To borrow a cue from Walt Whitman and, from time to time, look up "in perfect silence at the stars" is to be reminded of nature's grand expanse, its mysteries, its beauty.
This assumes, of course, that the stars aren't obscured by electric lights, and that the silence isn't interrupted by an endless parade of cars. This assumes that mankind hasn't interfered, an assumption that is increasingly unreasonable as our cities sprawl farther and farther. Enter, Bowerbirds, a trio living in the woods outside Raleigh, whose rustic folk songs offer a vicarious look at what many of us have traded for 24-hour convenience.
After the demise of Ticonderoga, his decidedly plugged-in indie rock band, Phil Moore formed Bowerbirds with artist/girlfriend Beth Tacular as a means to perform the new acoustic songs he'd written while working and living in the country, watching birds. Taking cues from their surroundings, Bowerbirds writes songs that draw heavily from natural imagery and are rife with overt environmentalist urgings. "I think a lot of [Bowerbirds' sound] has to do with just not having electricity," says Moore. "It kind of just distilled the songwriting process for me."
An EP was recorded. Some shows were played around the Triangle. A September 2006 show at Bull City Records in Durham prompted John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats to proclaim, via blog, "They are my favorite new band in forever." And now, two years later, Bowerbirds is preparing for their first European tour, for which they'll depart after a show this Thursday at Chapel Hill's Local 506.
Before recording their full-length debut, Hymns for a Dark Horse, the duo hired Moore's Ticonderoga bandmate Mark Paulson to flesh out the sound. What began as self-entertainment in the Airstream trailer that Moore and Tacular share started to grow, and to grow quickly. Hymns, which was released last year by Burly Time Records as a 10-track CD, was recently re-released with two extra songs and a vinyl pressing by the internationally distributed, Bloomington, Ind.-based indie Dead Oceans.
Bowerbirds has been making big noise locally. Now, outside of North Carolina, the trio—who have been on a nearly constant tour supporting bigger acts such as The Mountain Goats, John Vanderslice and now Bon Iver—are greeted by audiences who, like Darnielle in 2006, are pleasantly surprised to be discovering the band. Speaking on his cell phone the afternoon before a show with Bon Iver in Brooklyn, Moore remarks that the audiences have been receptive—"Listening crowds, for the most part"—even if many of their listeners wonder if they share a hometown with Bowerbirds. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
But constant touring raises an ethical dilemma for the environmentally conscious combo. At home, Moore and Tacular live among nature, cultivating a garden for food, careful not to waste and to conserve as much as possible. But for Bowerbirds, like any other band, touring requires the use of a vehicle large enough to hold three musicians and their gear, merchandise and luggage. That means fuel consumption. Plus, Moore says, on the road, it's much harder to find fresh, locally grown food.
"It's totally hypocritical, which wasn't the intention," Moore says, referring to the waste inherent in the touring lifestyle. "We wanted to just live out in the country and make music and have a garden." But with a career that keeps moving upward, that doesn't seem a likely option. "Nobody can be perfect," he adds, rationalizing a little. "We're not perfect when we're at home. You just have to do the best you can."
Tacular, in a recent interview on Chicago Public Radio's Sound Opinions, said, expressing a concern that echoes Moore's, "It seems kind of crazy just how much gas we use, and even everyone's coming to the shows driving in cars."
In addition to even higher gas prices it will encounter in Europe, the band will be met with another level of challenges. Moore says the band will have to rent a bass drum and an amplifier. Plus, he says, "Logistically, it's really tough getting over there and getting T-shirts over there and stuff. I guess it just feels so foreign." The European tour will also see Bowerbirds headlining more shows than it is used to. "It will be super interesting to see how we do in Europe," says Moore.
No matter the location, Bowerbirds' draw is the music. "I still think Hymns for a Dark Horse is a great record," Amanda Petrusich, who reviewed the album for Pitchfork in June 2007, writes in an e-mail. "It reminds me a lot of early Appalachian folksong, in that it's really lovely but also really dark—really ominous and grim and unapologetic about those things. I also think it's concerned with the landscape in a way that's compelling (and vaguely zeitgeist-y, given all the newfound trends towards green living, etc.)."
Beyond their Appalachian ties, Bowerbirds' songs take a hint of European flavor in Tacular's accordion, and Moore's warm tenor carries a jazzy crispness. Each movement springs with an eased forcefulness that is consistently surprising to behold, but always feels as natural as rain turning dust to mud. "Bowerbirds make music that I know I'll listen to for the rest of my life," says Dead Oceans president Phil Waldorf. "It's like Caetano Veloso or Bert Jansch or something."
The songs on Hymns' songs vary in view of human interactions with the world from understated awe ("This is a lovely place") to indictment ("It takes a lot of nerve to destroy this wondrous earth"). The two bonus tracks on Dead Oceans' release, "La Denigración" and "Matchstick Maker," follow suit, but with a more pessimistic bent. The former is a woozy shuffle driven by a lurching bassline and heaving accordion and a tale of betrayal that finds Moore's voice trembling ever so slightly as he delivers the album's most enraged moment: "Stab me in the back/ I'll scratch yours." The less angry and more resigned "Matchstick Maker" closes the album with a political aphorism, courtesy of Moore: "The rule of the land is more like a suggestion."
As the band readies itself to record a new album in the late fall, the music remains the focus. "If we're happy with the next album, I really don't even care if it flops," says Moore. "That's the only way to make sure that you're writing the music for yourself and not for a perceived audience that you have. That's the only way to write honest music, I think."
He says a new recording offers new opportunities. "You get to kind of reinvent yourself a little bit, or maybe not reinvent, but you get to add something new." But the songwriting process for the new record hasn't changed too much. Some of the new songs began to appear in live sets as early as this spring, though Moore says they still need work.
The future seems to promise a continued growth for Bowerbirds, a steady ascent akin to the swift takeoff of one of the band's namesakes: with a flutter, the wings catch an updraft. To an observer, it seems sudden, but hardly surprising. Bowerbirds' entering the public conscience seems a natural occurrence.
Where touring is increasingly the musician's primary means of income as record sales continue to plummet, and where a gas crisis cripples many bands' opportunities to tour far outside their hometowns, Bowerbirds rises steadily above expectations. "Whatever's on the horizon for the band will just sort of come naturally," Moore says, as if serendipity were a business plan.
Whether by luck or by savvy, Bowerbirds has moved its music—born of the birds, trees and dirt of North Carolina—to new audiences. It's an open question whether the band's ecological convictions can be reconciled with the career moves necessary to earn larger audiences, but these 'birds are poised to try.
Bowerbirds play Local 506 Thursday, Aug. 7, at 9 p.m. Cover is $8. Festival and Sharon Van Etten open.
Bowerbirds' first album, Hymns for a Dark Horse, was initially released on Burly Time Records, a record label owned by Indy music editor Grayson Currin, who did not edit this story. The band's association with Burly Time ended in September 2007.