he best break-up record of 2003 contained no sung lyrics, few guitars and only two songs (broken up into eight tracks). Whips, the Wind-Up Bird’s second album, used the concept of Joseph Grimm’s break-up to explore a sound-world much “pricklier” than the relative tameness of their self-titled debut. Drawing from a sound palette similar to Stars of the Lid and Windy and Carl, the group personalized the aloof ambience of those groups and focused it into a powerful and stark elegy to a lost relationship.
I had the good fortune to catch up with Joe, one of the two members of the group, before extended West Coast tour dates (see below for specifics) for an interview done via e-mail that ranged in topic from Dionysian release to nightingales. Enjoy.
How long have you been involved in making music?
Well, my dad owns a music store in rural Georgia, where I grew up. He sells a lot of queer old folk instruments like dulcimers, psalteries, fiddles, banjos, and mandolins. I spent a lot of time in the store when I was a kid, and he would encourage me to pick various weird instruments up and learn to play them. So I guess I can't really remember ever not making music. I have a picture from when I was about 6 months old—I'm strapped into a backpack on my dad's back; he's playing the fiddle and I'm listening. I owe a lot of my music background to my folks—they're these fantastic ex-hippies that met in a commune and started a really large, bizarre family. We're all musical. My younger sister, in particular, is brilliant... She has an album that should be out soon.
How many instruments would you say you have a proficiency in, then?
Well, it depends on where you draw the line between proficiency and ineptitude! I don't generally think in terms of proficiency. I'm just the sort of guy that picks up any old instrument and squeezes music out of it. I'm pretty good with guitar, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, fiddle, bass, marimba, mandolin, pedal steel... But learning new instruments is easy. It's just a matter of figuring out how to get it to make a good noise. I've been working on clawhammer banjo this week.
What bands were you involved with, previous to the Wind-Up Bird?
In college I was that guy always playing in at least four bands. The only one that anyone ever really heard was 33.3, which was sort of classical- and jazz-tinged post-rock type thing. But I was in a loud rock band called Arcaro and a really really hushed band called The Lilywhite that made scores for silent films. I also was in an old-time/bluegrass band, the Harlan Hellfire Ramblers, that would play sometimes in the subway stations in New York. But maybe my favorite was Cabeza de Vaca, which was a faux-mambo dance band. We would throw these huge orgiastic dances and people would go utterly nuts and get into deep, deep trouble. Those shows felt really good.
What kind of trouble did Cabza de Vaca stir up? Do you miss that sort of reaction with the Wind-Up Bird where it’s, presumably, a more low-key type of show?
Oh, god. We would play for hours. People would be smashed and stoned beyond belief. Audience playing maracas and claves. Sex. Vomiting. Dancing on tables. Getting laid in between sets. Standing on really tall things to play. Breaking the really tall things and falling down. It got really Dionysian. Our bass player used to play his double bass behind his head. The congas would be covered with blood. I really do miss it. But The Wind-Up Bird is equally satisfying to me, in a less visceral sort of way. I really like being in a room where everyone is having an experience together and feeling connected through it. It's a powerful thing. You can reach that state in lots of ways—through crazy dance rhythms or through serene ambience. It almost doesn't even make a difference how you get there.
How do you recreate the Wind Up Bird experience live? When you are touring, do you try to make every show consciously different?
It varies. I'll bring assorted different instruments on tour, depending on what songs I intend to play. On the last tour I did a lot with running guitar and vocals through the laptop to create slowly-changing drones. Then I played trumpet and violin over them, sending them to the laptop to be scrambled as well. Sometimes I'll trigger beats and other prepared snippets from the computer. Hrishi, from The One AM Radio, has accompanied me on guitar for a lot of shows. If Jeff is on tour with me, he plays guitar, keys, and laptop.
As for the differences between performances, it depends on my goals for the show. I've toured in the past doing music that was very much composed, so that I would be essentially playing the same music each night. That's cool because you become really, really good at performing the material and can put a lot of emotional weight into the performance. But even in those shows I leave a lot of room for improvisation, for things to turn out differently from night to night. Sometimes I hardly plan anything though—the last show I played was 90% improvised. So I don't have a very consistent approach.
What do you want the audience to get out of your live show? Do you do anything to make it more of a performance than a musical rendering of your studio tracks?
