Bro. Stephen – Just some songs, with a nice glass of Chablis (from the Seedy Seeds seed)

Bro. Stephen

From the newest seed (the Seedy Seeds) sprouts Bro. Stephen, a guitar-playing, singer-songwriting, tall drink of wine of a musician.  His location in Bloomington IN appeals to the Hoosier in me (go IU!), but his attention to detail, both musical and in his answers to the Ear to Ear questionnaire have me even more entranced.

Tell us a little about yourself…

Let’s see here…My name is Scott. I just moved to Bloomington, IN this fall after living in Louisville, KY for over 6 years and I grew up in central Michigan. I like to think I am a worldly fella, but realistically I’m actually just an unhealthy vegetarian who indulges his whims too often. Also, I have Narcolepsy. And I like comic books.

How did you get started playing music?

I grew up in a pretty musical family. My dad was a Baptist preacher who played a mean trumpet, my mom played the pipe organ in our old church, and my four siblings and I would sing as a family with them quite often. I sang in a lot of choirs and stuff growing up and never really played an instrument until I picked up a Japanese mini-guitar when I was 17. I put out this terrible little EP in high school (which I’m hoping has long since been lost/desroyed) and played a couple of shows. As soon as I graduated high school I packed up my car and moved to Louisville, KY and eventually started writing songs and playing at open mics. I played a lot of open mics.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Remember when I said my dad was a preacher? Well, my first music purchase was pretty rebellious in that I purchased Jars of Clay’s self-titled record. My second was MxPx!

How would you describe the music you play now?

I should really have a good answer for this by now since people ask me all the time. I would describe it as just some songs I play on my guitar. They aren’t songs to change the world and probably won’t be on any Billboard lists anytime soon, but they are just the product of this problem I have where I can’t pick up a guitar without wanting to write another song. The songs are usually pretty small in scope because I’m really kind of obsessed with those kind of things we take along with us.

Bro. Stephen is a mostly solo project, but you have also played with your band, Chemic.  Do you prefer a band setup, or playing solo?  How does one influence the other?

It really depends on the songs I think. There is definitely opportunity cost involved in both because there is an intimacy that seems to present itself when you play solo, but there is also a sense of fun and camaraderie that is hard to achieve without a full band. Of course, playing by yourself is much less complicated!  I usually try to write for one or the other.

For instance, a large portion of the songs that will be on my full length Baptist Girls were written with the intention of performing them solo or with one other person, but I am getting ready to record an upcoming EP where all of the songs were written with the intention of them being a full band. Sometimes songs have a life and are malleable and therefore can excel in both realms and those are usually the good ones. I don’t know if I have any of those.

Is there something non-musical you use as a inspiration, or that your music reminds you of?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

I would really love it if I could someday write a song that could capture the feeling of this three-part graphic novel called Essex County by this dude named Jeff Lemire. The three stories capture the feel of living in a small Northern town. They have this weight to them that doesn’t seem forced at all, and that weight is borne out of the profound experiences we all experience in our lives. I know that sounds pretty schmaltzy, and I guess it is, but I really think that book nails it.

I think the second thing I would say is that it would be great if it could carry the same characteristics as a Chardonnay from the South part of Chablis. A lot of that area has this soil that is just reeking of limestone and you can really taste it in their un-oaked Chardonnays. The reason I bring this up is that I can only hope that my foundations, rootings, past, and upbringing skip past my filters and make their way into everything I produce. I always think that wine is a beautiful thing because the more you know about where it came from, what kind of soil it was grown in, what the weather was like that year, what kind of plants or trees were also grown near it, or how the grape changes in storage and bottling, the more you can appreciate it for being exactly what it is: just an extension of where it came from. A Chablis Premier Cru doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, it wears its neighborhood, extended family, and thick accent on its sleeve. I like that.

My friend Dave just said that my music reminds him of puzzles of pictures of covered bridges, so that too.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?
Oh gosh.  I’m not sure whether you mean “What inspires you to play music and write songs?” or “What are some bands that inspire you musically?” so I will answer both.

