Twitching at the microphone, Joe Westerlund—a bearded 33-year-old donning a drab shawl, a brown flapper hat, outlandish glasses and a bright yellow beak—scolds his backing band, Canine Heart Sounds, in the shaky voice of an old schoolmarm.
"Calm down," he pleads. "It's time for naptime."
They protest in unison: "I don't wanna take a nap!"
Why should they? It's 11:00 p.m., not a.m., and they're in the middle of a set in front of a rowdy Saturday night crowd at The Pinhook in Durham.
But Westerlund, or at least the old maid he's channeling, won't be swayed: "No, no. No whining," he admonishes, wagging a finger like a spastic Mary Poppins. "Just grab a carpet square and lay down while I sing you a 12-tone nap song."
As the drummer for the folk-rock benders Megafaun and Califone, drummer Joe Westerlund has graced plenty of stages during late-night concerts, including this one. But this is a first for Grandma Sparrow, both the name of his new performance art-meets-musical spectacle and its star character. Embodied by Westerlund, Grandma Sparrow is the matriarch of a bizarre cast of characters in the imagined, whimsical town of Piddletractor, the setting for a psychedelic song cycle of kids' music for adults.
Released last month as the album Grandma Sparrow and his Piddletractor Orchestra, the tunes are complex and masterful, recalling both Frank Zappa and the classic composers of cartoon scores. On stage and on record, Westerlund switches constantly between characters, costumes and voices, a chameleon seeming to possess the confidence of a preternatural performer.
Beneath the beak and the shawl, however, he's terrified.
"It's the most vulnerable I've ever felt on a stage before," Westerlund admits later. "And it doesn't seem to get any easier each time I do it. It's so weird, and I only understand half of it myself. I always have that feeling like jumping into a cold swimming pool, but it's so much fun once I'm in."
The characters he channels draw their strength and joy from that childlike vulnerability, something we've all shared in the past. Remember nearly dying of embarrassment when your parents opened the bedroom door to tell you dinner was ready, only to catch you crooning into a hairbrush? Some essential but personal part of you—unwillingly glimpsed by others—shrank deeper. As you aged, maybe it even disappeared.
"Man, those things I got caught doing when I was six—some weird hand motions to some song or some Kermit the Frog voice," Westerlund admits. "I've gotten caught by my parents and by other kids while doing shit like that so many times. That's a major theme in my life."
Instead of fading, Westerlund's voices and motions grew, slowly cohering into full-fledged characters that now populate their own make-believe realm. Grandma Sparrow oversees Alewishus, the Oryman and many others within the community of Piddletractor. Over the years, Westerlund began sharing that coterie of personalities with family members, friends and bandmates. They spoke to him, so he filled notebooks with their words. He wrote songs and developed elaborate costumes for them.
After living in the Triangle for five years, Westerlund moved to Los Angeles in 2010 when his wife, Carson Efird, entered a graduate dance program at UCLA. Megafaun went on hiatus two years later. That's when he began exploring Grandma Sparrow's wider potential.
But Grandma Sparrow has been around long before any album was ever made. His younger brother, Dan, is the drummer in Canine Heart Sounds, one of the "children" he scolded at The Pinhook.
"I'm just so used to Joe being that way all the time when we were growing up," he says. "Grandma Sparrow is essentially Joe after a long church service, driving back home to our house, just all riled up on 'What did I just witness?' and making it sound British. It would just develop into these riffing things, weird chants. That's how it happens."
The music Westerlund made before Grandma Sparrow emerged as his principal recording project has often been branded as experimental folk, but it's almost easier to list the genres of music he hasn't played than those he has.
Drummer for Megafaun, Califone and Mount Moriah, Westerlund's also collaborated with Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche, minimalist composer Arnold Dreyblatt and retro-soul outfit Gayngs. He was part of the band that brought singer-songwriter Justin Vernon to North Carolina a decade ago. And at Bennington College, Westerlund studied composition with jazz geniuses Anthony Coleman, Kitty Brazelton and Milford Graves. He's done session work, film scores and modern dance commissions.
Yet, for the man of a thousand musical directions, Grandma Sparrow and his Piddletractor Orchestra is unique. When Matthew White, a songwriter and producer at Richmond's Spacebomb Records, asked him to record something for the label, Westerlund recognized a chance to turn his odd fascinations into something more. Backed by the Spacebomb house band and a horde of Richmond string and horn players, Westerlund built lush, complex arrangements only to twist them with tape collage and other methods of musical chicanery. The result, issued in May, is an almost-mythological world, a bent reality of a small, surreal town.
