No Bird Sing: The intersection of spoken word, rap, and music

No Bird Sing is a local hiphop band with connections to the spoken word scene. The intersection of spoken word and music is one of those interesting things that is not often explored. Eric Blair, of No Bird Sing, is one of those folks who’ve explored spoken word, page writing, and music writing all rather successfully. No Bird Sing has a rich, unique aesthetic coming from from three very talented musicians, often probing dark and desperate moods and themes both musically and in their lyrics. The pendulum lurch of “Prometheus”, the soft foreboding of “Devil Trombones”, the high noon loss of “Dead Leaves”, and the quiet determination of “Land Mines”, all feed into a refreshingly cohesive first album. If the beautiful, lush desperation of the album was not enough, it also features all sorts of local talent- Eyedea, Bo Ramsey, Kristoff Krane, and Alicia Wiley all lend more texture to the project.

No Bird Sing
photo credit Satori Innovations

First encountering Eric Blair’s musical pursuits with Hyder Ali last autumn, I’ve been following his projects with them and now with No Bird Sing, and am really excited that No Bird Sing will be releasing their debut album this fall. Minnesota Microphone interviewed Eric Blair about No Bird Sing and his own writing, in anticipation of No Bird Sing’s all ages CD release on September 11th at Eclipse Records with Big Trouble, Guante and Big Cats!, and Jenson, and the big release on September 12th at the Triple Rock featuring local giants Black Blondie, Kristoff Krane, and DJ James Diers (of Halloween Alaska).

Cole Sarar: Who is No Bird Sing? Where are each of you coming from artistically?
Eric Blair: In terms of individual members and instrumentation, No Bird Sing is myself (Eric Blair) on vocals and sometimes keyboard/rhodes, Graham O’Brien on drums and electronics and Robert Mulrennan on guitar. The core of the band is the drums/vocals/guitar lineup, but we do sample our own instruments and other sounds on occasion. Sometimes we get questions due to the fact that we’re a three piece hip-hop outfit and we play “alternative” or “indie” hip-hop. Like we’re trying to be weird or different for the sake of being weird or different. The thing that interests me most about this project the space. There’s a lot of free space in the music and some of the arrangements can get pretty sparse because there’s no base.

Artistically, the thing that I enjoy the most is that we mesh really well during the creation phase, but push each other into different realms during the fine tuning. The first two times we got together, we wrote three songs. All three are on the record. And those three were among the most hotly contended during the mixing process. I think that contention is really going to be an asset as we move forward and try and create something more honest.

This is the truest project I’ve ever been involved with. True in the sense that the record is like a snapshot of the exploration we were doing during the writing and recording process. A lot of it was me trying to find my voice as an emcee. As a writer. And really hitting some territory that is more personal even though from the outside it probably seems more ambiguous because the lyrics are so abstract.

Cole: What projects were each of you involved in before No Bird Sing? How did you “find” each other, or decide to work with each other?
Eric: Before No Bird Sing I was in a group called Hyder Ali (which also featured NBS guitarist Robert Mulrennan). It was live hip-hop group with a more ambient feel than No Bird. Robert and I had known each other since college and have played music together for years. Hyder Ali was our first substantial project.

We met Graham when Hyder was playing a show with dial_system (which is Casey O’Brien on bass and Graham O’Brien on drums and electronics). Really interesting stuff. Casey is one of the better bass players anywhere, and Graham is such an unique and talented drummer. Robert and I were really into their stuff, so we asked Graham if he wanted to jam with us. For fun at first. Then we realized we actually had some chemistry and spent the next year trying to hone that into something tangible and concrete.

Cole: How would you classify No Bird Sing, genre-wise?
Eric: Hip-hop. One thing Graham is fond of saying is that hip-hop has matured enough to include a broad range of styles. But ultimately, we’ll be in the hip-hop section of the record store. Or on iTunes since we’re doing a digital release. It’s like asking if something is fiction or poetry. The answer to that question is whatever section of the bookstore it’s in. I’m not sure authors or musicians should concern themselves with creating classifications for themselves as much as they do.

Cole: How long have you been together?
Eric: Just over a year. We got together in the late summer of 2008. Started out writing some songs and hanging out. Then it developed into a venture we all took very seriously. It’s been a great year though. The most productive year I’ve had creatively.

Cole: What other performers/bands/artists influence your music?
Eric: This is a big question and I’m resisting the urge to just list a bunch. But for sure the Black Keys and One Day As A Lion. Those two bands came up a lot as references for successful bands without bass. Kill the Vultures, Eyedea and Abilities, Guante and Kristoff Krane are local acts we have a lot of respect for. They’re all making innovative and interesting hip-hop. Ecce Beast from KTV and By the Throat from E&A are two of my personal favorite albums of the year.

Also acts like Bon Iver, Megafaun, Halloween Alaska, Doomtree, Aesop Rock and Freestyle Fellowship all came up in various capacities.

Cole: How does No Bird Sing write its songs? Do you find the music evolving from the lyrics or vice versa?
Eric: I think it’s sort of a dual processing that takes place between those elements. We write our songs collectively for the most part. Some songs, Graham comes with a sample-based idea and we construct a song using a mixture of samples and instruments. Sometimes Robert comes with an idea on guitar and Graham starts playing over it, I start writing, and we build off of each other.