The things that make me want to write songs are usually very small things. Sometimes it’s just a good night I had out with my friends. Sometimes its a memory that I can’t shake. Usually it has to do with me doing something stupid or stupidly not doing something. Typically the broader the subject, the less I feel connected to it and the less I want to write anything about it.

As far as the other way to take it, I actually have a large number of friends who are legitimately inspirational to my music which is a beautiful place to be in. There are bands who are dear friends of mine like husband&wife, Rodeo Ruby Love, The Seedy Seeds, Vandaveer, These United States, Prayer Breakfast (Bloomington), Metavari, and others that just really challenge me to not make music that is disposable. Then there are just a lot of other artists that I just really look up to in a major way (and for a lot of different reasons) like Elephant Micah, Will Oldham, Phil Elverum, Julie Doiron, Justin Vollmar, Apples In Stereo, Laura Veirs, Black Star, MF Doom (or Madvillain), Loney Dear, The Long Winters and a host of others.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?
I really feel like Conan O’Brien in that I overdo the self-deprecation most of the time so I’ll try to avoid that here even though it would be weird to headline a show like this. I would like to have a show that is really intimate at times and then at other times it’s just a balls out dance party.

So, here is my recounting of that show:

First up is Phil Elverum and Julie Doiron trading off songs and singing together while Phil does his slide projecting on the wall. All the lights are out and everyone is sitting pretzel style on the floor softly singing along. All of my friends are there. All of them. So are a bunch of other people who wandered in off the street when we told them there would be a dance party later. They don’t really “get” why Phil Elverum is wearing a weird Christmas sweater or why he’s shushing them, but that’s ok because I don’t either but the music is so good!

Next up is Black Star! Mos Def and Talib Kweli get up there and just get the room moving. We’re jumping up and down and I’m up front screaming along to every word to “RE:DEFinition” secretly hoping that they notice what a good rapper I must be since I’m doing such a good job sticking with them and then they invite me on stage, but I freeze! The crowd wants me to free-style, but instead I just do the wrap I made up and memorized in high school and the crowd boos me off the stage, but its ok because that means more Black Star!

The Black Star boys step off the stage to make way for two other people. Wait a minute, is that Harry Nilsson? And is that Emmylou Harris singing with him? YES. It is! Oh golly goodness, they sing some songs, but I go crazy during “The Point” and think its funny how Emmylou Harris is doing the recitation part. Oh dang, is that Roger McGuinn and Rick Danko tearing it up in the backup band? Nope, just some session dudes who look like them.

Next up on the bill for the night is…(checking my master clipboard)…Oh no it’s not. YES IT IS. It’s The Promise Ring on their Nothing Feels Good tour. Except it does feel good. It feels really good. Especially when they play Pink Chimneys. You got so excited that you threw up a little, but that’s ok because I brought napkins!

After Davey plays a couple songs off of their future Wood/Water record, he exits as Jeff Buckley comes on stage to do some songs with Will Oldham. Jeff Buckley is kind of getting annoyed because he thought he was going to be solo and a bunch of cookie crumbs from Will’s mustache keep getting on his shirt. We all think Will is funny and fun and then they sing Buckley’s “Forget Her” together and we all realize that its very serious in a very good way. Then Will sticks out his belly and sings a silly version of a sad song. Somehow that makes it sadder, but we all know what’s coming up next!

It’s my dad playing the trumpet with Os Mutantes! It’s a Tropicalia Family Party and everyone’s invited. We don’t even care that we can’t sing along because who ever knew the words to “I Want to Be Sedated” anyway? It’s a fu- time dance party and then Daniel Johnston jumps on stage and sings 3 songs in 2 minutes, but OM never even stopped playing.

