Breathe Owl Breathe Talk About Their Amazing New Single, Book

Posted: 30 November, 2011


We've been very taken with Michigan folk-pop outfit Breathe Owl Breathe for some time now. The trio, it's safe to say, are not your typical band: they make their music in a secluded cabin in the wilds of Michigan; they favour old, strange instruments they're 'not quite comfortable with'; live, their wonderfully spontaneous and inclusive performances have won them fans the world over.

Having put out a steady stream of excellent releases since forming in 2004, the fiercely creative trio are now embarking on something new: a children's book, written and illustrated by one third of the band, Micah Maddaugh, which comes accompanied by two great songs: The Listeners and These Train Tracks.

The book and the songs are things of rare beauty, and we're very happy to be releasing, with RAD, the songs on December 6 on iTunes, Google Music, Amazon and eMusic. The book, which you can check out photos and video of below, will be available in Australia via Readings, and directly from the band.

We recently caught up with Breathe Owl Breathe and spoke to them about how they came together, their unique creative process, and, of course, their beautiful new songs and book.

Gaga: How did you guys come into playing music, and into playing together?

Trevor: Micah came into the world with stories, toys, and songs all around him. His mom and dad used to make wooden folk toys and sell them at festivals. When he was young, his dad once made a banjo from scratch –– using the skin of a dead house cat (found on the side of the road) for the drum head. Andrea was classically trained on cello since the 5th grade. Actually, she started on flute, but after passing out while playing flute for the first time, she was guided toward the cello by her music teacher.

My dad was a drummer in an obscure mid 60s rock band from the Midwest called 'Earth Circus'. So I grew up with tapping, rhythms, and records all around. At an early age, my mom and dad would use pots and pans with wooden spoons on the kitchen floor (for a drum set) to keep me entertained.

Micah and I met in 2001, our freshman year of college. We were at separate schools (Micah in Grand Rapids, MI and I in Kalamazoo, MI). That first weekend away at school, I went to visit a high school friend of mine who happened to be paired up with Micah as a roommate. We started playing together before we even spoke. I remember coming into their room for the first time, and Micah was there smiling and bobbing his head up and down playing and singing a song he wrote on guitar. I picked up a drum and played along.

Soon after that we went to a party with a VHS camera and made a movie about zombies. I learned that Micah was a pretty unique character when he somehow convinced everyone at the party (which we were not even invited to) to act like zombies in our film. In the final scene, we ran through the living room, escaping from about 40 zombies out into the street. That's how we left the party.

So, we were friends before we started a band. At that time, Breathe Owl Breathe didn't exist yet. It wasn't until 2004 that Micah and Andrea met. In their first meeting, they recorded an album on cassette tape under a tree out at Micah's house in the sandy hills of East Jordan, MI. Then, in 2006, I slowly became a permanent fixture in the band.

I love the fact that, despite the fact it's often created in the wilds, BOB's music, especially on Magic Central, remains so generous and playful, in its own idiosyncratic way. It speaks to me of the fact that your making music out there is not a weary retreat from humanity, but rather a natural embrace of creative living-something many more people would do if the world wasn't so insane. Is it a conscious decision to create such gregarious, immediate music, or just a natural result of being in a place where you're able to do what you love?

Micah: It's a little bit of both. A lot of time will go by up here without songs, but the songs sneak up on you as well. The concepts of the songs might come when you're going for a run, or going for a hike, hearing coyotes late at night, or something else.  We have a pull down screen and projector. Sometimes when you just watch a late night movie, you stay up afterword to settle into a song, or get up first thing in the morning, and go for a run... the mind is more receptive at that time... to sort through, think of things, and look forward to when friends visit.

Since it's hard to contact us, a lot of being up here means having time to work on projects. One project idea turns into another –– but having a studio space that can swallow you up, and at the same time escape from, is really nice. The song writing part –– it's like creating characters, then letting a conversation with a friend, or something that you hear, inspire you. You're just turning something on its side out of your own experiences- something that you heard, an actual experience, or a dream. Living out's like being able to create your own mythology or folklore, or aspirations of fears.

