Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
All around you - turn over your left shoulder and observe, switch shoulders and perform the same visual fact-finding operative - it's hysterics. People are hysterical. Things are spinning completely out of control, making everything a nasty, head-splitting blur of activity. Just standing in it could induce migraine headaches and hyperventilating. There's a nervous, coffee twitch that is steadily coursing through our hands and face muscles. We all feel on edge and ages older than we should physically and mentally be. There's always someone or some thing making the encouragement to do more and to move faster - hear those bleating traffic horns from behind if you haven't stepped on the pedal when a light turns gloriously, finally (!!!) green. Your eyes probably hurt from all of that connectedness, all that text-messaging and computer screen-watching that you do all day long - skirting actual occupational responsibilities. There's a constant aching from head-to-toe and the rings under your eyes look like wedding bands for giants, thick as burrows. Health is a secondary concern. The emphasis is placed on productivity and products and progress and earning power. It's about massiveness and mergers. The only way to fight all that boredom - all of the marketers would suggest - is to buy more things, to be more technologically tuned in, to be wireless everywhere you move your feet. You should be able to smell the Internet in the air no matter where you are, you should be able to taste that sadness.
Will Oldham's character in this year's Old Joy talks about how hard it is to find real quiet these days. It's a thought that's absolutely occurred to Phil Moore, Beth Tacular and Mark Paulson of the North Carolina band The Bowerbirds. It's a thought that's been rung through their soft ears like a hard rain for years now and they've slinked away from the noise, the stupid cacophony that the rest of us - like it or not - consider to be something of a modern miracle. It's a strange place to find much happiness in - convenience, yes, but happiness, no. The Bowerbirds released an album this year that is stunning in its ability to set a stage out among the silent panoply of burr oaks, coral reefs, sun beams breaking rules and refracting at odd angles and invaluable peacefulness that just in passing sound waves could make a person feel as restful as if they'd just slept for days. They stray from all of that rowdy amplification if they can possibly help it and they light out into the core aspects of fundamental joy, pain and appreciation of taking in air and letting it out constantly, effortlessly and over time.
Moore would be the first person to call in the middle of the night to soothe an infant having a bit of a night terror or just to quell them of the darkness. Tacular and Paulson could help him start and then as the tiny eyelids began to get sandy and fall like pink projector screens, they could sneak out of the room and Moore could finish off the job, providing the warm milk in the form of "Hooves" - singing about kindling that still burns within his heart. Earlier in the song he would have expressed fondness for the beauty and bravery that his mother had when she gave birth to him - he nearly splitting her in two during the delivery. The morsels of prettiness come not as lonely flickers, but with reinforcements of sidewinding actuality - all coins are two-sided, one that you call and the other that you pray as hard as you can sweat that it doesn't land on.
There are very brief notions that we're hearing about Gods and mortals in these songs, but the differentiation between one or the other isn't how we've always seen it. In these songs, the mortals seem to have been granted just as much power (to enjoy living, to rejoice in it, to drink it in and to control it in measures) as the Gods (the ones who typically pull strings and hurl thunder bolts and such, but they fail. They fail hard despite having the ability to enjoy all of the fruits. Moore sings of men who were not born of hate or with it, but somehow there is hate all around. He sings of men who didn't have the capacity for war and yet there's war all around. It starts so small. Everything starts small. It feels that Moore may have been staring investedly at deer shaking their bobtails when he wrote, "We're only human/This at least we've learned," and wondering why someone on the other side of the forest was staked out ready to make the kill and yet, warning the animal was out of the question. Inevitably, he and the deer were caught in the talons and they remained shushed as the silence just went on stinging.
The Daytrotter interview:
*If you can't tell, I'm still amazed as hell that you're building your own house without the use of any power tools. What's the status right now?*
Phil Moore/Beth Tacular: Thanks! It's actually one of the most satisfying things either of us has ever done (this is Beth and Phil answering the questions. Interestingly, Mark is also doing a major building project -- restoring a beautiful 100-year-old house in Raleigh). It's so much fun to use hand tools. It's a much quieter process than using power tools. And it's more physical. We did buy a small used chainsaw, which turns out to be saving our lives. It's not very fun to saw a whole log in half with a hand saw, and we are sawing a lot of logs in half. In case anyone is confused by what we are talking about, we are rebuilding an old log tobacco barn that we took down in a nearby county, but we're adding windows and doors, and things like that. It's going to be one of those mini houses, the downstairs being 450 square feet, with there being a small loft. So it's the perfect size to build with our hands. It's going to seem huge after living in the Airstream. The Airstream will become our music studio.
