Swinging Modern Sounds #61: Songs for the Alliterative at Heart
Once, in the deep past, twenty years or so ago, there was a small storefront on Seventh Avenue, in Park Slope, the contents of which amounted to a cabinet-of-wonders style collection of weird, useless stuff. It was design enthusiast’s paradise, like the famous Museum of Jurassic Technology, or like the Mütter Museum in Philly, and it would be hard, at this remove, to convey just how unusual this store seemed upon its advent, coming at the vestigial end of the period of digital hyperbole. The uselessness of the storefront was beguiling and satisfying. It was, as you probably know, the McSweeney’s storefront, which dated to the period when Dave Eggers lived in Brooklyn and was just getting the idea of his empire together. It happened, in those days, that there were a lot of readings at the McSweeney’s storefront. It was an incredibly uncomfortable place to read, though the store itself was marvelous and original (as was—and still is—Dave’s portfolio of publications and enterprises). I particularly disliked reading there, by reason of claustrophobia, and did it without outsized enthusiasm, except for one thing. Often when you read there, two guys turned up to play music during or after your set, and they brought with them rather homely and unusual instruments that you would not normally associate with cool music. These two guys, who looked sort of like hipster mad scientists, would play some Klezmer-ish stuff, and then the occasional weird cover that was always heavily transmuted in their version. I liked these guys, and admired their ability to play anything.
When McSweeney’s tired of its Seventh Avenue address and expanded to include The Believer, and the Superhero store on Fifth Avenue, it would have been natural for these hipster mad scientists to move on, and they did, but into a much diversified portfolio of conceptual projects that became the band known as One Ring Zero. In fact, as the McSweeney’s presence in Brooklyn was winding down, One Ring Zero mounted their “author project,” in which various authors (I was one of them) wrote lyrics for One Ring Zero songs. The resulting album, which featured lyrics by Auster, Atwood, Eggers, Lethem, Chabon, etc., was a bit of a lit rock hit, and catapulted One Ring Zero to a certain beloved station in the literary scene of Brooklyn. That would have been enough, but at a certain point, Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp, the duo that was One Ring Zero, tired of the limitations of indie rock, and, because they both have music school chops, they moved onto, for example, individualized portfolios of side projects, like the cumbia-influenced Chicha Libre (in Camp’s case), and, with Hearst, into film scoring and a barrage of conceptually-rich investigations including Songs for Unusual Creatures, which combined new music and children’s songs, Songs for Ice Cream Trucks, which tried to sketch out new possibilities for those damnable ice cream truck jingles, and, most recently, a brace of songs for people who can’t stand flying, called, appropriately, Songs for Fearful Flyers.
Hearst’s self-evident gift is for music that has practical application—it is only infrequently that he writes conventional songs—and conceptual verve, but these aspects of the work stand in contrast to the sheer graceful musicality of his releases. With each album, his confidence and prowess as an arranger has grown more undeniable, to the point where Fearful Flyers, which came out recently on his own Urban Geek Records label, is noteworthy more for its strings than for its guitars, basses, and drums. Hearst, who recently became a father, has fashioned with Fearful Flyers a kind of hybrid of Raymond Scott’s later electronic music for infants with the indie classical music of Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Michael Hearst has come a long way from the guy who played plastic wind instruments on Seventh Avenue, to an admirably creative and original adulthood. I have known him all these many years, and played with him frequently (we also use to make a podcast together, called “18.59,” which is still out there if you are curious), and I have always admired not only his prodigious talent, but also his deep humility, and his generous vision of music making in a community. I was enthusiastic, for all these reasons, to talk about his latest project, which conversation took place in a Middle Eastern joint in the South Slope, because the Indian restaurant that we used to frequent closed for renovations. The date was early December 2014. Songs for Fearful Flyers is available now online and at the usual places. It guest stars Whoopi Goldberg.
Rumpus: Can you talk about your own flying anxiety, or your anxiety in general, as a leaping off point for this project?
Michael Hearst: I am a fearful flyer. Virgin Airlines has this whole “get over your fear of flying” program that I should take but they never offer them in the US, it seems. Anyway, I’m a life-long anxiety-ridden person: panic attacks and all that stuff ever since I can remember. And that certainly extends to my fear of flying. Also, I feel like I grew up in an age when DC-10s were just dropping out of the sky every month. I grew up watching news about the plane crashing in the Potomac and people swimming for their lives. And meanwhile we’d fly a lot from Virginia up to New York and all over the place. My dad loved to travel and he loved to take us, which I’m grateful for, but I white-knuckled my way to all these destinations.
