A few years ago Steve Koester, the frontman of the band Two Dark Birds, cut a considerable amount of static out of his life, started spending more time with his wife and daughter and thousands of trees, and wrote and recorded the songs on a beautiful new record called Songs for the New. He moved from New York City, where he had lived for a decade, to a house in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. He had done the band scene in Minneapolis before all that, toured with TDB and the band Maplewood, and also done some solo tours. In 2008 TDB put out their debut record, heavily influenced by 70s-era Neil Young. The new record, released by Riot Bear Recording Co., is more varied and complex, with lush strings and a horn section and a supreme backing band of four guys who are all still based in New York and contribute greatly to the arrangements. Nick Drake, Wilco, Gene Clark, the Band: the influences swirl and play off each other in unusual ways. The songs are less about reckless, wayward times—the tequila and whiskey and “head full of lies” of the first record—and more about putting down roots and seeing things straight. But to hear the record only that way is to siphon some of the mystery out of it. Almost every song has an ambiguous shade of gray—a reference to a father’s misdeeds in one song, or to “a friend who’s no longer here” in another. Life is never just one thing, and Koester gets that truth across in graceful and arresting ways.
The Rumpus: You like to describe Two Dark Birds’ sound as being part of the “Catskills sound.”
Steve Koester: That’s sort of how I frame it, because I do think there’s a sound that this area has, historically—with Dylan and the Band, of course, and Karen Dalton, and Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and Moondance. Even the records that get played up here a lot have those flavors—folky, rocky, drawing from a wide spectrum of American sounds. I think it’s something about being up here; a lot of those records made here have that warm tone, sort of easy feel, acoustic and electric instruments mixed. So I guess that’s naturally where my tastes are found these days, but it’s not like I consciously dialed into those tones.
Rumpus: What do you see as the main differences between your first and second records?
Koester: I think the first record wallows in the dark stuff a little more. I think when you’re younger you indulge that. You look into those dark alleys. It’s alluring and intoxicating, that exploration of yourself and putting yourself in dangerous places with dangerous people. And I think you can learn a lot about yourself that way. The second record has the push and pull of the dark and the light. When the songs started coming out and taking shape, I realized, well, it’s kind of an album about family. Then I thought, wow, that’s a really lame, non-rock-and-roll topic, one that’s killed off so many songwriters. But then I thought, Screw it. What’s the true punk-rock thing to do? It would be to totally delve into that and write an album about family that’s not schmaltzy or sentimental, which is where a lot of that stuff can sit. But I didn’t want it to be overly bleak either.
Rumpus: A lot of the songs on the second record show a persona that’s less confused, more grounded.
Koester: I think the big difference between the first and second albums is that I started being as inspired by joyful things as I was by desperate things. I think a lot of really great art comes from a desperate place. We all have these desperate spots inside of us, and that’s often when I write, when a lot of us write. But you know, [my wife and I] had a kid, we moved to a place that was naturally beautiful, and I was really feeling that life force. I think you feel that life force as a kid and then you spend part of your early adult life negating that or fighting against that. And then when you have a kid it sort of comes back to you. So I think one thing I came to be more comfortable with on this album was writing from a place of joy.
Rumpus: Like “Song for Clementine,” which is clearly a love song to your daughter.
Koester: When I wrote “Song for Clementine,” which is probably the most up song on the album, I was slightly embarrassed by it. I thought, man, this is kind of like a Cat Stevens song.
Rumpus: But even that song has the lines “the concrete street corner/Shadows whisper ‘hey kid’”—which sounds again like that push and pull. So even in that innocent song, it’s acknowledging the complexity.
Koester: Absolutely. It’s a love song to a kid and to a new situation, but yeah, I’m trying to bring some of the mystery in there too. There’s a push and pull. And we talk a lot about that tonally and musically, too, when we make a record. If things are too perfectly placed they just don’t sound as interesting. There’s got to be that rub. Within a band everybody’s playing to the same beat, but they push and pull against the beat in different ways. It’s the rub that makes it interesting.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that when you left New York you felt really fried and unhealthy.
