Catching Up With... Bowerbirds

Music Features The Bowerbirds
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If there’s one thing that Bowerbirds Phil Moore and Beth Tacular know how to do well (beside compose a gorgeous three-way conversation with an accordion, harness the talent of a rotating lineup of friends for lush accompaniment, and build a whimsical website, that is), it is practice what they preach. Their debut LP, 2008's Hymns For A Dark Horse, haunts with the truth of nature’s beauty and our responsibility to maintain it. As if it weren’t enough to write these hymns and take their message on the road, Moore and Tacular are nested in an eco-friendly cabin in the woods outside of Raleigh, N.C., which the two built and keep themselves. They often spend months at a time holed up in this little dwelling, practicing efficiency, working at their art and learning from one another.

With their second full-length, Upper Air, out this week, the couple comes back from the long, hyper-observant hike that was Hymns and invites us into that cabin. Laced with sweet harmony, as if we’re overhearing dialogue, Upper Air is a glimpse through the trees at their relationship, at our Bowerbirds in their loneliness and relief, their pride and found humility, their restlessness and contentment. Although there is no shortage of flora and fauna in this album, such images serve simply as metaphors, and at the heart of the record are the facts of loving someone.

Just before the July 7 release of Upper Air and the start of the band's U.S. summer tour, Paste caught up with Moore from his temporary home-base “in town” in N.C.’s Research Triangle-area. The guitarist, singer and lyricist told us about Bowerbirds’ recent European tour, his reservations about living in the woods, and what it’s like to write love songs for his bandmate.

Paste: How was your time in Europe?
Moore: Europe was awesome. It was amazing. It was kind of like a quick run and a lot of driving through many different countries, but it was amazing. And we got a little vacation at the end, in Portugal, which was really amazing. It was a wonderful trip.

Paste: What was your favorite stop?
Moore: I’d say our favorite show that we played was probably in Zurich. We played a couple of other really, really great shows too, but Zurich just had a charm about the city, and the venue was wonderful and the promoter was wonderful and everything. It was a smallish stage but kind of an eclectic motif to the room, and a lot of really cool people. A lot of really quiet, open-minded, excited people. [There were] quite a few people who spoke English and all of that.

Paste: Overall, did you guys feel well-received abroad?
Moore: Yeah, I think so. Every country we play over there always—maybe not always the UK but all the other countries—seems pretty receptive and responsive and thirsty for music.

Paste: What stands out about the UK?
Moore: Traditionally, the UK is kind of talkative, kind of like some places in the U.S.—not all places in the U.S., obviously—but this time we actually played one of the best shows there in London, and it was really quiet and respectful and there were over 300 people there.

Paste: Was that about the standard size of the shows?
Moore: They were all over the place. They didn’t get much bigger than 300 though.

Paste: Do you feel like you have an established European audience or were they mostly new listeners?
Moore: I think it’s half and half still, pretty much. There are small, dedicated groups that know about us and want to see us when we come back and stuff. But there are a lot of new people that come to our shows.

Paste: What did you do in Portugal?
Moore: Uh, drank sangria, ate fish, and laid down on the beach for hours on end basically.

Paste: Sounds simple and good.
Moore: Simple and good indeed.

Paste: A lot of what I’ve read about Bowerbirds has to do with your living arrangements in the U.S.—your living in the Airstream and building your own home. Are you guys still based in the house that you built?
Moore: Yeah we are, except maybe [for quick breaks] between tours like right now. We’re living in the city so that we can make sure we get all of the things that need to be done done. Like tour details—getting our t-shirts made, updating our websites and stuff like that. It’s hard. We would end up driving 15 minutes into town every day during that time anyway so we might as well just be in town and be able to do it more efficiently. So for these two weeks we’re actually in town.

Paste: So when do you get to spend time out in the woods?
Moore: Well we get to spend time when we have larger gaps. Then we get to work on [the cabin]. Like this winter we stayed a lot out there and worked on it a bit.

Paste: Would you consider yourself a recluse?
Moore: No. I would consider myself having those tendencies. Like, maybe in the winter or something like that when I kind of want to go into hibernation or whatever. But no, I wouldn’t say I’m an all out recluse by any means. I could bring it out further if I thought it was a healthy thing. But I don’t really think it is, necessarily, I mean all the time. I love touring for that reason—we get to meet new people every night, see different places. It’s like a complete 180 flip.