The few times as an adult that I’ve not had a window seat and been distracted, I’ve done so much better. There are things that have helped soothe me on the plane. Having a kid has helped because that’s distraction, obviously, and I don’t want my kid to see me look terrified. Certainly things like Xanax have helped, although I don’t feel like that’s a solution by any means.
But music has been a big help, even as a kid, when I was a bleach blond, dreadlocked kid living in VA Beach. I remember we went to Barbados on vacation and I was really listening to Bob Marley, over and over again, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing: it’s not gonna crash. Everything little thing is going to be all right.” So, music has played a role and I think that music plays a big role with lots of people in self-soothing. Down to plugging in your headphones when you have an operation at the hospital. There has been research on this!
Rumpus: Are there inherent qualities in the music that can perform that activity?
Hearst: I think there are inherent qualities. I certainly wouldn’t want to listen to Metallica on a flight. And it took me a while to figure out what music and what qualities in music were working for me. Someone is going to be soothed by Metallica, I guess, but I am not one of them. The qualities that have soothed me I have narrowed down to several factors, one of which is repetition.
Rumpus: What are the other aspects?
Hearst: It needs to be music you can hear over engine noise, to a degree.
Rumpus: Does that mean that you mastered this album really high?
Hearst: I did! Honestly, recording and writing the album was a trick in itself because I was busy procreating and all that, but mastering it: I must’ve mastered this album fifteen times. I just could not find a version that I was happy with and I would listen to it on airplanes and take notes, like “Oh, I just cannot hear the bass.” It was so important to make sure it worked with ear buds and with engine noise. In fact, the album does not sound very good on a regular stereo and I realize that was a compromise. That final track with Whoopi [Goldberg], on my stereo at home, the speakers fart out every time the bass plays. It’s a terrible mastering job on a stereo.
Rumpus: So it has to be heard with ear buds?
Hearst: It doesn’t have to be; it works fine on any small speaker but not necessarily as good on a big system. I wanted the bass to be kind of a soothing thud that would register. There was something about also having a lot of these high, chime-y sounds that, in some way, I felt like might help mask any airplane sounds that cause nervousness.
Rumpus: Like the little “ding-dong” that means the captain is summoning the flight attendant?
Hearst: Yeah, they’re talking to the stewardess and not telling me! On Jet Blue, the landing gear does this, it sounds like a goose being plucked, like (makes jabbing noises). What the hell is that? Something is falling off the airplane or, just someone dropping a suitcase in the back? I think having sounds that mask the environmental noise of an airplane is important. That was another factor and, also, stuff I was listening to that I found worked for me: Chopin’s Nocturnes.
Rumpus: So good.
Hearst: I was listening to the Nocturnes over and over again. It got to the point where I felt like the plane was going to crash if I didn’t listen to Chopin. And the Nocturnes are sort of sad and depressing and a little bit mundane but beautiful. That worked. I found that music that I couldn’t necessarily hum along to was helpful to a degree. I don’t want to contradict myself, but there were things that were helpful melodically but, in some ways, in some ways I knew them too well. I can’t sleep to music I know: I just start listening and humming. I think repetition and Philip Glass-y—that sort of thing—is much easier to fall asleep to.
Rumpus: I noticed that the Whoopi song, “Baggage Claim” is a one-four so, I was wondering if melodic simplicity is part of the formula.
Hearst: Hugely. So another person I listened to a lot was Ali Farka Touré and I was really loving just two chords and that was it for an entire song. And the melodic simplicity, you know, which is such a backwards thing for some reason: taking a song that’s thirty chords and trying to write a song that’s just two chords for the whole song. And almost raga-like. In between Whoopi talking, I have octaves between the viola and violin playing these raga-like melodies which, to me, is obviously the whole idea of chant. There’s something meditative about it that helps.
Rumpus: People who are familiar with your music can’t help but notice the tracks are gigantically longer than you usually are. Like, you have a nine-minute song, which I think may be the only nine-minute song in your catalogue.
Hearst: I wanted songs that were longer. And I purposely made seven tracks on the album which is a luckier number than six; I couldn’t do a thirteen track album. It just wouldn’t fly.
Rumpus: How did you do it? How did you fill the extra space?