Finally, I make my way to the stage and everyone is super tired from the massive party that has just taken place. I play couple songs and everybody thinks, that’s actually not terrible. I liked it when he did that cover song. But since everyone is getting sleepy from all the pizza that we ordered, we all pull out our sleeping bags and lay down on the floor while I put on a Stars of the Lid record and just like Purple Drank, it slows our rolls and we all take naps.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

I have done a lot of thinking about this question and I think it all boils down to perspective. This might be a cop out answer, but I am really drawn to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons and it usually has to do with the way that they see things. I love that Julie Doiron can sing beautiful songs about watching her kids play in the snow; I love that David Berman (Silver Jews) can make a really blunt statement seem so profound; I am enamored by John Roderick (The Long Winters) in the way that he is playful yet insightful; I love the how rigidly loose Will Oldham’s approach to recording is; I love that Bon Iver’s lyrics are based in phonetics and not meaning; I love that Elephant Micah’s songs sometimes seem like a Camus novel; I love that Vollmar’s songs are so intimate that they feel like memories you already made; I am constantly floored when Kate Long (of Bloomington’s The Hollows) sings “Don’t call me home or leave the night light on” during “Unsafest Place” and it almost hurts to listen to. So, I guess if I had to boil it down, it would be interesting perspectives.

Who is one person I should be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

I really have a million answers for this, but I think the one person you should totally just prepare yourself to fall for is Frank Schweikhardt. Frank and I toured together for 3 weeks in the fall and he recently put out a record called Life But No More and it is really powerful. The whole record is a singular work, and I mean that in the best way. The record has the feel that is hard to describe, but impossible to not get lost in. His unique guitar-playing style is a perfect foundation for the songs which are at times timid, and at other assured and powerful. His songs just lock into the groove and don’t let go for 4 minutes. It’s not an upbeat record by any stretch, listening to it gives me real joy, something that doesn’t come along too often.


take a listen to Bro. Stephen:

Bro. Stephen – The Front Room

Bro. Stephen – Patrons Of The Arts


The Seedy SeedsBro. Stephen


Rob Bravery – strange, piano-led pop (From the Charlie Williams seed)

Rob Bravery

The first track I heard on Rob Bravery’s MySpace was “Hedonistic Graveyard”, and it was a particularly exciting moment in the project because I could hear how we got here from the original seed (the path:  Charlie Williams –> Four Quartets –> Rob Bravery)…he has the instrumental delight of Mira Mira, with a touch of Sharples’ low-key delivery.  I actually followed my ears to the connection.  Awesome.

How did you get started playing music?

I picked up a few power chords on the guitar with the sole purpose of joining my older brother’s metal band Mongolian Clusterfuck (I was 14). Eventually I started teaching myself piano, which is now my main instrument.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Siamese Dream (Smashing Pumpkins) – Still in my top ten

How would you describe the music you play now?

I suppose strange, piano-led pop. Tough question, I like interesting chord progressions, lyrics etc.

You are a multi-instrumentalist – is there any particular instrument you love best? Or one that you wish you could play?

My favourite to play would be the drums, at least for the first 10 minutes. After that I’m physically incapable. I wish I could play the spoons like my dad.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

Elliott Smith, Tom Waits, Joanna Newsom, Stephen Malkmus (there are loads more).

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Aside from the above, I’d have Rufus Wainwright, Neil Young, possibly my old man on watering can. RATM. All the greats.

what attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

Initially tasteful lyrics ie. not ‘my life is brilliant..’ In most cases thoughtful chordal and melodic developments.

Who is one person I should be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

I’m a big fan of Four Quartets (Rob Sharples’s new project). He’s a great songwriter. I’m also eagerly awaiting the respective forthcoming releases of Joanna Newsom and Dr Dog.


Take a listen:

Rob Bravery – “Hedonistic Graveyard”

Rob Bravery – “Cobweb Song”


Charlie Williams Four QuartetsRob Bravery

Caithlin De Marrais – A soft slap of sweet singing…(From the Ben Arthur Seed)

Caithlin De Marrais

We’re starting to get into the third round of the Ear to Ear Project, so let’s review…

Ben Arthur pointed to Balthrop, Alabama, who offered Caithlin De Marrais, a songwriter with a delightful twang and deep sense of place.  I’ve fallen for her well-crafted lo-fi-ness (not something I normally say), where everything sounds real and present and unaltered, and oh-so-true.

So let’s meet Caithlin…

How did you get started playing music?