A lot has to do with play. We'll get together just to play: setting up instruments or props or furniture in ways to not forget what you've been through, or capturing an inspired moment on VHS or the Miranz that you would otherwise forget a week from now. Lately, being on the road more than we've been used to, you digest everything.  Back home, I'd be chopping wood, and the feeling will dawn on me that, "I'm in ONE place, chopping wood". And it's profound, it feels good. Then you're able to think of things that surprise you that you were playing around with in your mind while on the road. It's like reeling from feelings.

How much time do you get to make music? Living out at the cabin, do you guys still have to work day jobs? If you weren't making music, what would you all be doing?

Micah: Printmaking.

Trevor: Teaching. I study the Earth Sciences –– geomorphology, primarily. Lately, I've been teaching geography courses to fulfil the objective, rational side of my personality. I like taking what I've learned from my musical life –– the performance aspect, or composition, representation of concepts musically, even the travelling component –– and apply them to how I think about the geosciences. And vice-versa. One informs the other.  One allows the other to rest and rejuvenate. I think that if I were restricted to doing just one of these things for a living, I wouldn't be fully satisfied, or fully inspired.       

Andrea: I think I would go back to school, study cello and foreign languages, take an Indian cooking class, travel and work in gardens. I'd also like to help protect whales.

Trevor: It's really nice that we're such good friends. We'll hang out just doing things together. Go to the grocery store.  Go play basketball. But, every time we get together, we try to make music –– or we end up making music in some way. 

Micah: What we've been doing lately is filling up a side of a cassette tape without having and prior ideas for songs, just improvising, trying to get caught up in the play. And then listen back days later to things that may be interesting to explore further. Then I'll go for a run and write, trying to keep a notebook close at hand.  Sketches can turn into writings and carvings, or prints can turn into songs. We're all doing that (welding and weaving our lives into songs) in some way or another. 

The new book looks amazing. I've heard you talk before about how Breathe Owl Breathe is as much an art project as it is a band. Do you find your various projects, music and otherwise, naturally cross-pollinate with each other?

Micah: Yes. One gives a rest to the other while they inspire each other. Characters are born in the print making world that later emerge in songs. In the music world, a landscape can show up in a song and find its way into print. Both are about working with layers. I think a lot of it is just not thinking about it, but letting things live in their respective worlds. They are discovered when we get together, and then they'll be put away, and then rediscovered. Something (musically or visually) that we thought was random, we'll later discover as an actual direction in a song, or album, or project.

How did the book project come about?

Micah: I started stapling paper together and cutting a really small pocket version. Originally, I think it was something that came to me while mowing the lawn.  Then I thought of one thing when I was just going down one row to the next.  The tracks of the mower became these train tracks in my mind, and thoughts went forward from there.  When that happens you try to write it down in the moment. I'm always keeping little books to write and draw in. 

Knowing how special it was to have a turntable when I was young and seeing some stories on vinyl are also probably some original inspirations for the book. I really love old ways of making things. So, the book is an attempt to bring those feelings into motion, to life, in a way.  Another dream we had was to create an art project that we felt could live on its own- differently from an album, where you tour and perform songs from the album. I have been fascinated by things that don't live forever. They have a short life but are an experience that really happened. It's similar to the idea with print making when there's an edition made. We thought, 'Let's make something that just exists, and then leave it.' Then think about whatever is next, but having learned and having been through a whole adventure.

All of the BOB releases I've seen, and this book project is another striking example, are beautifully presented and meticulously put together, from the recording of the actual songs to the album art and inserts. Do you feel that, with music becoming increasingly transient and even devalued in the digital age, it's becoming more important to create lasting, beautiful, tangible things?

Micah: Yes, like cassette tapes –– a great way of doing a short run of an album. Sometimes, I record radio interviews directly onto cassette tape. And they live on as we drive down the road. I could download a podcast, but then you can't touch it, or associate an object, or container, with its life. It's really convenient to have the digital product, but more and more an actual object (apart from CDs, Vinyl or cassettes) can be paired with an mp3. You can lose the music medium altogether and attach a download card to an art piece. I mean, with a CD, if you look at the bottom of it, you do get a video of yourself in real time. You can't do that with cassette tapes.