Hearst: In the first track, for example, which was like a puzzle—or not a puzzle so much as a train set that I kept adding tracks to—I had the initial thing and I kept building onto that, making subtle changes until it reached this crucial length and then I went back and tweaked parts. At that point, it was more like a skeletal structure that I’d mapped out. And once I had that, then I started (as I do with all my music) bringing in outside musicians to play real parts and make it sound like music and not a sequenced thing. Still, it was, for the most part, a linear process. The second piece really busted my music school skills because I wanted to do a round, essentially like Pachelbel’s Canon which is really fucking hard to do. You get to a certain point where it’s like: “What else can I do that isn’t just repetition on the song? That’s actually building to it and works within where the other melodies have gone?” I wanted it to start off with one string and the next string comes in, and then here’s this beautiful string quartet which, incidentally, is a made-up string quartet. After working with Kronos, I think I’m just going to have each musician do it one at a time. And both the violins are Oliver Marchon and Jeffrey (Ziegler) did cello. So then we’d have this beautiful string quartet, and a cheesy drum machine in the background and some other synthy sounds; this contrast was interesting to me.
Rumpus: What did you write first? Did you make basic tracks first and then, later, write strings onto the basic tracks, or did you have the melodies in mind at the beginning?
Hearst: On this second piece, I think I started with more of a string quartet idea, but then I realized that I could do it with just four chords. It’s only four chords the entire time. So I started playing with that accompaniment. This ping-pongy bass sound with a cheesy drum rhythm worked nicely under the whole thing. I wrote the quartet, added the other stuff, then removed the strings.
Rumpus: I interviewed Vashti Bunyan a couple weeks ago (her new record is really great). She told me that she had this experience where she wrote many MIDI parts on a song and then had the string players come in and then she found that she missed the MIDI.
Hearst: I’ve done that many times. I’ve done that a lot. I have no problem with combining MIDI and real instruments; I do that with this album and all my stuff at this point. Film scores in particular: directors want stuff done quickly so I throw it all together in MIDI, make sure they like it, and then bring in real musicians.
Rumpus: So, the string writing is really significantly beautiful on this record and I’m wondering if it just comes out of Songs For Unusual Creatures. Did you imagine that you were going to be more ambitious in that direction as you embarked on Songs for Fearful Flyers? Or did it develop organically while you were working with the material?
Hearst: It’s totally because of working with the Kronos Quartet on the last album. When I went to music school at VCU, there were no string players. There were a few but they were few and far between. I felt like I got a degree in music composition without ever actually getting to play with strings. So, for me, working with strings has always been the ultimate awesomeness as a composer. It seems like such an obvious thing but for me, it’s like growing up in Virginia, where there was no pizza, or bad pizza, and then moving to New York and “Holy crap: there’s pizza!” (Or bagels. Even though, I was a bagel delivery boy as a kid.) Suddenly having access to more musicians: I feel like lately I’m putting strings in my work everywhere and I just love it. And most of the stuff, there’s nothing complicated about it. I felt a little embarrassed having string players come over and saying, “There’s going to be lots of notes and chords.”
Rumpus: “Just play with E for a while.”
Hearst: I had a really hard time finishing this album, not just because of having a kid and other projects, but because it was sort of exhausting. The tracks were long and I would start to doze off when working on the album. How does Philip Glass not have that problem? I’d work on these five-minute-long passages that are basically the same thing with very subtle changes and I’d find myself putting my head in my hand listening to it, my eyes getting heavy. “This is tough, but I have to listen to it again.” That’s how I knew it was working.
Rumpus: It had the effect on you that you wanted the album to have.
Hearst: It was totally making me zone out and get lethargic. I was, like, “Okay, this is what needs to happen” but it made it really hard to finish, you know? And, honestly, I wish the album was a little longer but I just couldn’t muscle it through anymore. This is the right length for a flight from New York to Richmond, VA, where I’m from. In some ways it was a selfish thing, like I was saying, This is for me.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the fatherhood piece of it a little bit. I remember hearing about this project at some length, a year or so ago, and I always took you at your word that you really were writing about flying. But, in the last couple of days a light bulb went off in my head and I suddenly realized that the hidden influence on the album was Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby.
Hearst: Well, yeah.
Rumpus: Especially that second track, “Marshmallow Clouds.” You know, for example, the little arpeggiating chime-y on that track is just a dead ringer for the Raymond Scott albums. And upon this realization my additional thought was: “Fearful Flyers, Fearful Flyers . . . what’s the deal with the alliteration?” At which point I decided that the album was now about fatherhood in a way.
Hearst: [Laughs] That’s very Phil Spector/ Pet Sounds of you.
Rumpus: You alone, among many of my male acquaintances who have reproduced recently, seemed excited about doing it and unambivalent. Whereas a lot of fathers are hugely ambivalent. But I’m wondering if there’s a way that that fatherhood experience was a transition for the album: like, it was begun as a record about flying but became a record about fatherhood. And maybe the complex feelings about fatherhood are in here, in this project.