Paste: Are there things about your upbringing that poured into these eco-friendly lifestyle choices that you’ve made, and moving out into the woods and all of that stuff?
Moore: I think definitely, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, necessarily. I grew up in a very small town and I have pretty thoughtful parents, but they weren’t necessarily eco-friendly, though they turned out to be later in life. They were more thrifty. The two worlds are kind of one in the same when you break it all down. And they’re from the mid-west. I don’t know, that maybe lent to my life that I have now.

Paste: I’m interested in how you’re able to live out those kinds of ideals while you’re on the road and what kinds of sacrifices those require of you, both in your comfort level and also are there moments where you have to sacrifice your ideology in order to be practical?
Moore: There definitely are. The whole idea of touring quite honestly has no…everything on tour like all the gasoline and everything. I mean we drive around in a mini-van versus like a van or a tour bus but you’re still burning all that gasoline. I mean, it's not like you’re a corporation doing whatever corporations do, but you’re still not really being… We couldn’t afford a diesel van right now to run on bio-diesel. That’d be wonderful, but we’re not making enough money to do those sorts of things. So we do sacrifice things all the time, but at the same time I don’t consider it a huge deal. You have to sacrifice things all the time just to live or just to build our cabin or something like that. Everybody makes those kinds of sacrifices every day, depending on their level of eco-friendly, environmental whatever.

Paste: Would you say that that is something you guys try to take into consideration every day?
Moore: It is, but some things like the gasoline we’ve just resigned to—that we have to spend money on the gas and burn that gas every day if we’re going to drive around the country. It’s just a lot easier to see through [these ideals] in our regular—whatever that means nowadays—lives when we’re at home.

Paste: A little bit of background: What brought you to the Raleigh area originally?
Moore: I had been playing music with these friends for a long, long time, one of which is Mark Paulson from the Bowerbirds. We moved here to play in the band Ticonderoga. This was in 2004, if I’m not mistaken. Maybe late 2003—right in the winter there. And Wes [Phillips] had moved here a year before me, and Mark had moved here six months before me and then I moved. So it was just to play music, really. I didn’t have a whole lot going on in Iowa, as you might guess.

Paste: Had you graduated from school recently at that point?
Moore: I had graduated two years prior. I graduated in 2001.

Are you cool to talk about your relationship with Beth a little bit?
Moore: Yeah, I can talk about some things, for sure.

So you two met at Whole Foods—were you both working there in addition to doing your art stuff?  
Moore: Yes. Yeah, and like web design. Well not quite then, but yeah.

Paste: Is that what you were doing for work? You were patching those three things together—web design, Whole Foods and music?
Moore: Yeah we were not really making any money on our music or art or anything like that. But we were doing that kind of on the side. And then we met. And then I quit Whole Foods and started doing freelance web design. And then I took a different job tracking birds in South Carolina. And then Beth quit Whole Foods and we started doing web design and took our art more seriously after that.

Paste: So the relationship preceded the band?
Moore: Yes.

Paste: Your second full-length Upper Air [came out] July 7. And the album seems, in a lot of ways, especially a couple of songs like “Ghost Life” and a couple of others, like a portrait of a relationship. And I don’t know if they’re all about your relationship with Beth in particular, but what is it like to write love songs about your bandmate?
Moore: [laughs] I don’t know—this is the first time I had done it and it was something that I kind of consciously wanted to do because it was just weird that I hadn’t. It’s the most important thing in my life while I was writing these songs, so I figured that I might as well let it in somehow. It was difficult, though. I think it was most difficult because it was hard to be accurate about the love and to explain it and not be cheesy about it. Because it’s not cheesy, you know? And it’s not perfect. A song like “Ghost Life” is kind of just about the two of us out in the country, and about how whimsical we are together and how we’re kind of really irresponsible and always in a dreamland in this place out here which is like our little dream home land where we don‘t really have to be part of the real world. I try to make them love songs but make them be about how conflicted I feel about living out there, and [how we might be] just in denial of our real-life responsibilities. We kind of just holed up out there for months, and I guess a couple years even, and just lived our lives and didn’t really answer to anybody. It’s about how that’s good and how that’s bad.

Paste: Has the content of your songwriting been evolving in tandem with the evolution of your relationship with one another?
Moore: Definitely, yeah. Everything in my life has grown because of this relationship. And the songwriting and my creative side definitely has. Beth and I have helped each other a lot with being able to actually express the things that we want to express and let each other do that. We both grew up always wanting to do that and maybe never let ourselves do that for whatever reasons, like different reservations, and the longer that we’ve been together the easier it is.

