It’s not every day that a band comes along truly defying classification. Oh sure, the media will often anoint someone “genre-bending” to get your attention, but Providence, Rhode Island duo Brown Bird are the real deal. Rootsy folk? Check. Stomp-along Russian gypsy jam? Yup. Hints of acoustic heavy metal? Absolutely. Middle Eastern scimitar-twirling, snake-charming salsa? Sure, I just made that up, but if you listen closely I swear it’s in there.
Their new album, Fits of Reason, is all of that and more.
Building on an already full sound, Brown Bird have introduced an electric element that carries that sound to a new level.
“When you’ve got just a duo you’ve got to do a lot of things to make it not sound super empty,” explains one half of the band, famously bearded guitarist, vocalist and percussionist David Lamb, “but it’s a challenge we put on ourselves and we totally love. I think just the technical aspect of a lot of the songs lent itself… Some of those notes an electric guitar can get are just lost on an acoustic guitar. They just don’t have the same fullness.”
Lamb chalks the evolution of their sound up to progression, both personally and for the band as a whole.
“The stuff we were writing and interested in writing is a little more intricate,” he notes, pausing as if in thought. “The guitar lines—I’m constantly trying to challenge myself by writing just a little bit beyond my ability, which will challenge me to become a better guitarist basically, but also because of the arrangements of the songs, filling up the space.”
Rather than let the fact that there are only two of them in the band be limiting, Lamb claims it helps the duo think outside the box when it comes to writing.
“In terms of just how I approach a song… Sometimes the beat or the rhythm that I hear in my head is more involved and intricate than I can actually accomplish with just the percussion setup that I’ve got, so I end up taking that feel and stripping it back to down to the core… Making it something I can do while also playing guitar.” He laughs, then explains further, “That in itself is a fun challenge to try and coordinate.”
As far as the band, Brown Bird has seen its share of personal (and personnel) evolution over the years, from trio to five-piece and finally back down to duo. That said, they seem to have reached the apex.
“The two of us is who Brown Bird is now,” Lamb states, but he continues, “I think we’ve definitely had some ideas… We’ve enjoyed some of the collaborations we’ve done in the past… I think there’s a time when you get to a point and you’re like, ‘alright, we’ve done that, what would it sound like if we let it breathe a little bit more and release some of these restraints that we put on ourselves?’ So I’m sure there will be more of that in the future.”
“I think we’ve found the core,” he adds.
I have an anecdote I like to tell about a particular weekend where I randomly saw Brown Bird three times in three days, in three cities, in three completely separate environments: Once in Maine opening for Yonder Mountain String Band, next in Boston with a slew of other bands at the venerable Middle East, and then finally on a cold Sunday afternoon in Southampton, Mass., where I stumbled upon the pair setting up their gear in front of the nonfiction section of a used book store. While I usually am not such a road warrior, this is the norm for the duo, who’s indomitable work ethic has them touring almost constantly. It can be difficult to create new material when on the road so much.
“We definitely don’t write on the road, at the most maybe a little bit of lyric writing during drives,” Lamb says, “Basically, any time we get a few weeks off here or there we’re working on new stuff. It makes it interesting, because you have to work really hard and focus for many hours out of those few days, and then go back on tour and forget about ‘em for a while, then come back and start working again.”
He takes a moment, considering, then continues. “I feel like it worked out really well for Fits of Reason; it was the first time we had to do that with a full-time touring schedule. In some ways it seems kind of amazing, but in some ways I just don’t really see how we found the time when we were working full-time jobs and playing and then touring on our time off.” A shrug, unseen over the phone, is almost palpable. “Somehow you just make it happen when you get the chance.”
Brown Bird’s lyrics have always been at the heart of their sound. Not content to simply write a catchy chorus and be done with it, their songs lean toward the abstract and heavy—thinking man’s music, if you will, bucking the trend in today’s formulaic environment.
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things, one of which is my upbringing,” Lamb explains, “I was raised by a minister, and I think it instilled in me this desire to think on a more spiritual or philosophical level.”
He goes on to point out that though he left his parent’s church when he graduated high school, that thought process stayed with him.
“I’ve been reading a lot more, and I feel like it’s probably coming through in the lyrics,” he says. “In addition I think there is something in me that is totally inspired by lyrics that will challenge you, and maybe make the song experience a little more profound than the typical cliches and subject matter. I still have a huge respect for people who can make a simple love story or heartbreak story into a beautiful thing but to me it’s always the most moving when you can elevate above that a little bit.”
Lyrics are usually the last part of a song to be added. On Fits of Reason, new songs generally started with Lamb: “the structure of the songs, all my parts, I’ll write that first… I might have a couple of lines in the process of writing music, then I’ll kind of flesh out the lyrics afterwards and finish the whole thing.”
Nothing is complete without a group consensus, however.
“Somewhere in that process, after I’ve got a structure I’ll bring it to MorganEve and she’ll come up with her parts,” Lamb says. The one exception on the new album is the song “Bow for Blade,” which they co-wrote.
Swain and Lamb are not just bandmates; they’re also a couple and live with each other. Lamb is nonchalant about their being so intertwined.
“It can be hard to get some space, but we just try to make sure that if things are getting a little tense… we will take a day where we each explore a city on our own, or other things to maintain our sanity and keep our perspective. Just thinking ‘we will be home in a month or however long’ and making it work. It definitely has some challenges, but I think for the most part it’s really great. I did a lot of touring before I was with MorganEve, and the relationship I was in at the time suffered from the amount of absence so…”
One of the most instantly noteworthy things about the new album is its cover, which in its own visual way seems to reflect the heaviness of the band’s lyricism. Photographed in an installation made by artist and friend William Schaff, the duo are bedecked in Day of the Dead masks, surrounded by artwork and assorted cryptic bric-a-brac. I ask Lamb if it had a specific meaning.
“Yes, not all of it is clear to me,” he laughs, then explains. “We love Will Schaff’s artwork. We approached him on Salt for Salt to do the album artwork, and immediately the first thing he showed us was perfect, just nailed it, so we definitely enjoy giving him creative freedom to do what he wants.”
The vision for the cover again came to Schaff almost right away.
“He had the idea for a human diorama. He does a lot with cardboard cutouts, but he wanted to have people in there, so he built this whole backdrop modeled for the ‘vague idea of a Moroccan marketplace’ while listening to the album.”
The band added a few items of their own, including a Ravi Shankar album cover (Shankar died right after Fits of Reason was recorded), a Thomas Payne photo and a few of their instruments. All in all, Lamb feels it captures the spirit of the band, “everything is not quite spelled out for you… It creates—hopefully the lyrics do this and this is what the cover does for me—a visual that stimulates your imagination and your creativity to put your own story into it.”
People need to classify things, to organize them into neat categories. Our culture especially enforces this and has legions of marketing professionals to help in the process. Ultimately, as they gain popularity, Brown Bird will find themselves pegged with one genre or another. Lamb balks a bit at attempting to describe their own sound.
“I usually try to avoid this question like the plague.” There’s a long pause, as though he’s hoping to be let off the hook, and then, somewhat resigned and maybe even rehearsed, he continues. “We are an amalgamation of influences from around the world. American roots music with a deep love of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Eastern European music… I’m a preacher’s kid from Illinois, and MorganEve is the daughter of ex-hippies from Connecticut, and all that stuff really plays into who we are, filtering those influences into something new that we’re trying to create.” Another pause, then a laugh. “That’s the long answer.”