I've not been lucky enough to see you guys live, but from what I've read, you really go to great pains to make your live appearances inclusive, immersive and unique. How do you translate your unique way of living, writing and recording to the stage?

Micah: Sometimes we show up early and get inspired by the stage, and try to envision how we can make a portal back to where we've come from through our day of travelling. It's important for us to bring to the stage what we've been inspired by that day –– experiences or sounds captured from where we spent our time or from the van as we travelled through an area. Sometimes we'll have a cassette tape recorded before the show of interviews we did each other in different characters, and try to incorporate those characters into a show.

You recently embarked on your first European jaunt. How was that?

Trevor: One day we went to Caracas (Spain), where Salvador Dali is from, and swam in the Mediterranean. There were outcrops of sandstone weathered by the wind that looked like old growth trees tipped on their side and buried in coastal sands. It's refreshing to check in with other parts of the world in person. We were shown some really wonderful things by some wonderful friendly people, nearly everywhere we went. We found ourselves playing shows under an old archway, or in a circus tent from the 1800s, trying to bring who and what we are to people without giving too much into how we'd be received. We brought a dome that looked like an igloo. 

I've read that you're fond of playing 'found instruments', and, for me, it's the unexpected, slightly cracked, organic textures that make the BOB sound so unique. Reminds me a bit of one of my favourite bands, Califone, whose records are always shot through with instruments that sound like they're falling apart in the most beautiful ways. Is it a conscious decision to try and use unconventional instruments in your songs? Any great recent discoveries?

Trevor: We are all fond of playing instruments that we're not quite comfortable with. It's one of the few ways to make a sound that is uniquely your own.  So, being open to that idea inevitably leads to a never-ending collection of instruments –– old and new –– but with an affinity toward the old. Actually, it is quite difficult to pass by a garage sale without stopping. Micah will insist that we turn around. But we usually get the best found instruments from friends.

Once you know that an instrument exists, it's like a never-ending search to get a second one, because chances are it won't work perfectly (if it's old), so you have to get two in case the first one breaks. We're always talking about commissioning friends to build us replicas or repair our old gear. Can't really mention some of our new discoveries (they are best kept secret).

Like all the best music, the BOB sound defies easy categorisation. When you get asked by people who have never heard your music –– uncles, for example, or customs officers at airports –– how do you describe it?

Micah: It's tough... Andrea I usually start with, 'Well, I play cello... and Micah plays guitar and sings, and Trevor plays drums and keyboards'. We're not going to really get into details with customs officials... 

[Customs Official] "What's that, a bird cage?" (referring to Micah's karaoke machine/amp). 

'Well, actually it's a guitar amp. Yeah, it's antique, from the '90s.'

[Customs Official] 'What kind of music do you play?'

'Yeah, folk rock. Casios.'

What's the typical songwriting process like for the band? Do you tend to write separately, or together, or both? Is Breathe Owl Breathe a democracy?

Trevor: The majority of songs come out of Micah's head, at least lyrically. But when he presents a song we'll all work out the arrangements together over time. A song may come together in a day, whereas another we'll reapproach for years before it feels finished. 

Micah: Sometimes... phew, mystery of life. Sometimes you get used to the song being around, but you keep carving away at it, but giving it a rest here and there. Or other times, it comes along and is able to be living.

Do you share similar taste in music?

Trevor: We're all pretty open to what each other listens to. But we each also have our individual affinity for music that we don't mutually desire. We each get such different things out of music, and constantly understand more about what each other likes about certain kinds of music.  But, our tastes are also always changing, which makes song writing a really fun and surprising challenge.  

The Listeners/These Train Tracks will be available December 6 from iTunes, eMusic, Google Music and Amazon. The book will be available from Readings stores.

Pete : 30 November, 2011

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