used to sing this to me or something.

I chose this because The Carter Family released some of the very first recorded Southern music. Given that you both live in the woods in North Carolina I wondered if you consider yourselves a Southern band? How much is it an influence?

Phil Moore: I really don’t know the Carter Family that well. I know their music sounds like this, and I’ve actually heard this song several times, but I don’t pay attention to them. I’m from Iowa so I’m not Southern at all and I don’t feel like we’re a very Southern band. Do you think we’re a Southern band?

Tacular: No. There’s probably something…I guess the constant harmonies throughout the song? I don’t know. You definitely moved down here because of the music scene here, but it wasn’t for the bluegrass music.

Moore: Or the old-time music. It was more Archers of Loaf and Merge Records.

Tacular: Polvo.

Moore: Much less Carter Family. This kind of music, I haven’t really even discovered very much. That whole style of old-time music I guess I would probably would never have found if I hadn’t moved down here fromIowa. I feel like it influences our music kind of very little, honestly.

Tacular: I think because we started out playing really acoustic instruments and were just trying to be really simple and simplify the instruments we use – we just had a bass drum and an accordion and violin and classical guitar – I think people looked at it and thought because of the sound and the timbre of these instruments, it reminded them of old-time or of folk music. I guess it was more folky then, but I think the structures of the songs and the kinds of music we listened to in our lives were all over the place and more diverse. Phil was in a band right before Bowerbirds that was doing more, how would you describe that music?

Moore: It was experimental. Everything had to be a little weirder than it probably even needed to be. It was louder with sonic weirdness always happening and never really settling into anything. The Carter Family probably wouldn’t have approved at all.

Tacular: But then when you started doing the songs for Bowerbirds it was in sort of the same vein of that, but then you just wanted to play like prettier songs on the acoustic guitar with vocal harmonies.

Moore: Basically I wanted to be like the Carter Family except I had no idea who the Carter Family was.

Bon Iver, “Holocene”

Moore: Oh yeah. Buddy boy, Justin. I love this song. There’s something about this, like every song on this album. But this song, all the instrument choices that he’s using – slide guitar and vibraphone and that really pretty Nashville guitar and his voice – everything is just really warm and creates this really warm space that’s kind of infectious, I think. People have to love this. It’s funny, I was talking to an acquaintance the other day and he was saying how he hates indie rock because it has all these clangs and bells and stuff like that. He was like, “I don’t like music unless it has a rude rippin’ electric guitar solo in there” or whatever. He’s like 35 and probably liked Van Halen or whatnot – which I like too, but I said, “Oh you should listen to Bon Iver, because it’s like totally placid the whole time, everything is like really tranquil, soothing.” I told him he’d love it. I don’t know if he took me seriously though, because he knew I looked like a total indie-rock nerd.

Tacular: He didn’t listen to anything you said.

Moore: He was like, “Oh alright, buddy, that’s cool.”

You can’t be trusted.

Moore: No.

Tacular: Justin actually watched our cat when we were writing the first [Bowerbirds] songs.

Moore: Oh! That’s right.

Tacular: He had just moved here, also. We were living in this abandoned schoolhouse that we were squatting in and Phil had a job bird watching. When we were living there, a feral cat attacked our cat and then it kept going out and getting sick. Anyway, we brought it back and asked Justin to watch him, so he did. He’s a nice friend.

Moore: And that was when he was sick for quite a while, he was bedridden for a little while and so Moosh – that’s the name of our cat, Moosh – and him like totally bro-ed down and hung out every day.

Tacular: Snuggled a lot.

Moore: Yeah, snuggled a lot, which is perfect because that’s all Moosh ever wanted to do too.

Tacular: It worked out perfectly.

So you’re saying “Holocene” is about Moosh?

Tacular: Yeah, it’s probably influenced by Moosh.

Moore: There are a lot of things I think were very influenced – Moosh influenced a lot of Bon Iver’s music, because that was before even the first record, or that was during his first writing of his first record.

Tacular: Right before. Yeah, that’s probably the perfect inspiration. He inspired us and then he inspired Justin. We should get a picture of him and make a family tree of everyone that Moosh inspired.

It’s cool to keep in touch with Justin. I feel like he and Phil were both breaking up with their bands at the same time – [Justin with] DeYarmond Edison and then Phil broke up with Ticonderoga because one of the members was being problematic at the time. They were both trying to figure out what they wanted to do musically. We had recorded our first EP and like a year later after we put that out, Justin went to the cabin. We became friends after he moved here. He and Phil were talking – he was actually going to join that band,Ticonderoga. They were going to restart. It was going to be Phil, Mark [Paulson] (who’s in our band) and Justin. The Bon Iver songs were going to be a part of it and they were all going to write together. Then he came back with an entire album and it was like, that’s what he should do. I think he realized that’s what he was going to do and it was beautiful and really cool. Then we got to open for him on tour, which was one of the most fun tours we’ve ever been on.

Moore: If you want to just play the rest of the Bon Iver record, that’s fine too.

Tacular: We got to hear it when we were at April Base actually. The vinyl came in the mail and Brian Joseph was secretly listening to it and then he played it for us and we got to sneak preview it. It wasn’t out until…

Moore: June 21st, my birthday.

Tacular: That’s right. So that was really neat. We actually stole it. We stole it from the computer and put it on ours and kept it really secret.

Moore: We didn’t tell Brian.