Hearst: Yes, that’s very observant of you and it’s totally true. In fact, when I was finishing that second track, I kept playing it for Nathan, my son. It was a sweet lullaby for this beautiful little baby and he really responds to it and that makes it all worthwhile. I think all my music tends to double as sort of lullaby-ish music—unintentionally, I suppose. But I think you really hit the nail on the head; it’s not necessarily something that happened on purpose. But I would say that I was two-thirds of the way through the album when Nathan was born and it was only getting harder. But the last one-third of it was under the influence of a newborn baby and Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby: I didn’t directly mean for it to be that way, but I’m sure it was there. It’s such an amazing work.
Rumpus: I sort of felt like the drum machines, which I find really funny on the record, especially on the last track, are a nod in that direction too because Scott was an early electronic music guy and really liked a cheeseball electronic rhythm track in his day.
Hearst: Raymond Scott’s always been a huge influence on my stuff; I wrote a song in my indie rock days about Raymond Scott.
Rumpus: So, since you mentioned the indie rock thing, I think it’s fair to ask—in listening to this record, it struck me that it has almost nothing about it that suggests indie rock.
Hearst: I appreciate that.
Rumpus: There’s maybe a slide guitar on one track, but, by and large, the guitars are really unobtrusive. They don’t call attention to themselves as guitars. Does it make any sense to think of the album as “rock” or “indie rock” at all?
Hearst: As always, I have no idea how to categorize my work and it’s an ongoing problem with marketing people. I find that my digital distributor wants to label it under “Indie.” But then I’m thinking this is more of a “classical” album in some way. I think just by having drums—even electronic silly percussion— on there it becomes “pop” somehow. It trips some algorithm on iTunes that indicates “percussion,” “beat,” “rock.” I don’t know who to send the stuff to. Thankfully, I have NPR and literary friends such as yourself.
Rumpus: I want to ask about Eno and the “Ode to Eno” track. I guess I immediately understood the album to have something in common with Music for Airports. But I’m interested in that particular track and the way that it sort of recalibrates Eno-related expectations with respect to Songs for Fearful Flyers. There’s a lot more going on melodically in “Ode to Eno” than we would associate with an Eno-ish track. So, how did you approach that piece?
Hearst: I had to make a nod to Brian Eno. It would be ridiculous not to, in this project, and certainly his intentions with Music for Airports are similar. So, I went back and listened to a lot of that material. I think I drifted into something else, which is good.
Rumpus: Eno is so much better at it than everybody else anyway.
Hearst: I had fun with that track. I was sort of going back to my Jewish music roots or whatever. It’s a doina essentially. Only Klezmer musicians know that word. A lot of times, there’s an intro to a Klezmer song that’s just like a root thing back and forth; everyone improvises around a chord then goes to the next chord, that sort of thing. It was a studio version but I did my own improvising with the guitars and keyboards and stuff.
Rumpus: So, it’s “In C,” in a way. Was it after your live “In C” experience?
Hearst: Yeah, it was.
Rumpus: You’re allowed to play the chord as long as you want; there’s no indication of when you have to go to the next group.
Hearst: Just musically whatever works with what’s happening. And everyone more or less follows the instructions but the piece drifts at different times and, of course, post-production wise, I did mixing that worked for me.
Rumpus: Is that how you wound up with that cello at the end?
Hearst: So then I had Jeffrey (Ziegler) over, who is one of the most amazing cellists I can think of, and, you know, here I was having him do the most ridiculous chord stuff possible and he was having a lot of fun with that song. At the end I said, “Just, for the fun of it, when the song fades out I’ll give you two chords that go back and forth and you just do want you want for as long as you want.” I must’ve recorded three or four takes of him doing that. But, I think it was the first take, I was, like, “This is the one.”
Rumpus: So you didn’t comp. That’s just as it was?
Hearst: I didn’t comp; there was some cross-fading. I couldn’t just leave it as that so I took that track, copied and pasted it to a new track, stacked it with the original, and completely fucked with it a little bit.
Rumpus: Phase-shifted a little bit?
Hearst: Phase-shifting, added all sort of delay-ish stuff, and I have that hardpan to one side kind of echoing in a weird, synthy way. I added a little glockenspiel. It’s all very loose. That’s one of my favorite spots on the album. Although it is one of the parts you can’t hear over an airplane, unfortunately.
Rumpus: Do you mind retelling the Whoopi Goldberg story?