Paste: Has Beth been contributing more to the songwriting as you guys have grown as a band?
Moore: She has been writing more of the music, definitely. I still write all of the words—well, no, on the newest album she wrote part of the song she sings on. It’s called “Beneath Your Tree.” She helped me write that one. That’s something that we do want to explore more. It was kind of a weird time when we wrote this most-recent album because we had gone on a big long tour and were burnt out and exhausted and I felt like I had to take the reigns again with songwriting and so that is something that we want to explore more and more. But at the same time Beth wants to find time to do her art more and more too, because that’s one of her main passions. In all the spare time she needs to do that too.

Paste: Who else are you playing with right now? Who is Bowerbirds right now?
Moore: So we went on our European tour with our friend Mickey D’Loughy. He was our drummer, and he’s become one of my favorite drummers from Raleigh. He was in a band called Utah! back in the day. He’s a really nice guy, too. So he came out on tour, and Brad Cook who is in the band Megafaun is going on tour with us in July. And I feel I should say all these people’s names just for the hell of it. Before that it was Matt Damron and he was drumming with us in the spring. All of the people may or may not come back on tour depending on scheduling. But right now the band for this next tour is Mark Paulson again—he’ll be playing drums and violins like he had been before—and then Brad Cook who is gonna play upright bass with us this time around.

Paste: Can you talk a bit about the way that Upper Air and your first album Hymns For A Dark Horse compare?
Moore: The way I think about it, Upper Air is a little more personal, in general. Hymns For A Dark Horse maybe has more of a singular theme. When I go listen back to it, it’s not totally about the earth and whatever, but it is more like that for sure than Upper Air. And then Upper Air still has a lot of the same themes but it’s just told from a way more personal point of view, which I really like. There’s a couple of just straight-up love songs.

Paste: Did you write most of Upper Air on the road?
Moore: Actually we had a good two or three months where most of the original material was written, and then on the road it was thought about and refined and edited. And we even got to play a few of those songs on the road.

Paste: Did being on the road with people like Bon Iver and Phosporescent have any influence on that album?
Moore: Yeah. I would say there’d be no way when you’re touring with a band, even if they’re opening for you, for it not to. Because I never listen to music—except for maybe like Bob Dylan—that much, like every single night. And hearing these songs and seeing the way people perform, too, is really really fascinating. I got a lot from their performance, and they influenced not so much the writing of the music but the way we perform. Both those bands and John Vanderslice and The Mountain Goats.

Paste: Let’s talk names. Is it true that Beth has legally changed her name to Beth Tacular?
Moore: Yes.

Paste: And then how about your band name? How did “Bowerbirds” come about?
Moore: Bowerbird is a bird from Australia and New Zealand. We discovered it in a children’s encyclopedia. Beth was trying to find art ideas or references for drawing a bird, or maybe something entirely different. But she was looking in this children’s encyclopedia and they had a little piece about the bowerbird. And so at first it was going to be the name of my solo project and it was going to be “Bowerbird” or something like that, but then we took on the name when we started playing music together. It just seemed fitting because they are these birds that are artists and we were kind of fascinated by that—that they’re one of the few artist-creatures on earth besides humans.

Paste: And what’s the significance of Upper Air’s title?
Moore: Oh man. Somebody asked me this the other day and I was like, "Next time somebody asks me this I’m going to have a much better answer." I don’t really have a good answer. The title came from the definition for “ether” in like ancient Greek, which was “upper air.” So there are a lot of reference to ether and these sorts of ideas [on the album]. Ether to me is like that place up in… maybe it’s a secure place, or some place where you can live out your dreams, er—it’s just like a place that is like your denial state, maybe, but it is a positive thing. Or kind of that thing like I was talking about with “Ghost Life”—being able to indulge in that state of mind, being able to allow yourself to believe that the world’s not so fucked up and that you will still be able to do all the things that you wanted to do, you know? And that maybe it is true. Maybe all of the things that you’re in denial of—and for me that’s that I can just be creative and not have to work a second job and things like that—maybe that is all true, and maybe I’ll figure out a way to make that work. “Upper air” is this denial, but it’s a positive sort of denial. Somehow it means that to me.

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