Lots of people making electronic music completely suck live. It's true. It seems like they don't know what to do with themselves. So they think they have to make it into some sort of huge, distracting production with film projections and all that, which sort of misses the point of what's great about listening to music. I am making a lot of the music live, with real instruments, and there's usually a strong improvisational aspect. So I don't really feel like it's necessary to make the live show "legitimate" by adding lots of bells and whistles. I usually go completely the other way; I turn off all of the lights and perform in pitch-black, or as close to it as I can get. Ideally, you shouldn't be able to see anything at all. Blindness enhances hearing. I want each listener to be completely alone with the sound, enveloped by it. I want listening to be an out-of-body experience. I've even considered bringing blindfolds to shows, for the audience.
Is the Wind-Up Bird your sole focus now?
Yes. It feels weird to me to be in only one band. But right now The Wind-Up Bird is my main thing. I'm tangentially involved in some other things as well... Sometimes I play in The One AM Radio live band, and I played on the upcoming One AM album. I've been playing on some other albums friends are making, like stuff from The Dirty Projectors and L'Altra. I've helped out just a little with my sister's project, Lark Ness.
Tell me how you hooked up with Jeff Smith, your partner in the Wind-Up Bird.
We were both living in New Haven at the time, which has a pretty small music community. Our old bands had played together, so we had known each other for a while. His band, Jeromes Dream, was falling apart due to apathy from the other members, and he was looking for a new thing to do. We had been playing lots of really complex stuff in our older bands, and when he and I first started playing together, we reacted really strongly against that. We would go down to my basement and drone for hours on a few simple chords. It felt really good. I actually worry that The Wind-Up Bird is getting overly complex again, now.
With the electronic nature of the Wind Up Bird, it seems that you would almost have no use for acoustic instrumentation…Tell me a little bit about your musical set-up inside the studio.
Well, The Wind-Up Bird is not fully electronic. Almost all of the sounds begin with an acoustic instrument. I've tried to make music based on electronic sounds, using keyboards and such—but I've always felt quite bored with the results. It's the subtle sonic details of real instruments that I find most interesting to work with; the computer is used to expand them and focus them. When Jeff and I recorded Whips, we had a room with a computer and a whole menagerie of instruments. We just went wild in there.
How do you and Jeff construct tracks? Did you work at a studio or did you work at home?
We wrote and recorded the majority of Whips in two weeks in the basement of the place I was living in Brooklyn. But since I'm basically a wandering hobo, I haven't had a real home studio to work in for a little while. I bring my computer and some instruments with me wherever I go, and work on music anywhere I happen to be. I don't really see the point of paying to record in a real studio, since I'd probably do a better job myself.
How did the split EP with One AM Radio come about?
Hrishi has been a friend for a long time. We went to school together. He is a tremendous guy with a heart of gold, and his music is fantastic. We always collaborate on various projects, and tour together. So the split was a really natural thing for us to do. I love that EP. It's such a great feeling when you hear your own music remixed by someone else into a completely awesome new version. It's the most flattering thing I can think of.
You used beats to great effect in your EP with the One AM Radio...why has there been no return to them on any of your albums, for the most part?
I do use beats every once in a while. But one reason I often avoid drum beats is because I like to use several different parts that are in different tempos, and layer them. I like the feel of rhythmic ambiguity that results. Beats are tyrannical; they force you to hear the rhythm in a very specific way.
What are the main musical influences that contribute directly to the Wind-Up Bird sound?
It's hard to tell what the difference is between what I listen to and what influences me. I'd say that I'm always inspired by the things my friends are doing. Outside of that, I definitely stole a few tricks from Windy and Carl. Appalachian folk music is an influence. The score from Twin Peaks. Electroacoustic stuff, like Fennesz. Early Oval. Twentieth century composers like Steve Reich and Morton Feldman. Labradford and Stars of the Lid. A bit of free improv music.
How do you feel your self-titled debut release compares to Whips?
Whips is pricklier. The electronic elements have taken over, a bit. A lot of the debut album is somewhat distant -- beautiful sounds, but kind of untouchable and impervious. Even though it's a more electronic record, Whips has a lot more emotional weight for me. The first one was a bit abstract, but there is (I feel) a lot of real joy and pain being splattered about in Whips. To the point where i have a tough time listening to it, at times.
Your second record saw you gaining control over the studio, like you had truly learned what each instrument that you were using could do within the Wind-Up Bird sound. Where do you go from here?
Who knows? I do have some weird things in the works. I have plans to make a set of three short CD's, each a different length of time. The idea is to play them all at once on three different CD players, with each CD player set to repeat. So the music will continually remix itself, kind of like a Steve Reich phase piece. I'm also planning to go to grad school at Brown for computer music in the fall, so hopefully I'll learn some new things and put them to good use.
Where did you get your name from?/What about it made you feel that it was right for the music that you were creating?