Koester: Yeah, I think it was the city burnout that a lot of people feel. I could not have been more enamored with New York City when I first lived there. Eventually I realized that I was spending all my time in Fort Greene Park looking at the trees. And I realized, if your biggest high in New York City is looking at the trees, you’re in the wrong place. And I can remember being in restaurants there and having the vague sense that, maybe not at the next table, but at the one next to that, the people there are doing what you’re doing but so much better. It becomes this competitive thing, or maybe that was just me projecting myself.
Rumpus: When you’re writing songs, is there any fear involved? Are you ever afraid of what you’re going to hit on?
Koester: No. I definitely feel like I’m fearful in other places in my life, but when I’m writing I feel free, like my mind can land anywhere.
Rumpus: Did that feeling of freedom come from your upbringing? Did your parents really encourage your creativity?
Koester: No. They’ve been supportive in many ways, but they’re not artistic. So I guess creating anything was already an act of defiance. I have written songs where I’ve worried about how they’d be perceived [by family or friends]. I mean, writing songs is like writing fiction or anything—you’re writing character-driven stuff, it’s just that songs are much better as first person. I think so, anyway. I much prefer the Ray Davies songs that are first person rather than when he’s writing about some character. Or like Neil Young—I feel like he started losing his way in the late ’70s when this Everyman character showed up in his songs, when he started writing about this “dude,” probably at a point when he was furthest away from being that dude.
Rumpus: Are there newer bands that inspire you?
Koester: Yeah, I try not to just be Mr. Old Vinyl Dude, to not be inspired only by stuff that happened a long time ago, and it’s a constant struggle. But I have to say that I think Jeff Tweedy is a great songwriter. I really like Gillian Welch. I love the second Midlake record, Trials of Van Occupanther. It’s pastoral and really beautiful and mysterious, sort of eighteenth century filtered through, like, a giant joint. I try to listen to new stuff but more often than not my mind is more occupied by Astral Weeks or John Coltrane’s Impressions or Television. And when we were making this record I was also thinking about the punk new wave-era records that were arty and rootsy, like the Violent Femmes’ Hallowed Ground and Meat Puppets II. Also REM’s Reckoning. All the guys in Two Dark Birds like that stuff.
Rumpus: Are you all around the same age?
Koester: No, there’s about a twenty-year age span, which I love. And we’re all from different places: Louisiana, West Virginia, the Northwest, western PA, the Midwest.
Rumpus: When people react to your music, what means the most to you?
Koester: I’d say it’s exciting to have anyone say anything to me. When people tell me a song I’ve written resonates with them, that’s pretty much the greatest turn-on on the planet. It shows people are actually listening and caring and kind of coming into our world.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned not wanting to be like certain bands out there that position themselves as somehow cooler than their audience.
Koester: I just think that trying to be cool is sort of the enemy of good art. But just as I’m saying that I’m thinking that I’ve always ignored the surface of things, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized how important the surfaces are, and that there are people who are brilliant at communicating just the surface. I grew up in the Midwest, where punk was super anti-fashion. But as I’ve gotten older and more open minded, I’ve realized there’s this whole world of people who communicate by way of the surfaces of things.
Rumpus: “Cool” is such a vague concept, and yet it’s often so important to people, even in their forties. Being into a band that’s considered cool can make you feel cool by association.
Koester: Totally. I get that. I guess I’m thinking about a certain strain of indie rock that has a hipper-than-thou attitude. I just feel like I don’t know anything that anyone else doesn’t know. I guess with this second record I wanted to do something that was straightforward in a way, but that’s hopefully layered. I didn’t want to be ironic or flippant. That just didn’t feel right for the material. I tried to do things plainly—to let beautiful things be beautiful and joyful things be joyful and sad things be sad.
For more information and upcoming show schedules, go to www.twodarkbirds.com.
Photo of Steve Koester by Brandon Harman.