My band, Rainer Maria, recorded and toured from ’95-’06. I was on bass/vocals, Kyle Fischer–guitars/vocals, Bill Kuehn–drums. In the film “The Wrestler” Randy the Ram says that the ’90s sucked, but I thought it was an ok time to be in a band. The music industry hadn’t imploded yet and there was an “us against them” camaraderie between us indie bands. I always wore my heart on my sleeve when I played.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

My awesome little brother and I would go to the Trumbull mall and buy 45s. We collected dozens and dozens–everything from big hits to obscure gems–Prince, Peter Gabriel, Bow Wow Wow, A-Ha, Eddie Grant, Nena, Musical Youth, Van Halen…much dancing and head banging in the living room ensued.

How would you describe the music you play now?

“Like a soft slap to the face.” (thanks Pitchfork!)

What instruments do you all play in your band?  How did you pick that combination?

Josh Kaufman is my wingman on electric guitar. I have two excellent drummers, Jason Lawrence and Konrad Meissner. Many other wonderful musicians make appearances on My Magic City, including one of my most cherished guitar heroes, Dean Wareham, and his gorgeous bandmate, Britta Phillips.
Somehow along the way I discovered how fun it was to record and play music with my mad, brilliant friends.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

My Magic City has a golden honeycomb center surrounded by delicious milk chocolate, just like a Cadbury Crunchie bar.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

For My Magic City I was ruminating on my love of Spacemen 3, Spiritualized and Galaxie 500.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

The kid in me wants to go back to the ’70s when Stevie Wonder performed “Superstition” live on Sesame Street. That was cool. But since I don’t have a time machine, I’d like to reform The Smiths and open for them. All I need is 3 million dollars or so.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

Dance-ability! Or alternately, heartbreak-ability.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Best two new releases I’m listening to right now: El May. Her amazing self-titled debut album is out Jan 19th. And Owen. His latest album New Leaves is a gem.
Best two Pandora stations I’m listening to right now: Roxy Music Radio. And Julie London Radio.


Listen to Caithlin:

Caithlin De Marrais – “Outer Space Is Still Sexy” (features Dean Wareham on electric guitar)

Caithlin De Marrais – “Play Fair” (Cover of Bob Buckridge tune)

And pick up a disc!

Caithlin De Marais - My Magic City

A note from Caithlin:

My latest record, Seb & Cait Live at Joe’s will be released on End Up Records in Feb.  It’s a live recording of a show at Joe’s Pub in NYC, I played with the artist, Seb Leon. Also check out Seb’s record, Cranes of Glitter. It’s like a French souffle with Bowie and Roxy Music inclinations.


Ben Arthur (seed) → Balthrop, AlabamaCaithlin De Marrais

Four Quartets – Instrumentally Intricate “Subverted Pop” (from the Charlie Williams seed)

I found Rob Sharples, Four Quartets, through Charlie Williams.   He described him as “benefiting from the emphasis the British put on really well-crafted songs” and “saying something really, truly new without tearing their genre to bits.”  I am loving his creative imagery and beautiful instrumental structure – I kept discovering new things with every listen.  He is a softspoken force in his music, and took a moment to answer a couple questions.

Tell us a little about yourself…

I’m a London-based songwriter.  A couple of years ago I had brief dealings with an indie label who put out a couple of EP’s for me but since an acrimonious parting of the ways I’ve been engrossed in a new project  – ‘Four Quartets’ – which is my new band. I’ve just finished recording an album which will hopefully be released early next year.

How did you get started playing music?

My parents were given this decrepit old piano when I was six and I bashed out my first songs on that with a voice so shrill it’d make dogs wince.  I think I even preserved a couple of recordings from back then (invariably unlistenable) which I recorded on a ten-quid tape player.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

The Beatles’ Red Album on double vinyl from a second-hand record shop on Gloucester Road in Bristol (where I grew up). Sadly, the shop has now closed down – like so many others – in the advent of the digital revolution.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Hmm.. I always feel apprehensive about answering this question because I think that music is a medium that demands the experience itself to attain comprehension.  I can only really answer in generalizations which even then are buried in subjectivity but here goes..

‘Subverted pop with classically influenced progressions, rich arrangements (…sometimes… but sometimes quite stripped back) and plenty of harmonies..’