Tacular: We didn’t tell anybody because you’re really not supposed to do that. We didn’t want to leak it. We made sure not to leak it, but it got leaked another way.

Alice Coltrane, “Journey In Satchidananda”

Moore: I love this. We play this actually. When we’re sitting around and we’re like, “Man, what should we play? I don’t know. Lets set a vibe.” Then it’s like: Alice Coltrane.

Tacular: This is what we put on when we’re making dinner.

Moore: Or when we have people over.

Tacular: All the pictures of her, she looks so magnificent. She’s always sitting in a crazy chair and has all kinds of stuff �

Moore: Drapery, clothes…

Tacular: It’s really awesome.

Moore: Why did you pick this song?

I get the feeling this kind of music is an inspiration somehow.

Moore: I don’t know how [you did], but definitely. Our music is definitely way more square than this. There are verses and choruses and the musicians play what they play on the album. There are no jam moments at all in any of our stuff, but definitely John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Alice Coltrane and Charles Mingus and all those jazz moguls, we’ve been listening to for a long time.

Tacular: We watch a lot of jazz documentaries and our drummer studied jazz in college – our new drummer.

Moore: Though we’re always like, “Play it like rock!”

But I feel there’s often a vibe to your songs and there are a lot of interesting switches or time-signature changes.

Moore: Yeah, there are time-signature changes or skipped measures and those are totally not planned at all. In the writing process, those are improv-ed I guess. It’s like, “Oh no, it sounds way better if I just go straight to here, from here,” and that’ll be a measure of three, or usually more a measure of two in a sea of fours. That’s definitely done from a feeling, I think, versus from a technical standpoint.

Tacular: It’s probably also because we listen to other world music, like African music and Latin music, etc. I think part of it, for this song anyway, is that it’s not really that rhythmic, but has this soundscape of just beautiful bells and harp. That’s actually something that we thought about a lot on the new album is creating soundscapes. “What is the sound that this song should have?” There are slightly different sounds throughout the album on the different songs.

Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al”

Moore: I feel like I can say this, because Paul Simon is old enough to take criticism from the Bowerbirds: This is one of my favorite albums of all time, but this is my least favorite song on this album, by far. I love every other song on this album, but this song…

Tacular: He loves it. He obsessively talks about Paul Simon.

Moore: This song makes me cringe. I hate this song.

I don’t know if I’m really happy or really sad that I picked it. I think happy.

Moore: Seriously, every other song – it’s funny, because my dad and I and one of my dad’s good friends were driving together on this family trip to a ranch in California called Rancho Siempre Verde, the Always Green Ranch, right outside of San Francisco. We were driving home after a whole day spent on the coast. It’s one of my most vivid moments as a child: driving home as the sun was setting – it was civil twilight, you know. Driving through the foothills and listening to this album for the first time. And I just remember being totally mesmerized, except I hated this song. Even back then, I did not like this song.

Tacular: I hated it as a child too. That’s probably why we’re together.

Rihanna, “Rude Boy”

Moore: Oh is this Rihanna? Yeah, yeah. The beat is awesome on this and Rihanna is awesome. Is this a newer one?

It’s not so new. It’s been a couple years.

Tacular: I’ve heard it before. We were going to do a cover of “Umbrella” on tour back in the day.

Moore: “Umbrella” was like…

Tacular: The best song ever.

Moore: When we were on tour with Bon Iver, “Umbrella” was like the song that you would get out of your car…

Tacular: And you’d be singing it constantly.

Moore: There was no escape. I love this stuff. I mean, I’m actually working on another project right now that has more that kind of beat and that like measure of syncopated snare drum sounding thing.

Tacular: We really love drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep and hip-hop – love that music and love to go dancing. I used to be a raver a long time ago. I took Phil to a rave. I guess, my last one.

Do you really have to get secret directions to raves?

Tacular: Some of them, yeah. I lived in London for a little bit and that was right around 2000 and London was sort of the drum ‘n’ bass center of the world. It was awesome because there were all these “free parties.” You had to know about them by word of mouth. You would call the day of the party and find out where it was. There was this one that I went to on New Year’s Eve 2000. It was in the factory area ofLondon in an abandoned factory building. There were 13 floors and they had 13 sound systems, each with several DJs so the music went all night. It was different than the ones I’ve been to in theUS where they were in clubs. They didn’t really have any lights and you could go on each floor and there was different music. You could go on the roof and see downtown London.

Moore: They had generators, right? For each DJ booth? That gives you an idea of how loud the music was.

Tacular: You couldn’t hear the generators. It was just super loud. People had come in before and put graffiti on the walls of cops, so you thought there were cops there when you first arrived. It was neat because the scene in there was really diverse in terms of what people were dressing and looking like. There were hippie-type people and punks and kids and dogs and…I felt bad for the dogs because of how loud it was. I just really, really thought that was super fun.

Moore: I was into that sort of thing, but more like Aphex Twin or Tricky or Portishead or music like that back in the day.

Tacular: I think that stuff informs our thinking about rhythm.

Moore: We love to dance, basically, is what it comes down to.

Tacular: We like all kinds of music. Then we decided we’re doing Bowerbirds. Once you start touring…we toured for three years straight where we were just playing this quiet, pretty music that’s kind of melancholy or whatever. It’s fun to do that some of the time, but sometimes it’s just like you’re in a van all day and then you get out and you’re like, “Now I don’t want to play quiet music, I just want to dance or something,” your body’s like “Ahhh!”