On our debut album, I had the luxury of writing a lot of the songs to a basic idea and then the three of us worked out the arrangements. That led to a more cohesive song in the end.

Cole: Where is your writing coming from?
Eric: I wish I knew really. If I did know, it’d probably lead to more consistent creation on my part. On some level, writing is a skill like playing an instrument. You learn the nuts and bolts. How notes fit together to make melody, harmony, chords, etc. You learn about timing and expression and what’s normally pleasant to the ear. You learn all that, but when you sit down to write a song, the how questions turns to a why question. You know how to write a song, you might even have an idea of what you want to write about or who you’re writing it to. But the why is the thing that I’ve become kind of obsessed with throughout the years.

Like what’s the drive that makes us create. It’s mostly an unrewarding endeavor by most social standards. That’s what most of my stuff is about. Directly or indirectly. It’s about the human experience, suffering, the drive to create, urges, subconscious, all that. It may seem random and loosely connected, but it’s why I write. To interpret and translate. To de-construct and de-familiarize familiar concepts. And then I try and not sound pretentious when I explain why I write.

Cole: Can you discuss the lyrics of your song, “Dead Leaves”?
Eric: Writing Dead Leaves was an interesting experience for me. I’m not typically a story/song writer. I also haven’t had much experience writing about love or relationships. Most of the stuff that comes out of me tends to be free association or a reflection of whatever experiences I happen to be identifying with. But for whatever reason I wrote the chorus to the song and knew that I had to cover a lot of ground chronologically, which to me meant I had to tell a story that followed some sort of narrative arc. When I hear the song now, I think of some Civil War era romance and was cut short by the boy’s call to fight. But I’ve heard other people come up with some interesting interpretations of what the lyrics mean.

The process ended up being a lot of fun, though. Because I got to be a character. In fiction you write a character and end up training yourself to get to know them as a separate entity. What they like, how they behave, their mannerisms, etc. But with this, I got to be the character during the recording process. That added another dimension to the whole thing that made it really rewarding to participate in.

Cole: How does your page writing inform your lyrics? How does spoken word inform your lyrics? Do you consider what you’re doing with No Bird Sing now singing or rapping or spoken word?
Eric: My page writing definitely informs my lyrics. Probably more so than the spoken word work. The spoken word helped me learn how to use syllables and just the technical aspects in general. Breath control. All that stuff. But the page writing has really influenced the way I try and use associations to tell stories. It helps to reinforce the importance of subtlety.

As for what I consider what I’m doing with No Bird Sing… that’s tough. I guess technically I’m rapping the vast majority of the time by conventional definitions. Less often I sing. I did more singing on this record than I ever have before and I’m looking forward to continuing that trend. As far as spoken word, it depends on what you consider spoken word and what you consider rapping slowly. I think my spoken word pieces have such a specific cadence that I don’t consider much of what I do over music spoken word. Everything I do over music I call rapping or singing.

Cole: What was your experience with spoken word, and when did you decide to move away from it?
Eric: I don’t know that I ever made a conscious decision to move away from spoken word. It’s really the reason I’m doing hip-hop right now. Spoken word is a unique way to get started with writing because poetry is so forgiving of our insecurities. Definitely more so than hip-hop, where the culture tends to rely on pretty heavily on persona. So I started writing poetry when I was 16 or so. At least that’s when I have the first real memories of sitting down and trying to write something that I intended to read in front of other people. That shifted into fledgling song writing and was really the initial catalyst for me trying to be an emcee. I think it influences my writing heavily to this day. Some of my favorite writers are guys like Gil Scott Heron, Ed Bok Lee, Derrick Brown, Amiri Baraka. Guys that cover a lot of ground stylistically, but who really all embody the same characteristics of solid construction and innovation.

At some Hyder Ali shows, we’d open with a spoken word piece. I’d like to do more experimentation with it as No Bird Sing moves forward. I’m really interested in finding ways to maximize the abstract approach to writing lyrics. I definitely believe spoken word will have a big part to play in that. Me doing less spoken word now is just a function of other passions taking over. Fiction writing is something I’m really passionate about. Obviously songwriting is where most of my artistic focus has been lately.

By the way I should take the opportunity to say congratulations to my fellow emcee Kyle Myhre (Guante) and the rest of the MN Slam Team for their well earned victory. I did tell Kyle I’d be doing more spoken word soon…

Get a taste for No Bird Sing before the release- Empty’s Tapes has posted an entire set for No Bird Sing’s last Triple Rock show on July 18th, with live versions of many of the songs that will be on the album, and a few special treats like “Drum Skin”, which will not be on the album. No Bird Sing has gotten a lot of good press leading up to the release on September 12th, and we only anticipate more. Check out No Bird Sing in the following links. -Cole

No Bird Sing on MySpace
No Bird Sing on Twitter
No Bird Sing’s studio blog
Eric discusses “Land Mines” with Culture Bully.
Eric discusses “Devil Trombones” with Culture Bully.
No Bird Sing CD release promotional video (This has an amazing transition from recording studio to finished sound of “Dead Leaves”.)
Mill City Scene interview
Nice blip on CityPages.

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About Cole

A thumb among fingers. A writer, a photographer, a lover of all things citrusy.
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