..but the sentence is meaningless really – just have a listen.

Do you prefer performing solo, or as part of a band?  Why?

I enjoy both, but since I’ve spent the last few years predominantly performing solo in the saturated myre of the ‘singer/songwriter’ circuit in London and been left pretty cold and disaffected by the experience, I’m now excited about gigging with the band.   Partly for the satisfaction of filthing everything up and making a lot of noise, but also for the singular pleasure and rapport of simply cutting loose with a bunch of fellow musicians. It’s great fun.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Ooh i don’t know.  At a push maybe T.S. Eliot or other ‘modernist’ writers like Kafka and Conrad because of their tendency towards an existential outlook and an impressionistic style. It’d be egotistical though to say I really compare myself to literary figures of that stature – it’s more a question of influence, or simply of the type of literature I like.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

I’d have to say that the Beatles (as cliched as it is!), Radiohead, Elliott Smith and Brian Wilson have all had a profound impact on my musical life in terms of what can be achieved within modern songwriting.  The idea of connecting a complex musical backdrop to an accessible melody when writing is one that appeals to me immensely because it leaves the imagination unchecked and free to run riot then tethers it all back to earth by the task of condensing the network of ideas to one through-line for the consumption of other ears. I guess its like the way a novel can lead a reader through innumerable complications by the sturdy guide of a plotline.  It also means that you end up with something that rewards on more than one level should the listener be interested.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Hmm.. Hendrix, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith (pre-heroin addiction), Led Zeppelin, Dr. Dog, Radiohead, Bowie (seventies era), Rachmaninoff, Rage Against The Machine, Dylan (pre 80’s), Nirvana, Nick Drake, Bright Eyes, The Beatles, The Beach Boys…  I wouldn’t be headlining though – I wouldn’t even be on the bill.  I’d be backstage – weeping.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

Well it varies because artists vary.  While I adore Elliott Smith for his imaginative progressions and melodies, I can equally appreciate Dylan for his astounding lyricism.  In general, I’d like to think I keep an open mind with a few exceptions that i can’t abide. Namely:

1) Style Over Substance  – It’s always evident and nauseating when someone is propagating a music style and image just in the interest of being conceived as ‘cool’ as opposed to really caring about the art.

2) Dishonesty of Delivery – We all hate a fraud don’t we? Gimmicky, fake emotion, assumed accents and the like. Horrifying.

3) Cliches – When you can correctly guess the chord progression and lyrics it never bodes well.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Rob Bravery (Interesting progressions, deadpan lyricism, highly melodic and he has a ginger beard)

St. Sat B (Raw unpretentious energy, tasteful lyrics, great sound and songs)

Ashley Eriksson (Eccentric, low-fi, wonderful)


Four Quartets will have an album out soon – but take a listen to a few tracks here

Four Quartets – “The Spirit Level”

Four Quartets – “Joke’s Over”


Charlie Williams Four Quartets

Ben Arthur – The Quirky, Soulful, Singer/Songwriter Seed

I first heard Ben Arthur play in a lineup called The Modern Troubadours. I tagged along with some friends, having never heard of what I assumed was a band. Instead I was presented with four singer-songwriters, sharing their work in an intimate, acoustic setting. I fell in in love with Ben Arthur’s music that night – his quirky sense of humour balanced the sometimes morose cloud of soul-bearing lyrics. With songs like “Keep Me Around” and “Mary Ann” I found new use for the “repeat” button on my playlists.

Years later, and I’m still listening with as much rapt attention as that first show. Arthur’s second album “Mouthfeel” was considerably darker than the first, showing a different side of his sharp wordplay and vivid imagery. His arid vocals put all the emotion front and center, but never without a musical cushion to soften the emotional blow.

We met about a year ago, after I wrote about “On A Sunday” for NPR’s Song of the Day. He emailed me, and I immediately jumped off the couch and danced around the room in fan-girl glee. Then I calmed down, actually met the guy, and realized he is a real person who just happens to make music I love.

So let’s meet….Ben Arthur.

How did you get started playing music?