Though the record is out, Westerlund feels like the music is only now taking shape. With each live performance, he's embodying the characters more fully. During a few early sets in Los Angeles, he played all the percussion, a move that compromised the characters. Anticipating the Durham gigs, though, Canine Heart Sounds learned the Grandma Sparrow album as closely as possible. Westerlund expected to play along as he had in California, but when he heard how completely they had realized his music, he put down the drumsticks and allowed himself to step into character fully for the first time.
In Durham, he was in front of the band and immersed in the audience. At one point, he even stood on the bar.
"It was a birthing process, you know?" he says. "This music is actually a few years old for me, but the performance aspect of this is so new. These shows felt like I was having a baby. It was really inspiring and beautiful, but it was also really exhausting."
At the front of The Pinhook's stage, two percussion stands surround the microphone. One contains drumsticks and the metal bowls from a sous-chef's station, flipped upside down. A wild collection of costumes—hats, wigs, sunglasses, a balloon, noses that range from a clown to Groucho—dominates the other. The band kicks into a short invocation, and Westerlund emerges from the audience in his Grandma Sparrow regalia, puffing into a kazoo.
"It's time for a play date!" he screams, and the band launches into the "Piddletractor Town Hall Welcome Anthem."
Songs change fast, and Westerlund switches costumes right at the microphone, establishing a new character as the music builds into yet another crescendo. After each spasm of free jazz din, a calming-if-twitchy Grandma Sparrow returns to center stage. He is the audience's safe place, its very strange control.
Familiar children's songs burble up. "The Pigsmilk Candycane," a sing-along with special dance moves, echoes the "Greasy, Grimy Gopher Guts" tune you might have sung on the elementary school bus. "Do You Know Who Your Scrimpa Is?" cops "The Muffin Man" but adds lines like "He just can't help barfing his salty brine on his shoes." Westerlund brings a twisted kid's show sensibility to this world of exaggerated weirdoes, and sometimes it's hard to tell if it's funny or maybe a little sick. Tristan Wimbley's grandiose arm gestures could summon the dead during "This is Your Wheelhouse." Face obscured by a black wig, his singing peaks in screams of possession. But this is neither parody nor debauched spectacle. Grandma Sparrow knows no irony, and Westerlund's amped mannerisms are wholly endearing, never tilting toward the twisted, even when electronically modified to sound like he's huffed helium. Grandma Sparrow is an attempt to rediscover childlike wonder by going somewhere you've never been, somewhere that doesn't even exist.
"So much of our world, later in life, is about figuring out how things work and why they work that way," Westerlund says. "All the epiphanies that we have are based on that: 'Oh, that's why things are that way.' But as a kid, it's just these images flashing in front of you. It all seems like it has a purpose, but you don't know what it is. And you don't understand why it has to have a purpose."
Grandma Sparrow and everyone he knows, then, are just mechanisms for coping with the constantly contorting reality of growing up. That's even easier when you have a community of musician friends who want to interact with them, too.
"This stuff is so whimsical, but it's not random," Westerlund explains. "It's not just like throwing cards on a table and leaving them there. It's like throwing cards on a table and then arranging them just enough so that it still feels like a mess but it makes a kind of sense."
I'm just discovering Grandma Sparrow, really—what it is outside of the record," Westerlund says. He's like a child finding a new way to use something familiar. "For a long time, I just thought it would be a record, but now I see that there's a lot more to figure out about it. I wasn't prepared for that."
To go along with the Los Angeles shows, he constructed a storefront installation of brightly colored afghan blankets. With Efird, he's planning an evening-length, modern dance version of the show for early 2015. The husband-and-wife team also ventured into stop-motion animation to make a video for "The Pigsmilk Candycane."
"It's my dream to use this thing as a way to work in other mediums," he says. "I want to get more into that performance art or physical theater world. My goal is to bring it into that performing-arts world as much as I'm bringing it into that indie-rock-club world."
Grandma Sparrow can continue to expand because, at some level, it remains a mystery even to its creator. Westerlund senses that, if he goes deeper into the project, he will find even new layers beneath the vulnerability he still feels onstage, again channeling 8-year-old Joe in the back seat, cracking his little brother up on the way home from church.
"It's the most embarrassing and vulnerable when you've gotten to a point that you hardly remember that you're doing these things," he says, chuckling in spite of himself. "You're so into it that you're not aware of it anymore."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Wise child."