It was inspired in part by the Murakami book, which is a fantastic book. There's also the fairytale of the Chinese nightingale. In the fairy tale, the Emperor of China is travelling through the woods and hears the nightingale's song, and thinks it's the most beautiful thing he has ever heard. He has his people capture the nightingale and bring it back to his palace and keep the bird in a cage, to sing for the emperor. Soon, he becomes dissatisfied with the bird because the nightingale, which has the most beautiful song, is a very drab gray-brown bird and its plumage is not as impressive as its music. So his Imperial engineers and artisans build a mechanical wind-up bird for him that's brilliantly colored and encrusted with jewels, that sings the nightingale's song when you wind its spring. The emperor ends up preferring the real bird to the artifact. The moral of the story is something about how you can't capture natural beauty with technology. I'm not sure I agree with that lesson—it's just a different kind of beauty you can capture. An unnatural beauty. But I like the story, and I think it's appropriate because The Wind-Up Bird's music exploits this tension between organic instrumentation and digital sound manipulation.
It seems that you have an intense literary interest, as well as a musical one. How does this inform your musical work, do you think (especially considering your music is largely instrumental)?/Name a few of your favorite works...
I love books, definitely! But I have no idea what impact that has on my music, so I won't bullshit you about that. But some of my favorite books are Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and Goethe's Faust pt. 1.
What meaning does the text in Whips’ sleevenotes have to you? Where is it from?
It's an excerpt stolen from Crime and Punishment. The main character is suffering from a malaise of the soul and he has this dream. It has a lot of personal symbolism for me that I don't know if I should go into. At the time when I was working on Whips, I was realizing that there is an inherent cruelty that even the sweetest, most genuine people have within them—including my loved ones and even myself. So the album to me is trying to channel this feeling that there is all this pain and cruelty in life, but that there is also magic and beauty in spite of that. Or maybe even that the nastiness amplifies the sense of wonder that I have, somehow. That passage really captures that feeling for me. I empathize with everyone in the story. The horse is a stand-in for myself. But I also relate to the peasants who take this mad, cruel pleasure in destroying the horse. And the little boy, who wants to save the horse from suffering but is powerless to stop it.
The very last thing that Nietzsche did before he went mad from syphilis was very similar. There was a horse being savagely beaten in the street because it was too exhausted to pull its cart any longer. Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse's neck and kissed it and wept. I love the idea of this person who has done his best to look at the cruelty of life without flinching, being hit with this overwhelming feeling of compassion and going mad.
What are your five favorite songs of the moment?
I don't listen to that many "songs" but right now I'm psyched about these:
The One AM Radio - Under Thunder and Gale
This is a song from the new One AM album that's going to come out soon. It's absolutely the best record he's ever done. It's a really fantastic, genuine, touching record and this is one of my favorite songs from it. The lyrics are incredible and there are these warped distorted drums, musical bowed saws, and amazing harmonies.
Xiu Xiu - Fabulous Muscles
What a creepy and sad song. "Honey boy, place my ashes in a vase beneath your workout bench."
Pink Floyd – Meddle
In the last ten minutes there's a really tense but expansive crescendo that opens into a beautifully languorous song. The harmonies change from minor to major halfway through, and it's the sweetest plum. There's a subtle effect on the vocals that I can't quite figure out, but it sounds amazing.
Mt. Eerie - I Love It So Much
This is from a recording that my sister made of a show that we played with Phil in Iowa. I love his music and this particular recording of this particular performance acquired a personal resonance for me that I don't really know how to explain.
Phyllis Dillon - Close To You
A reggae(-ish) version of the Carpenters song. This song and I have a long history together. A person who is really important to me recently made me a cassette with this song on it.
Whips (Music Fellowship/Translucence 2003)
The Wind-Up Bird (Alone/Translucence, 2002)
Night Falls (Split EP with The One AM Radio) (Alone, 2002)
2004 Spring Tour
April 21 - Berkeley, CA @ Fort Oregon w/ The One AM Radio, Carrier
April 22 - San Francisco @ Hotel Utah w/ Jefre Cantu
April 26 - Fresno, CA w/ The One AM Radio
April 27 - Bakersfield CA w/ The One AM Radio
April 28 - San Diego CA @ The Che Cafe (tentative)
April 29 - Los Angeles CA @ The Fold in the Silverlake Lounge
w/Vagenius, Something for Rockets, Toy Band (late show) April 30 - Long Beach, CA @ Koo's
May 1 - San Francisco, CA w/ Raking Bombs, 30 Years War
May 2 - Santa Cruz, CA w/ The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower
May 3 - Santa Barbara, CA w/ The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower
May 4 - San Luis Obispo, CA