In 2003 I raved about an Austin band Many Birthdays whose mp3s I had downloaded on some obscure website.
The New Asparagus
I was listening to the Austin band Red Cake Records (now known as Many Birthdays), but to tell the truth I just didn’t get it. The music was odd, not really intense, full of weird sounds and string mixtures of instruments and genres. Melodies just seem to putter out, as though, they forgot to write the rest of it, or the drummer fell asleep. What was going on.?
It’s like asparagus. The first time you eat asparagus, you think, “Man, what the heck is this? Is this a vegetable? And what’s with those ridges at the top? And what’s with the stringy parts of it? And that taste–oily, bitter, briney. But after a few sticks, you suddenly say, “hey, this is great! Gosh, I wish every vegetable could be this weird! And delicious!” And then you look at the other vegetables that used to be the loves of your life–the carrots and lettuce and beans–well, it all seems so uninteresting. How could you ever have lived before you knew asparagus?”
Listen up world, the band Many Birthdays is the new asparagus. So psychedelic, but notice how carefully controlled all the audio effects were. Surveillance Society (mp3) is wistful underwater strumming and distortions drifting into the netherworld. In Better To Walk(mp3) strange ambient noises we hear while hopping along the highway median, watching the cars whiz by. Simple string numbers like Clay (mp3) convince us that these modest minstrels can actually play melodies when they fancy such a radical notion. In songs like Belt Buckle (mp3), you hear a country twang mixed with lovely garagey electronic strums, a country-western song for Eskimos. The music is contemplative, quirky, fun and totally insignificant. It’s the kind of music you listen to while watching the fish swim glumly around in the aquarium. After it ends, you say, wait, where did the afternoon go?
(The original review had mp3 links, all of which are now dead, but they now sell mp3s on Amazon and Rhapsody and have a small number of freebies on their website). Electro Fantastic Remix is an otherworldly electronic sound-poem with a hard beat (and by the way, it’s fantastic!), Aya is a slow and mellow song with Dixon on vocals. 130th Dream is another kind of instrumental sound poem that veers from style to style. Addiction is another instrumental sound poem with a fast techno beat. Just listening to these things, you’d swear that vocals are just an afterthought. Totally not the case with Black Crow Remix and actually a lot of their songs on other albums. Yes, they can sing; of course they can; it’s just that they are aiming for some blended electronic effect. In Minnawa (see youtube video below), the music is fierce, kind of punk and definitely exciting to listen to.
Compare them to: Lonah, Ladytron or even Talking Heads (Or a dozen underground Asian pops I have yet to hear).
As luck would have it, I met the bandleader at an Austin cafe a few years back and up until now have never had a chance to see them perform (It’s the Austin-Houston travel thing).
Since that time, I’ve kept up with the band at a distance. They have put out some great songs and albums, plus they have teamed up with a videographer to make some artistically cool videos. Here’s an interview by Eric Power with Many Birthdays:
How has the band/sound transformed over the years?
When we were just doing experimental home-recordings, we had no real concern with it sounding like a "band". Nor did we have concern about how to play the stuff live. But once we began figuring out how to play music for shows, our writing started to naturally change. We started becoming more interested in the pulse and energy of a piece than in the limitless details of recording. It’s like we really needed to paint with much broader strokes and let some of the shadings and details take care of themselves. It’s a balance we are still working on. Also, we’ve gone from a duo four years ago, to a 4-piece now, playing with as many as five people including guest players. Our sound has revolved around one main goal for quite sometime, and that is to make people move, dance or simply feel something.
I definitely understand the desire to find an audience for your art. That’s what it’s all about – especially for music. But the early Many Birthdays stuff didn’t need to be danceable; there’s no shame in being just a studio band. It’s just different.
At the same time, it’s easy to play with the crowd. I’ve noticed that with live storytelling. Some stories go over well with live audiences, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better stories. It just means that audience like to laugh and they like jokes about farts and vomiting.
At the same time, I am happy that Many Birthdays is more of a collaboration project; the earlier stuff could best be described as Jon Dixon’s sonic experiments, but now the group has new energy and different voices. The later stuff always surprises me in a good way. I get the sense that all the members are bringing something to the table. That actually is a very good thing and hard to accomplish. Ok, you have talent; so what? But finding people to complement your own is never an easy thing; you may have to try many many times to get the synergy just right. And I think Many Birthdays has done that.
I’m not a big fan of video/musical combinations, but I think the multimedia aspect of their music lend themselves easily to video as visual counterpoint. Listening to Iwaisuru, it seems just like an unremarkable Asian pop song with sound effects, but when paired with the video (see last video below), you realize that the song is all about textures – not only of sounds, but images too. You are viewing Japan as a foreigner who find the sights and sounds and smells fascinating and bizarre.