Hearst: Yeah, totally. Aside from my own fear of flying, my one big inspiration to make the album was Julie Shapiro, the radio producer. She emailed me and she’s a fearful flyer. She emailed me at one point a few years ago saying that she listens to songs from Music for Ice Cream Trucks over and over whenever she flies. It’s one of the few things that soothes her when she’s flying, which I thought was fascinating. I was like, “That’s amazing. I wonder what it is about it.” And I realized it was probably some of that repetitive chime-y stuff that I wanted to bring back again. We joked at the time saying that I should do an album called Songs for Fearful Flyers and left it at that. And then, really, it came down to this one incident where I was working on a play in San Francisco and I was flying there nearly every other week to work on this play. I was always terrified going across the country doing this. And on one of these trips, I had to play a gig in Paris so I took a flight from San Francisco to Paris on Air France. And that day, news broke that this Air France flight disappeared from Rio. And it just set me off. I knew, statistically, there was no way in hell that another Air France plane was going to go down a couple of days later.
Rumpus: Tell that to the guys on Malaysia Airways.
Hearst: You never know! I told the director, Ellen Sebastian Chang, who’s this awesome multitasking everything woman in San Francisco—restaurateur, director, whatever—and she’s just super sweet and she seems to know everybody. I told her that I was dreading this flight tomorrow and she said “Oh my God, you have to talk to my friend, Whoopi; she’s also terrified of flying.” And, of course I was like “Whoopi?” How many Whoopis could there be? But I brushed it off and thought “Yeah, I would love to talk to Whoopi; that’d be hilarious.”
About fifteen minutes later, as people are starting to come into the theater to take their seats, I see Ellen up in the sound booth with her cellphone and I look at her and she waves and motions for me to come with her. She says “Here, Michael, talk to Whoopi” and just presses the phone to my ear. So I was just like “Hi, Whoopi” and there was that unmistakable voice: “Hi, Michael, so you’re afraid to fly, too?” So we talked about our fear of flying and a lot of it was Whoopi soothing me; she had just been through this Virgin Airlines program and, essentially, she had gotten over her fear of flying at this point.
Hearst: She was telling me all the things she’d learned, that’d helped her, and how I should apply these things. The whole time she was telling me this, I’m not sure if it was soothing me as much as I was thinking “I should record this” so that I could actually listen to it when I wasn’t actually talking to her. And by the end of the conversation I was like, “Would you let me record you sometime?” and she said, “Absolutely.” And that’s when I knew I needed to make this album, between Julie Shapiro and Whoopi Goldberg. So I went to her dressing room at The View where she has millions of shoes, and waited for her to finish her interview with Rob Lowe. I saw Barbara Walters walk by. And then Whoopi came in. She was great; she sat down and just nailed it. She was really funny; the outtakes are amazing. I don’t think I’m allowed to ever do anything with them but I have fifteen minutes of her improvising. So ridiculously funny. But, obviously, we wanted it to be a little bit serious, with slight hints of humor in there, but mostly a serious sort of take on how to handle this thing. Sadly, I think Whoopi is back to being afraid of flying so maybe she can listen to this and it’ll help her.
Rumpus: So, has that track viralized at all? It seems like it should.
Hearst: No, but I purposefully sort of understated it partially because the contract I have with her says that her name can’t be in any larger print than the other names, which I think is awesome. It’s great to have Alyssa Lamb’s name just as big and before Whoopi Goldberg’s. But I also think it’s just nice to promote the album and say, “By the way, there’s a track at the end with Whoopi Goldberg.” It’s kind of awesome: people are like “wait, what? Whoopi Goldberg… the same Whoopi?,” you know.
Rumpus: Is there any plan to try and make a traveling version of the piece?
Hearst: I never intended for it to be a live thing because I’m overwhelmed with so many other projects and playing live is a pain. I love it but there’s just so much work to get people together, as you know. We played exactly two songs at the CD release party which was great; it was a lot of fun. It made me wish it could be something toured but I don’t know how a Fearful Flyers live tour would really go. [Both laugh] We could play on airplanes or something. I mean, I think we’ll play songs in sets here and there. I’ve got a festival upcoming in Florida in a couple months and one of the shows is going to be a Michael Hearst variety show. Fearful Flyers is mostly a recorded project, ultimately.
Rumpus: What’s next then?
Hearst: Well, I love to do a complete 180 on everything. I’m toying with some songs for my next book which is Extraordinary People which are going to be full-on sing along songs but about weird people doing weird things. I’ve written a song about Billie Jean King so far. I’ve written another one about Edward Leedskalnin. I’ve written a song about—what is her name—Stagecoach Mary (Fields), who was this amazing woman in sort of the Wild West days who delivered the mail and who was the first woman to work for the postal service. She was a big black woman who smoked a cigar, carried a bottle of gin, and delivered the mail in the worst weather possible and the people in Montana, where she was, loved her.