In Our Talons: The Bowerbirds
Bowerbirds were born of the natural surroundings in the rural Carolinas and with song titles like "Bur Oak," "Hooves," "In Our Talons" and "Olive Hearts," the trio wears their organic sound on their (Bowerbirds were born of the natural surroundings in the rural Carolinas and with song titles like "Bur Oak," "Hooves," "In Our Talons" and "Olive Hearts," the trio wears their organic sound on their (album) sleeves. "A lot of the songs feel more like praise songs to me," frontman Phil Moore says. "Praising what is still wild in and around us."
Serving as a sort of field guide of contemporary folk, Bowerbirds' 2007 album "Hymns for a Dark Horse" is a collection of raw recordings complete with breaths, sticks clicking on drum edges and the sounds of fingers sliding over frets left in the mix. Utilizing a bass drum, tamborine and mallet as the only traditional percussive elements, multi-instrumentalists Mark Paulson and Beth Tacular build their structures instead around Moore's meandering vocals, breezy guitar lines and poetic verse like "There's a rusty prick in the tall grass/Where the barbed wire waits/ for a blind horse in a gallop and its sealed and sudden fate/There is hate in the grip of our human hands" (from "Human Hands"). The tunes are further accented with deftly restrained accordion, piano, violin, vocoder and upright bass.
Following the 'Birds January signing to the Austin, TX based label Dead Oceans, the release of an expanded version of "Hymns" is planned for release June 17 with an extra pair of songs. As the Bowerbirds got ready to set off on tour Feb. 23 with labelmates Phosphorescent and a quartet of South By Southwest performances, Moore took time out to discuss the band's history and future.
What does the name Bowerbirds means to you?
The bowerbird is an incredible bird that [partner and bandmate] Beth discovered in an old seventies children's encyclopedia while looking for ideas for her paintings. At the time, I was writing songs for myself that would later become the first Bowerbirds songs and Beth and I were squatting this school house in a hunting village in the swamps of South Carolina. It was a very magical laid back time where all things natural seemed to make a lot of sense.
I think that we fell in love with bowerbirds due to their ability to produce art by collecting and arranging. They are very fastidious and make elaborate bowers, which are less of just nests and more of foraged sculptures made by the males to attract females. Instead of having the grandest plumes or the fanciest strut, they rely on their ability to manipulate their environment to make something that has seemingly little "practical" value: art.
What were some of your fondest memories of making "Hymns?"
Living in the swamps South Carolina was a wonderful way to spend a summer, albeit hot as hell at times. Our little schoolhouse was twenty minutes from any road, and that road was thirty minutes from any town center. It's not like I can't sit in a small apartment in the center of the city and shut the world out and create a song, but the joy and the high that you get from writing a song in complete uninterrupted silence, [or] at least lack of human noise, is immeasurable. And the silence can last for days. About half of the songs from that time ended up on the album.
What are your plans for future releases? It looks like you're spending some time on the road here pretty soon.
We will be releasing Hymns and another album out on our favorite U.S. label, Dead Oceans, and we feel very fortunate for that. Going it alone has been too difficult for us and often times it feels like we are putting our foreheads on the butt end of a baseball bat and spinning in circles as a part of some fanciful relay race. After [touring], we'll get down to recording the next album.
The band mainly uses a bass drum and mallets as percussion. Was it intentional to keep things that bare?
It was intentional. Previous bands that I had been in didn't have limitations, and that was the point. And the songs that would come out of that scenario were great and lush for that reason, but it was also hard to choose in which direction an album might go or sometimes even a song. I was constantly irritated by having multiple guitars and multiple amps and having to plug things into other things. Keyboards were always a pain in the ass. The music can become the angry tangle of cords below your feet. It can also become the new sampler pedal you just got, and when that happens, it's easy to lose sight of why you are writing music.
What other art do you create besides music?
Beth is visual artist and creates paintings and 3D works and all sorts of things wonderfully. Her website is this: bethtacular.com.
Does your music thematically or lyrically contain any political or social commentary? What about work outside of the band?
We don't feel that the music is overtly political. A lot of the songs feel more like praise songs to me, praising what is still wild in and around us.
I do feel ripped off, sometimes, that I'm alive now instead of having been alive hundreds of years ago. There are a lot of great things about today, especially when it comes to awareness of environmental issues, race, gender, sexuality and things like that, but I could do without most of the ways humans have f*cked things up.
Definitely, I live in an idealistic bubble and create for myself a fantastical ancient history where all creatures survived in equality and in cooperation with the earth, but I think for the most part that this was true of our prehistoric ancestors, human and otherwise. It was true mainly because we didn't have the ability or the precedent to create a Super Target and stuff it full of useless crap. Think of a deer trying to set up a business partnership with their friend, selling antler ornaments. There is obviously no need for such a business, but most importantly the deer does not have the ability, or the precedent, or the want, to do this.
I'm not sure what switched in humans, but I am sure that currently we are destroying most of the ties the bind us to the natural world, and I feel desperate about this, and so I write songs about these themes sometimes. This is the most political the Bowerbirds get.