My brother Michael lent me his guitar when I was 13 or 14 and taught me the chords to Lola. No idea why that particular song, but Lord did I play that one riff about a million times. (Badly.)

When did you decide that playing would be your career?

Shockingly soon thereafter. Something about it just seemed right to me, and I’ve never found anything I like doing as much. Well, actually, I like writing as much, but then I’m doing that these days, too.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Well, let’s see…I stole a copy of the Doors “13” when I was, well, 13 or so. But that doesn’t count, I don’t think. I’m going to say Appetite for Destruction.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical? A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Hm. My work is like…a corner bodega, There’s a lot of different stuff in there, it’s kind of a mess, but the folks inside are friendly.

When you’re stumped for ideas, what do you do? Go someplace, read something, drink copiously?

Rarely stumped for ideas. I always have 10 or so projects up in the air (by design), so that when I run into a problem with one thing I can just switch to the other. Generally when I come back the problem has solved itself.

I do occasionally run into a directional tangle, and then I usually chat with my wife or friend Asli, both of whom are whipsmart and have excellent instincts.

You also write books – is that a totally separate project for you, or does it feed into your musical work?

Funny you should ask…

The new project is a concept novel/album called If You Look for My Heart. The album has narrative songs that reflect elements of the story arc, as well as ‘artifact’ pieces, that is, songs that the characters themselves hear during the course of the story.

It’s been a fascinating, fun project so far and I’m looking forward to getting it out to the public.

You’re usually billed as a solo artist – do you prefer this over playing with a band? Or did it just work out that way?

I’m usually billed as a solo artist because I can’t afford to tour with a band. If I was playing Wembley, I would surely be billed with a band.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Dave Grohl–drums, vox
Emmylou Harris–guitar, vox
Rachel Yamagata–keys, vox
John Paul Jones–bass
Tom Morello–guitar, vox

I picked all live people because i am not at all partial to the undead/zombies.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

I like hearing something unusual, particularly lyric-wise. A new use of an old phrase, an interesting match of words, a reversal of some sort.

I’m also partial to writers to put themselves on the line. It’s fairly easy to hide behind obscure semi-nonsense lyrics, and I like hearing songs where the artist is brave enough to say what they mean, to put their cards on the table. (Which isn’t to say I don’t like the lyrics on, say, OK Computer. I do. But it’s a different thing, and I’d love to hear Thom Yorke write a true love song.)

In art generally I like to see contradiction. In motivation, in action. I like voices and characters that/who are difficult or disagreeable but still sympathetic. I like complication.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

I love my friend Parker Paul’s songs. His voice is so true and pained/painful, and his lyrics are so beautiful without being overly ornate.

Pete Miser is a friend of a friend, and has a song called “I’m a Robot” that just knocks me out. The video is insane, and even more so that he managed to do it as a true indie. He has an iPhone video that is hysterical, too. He’s awesome and his albums are rock solid from start to finish.

Aesop Rock never fails to impress. His album None Shall Pass is a masterpiece.

My brother’s band, Balthrop, Alabama is a blast, particularly live. I played a show with them in the city over Christmas and they have such enthusiasm and such a sense of the theater of live music that it’s just a pleasure to see them do their thing.


Listen to some Ben Arthur:

Ben Arthur – Mouthfeel – “Tattoo”

Ben Arthur – Roadkill – “Keep Me Around”

And of course, pick up a few albums while you’re at it…

Charlie Williams – the Creative, Intellectual, Music-Crafter Seed

Charlie Williams has one of those minds that is frightening in it’s creativity. This is a guy who not only plays beautiful music, he composes, arranges, develops new sounds, and then thinks about physics and builds a circle-of-5ths clock in his free time.

Only out of this kind of brain could Mira Mira emerge, a band where beauty and geekdom live side by side, and inspiration comes from anywhere. Their latest project, Music for Scientists, brings the technical world further into the musical one,and creates some really fascinating songs and sounds.

Having first known Charlie as a classical musician, studying piano at the Meadowmount School of Music, and then through the many various stages of creative development that have come since, I was so happy to hear what he would have to say about his journey and musical tastes.

How did you get started playing music?

