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Opening Act 

"Our Studio Is Littered With Toys"-- the One Ring Zero interview

Michael Hearst, one half of One Ring Zero, begins talking about coming to New Orleans to perform:

"It's my home away from home. About half of my family is from there. My brother lives there. My mother and grandpa live on St. Charles Avenue. I didn't grow up there but I spent a lot of time there because of so much family. I've probably been to New Orleans a hundred times or more, sometimes for months at a time, but we've never actually played there.

We still have a house on St. Charles not far from Carrollton that's sort of the family house that has been in the family since my grandparents bought it in the '50s."

Q: How long did the As Smart As We Are project take?

A: Much longer than it needed to be, about three years from start to finish, just because there was so much going on with One Ring Zero, not to mention it's not exactly the easiest task to get 17 authors to write you lyrics.

A major part of the delay was finding someone to release it. It seems like such an easy project to get picked up and distributed in my mind, but that wasn't exactly the case. It's such a weird crossover between the music world and book world that it was difficult to find a publisher or a record label. The big companies scratched their heads because there's no prototype to follow with it.

We bounced around from Atlantic Records to Harper Collins Audio to Bar/None Records, over to Nonesuch Records -- we were all over the place trying to find someone to release it. Finally, it landed on Soft Skull Press, and that's who has distributed it to the book world, and we've got independent distributors on the music side.

Q: Did a number of labels flirt with it before backing off?

A: Yeah. I could have sworn that this project would get picked up and that we'd instantly be huge, but that's how my brain works. At one point I went to Atlantic Records in Manhattan and had a meeting with a bunch of the people and by the time I left there, I had called up Joshua and said, "This is going to happen on Atlantic. This is going to be huge." Ultimately, what it boiled down to at Atlantic was once it got passed around among the board of whoever it is that makes decisions, they couldn't see how they could market it next to things like Jewel and Kid Rock. I was, like, "What's the problem? You can distribute this to every major bookstore and every major record store. You've got two markets here. You've got One Ring Zero's following, and you've got Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood and every one of these authors sells a 100,000 books. Multiply that times 17 and what's the problem?" (laughs)

I'm still a little baffled, but I can't complain. It's definitely done well. Ultimately, my one slight gripe is that I wish we could have got it as well distributed to the music world as we've gotten it to the book world, and the problem with that was we ultimately had to pick between a publisher and a record label. When it came down to these major markets like Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon.com, they each wanted to have exclusive rights and didn't want to compete. It was like, "You need to pick -- is it a book or a record?" It's neither. It's in-between. Why can't we have our own product and get it in both places? But the average big corporation's brain isn't that liberal.

Q: And the fact that it doesn't fit in a rack is enough to throw record labels.

A: I thought about that before we did the packaging. I don't know if you've seen those Bart Hopkins' experimental musical instrument book-CD combos, but there are a few different CD packaging projects like that which I love, but yeah, it is annoying. Everybody has that annoying CD that doesn't fit in their rack and curses at it. At the same time, there's part of me that thinks that's great because they have to keep it on top of their shelves and on their coffee table so it's always going to be in view. So there's a slight business angle in that sense.

There was another philosophy when we were first bringing up packaging ideas. It was very apparent that the mp3 world was quickly taking over, and the whole idea of the album was getting swallowed up by the computer world. It occurred to me that the only way you can make a buck off a product is if the product isn't looking like every other product out there. I wanted to give people more than a plastic thingy with a CD in it.

Q: Who was the first writer involved in the project?

A: That's a tricky answer. It's a weird combo between Rick Moody and Clay McLeod Chapman.

Clay McLeod Chapman is someone I knew before we even moved to New York. We're from Richmond, Va. originally, and Clay is from Richmond, too. He's much younger than we are -- I guess he's now about 25, but we met him when he was 20 or something. He'd already got a publishing deal with Hyperion Books and was the celebrity writer from Virginia. He also does this off-Broadway spoken word-performance-kamikaze thigamajigger called The Pumpkin Pie Show where he has live music while he does spoken word. He had seen us play and invited us to back him, and that's what lured us to New York.

Saying that, the project had nothing to do with that. It was really after we had the rest of these authors we thought, "Wow, we really should have Clay on here." Clay was one of the first people we worked with, but Rick Moody was the one who first wrote us lyrics, so to speak.

We were the house band for McSweeney's publishing, and Rick Moody was giving a performance, reading at one of the events, and we were playing music in between each reader as we did every week. I think Rick was the first to listen to us and say, "Do you guys want to improvise while I read?" We said sure as he was reading the first chapter of Purple America, one of his novels. It went so well he asked if we'd be willing to record the improvising behind him while he read and do a whole CD-worth of material with him that way. That's when Joshua and I decided we were more interested in doing songs with lyrics versus being Rick's accompanying band. I think he envisioned this Captain Beefheart thing where he would have us making crazy noises that fit while he read. It's fun and I love doing that stuff, but Joshua and I were like, "Let's get him to write us some lyrics."

Q: With music behind readers, improvising always sounds like a good idea, but at some point, it usually ends up sounding like random noises or light jazz. Musically, it's more interesting to nail something down.

A: I agree. When it comes down to it, would I want to own that CD? It sounds like something that's great to have, but I'd only want to listen to it once. I'm not sure how many people would sit there and listen to a spoken word thing with noises behind it over and over again. Even my Frank Zappa stuff, I skip through all the songs that are him just goofing around and get to the actual music.

Q: It seems trivializing to the musicians that provide the backing music.

A: Yeah, it's like you're almost a Foley artist more than a band. But it can be done right. I give credit to the whole William Shatner thing that's been rockin' right now. Everybody's buying the new William Shatner record that has him doing spoken word with all these bands improvising -- well, actually they're playing songs, which I think makes the difference.

Q: Since the writers aren't songwriters, did they give you pieces that were tough to work with?

A: By all means. And I wouldn't say not all the writers are songwriters. Rick does have a band he plays in, and they're quite good. Rick plays in a band called the Wingdale Community Singers. They're country with three-part harmony and acoustic guitars. I wasn't aware of this, the second time I saw Rick perform he had Syd Straw with him, and he and Syd after the reading did some songs on acoustic guitars. That's how we met Syd Straw, and she does some of the backing tracks on the record. He's definitely in with the music scene a lot more than people think.

Going back to your question, he wrote lyrics that were very easy to work with. A lot of the writers, you could clearly see listen to a lot of music or had some musical sense. Myla Goldberg actually has a degree in music from Oberlin or somewhere like that, I'm not sure. Then you've got guys like Jonathan Ames who confessed to me that he only owned one record and it was a Cat Stevens record. It was a real battle with him. He gave us a three-page story. We thought this would be a challenge to take a three-page story and make it into a song, but I didn't think it was going to work. I don't think I'd ever want to listen to it. You'd end up getting Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Center of the Earth or something. We went back and forth until he narrowed it down to a page, then half a page, and ultimately, the half a page is what we got. There's nothing that rhymes in there. It's the story of all these childhood ailments he had and this ridiculous sound called Œthe Hairy Call' which relieves him of these problems. I wouldn't say it was difficult to write music to it, but it was unusual.

Q: Did you find you ended up with the sort of music you'd expect to go with that writer? I think about the Neil Gaiman, and knowing him from (DC Comics') Sandman, that song sounds like what I'd expect a Neil Gaiman song to sound like. Do you think that's because you're associating it with him?

A: That's an interesting point. I don't know. Certainly with the Paul Auster song, I'd read lots of Paul's work and I guess it was hard to avoid whistling melodies in my head to the lyrics while I was in the process of writing the song that somehow reflected the vibe I got from reading his work. As far as the lyrics, there's no way to avoid the fact that they're Paul's lyrics.

It's hard to say. With some of the authors, there was definitely a certain quality of music that I felt it went with them, whether it was the song they gave us or just them as a person and their writing style.

Q: On the other hand, that's a degree of levity I never expected from Margaret Atwood.

A: I guess the one thing that does make sense in the Margaret Atwood [song] is the feminist point of view. She's a lot more fun than I had ever imagined. She's not one of the younger writers, and is the biggest name on the project in many senses. After having worked with her on the song mostly through email and sending things back and forth through snail mail, I really had no idea (about what she's like) until just about four months ago when we played in Toronto and managed to get Margaret to get onstage with us. She actually played theremin on her song and it was a blast. She was so much fun to hang out with.

Q: Since you perform the songs, I guess you have to have some idea in your head what the songs mean.

A: Yeah, and I can honestly say there are a few that I'm not sure I know what they mean. I can take a guess, like Neil Gaiman's. I'm not positive what's going on there. I do have a vague idea but I've never even bothered to email him and ask him, and I'd rather not know in some sense. My interpretation is not going to be the same as someone else's. On the other hand, there are some songs that don't take much imagination to figure out what's going on.

There's actually a documentary being made on this project that interviews the authors and us, and there's some funny moments where I'm in the interview saying, "I'm positive Amy Fusselman's song, she wrote it for her kid.' She just had a kid, and this song about house plants is for her kid." It goes to her and she says, "Hmmm, no. That's not what it's about."

Q: Are some of the songs hard to sing?

A: I wouldn't say that any of them are particularly hard to sing, but some of them are hard to play. We definitely tend to get a little overzealous on chord structures sometimes. Both us of spent a little too much time in music school and can't deal with three or four-chord pop songs. We end up writing songs that have 15 chords in them. That's more of the trick.

A few of them aren't in the easiest range to sing, and we have guest singers on three or four tracks on the album. When we do them live, we end up doing them ourselves and it's a little tricky. Sometimes we just change keys.

Q: I noticed you let Syd Straw try to get the word "imperturbability" out in a song. I wondered if writers wrote words or lines that were a little tough to get out.

A: Memorizing some of the lyrics was hard. Jonathan Ames' song is a long, rambling thing that we had to memorize. Of course, I have it inside out now, but the first few times Joshua had lyrics in 32 point font on six pieces of paper taped together and had someone in the audience hold it up while we played it.

Q: Do the instruments you find dictate compositions?

A: I wouldn't say they dictate compositions. If anything, it's the other way around. We tend to work in every way that every major producer would frown upon in the studio. We've thrown all basic, standard theories out the window. What we do is get in the studio and work as quickly as possible. A lot of times we'll make mistakes and use that as "that's how it goes" and add to it. "We'll get used to it" is our saying in the studio.

Our studio is littered with toys, so we'll throw a track down then very quickly look for another instrument that would sound bizarre or cool doubled with that or a third higher, or something. "Grab the toy piano" or "Grab the glockenspiel." We keep layering things on top of each other and trial-and-erroring until we have this collage of sounds, which is how we've always worked.

Q: Are you still accumulating instruments?

A: Always. It's out of control, particularly living in New York and not having much space.

I would say half of our sound are the oddball instruments we use, but the other half is methods we've found of recording them. Doing things like taking a toy piano and running it through a wah-wah pedal, and a vibrato going through distortion, changing the pitch, then playing it back at the right speed. We're always tinkering with things to try to get different sounds.

Q: When you get a new instrument, are you trying to figure out how to get it in songs?

A: To a degree. It's weird. There's so many millions of instruments out there, but so many of them sound familiar or are not that unusual-sounding. When you get down to it, you can have a thousand percussion instruments, but really, when they're all recorded, they sound like percussion sounds. Unless we find something that specifically has a very bizarre sound, it's not like we're itching to get every instrument thrown into a song just to have it used.

But we do try to find places. I hate to sound so lazy and dumb, but in a sense, it's like what's in arm's length, we use. Recently our studio was shut down because it was flooded and we were in my teeny closet that I use as a mastering suite in my apartment doing a soundtrack for a film, and we had three instruments. We had an acoustic guitar, we had an erhu, which is a Chinese bowed thing that's more of a decoration hanging on the wall, and a claviola. We found a way to score the entire film with just those three instruments, using the acoustic guitar body as a hand drum and the erhu mic'ed in all these different ways.

If I get my hands on a daxophone, I would certainly write something specifically for it because it's the coolest instrument ever, but they're not easy to find.

Q: What's it like?

A: It was invented by a guy named Hans Reichel, and it sounds like Ewoks from Star Wars. It's bizarre. It's pieces of wood bowed with a cello bow, and it's really amazing. It's like no other instrument you've ever heard, and that's way more interesting an instrument than some guy who has figured out a way to stretch a skin across some bizarre piece of plastic and made a new hand drum.

Q: I gather that Tom Waits is a big influence on you.

