Michael Hearst is a founding member of One Ring Zero, a unique band that uses the theremin, accordion, Claviola, and other unusual instruments and sounds to create music that’s all their own. On the band’s acclaimed album As Smart As We Are (The Author Project), One Ring Zero set lyrics contributed by well-known authors including Paul Auster, Neil Gaiman, and Margaret Atwood to music. A later collaboration, The Recipe Project, created songs using the recipes of famous chefs such as Tom Colicchio and Aarón Sánchez.
As a solo artist, Hearst has composed music for documentary films, and he’s also released several albums including Songs for Ice Cream Trucks and Songs for Fearful Flyers. Most recently he’s written a fantastic three-part children’s book series: Unusual Creatures, Extraordinary People, and Curious Constructions. What I enjoy most about Hearst’s work is that parents and kids can enjoy it together. Hearst follows his own muse, and in doing so, he encourages us to follow ours.
The Rumpus: You’re known as a composer, multi-instrumentalist musician, and a writer. How did you get your start?
Michael Hearst: I grew up in a very artistic family. My mother is a painter, my father always had musical instruments, and such a big part of growing up was playing duets on piano, organ, guitar, and banjo. I started studying music when I was six or seven years old—I took piano lessons like a lot of kids, and I did write a song with my grandfather called “The Last Dinosaur,” which we got copy-written, but I never really thought that I would have a career in music or in writing for that matter. In high school the pressure was a little greater to decide what I wanted to do with my life, but I was definitely a Virginia Beach skater, slacker kid to some degree. I’d switched to studying jazz guitar once a week, which really meant I just wanted to play rock guitar.
Rumpus: Why did you switch?
Hearst: At some point I saw a concert of Leonard Bernstein on TV—he was conducting the New York Philharmonic doing Rhapsody in Blue and I thought it was the coolest thing watching the sweat flying from his forehead and seeing him jump back and forth between conducting and playing piano. My stepfather is a huge classical buff, and I started getting into his CD collection. I wasn’t thrilled at the time by the “standard” classical music—stuff like Beethoven and Mozart—but I discovered things like Holst’s The Planets, Kronos Quartet, who were doing this crazy contemporary stuff including a cover of “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, Philip Glass, and other musicians who were just as inspiring as Pink Floyd, R.E.M., and all the other rock bands at the time. That ultimately led me to Virginia Commonwealth University to study music.
Rumpus: Jazz guitar?
Hearst: I started off as a classical guitar major actually. I grew my fingernails longer, learned how to play the guitar on my left knee, and all of these proper techniques. After a year I thought maybe I’d switch to jazz guitar, but eventually I realized I was a much better pianist so I started focusing on composition again.
Rumpus: How did your decision to pursue composition lay the groundwork for your approach to music?
Hearst: In music school I was fascinated by strange sets of words set to music. For my senior recital we had to write music that showed off different styles and instruments including brass ensembles, string ensembles, and vocals. So I composed a piece I called “Animals, Countries, and Grocery Stores.” I wrote a list of animals and had this small choral group sing the list in the first movement, in the second movement they sang the list of countries, and for the third movement it was grocery stores. I had Yellow Pages from all around the country on microfiche and stuff like that as a reference, so they’d sing “Piggly Wiggly, Food Lion…”
Rumpus: Did you have a sense of your career path at this point?
Hearst: Not entirely. There were only about six or seven composition majors at the time, and one of them was Joshua Camp, who was a few years ahead of me. I saw his senior concert and then I’d heard he got a job as an accordion technician at the nearby Hohner warehouse repair center in Richmond. When I graduated a year or two later I saw him at a party and asked if there were any open positions. What else does one do with a degree in music composition, especially in Virginia? As much as I had ambitions in the back of my head about doing bigger and better things, I was always a little terrified of leaving Virginia. My idea was to find a fun job there where I could still be a musician. Sure enough there was an opening for a harmonica technician.
Rumpus: What was the job like?
Hearst: Josh and I became very close, both working in this insane repair center and distribution facility. We were adjusting, and tuning, and working in adjacent rooms just having a great time, firing rubber bands at each other across the warehouse, going out for lunch together, and then coming back and sending noises to each other across the intercom system. The other people working there were Germans and Austrians, and we were these two nerdy American kids with music degrees. That’s essentially where One Ring Zero started.
Rumpus: Before you took the job did you know that Hohner made many of the unusual instruments that became part of One Ring Zero’s unique sound?
Hearst: No—all I really knew about were Hohner harmonicas and accordions, and that they had branched out into guitars and basses that were a little bit of a laughing point among musicians. But I quickly realized there were also these strange instruments, stuff like hybrid accordions and harmonicas, keyboard instruments, and other things. Even if they were complete failures, and many of them were, Hohner kept them around. For example, there was a harmonica with two bells at the top that you could ding with your fingers while you were playing. Another instrument looked like a typewriter you could blow into, and of course there was the Claviola, which became the backbone of One Ring Zero. Hohner opened a whole new world of strange instruments to me.
Rumpus: How did One Ring Zero connect with the literary community?
Hearst: At first we were recording in my basement on a weekly basis, and just putting instrumental songs together using these strange instruments. But One Ring Zero became fairly popular in Richmond—this was in the late 90s—and we started working with the playwright and author Clay McLeod Chapman on an off-Broadway performance called “The Pumpkin Pie Show.” That collaboration had us coming up to New York every weekend, and in addition to working with Clay we started to get shows of our own. We used local musicians because we couldn’t afford to bring our band up from Richmond, and eventually we moved up to New York ourselves.
Rumpus: How did you become involved with McSweeney’s?
Hearst: Around the time Dave Eggers’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, came out he started what he called McSweeney’s literary attempt. The headquarters was a little space in South Park Slope that he used as an office, with the front part being a little curio shop with the most random stuff you could buy—like small rubber cubbies with random cubes, and springs in jars, and you could also rent shoes by the hour. At the time it was just called “Store.” This place was tiny, maybe five feet wide by eight feet long. I’d heard about it but I had to walk up and down the street a bunch of times to find it. I finally went in and just introduced myself.
Rumpus: To Dave?
Hearst: He had actually moved away to San Francisco right before I moved up here, so we met later. But the whole literary scene was blowing up in Brooklyn at the time so well-known writers would come in and Josh and I would do some music in between readings for folks like Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, A.M. Homes, Jonathan Ames, and a long list of others. Before we knew it, One Ring Zero was essentially the house band, which meant playing a show every Tuesday night. We were improvising music behind folks who were reading, and then we took it one step further, asking the writers for lyrics and then setting them to music. Before long we had amassed an entire album’s worth of songs—this was As Smart As We Are (The Author Project).
Rumpus: Were any of the writers musicians themselves?
Hearst: Some of the writers were musicians, for example, Rick Moody, who went on to form the Wingdale Community Singers, Darrin Strauss played the guitar, and Myla Goldberg went to school for flute. Margaret Atwood once accompanied us on theremin too, which was hilarious. We also got to meet people like Olivier Conan, who opened up the music club Barbès, which is a very popular venue in Park Slope, and his wife Alyssa Lamb, and also Syd Straw who sang on Myla Goldberg’s song…
Rumpus: Wow. Sounds like a magical time and place.
Hearst: It was such a fun moment in Brooklyn, in literature, in history in general. And just to continue a little bit about that store, when Dave moved away he opened a tutoring center at 826 Valencia Street in San Francisco. The front was a pirate supply store, which became very successful. Meanwhile, he had basically left a crew of us to run the original space in Brooklyn, so I’d go there every day to hang out with people, and see who’d buy the small rubber cubes, McSweeney’s books, and all that stuff. But then Dave said, “Why don’t you guys do something like I’m doing here?” So we got together and brainstormed, found the new location on 5th Avenue, and with his blessing and money, we opened a New York City 826 that was a superhero supply center. I was over there every single day with my circular saw and hammer helping to build that place, including the cape tester and the little nooks in the windows. As you know now there are 826s all over the country, all with different themes.
Rumpus: You’ve also worked with chefs, turning their recipes into songs. How did that collaboration arise?
Hearst: The CD with authors did well and got us exposure—for example we were on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and we did lots of other interviews, and toured around a lot. Around this time my brother in law, Chris Cosentino, who’s a well known chef, suggested we do a similar project, but with chefs’ recipes. I thought it was a hilarious idea. Chris’s recipe was first, and it went from there.
Rumpus: How was working with chefs different than working with writers?
Hearst: It was often different because we weren’t working directly with the chefs. A lot of it was soliciting the chefs to provide us with a recipe and promising it would be cool. I love to cook, and I love to eat. I was fascinated with what was happening at the time with chefs essentially becoming rock stars, and I thought I’d just take it one step further. But whereas a lot of writers are happy to take a break from their offices where they do their work, chefs are in kitchens all day—or in the case of celebrity chefs they’re running around doing events, sponsorships, and so on. So we tried to craft songs that fit stylistically with their recipes, which was incredibly challenging.
Rumpus: In addition to your work with One Ring Zero, and your solo albums, you’ve composed movie soundtracks, and your most recent project is a three-part book series, each book geared toward a different theme: Unusual Creatures, Extraordinary People, and Curious Constructions. One of the things I love about these books is that your selections are indeed unusual, extraordinary, and curious. For example, in Curious Constructions you include a fire-breathing octopus sculpture and the skateboard ramp you’d need to jump the Great Wall of China. As a kid were you into the “amazing facts” books, like the Guinness World Records books or National Geographic’s fact books?
Hearst: I love that you mentioned this because I grew up loving That’s Incredible! (Ripley’s Believe it or Not)—the TV series and the books—and stuff like that. Pre-Internet you would get these books—Time Life had them, like maybe a series where the first one is “Wild West” with facts like “Once John Wesley Harding shot a man just for snoring too loud!” I loved those almanacs and hardback books, and also my safari cards.
Rumpus: Oh yeah! I always wanted those! It was a TV ad with a 1-800 number, you had to pay such-and-such plus some extra charge for shipping and handling COD but usually got a bonus card if you could answer a trivia question or call in the next ten minutes. I was never quick enough to convince my mom to get them.
Hearst: You know you can still get them on eBay as I did.
Rumpus: I might have to do that! But first I want to hear more about your books!
Hearst: One Ring Zero was doing well, but we were almost putting out too much stuff and Josh got busy touring with another band. I had also started putting out solo music, such as Songs for Ice Cream Trucks, and I had an idea for a new album called Songs for Unusual Creatures, which I wanted it to be a book/CD combo. Chronicle said yes to the book, and I released the CD and digital version of the album on my own. The book did well, and Chronicle asked, “What’s your next book?” Right off the bat, I envisioned all three books as being a throwback to the 70s and 80s, sort of encyclopedic volumes of strange and bizarre things.
Rumpus: Unusual Creatures was also made into a PBS Digital Studios series?
Hearst: Yes! A good friend of mine, Joe Beshenkovsky, who was the editor for the This American Life TV series, suggested we make an educational video for one of the songs. Joe is a badass editor. In fact he won an Emmy for This American Life and since then he’s gone on to edit the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck and other projects. We made a video for the aye-aye as a pilot. It’s funny because I’d pulled out all the stops, even asking Kronos Quartet to be in it, and I’d sent it around to a bunch of networks, but no one was interested. After we put it out ourselves on YouTube, and it got nearly 100,000 views, PBS Digital asked us if we wanted to do a series.
Rumpus: That’s awesome. What was it like to work on this show, moving from audio to video?
Hearst: In all honesty it was a lot of work, and it was just the two of us. We’d write together and I’d handle most of the logistics like booking flights and setting up interviews with zookeepers and scientists, and Joe would do all of the camera work and editing, and then I would write the songs and he do all of the video post-production and I would do the audio post-production. We were just two guys doing the work of like forty people. It was a lot of fun and I’m glad we did it. But all the while I was also working on the next album, and book, and scoring films. PBS Digital wanted the series to be ongoing, but we capped it at ten episodes. Joe has been a great ally in the film world, so the tentacles of work keep growing.
Rumpus: Has independent online distribution and e-commerce has it made it easier for you to reach potential audiences, say compared to the days when books and music were sold separately in brick and mortar stores?
Hearst: That’s a great question but I honestly don’t know. If I’d started thirty years earlier I’d like to think maybe I could have been in the shoes of Frank Zappa or one of those weird guys who actually got stuff out there, but it’s also easy to assume that no one would know about me at all. One thing my world has forced me to do is to be very hands-on in the sense that I am creating this art and these projects that I hope are interesting. But that’s maybe thirty percent of it. The other seventy percent is the insane amount of behind the scenes work I do pimping myself, for lack of better words. I’m putting websites together, walking around with CDs and postcards in my coat pocket to hand to people, and just trying to get myself out there.
Rumpus: I’m actually really glad you brought that up because I think this “pimping” is necessary but something people don’t often admit they need to do. And other people buy into that false mythology, believing that the cream naturally and effortlessly rises to the top.
Hearst: I was recently honored with an invitation to give the keynote address at VCU to the School of the Arts, and it was a big thing I wrote into my address is that we can’t expect others to do things for us. If it was a lottery thirty years ago, it’s even more of an insane lottery now. No one is going to care about your work as much as you do and no one is going to hustle as much to get it out there. Talent is super-important and it’s awesome if you have it, but it’s really a small piece of what it takes. So much of it is getting out into the world. When I moved to New York I was terrified of leaving my comfort zone in Richmond, but I said to myself that if I could be brave enough to do it that I would never leave my house without something I could hand to someone. I stumbled into McSweeney’s with a CD. I also gave one to Spike Lee in the street. I doubt he ever listened to it, but a big part of getting to where I am now was not being afraid to do that sort of thing. It just has to be done.
Rumpus: Community is also really important. You say you stumbled into McSweeney’s, but there was a McSweeney’s to stumble into, and it was an authentic community. For a lot of young artists coming up today, especially in New York where it’s become so expensive, that’s harder to find. I feel like a broken record (and I feel older than a broken record for using that term) but putting something online, up on social media, isn’t the same as connecting with people in real life.
Hearst: Yeah—that terrifies me when I think of my own child and my nieces and nephews on social media all day, not out there meeting and interacting with people. I spend a lot of time on social media too, but I moved to New York to get out into the world. You can sit around all day on Instagram and collect a million followers, but it’s doing shows that get the attention of booking agents and audiences who have seen first-hand what you can do.
Rumpus: And I would also think that your interaction in a live performance setting is very different than what you can experience online.
Hearst: So much more powerful!
Rumpus: Are there certain kinds of collaborations that you’re particularly interested in at this stage of your career?
Hearst: First and foremost it’s working with people I like, doing projects that are fun. I still have yet to score a feature length narrative film, and while I love documentaries and I love scoring them, I’d love to do this too.
Rumpus: Are there forthcoming projects that you’d like to talk about here?
Hearst: One thing I am really excited about is the resurgence of vinyl and other physical objects. I did a Kickstarter campaign for the vinyl version of Songs for Extraordinary People just really to let people know I was working on an album of companion songs to go along with the book. But we’ve had to double the original production order, which is so great. I love the idea of combining the music, writing, and imagery in one. It’s so cool to see my kid sitting front of the record player, listening to the music while he’s seeing and reading about the person I’m singing about. I’d love to do more of that kind of thing, and maybe make a podcast for kids based on Songs for Extraordinary People, too.
Check out this video for one of my favorite tracks from Songs for Extraordinary People—it’s about Evel Knievel:
And here’s Hearst’s keynote address at VCU!
Hearst’s Junior High School and High School friend, Ryan McGinness (who is now a famous artist) made the cassette insert art for “Animals, Countries, and Grocery Stores” as a graduation gift. All photographs provided courtesy of Michael Hearst.
This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.