A little more than two years ago, Birds of Avalon were hard at work in the studio, finishing what was to be their second LP. It was December 2008, and the Raleigh-based psych rockers were proud of what they were creating—a heady but hook-laden sprawl that balanced the revivalist '70s power rock they'd made their name on with the chaos of more challenging, drug-fueled experiments.
"We were literally at the studio when we got the 'bad news' phone call," remembers bassist David Mueller. It was a check-in from Volcom Entertainment, the band's California-based label. The first waves of the country's current recession were crashing, and the publicly traded imprint was running out of money. Though Volcom had fronted the cash for the record, the promotions budget for the release would be minimal.
Instead of releasing the album without the push, the band decided to quickly record a new one in its place. Borrowing their producer Mitch Easter's tape machine, the band home-recorded a set of fuzzy, off-the-wall acid tests that would become Uncanny Valley. The record fulfilled their Volcom contract, and they spent a year touring behind it. But after three years of 100-plus tour dates, two LPs and an EP that had helped grow their name recognition, Birds of Avalon were left to sit on their biggest, boldest and best work yet, unsure if it would ever be released.
Fast-forward to February 2011. The band sits in the dim, cozy and literally green room of Raleigh's newly reopened Kings Barcade. Birds of Avalon, the self-titled record the band waited so long to release, is available. While clearly still content with the album, the band has tempered its enthusiasm. They chuckle warmly between questions, a visibly closely knit group whose bonds have been forged by the years and challenges of their now half-decade run. But direct queries about the record make them pensive. They swig their PBRs, considering the work with the kind of objectivity one would expect from a critic, as if they were evaluating the work of another band.
In a lot of ways, this is a different outfit from the one that put these new songs to tape. The most obvious change is that the group now numbers four. Craig Tilley, the frontman who delivered the band's early hooks with bold, piercing belts, left the group in late 2009. It was an amicable split, one that the group says had been coming for some time.
"Craig and us definitely had different feelings about doing music," says guitarist Paul Siler. "He just wanted to do other things. The four of us definitely found ourselves, a lot of times, playing live shows and being like, 'Four of us are pretty much on point here, but Craig just kind of loses focus.' When he made the call, we were like, 'We know what this is about because it's obvious shit's not the same anymore.'"
Depleted of a voice and a keyboard, the band now makes its noise with two guitars, bass, drums and primarily three-part harmony. Though Tilley's scorching voice is still featured prominently on Birds, his dominance is waning due to a more group-oriented approach.
Bazaar Bazaar, the band's 2007 debut, features largely formulaic '70s rock, with arena-ready jams executed to near perfection and showcasing the instrumentalists' skills while Tilley's vocals are pushed high in the mix. This new album flies in the face of such structure. Bass wanders into strong melodic fills. The guitars often abandon riffing in favor of a distorted haze. Tilley's bursts emerge from cleverly layered harmonies. It's a dense and complicated approach that allows the Birds to be more than a simple sum of their parts.
"It's aged really well for me," Mueller says of the album. "I've definitely had tons of music that I've made in my life that if someone was like, 'You need to go out and support that right now,' I would be like, 'Fuck no!' But this has really aged really well. I'm really proud of the record."
Having an album recorded and ready for release has been helpful for a band whose members are busier than ever. Early last year, they took a nearly four-month break from playing and have since only notched about 20 shows, but the band's outside commitments have grown. Siler and Cheetie Kumar, his wife and fellow Birds guitarist, are co-owners in the new Kings and its downstairs sister bar, Neptunes. Siler helps oversee nighttime operations after his day job at N.C. State University's graduate admissions office. Kumar runs day-to-day business such as payroll and paying taxes. She is also overseeing the installation of their upcoming third leg, the restaurant Garland. Mueller tends bar and organizes Neptunes' DJ rotation. He and drummer Scott Nurkin both put additional effort into their other projects, Heads on Sticks and the Dynamite Brothers, respectively. The collective pressure of their lives outside of Birds made the ability to jump back in without taking the time to record invaluable.
Still, Birds is more than just an easy point of re-entry. It's a connecting point to the band's former identity, which has allowed them to transition smoothly. Bored with Uncanny Valley after Tilley left, the band began to mine the album for material. They figured out new ways to perform the songs, replacing the melange of sounds with more intricate instrumental play, compensating for Tilley's absence by emphasizing group harmony. It's a process they say has made them more in tune with each other.
"Craig played keyboards, but he wasn't like a trained keyboard player," says Nurkin. "He would add sounds and textures and stuff, but with us playing instruments we got a really good idea of what we could and couldn't do with each other and also started listening to each other, which is really, as weird as it sounds, a new thing. At least for me, I wasn't listening as much as I think I should have."
This heightened ability to communicate as an ensemble was the highlight of the band's first performance at Kings a few weeks ago. During the first night of a release celebration for the new DiggUp Tapes Cassingles Vol. 1 compilation, the band awed spectators with an exemplary 30-minute jam. Rhythms varied. The guitars alternately dueled riffs and cascaded jagged noise over the proceedings. Intermittent bouts of modestly pretty harmonies offered moments of tender release.
The performance is indicative of Birds of Avalon's current progression. Each practice starts with an improvisational session that can last anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes. It's a routine they started toward the end of Tilley's time with the outfit, but it's grown in importance, providing an opportunity for the group to lock in further with one another. The band often records these excursions, and that's where they stumbled on the instrumental for their compilation track "Guffaws." Layering crackly vocals over the dirty stomp of the song's low, snarling riffs and pounding bass, they end up with a willfully weird and incredibly charming space oddity.
"I really have no idea what our first few songs are going to sound like," Siler says, thinking aloud about the approach. "The thing we're doing for this tape release, it became a song, but it was really like, 'Well, that jam's pretty good,' and then David put some vocals on it."
This looser, freer way of operating suits the Birds. They've burnt out on constant touring and recording in the hopes that they might be able to make a living with their music. They return to it now because it's an integral part of their lives. They're motivated by the thrill of making music together, and they'll stay on the road because they don't see the point of making music if you're just going to play it in your hometown. Birds of Avalon have survived the tests of the last two years and come out on the other side as a rock band of the purest order, a well-oiled psychedelic machine that lives to melt the faces off a different audience every night.
"I just want to make music that I like," Kumar says, summing up the band's ambitions. "I don't give a shit about anything else."