Conversation with Erik
Creative Loafing: Vibes by Lang Thompson
Previously we were considered far-out avant-rock,” says Erik Lindgren of the band Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. “Now when we play classical concerts we’re the outcasts, but when they hear us, they embrace us.” Such extremes aren’t unusual for a band that’s opened shows for Einsturzende Neubauten and Siouxsie and the Banshees, while recently playing chamber music concerts at several universities. They’ll be in Atlanta, for instance, to spend two days at Emory as Artists in Residence, ending with a public performance. Most bands that claim to mix various styles end up with lifeless mush, but Birdsongs has forged a unique, instantly recognizable style by taking only what they need and leaving the rest. There’s nothing haphazard or experimental about their music. When they place an intricate guitar melody over a minimalist keyboard ostinato or break into a flurry of witty, dissonant harmonies, Birdsongs know exactly where they’re heading. “The set-up of the group is unorthodox,” Lindgren admits. “We have two keyboard players, an electric guitarist and a saxophonist. Plus we use sequenced percussion. Though there’s a limited amount of improvisation, mainly in small pockets, our music is more tied to Stravinsky and Debussy than, say, Miles Davis. You might call our pieces ‘mini-symphonies,’ which is what we used to call Brian Wilson’s music. If it’s not too presumptuous, we feel like our music parallels Wilson’s Smile period.” Such focused eclecticism has been a constant throughout Birdsongs’ history. The band formed in 1980 as a side project for Roger Miller and Martin Swope, two members of the seminal postpunk band Mission of Burma. Joining them were Lindgren and Rick Scott, the only two musicians who’ve been in every incarnation of the group. Lindgren says, “I have a Masters as a composer and pianist from the University of Iowa, but the real roots of Birdsongs were based not just in Stravinsky but in Funhouse by the Stooges. That was the connection: Roger was into avant-garde jazz while I had a classical slant. I saw a John Cage concert in 1972 that blew my mind.” When Miller developed hearing problems from Mission of Burma’s loud volume, Birdsongs became a full-time outfit. Miller left in 1987 for a solo career and was replaced by sax player Ken Field. Swope left for the beaches of Hawaii in 1992; guitarist Michael Bierylo filled his spot. Over the past decade and a half, there have been eight releases. The early years are sampled on Sonic Geology (Rykodisc), which has such band staples as “Lost in the B-Zone” and “Beat of the Mesozoic,” along with their raving “Theme from Rocky and Bullwinkle” and a six-minute version of “The Rite of Spring.” Unreleased material from that period appeared on The Fossil Record, released by Cuneiform, home for the band’s other albums. Their newest effort is Dancing on A’A which is the first to feature guitarist Bierylo. Lindgren says, “Michael brought a whole new level of musicality to the group. A lot of the older pieces just don’t seem to fit in and don’t really translate since Michael has a different playing style than Martin Swope did.” Consequently, most of the material in their concerts is drawn from the current album, including a version of the Peter Gunn theme that Lindgren claims is “an excuse to bang up a piano.” “Each member is responsible for certain compositions,” Lindgren says. “We write out parts and pass them out at rehearsals, much as a string quartet does. It usually takes two to three months for a piece to get hammered into shape, but this is living music and if we come up with a good idea two years later we’ll integrate it.” Lindgren insists that Birdsongs isn’t really a rock band. “We’re rock influenced,” he says, “just like the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I can appreciate ‘Louie, Louie.’ I just can’t play rock ‘n’ roll.” ( Lindgren adds that one of the highlights of his life was having dinner last October with Don Gallucci, organist on the Kingsmen’s version of “Louie, Louie.“) Perhaps that’s one reason they’ve been playing classical concerts at such places as Dartmouth and the Monadnock Music Festival. “Last Wednesday,” Lindgren says, “we were at Tufts University, playing for a packed auditorium of people wearing tuxedos. It was a program of 20th-century classical music and we ended the first half. We deal in melodies that are two or three steps less complex than Elliott Carter, so we’re accessible in that way.” Apart from concerts, the band has also been Artists in Residence at several colleges. “We play examples and talk about what the students might want to hear, such as what they can expect when they graduate. We talk about composition, instrumentation and the use of technology in music. Practical as opposed to conceptual things, since we are a working group that tours throughout the year.” Though Birdsongs is their main focus, the musicians find other outlets for their talents away from the group. Ken Field has written music for animated Sesame Street segments by Karen Aqua while Michael Bierylo teaches at the Berklee School of Music. Lindgren runs the Arf Arf label, busily reissuing forgotten garage and ’60s punk records. After all, what else would you expect from far-out avant-rockers with a knack for captivating classical listeners? Birdsongs of the Mesozoic play Friday, March 17 at the Cannon Chapel, Emory University, at 8:15 p.m.