A: You know, I didn't listen to Tom Waits that much until we started getting compared to him a lot. I love Tom Waits. Now I would say he's an influence and I listen to his stuff non-stop, but it wasn't until our second or third album that I bought my first Tom Waits record. I think Joshua had been listening to him more. The funny thing about that is, even though I didn't know his stuff, that was a big reason in a weird way that the band started.

Joshua and I were both working at the Hohner warehouse in Virginia. He was doing accordions and I was doing harmonicas, and when the claviola first came out, we told this friend of ours about it, this guy named Mark Linkous who's the front man for Sparklehorse, and he told his friend Tom Waits. Tom Waits called the warehouse one day and Josh talked to him. He said, "I want to hear this claviola; what's it sound like? Send me something," so Joshua and I went into my studio to record a couple of songs to send to Tom Waits, and those were the first two songs recorded for One Ring Zero.

We get compared to Tom Waits and Danny Elfman sometimes, but I think the bigger influence for all of us is Kurt Weill and Nino Rota -- early stuff that inspired all this music.

[CD REVIEW]

Drive-By Truckers -- Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance (New West): The Drive-By Truckers' current musical home has reissued the band's first two studio albums, and the first thing you have to do is overlook the cartoonish cover art. Jim Stacy's cover art, the album titles, and song titles like "The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town," "Panties in Your Purse" and "Buttholeville" make the records look like rude, redneck jokes, which they aren't. Gangstabilly, for example, provides two of the emotional staples of the band's live set, the celebratory "18 Wheels in Love" -- written as a wedding present by Patterson Hood for his mother -- and "The Living Bubba," is a dramatic monologue by Hood written for a musician friend dying of AIDS. Its chorus -- "I can't die now / cuz I've got another show to do" -- is moving without being mawkish.

The band's sound hadn't fully evolved yet. With pedal steel instead of Jason Isbell's guitar, there's more country twang, and Hood's husky voice is occasionally a little hard to listen to only because it sounds painful to strain like that. Still, Hood and band mate Mike Cooley had already begun to reconsider contemporary Southern culture by rummaging through its habits and icons with an interesting balance of scorn and affection.

Richard Pryor -- Evolution/Revolution (Rhino): This two-disc set looks at Pryor's early years from 1964-1974, with 1971's Craps making up much of the second disc. Not surprisingly, some of the material has dated. Hearing him talk about going to a Playboy Club now seems like part of another lifetime, but hearing him explain who Hugh Hefner is and what Playboy is almost marks this as from another planet.

What's more surprising is how little has dated, though. The first disc, featuring material from 1966 to 1968, features a riff on black power that, no matter how archaic the phrase may seem today, remains spot-on. Throughout, it's clear the vocabulary of class, gender and race issues may have changed, but the central tensions haven't, so the comedy still works. It's hardly uniformly funny -- what comedy album is? -- particularly on disc one, which even features some awkward, very conceptual improvisations, but disc two is a valuable addition to the Pryor canon.

The Slits -- Cut (Koch): In ways, the Slits' 1976 debut album Cut is the most genuinely "punk" album of its moment, even if the songs don't sound the way people think punk sounds. It's not all angry, snarling downstrokes; instead, it's the organic, personal expression of four untrained musicians making the music that made sense to them. It doesn't always conform to conventional verse/chorus structures because, as singer Ari Up says in the liner notes, those patterns eluded them, much the same way the standard blues I-IV-V structure perplexed them.

Instead, the songs are based in reggae and its trippy cousin, dub. Drummer Palmolive had a light touch but a decent groove, something dub producer Dennis Bovell clearly organized the recorded sound around. Viv Albertine's guitar scratches along like funk rhythm guitars and Tessa Pollit's bass is almost low enough to be felt but not heard. That soundscape left a lot of space for Ari Up, whose voice not only articulated the songs' thoughts but, more importantly, exhibited the pure fun of making yourself heard. The most conventional pleasure on the album is a cover of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." The track, with Siouxsie & the Banshees' drummer Budgie sitting in for Palmolive, was initially released as the b-side of a single and wasn't included on the band's Island Records' debut (or the first CD version). Albertine's scrape next to Pollit's looping bass creates a deeply funky, ecstatic groove that would have been a dance club hit had it come out a couple of years later. Every idea New York's Bush Tetras would eventually have can be heard here first. &127;

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