*Why did you want to build a house that way?*
PM/BT: Well, the main reason is that we don't have electricity where we live. We have enough to run our computers and send emails, and to charge our cell phone, from our solar panel. But we are using a candle for light right now, and are cooking our dinner (soup!) on a wood cook stove in the Airstream. There are several reasons, I guess that we are building the house this way. We don't ever have much money, so we can't afford to build a normal house, and we want to save money by building a house for really cheap, using almost all recycled materials, and keeping our long-term expenses low, so we will have more time to do creative things, or hang out with our dog. We are going to do greywater for the plumbing, and use a composting toilet, and we will heat with a wood stove. We won't be hooked up to the grid for water or electricity, so we will just use however much electricity we can afford to buy in the form of solar panels. This is a financial decision, led by our desire to have a simple life where we can choose what to do with our time every day. But it's also certainly based in our reverence for the earth, and our wanting to keep things as un-polluting as possible. We read recently that cars aren't the main oil-suckers in the U.S., but buildings are. So we want to try to get by using almost all renewable resources when we aren't on tour. It would be great to get a hybrid or biodiesel car for tour, but right now we can't afford more than our minivan. Also, we love the way we feel when we make something ourselves, with our bodies and minds, and it is just ridiculously satisfying to stack logs, leaving holes for windows, and see your future home coming together. It's as fun as gardening, providing your basic needs for yourself, in exactly the way you want to. We had no idea it would be this amazing to do this. Everyone should do it. Oh, and we aren't going to have a mortgage or have to pay rent. That's really awesome, and it will make it easier for us to support ourselves more and more with our music and art (Beth is a painter), and occasional design work.
*What's been the hardest thing about it besides the stifling record summer heat?*
PM/BT: Yeah, this summer was grueling, in terms of the heat. We actually had to stop working in August, because we were going to have heat stroke. We also had to move out of the Airstream for a month or so, because it was like a shiny little oven, 20 degrees hotter than outside. We had parked it under a huge oak tree for shade, but it died this year. A lot of our trees were suffering because of the drought. We lived in a tent, which we pitched on the subfloor, once we had put that on. Ticks are the worst thing though. They are everywhere, and we are going to have to get some guinea hens to eat them, because it's really not cool. They are gone now, for the winter, though.
*It's sad that we lost Mark and Phil from this great state of Iowa. What do you two miss from here?*
PM: The horizon. The Butter Cow. Our families. How cheap it is to live there. Distance from other people. Quiet. Mark and Phil are both really proud to have grown up there, and encourage more people to be proud of where they grew up, and to quit all saying that they are from Brooklyn. Except our friend Eric Amling, who is actually from Brooklyn. Since he was a child. And he couldn't care less.
*Phil, how did you and your family become such a dessert family?*
PM: We're not sure how you know this information, but Beth tends to blab a lot. It started like any other addiction: slowly and with little awareness of it actually happening. And all of a sudden, one day when Phil was in high school, he realized that every single night, they would have Breyer's vanilla ice cream. They would also sometimes eat dessert for two meals a day: waffles for brunch, strawberry shortcake for dinner, and sometimes go The Dairy Barn for a nice dessert of ice cream. This horrifies Beth.
*There's a lot of nature, a lot of water in your songs. Are you really in touch with that side of the world?*
PM/BT: Yes, but it's hard when you tour for three months at a time, like we just did. By the end of tour, we felt like we were starting to lose touch with that side of ourselves, being in all the exciting cities, with all the people to interact with, and things to have to do each day. Driving on the interstate isn't that natural of a thing to do. Now that we're home, and spending most of our time outside, building, it's coming back.
*What are your fondest memories of the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice tours? Are those two guys you saw play when they'd come through Iowa City when we were going to college?*
PM/BT: We actually hadn't seen either of them play before we played shows with them. We liked their music, but hadn't ever seen them play live. They are both awesome performers. We got along really well with both Johns, and the guys in their bands, so it was a lot of fun to tour with them. One thing that was amazing was playing the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, with the Mountain Goats. That place was beautiful and very ornate, plus it was fully catered. We even got our own dressing room, with lava lamps and a shower! The favorite show with John Vanderslice was our last one together, in Baton Rouge, after which we had a drunken dance party at the club. And then they bought us a hotel room, and we went back and partied for our last night together.
*What's the last dream you remember?*
PM/BT: Beth is the only one who can remember a recent dream. She has been having recurring dreams where she is trying to catch a plane, or go to a party, or go on a trip in a car, or something like that, but she can't find her bag, or her wallet, or her outfit, or something, and she is scrambling to find everything and get it together. This is probably because our lives have felt really crazy lately, like we can't ever catch up and just relax, for maybe two years now.