My parents got an upright piano from their landlord when I was very small and we lived on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. I wrote songs like “This is a Rocket Ship Taking Off” and “This is a Rainstorm” for a while, and eventually got lessons.  Eventually I got a keyboard and played in a band in high school, and somehow fell into writing music for school plays, which is how I got started writing actual structured pieces of music, as opposed to improvisations.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Wow, that’s a real Freedom-of-Information-Act type question. Um, it might have been: (a) Billy Joel’s “Storm Front” cassette, or (b) MC Hammer’s “Too Legit 2 Quit”, also in cassette form. Billy’s got the better album, but MC has the better single. Can’t touch “U Can’t Touch This”, though. That’s still Stan’s best work to date.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Now? Lately I’ve been trying to focus on what I’m best at— playing the piano and making weird electronic textures. I’ve been inspired by the music of Yann Tiersen (Amelie), especially after I saw him live at Logan Square Auditorium and he wasn’t all sugar and spice. He’s such a master of simplicity, without ever writing simplistic music. Also, his band has ondes martinot, concertina, violin, ukulele and melodica. Wow.

Your band, Mira Mira, has changed personnel over the years – is it a sound you are looking for, or a particular group of people?

I think I was chasing after a sound with Mira Mira, but I also didn’t always make the best management decisions. You might say. I was lucky to play with a large number of very gifted musicians, but several times we added someone to the band who wasn’t making music their way of life, and that brought some stress to the full-time musicians in the group, who were used to a different level of dedication and focus. I’m not saying that we always were ready to know what to do with a higher level of focus, but for whatever reason things never fully coalesced.

But to answer the “sound” question in a different way, I think I’m still searching for a sound. And maybe a group of people will come with that, or help me find that. Right now, though, it’s me and the piano.

How does your classical music background feed into what you’re doing musically now?

On the one hand, it’s great to have an instrument where you know you can play anything, and that’s what classical training gives you. On the other hand, I love to surround myself with instruments I don’t know how to play— lately clarinet and bandoneon, as well as ukulele, have been inspiring. Uke is sort of in a separate category because almost everything you do sounds great. It’s so much fun to play. But when I’m playing an instrument I don’t know, I have to really be fully present and focused in order to do anything at all, and I think correspondingly my musical ideas are a lot more interesting. On piano it’s possible for me to run on autopilot. These other instruments are teaching me how to get out of that habit, whatever instrument I’m working with.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

My music is like a pear tree.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

Andrew Bird is a big one. Every time he puts out an album it makes his previous albums look like warm-ups. This is, like, four albums in a row he’s done that for. Radiohead would break the laws of physics if they kept doing that, but of course everything they do is perfect and inspirational. Also since I’ve been working with Max/MSP this year, the fact that Johnny Greenwood uses that program onstage has been prompting me to try to hear what they’re doing with it in albums and live shows. I only recently got into Ben Folds, but I think he’s an incredibly talented guy and I also respect his production skills a lot. I took a break from Wilco for a while, but now I’m enjoying them again. Not the most recent album, but YHF and Ghost.

If you could pick a perfect lineup of bands (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Oh jeez. I don’t think I’d be able to go onstage if these famous acts I admire so much were to stoop to share a show with me. I’d have to pick bands I’m friends with — The Cedar, from Bristol, UK are one of my new favorite bands, and I’d love to play a show with them. Also Rob Sharples, from London. I could play a show with those two and not feel totally ashamed of myself.

What attracts you to a particular song? An Artist?

They have to be trying their very hardest, and not treat the music like they might break it if they get something wrong. One of the reasons I love Joanna Newsom is because of this quality. Also the Magnetic Fields.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

The Cedar and Rob Sharples are two that aren’t well-known on this side of the pond, but should be. They’re both benefiting from the emphasis the British put on really well-crafted songs, and they’re both also saying something really, truly new without tearing their genre to bits. That’s harder to do than it seems.


Listen to some of Charlie’s music:

Mira Mira – Music for Scientists – “Churches”

Mira Mira – Music for Scientists – “Is It Snowing/Part 2”

Pick up an album, while you’re at it: