Bowerbirds w/ Sharon Van Etten, The Lonelyhearts, Alexis Stevens
The Mill | Friday, March 30 | 8 p.m. | $15/18
When Phil Moore and his band, Bowerbirds played the Mission Creek Festival in 2009, they silenced a packed Mill crowd with their brand of bare-boned acoustic folk. I remember walking away that night with a friend of mine; neither of us was quite able to put into words what we had just experienced. It felt purely visceral, yet challenged everything I thought I knew about a genre. Every so often the sky opens up and the stars align for a show so moving to occur, but there is definitely something else that sets Bowerbirds apart. I’m still not exactly sure what it is, and maybe I’m not supposed to.
Hot on the heels of their fullest, most ambitious record yet, Bowerbirds will be gracing the festival with their presence again this year. I caught up with Phil over the phone to talk about his Iowa roots, the new record and life as a Bowerbird.
You have some ties to Iowa and I think a lot of people around here know about that but are maybe a little hazy on what exactly that is.
Yeah I grew up in Grinnell, Iowa just an hour away from y’all. I went to school at The University of Iowa for five years, living in Iowa City, and then moved to Mount Vernon for a year and a half or so. So I lived in Iowa for quite a while, until like, 2006 I believe it was. No, it was 2005. Now I don’t know, I’m kind of buzzing myself on the details but it was right around then before I moved out to North Carolina.
While you were here in Iowa City, Grinnell, Mount Vernon or wherever you were in Iowa at the time, were you playing music?
Yeah I was playing music. I started playing music when I was in middle school with my really close friends there, Mark, Wes and John-Paul. We were in a band back in middle school. It was amazing. It was called Vivid and it was kind of like a prog-rock band. We played through high school and then we all kind of went off to different colleges. Wes and I went to The University of Iowa and Mark went to Grinnell, so we were close enough. Then we got another drummer and played in a band called The Speed of Sauce. We played in Iowa City a lot that first year. John-Paul later joined our band again when he moved to Iowa City, too, so we basically had our four original Vivid band members that we started with in like sixth grade playing shows out in Iowa City into the 2000s and stuff. So we were all really good friends playing music in Iowa for several years.
Yeah that’s cool that you guys were able to keep that going for so long. So when you played in Iowa City, where did you play?
Well there was a place called Gunner’s, another place called The Green Room, I’m not sure what these places are now, I forget, and then there was a place called Gabe’s.
Yeah, Gabe’s is still around. It was called The Picador for a little bit and then the name got switched back to Gabe’s.
Oh, sweet. It’s Gabe’s again, really? Well yeah, we played those places.
You guys have played the festival before. I remember your family coming into town. Any special family plans while you’re in town?
We’ll try to see them as much as possible but we’re kind of zipping through to get to Minneapolis the next day. We’ll probably drive into Grinnell and hang out in there for however many hours as we can and try to stay awake. My parents will probably come to the show again.
So you relocated to NC. What was the reason for that?
Really I just didn’t have any prospect for a job. That’s basically what it was. I was working for the guy that I was renting from and he was a farmer so I was doing odd jobs like driving the tractor for him and doing Iowa stuff like that. It just barely paid my rent. I got a biology degree from the university and I just needed to try to find something, and that was my initial plan—to move to North Carolina where there would be a few more jobs, but I just ended up playing music more.
My next question has to do with your band mate, Beth, who is also your girlfriend, correct?
Did you meet her in North Carolina?
Yes I actually met her at my first job in North Carolina, which was working at whole foods. We met just…walking around whole foods. Yep.
Was Bowerbirds a plan of yours before you met her or was it a product of the relationship? Did it just kind of happen naturally?
It kind of happened naturally. We never wanted to. Beth was not really a practicing musician. She had played piano and clarinet as a kid. I had obviously been in bands for years as I was saying, but she picked the accordion and learned it really really quickly in like, a month. It was right around the time I was writing songs for myself she just started playing with me. It just turned into this other thing and it worked so we kept on doing it.
Cool. And she’s a visual artist too, right?
Yeah, that’s her main artistic thing.
I noticed she had done an album cover for David Karson Daniels and maybe some other bands. Has she done any of your album covers?
She did our first EP cover. It just always happened that we were way too busy right around the time of the release of the record doing other things that she could never really be focused enough to make a really good album cover, which is insane because we always try to be the one to make the cover but it hasn’t really worked. The album cover for the most recent album is one of her favorite artists. She’s really good a curating I think. She knows some amazing artists so we do benefit that way. It’s a friend of Beth’s. Her name is Monica.
So do you two write songs together? What does the process look like?
I start most of the songs and then Beth pretty much edits. She takes my ideas and tells me what I need to repeat more. That’s usually the case. She finds the sincerity in what I’m doing and then tries to get rid of the excess stuff. That’s really important because the way I write music and the way that I’m creative, I don’t really have a filter that I put on myself. It’s really invaluable to have somebody who can hear what I’m doing before I even know what I’m doing. So she does that and then she writes quite a few parts as well. She started one of the songs on the album which was a really interesting way to do it because I then got to edit her stuff down which was new for me. It’s all really exciting and we’re really proud of it.
Yeah I noticed she has a few more vocal parts in the new album.
Yeah she wrote all those lyrics and had a lot to do with editing lyrics as well.
Having listened to the new record and all of your previous records, they all certainly each have their own character. Your first album, Hymns for a Dark Horse is maybe a little more stripped down and loose compared to the next two albums. How would you describe the evolution of your sound, style and production of your albums?
The first album was, just like you said, really stripped down. The intention was to take all the excess stuff away and just come down to guitar, bass drum and accordion. That was the idea. We have some violin in there but we didn’t want it to sound produced. We didn’t want any production value whatsoever. There was so much excess in my previous band, and that was awesome and beautiful, but at that point in time that’s what needed to happen—to strip it all down. Bowerbirds was a side project at first with that very intention. The next album was just as DiY, if not more, than the first record, but it was just a collection of songs that I think were much more personal than the first album. I wanted to get that down as purely as possible. At the time there wasn’t much money or time or anything really. I needed to get those songs down, so I kind of just did that myself on garage band with some nice, borrowed microphones. I used this huge amazing space and it sounds a lot bigger I guess, but it’s just as DiY as the first one. The fidelity of that is not as nice as the first one I’d say, but it’s kind of hard to tell because it’s just larger. The people with really good ears can tell. On our latest album we really wanted to present the songs in certain way. We wanted to spend a lot time with each song figuring out what sounds would benefit each song, experiment a lot more with that and then record it at a real studio. We did end up recording a lot of it ourselves again, but we really wanted to figure out what the songs needed instead of having a stripped down instrumentation where we only had a limited palette. We wanted to expand our palette and figure out what the songs needed.
I think there’s something to be said about both approaches to recording and sometimes you just kind of need to fill out an idea. Like your first single on the new album, “Tuck the Darkness In,” it just sounds like a straight-up rock song at some points, which is awesome. Had I only heard the first album I wouldn’t have expected that. I think it’s an awesome direction you guys are going. The new album is called The Clearing. Why is it called that?
The Clearing kind of relates to the last question about our first two albums and how we didn’t have a lot of support doing it DiY. We were touring for several years. Like three years straight. It seemed like we were just trying to figure out who we were, working way hard, not making any money and not really getting you know, getting along, because of how difficult…well, our band fought a lot in those years. Beth and I broke up and then we got to take two years off to make this record. We forced ourselves to take two years off and that was really the turning point. Beth and I got back together and we moved out to our land again. We really got into the daily routine of life, and the daily routine of life was slow, and we got to see the seasons change and everything. I think that really helped us to change our perspective to a more positive way of thinking and that’s essentially what the title is referring to—that positive view on life that we had after a long streak of hard work basically.
You mentioned where you were living. I noticed that that’s an interview question you often get, but I’m going to make you talk about it anyway because it sounds pretty cool.
[Laughs] Yeah, in North Carolina Beth and I bought a couple acres of land and moved an Airstream out to it. We lived in the Airstream for about three years, started building a cabin and bought a couple more acres. We’re living out here, it’s where I am right now. As we were building the cabin, this house up the hill about 400 yards from us became vacant so we just started renting the place. It’s way out in the country and is like, 150 years old. Things are leaking and everything and only one of the rooms is heated but for us, after living in an airstream for three years, it is a pretty amazing spot. To have plumbing and everything is just great. And on the road, we just stay with people we know or get hotel rooms. It’s actually more lavish than our home lifestyle, especially in the early years with the Airstream.
Yeah I was going to ask if you ever brought the Airstream on the road with you.
Oh no, no. gas would be too expensive, but it would be pretty amazing to have your own little hut.
So you’re playing a show in Iowa City with Sharon Van Etten and some of my favorite local acts. I believe you’ve toured with Sharon before, right?
Yeah we toured with Sharon on our last major U.S. tour. She just played a couple of shows. I actually met Sharon in 2006 when she opened up for us at the first of three shows in Asheville, North Carolina, and then in Chapel Hill. I guess she was just starting out. We saw her being amazing and kind of just started spreading the word as best we could.
Have you had a chance to listen to her new album yet?
Yeah we’re on the same record label, so we get the perks of getting albums in advance which is nice.
Last question: You guys were one of my first follows on twitter. Who’s in charge of the twitter account over there?
I’m going to be honest, I don’t know what’s happening on twitter. It’s totally Beth. She’s really good at keeping up with that stuff.
Well I think I speak for a lot of people when I say we’re really excited to have you back for the festival.
I’m excited to come back to the home turf. It’s going to be really awesome.
You can follow Bowerbirds, too, @thebowerbirds, and see them at Mission Creek on March 30.