Sunday, November 8, 2009

Beautiful Music: Blue Rabbit’s Gloriously Indie Muse

Past calling the band “indie,” San Francisco's Blue Rabbit defies easy categorization. Notable for its use of multi-part harmonies and keys, violin, cello, Celtic Harp and an uncanny ability to write memorable tunes, there’s simply no other band like it on the scene. Musically inventive and contagiously enthusiastic, the 8-member group that local songwriter Heather Anderson formed to bring her songs to life has quickly gained both a devoted following and media regard: they routinely sell out area venues and Spin recently picked Blue Rabbit as one of 12 notable "rising bands." Between rehearsals, a day job and prepping for the next recording, Heather Anderson related a bit about how it all started.
DC How did you become a musician? Tell us a little bit about life before Blue Rabbit.

HA My 6-yr-old diary has lyrics in it for songs about the sun and rainbows, my front yard, my mom. And most end with the words "REPEAT AND FADE.” I guess I've always written songs. I played (and can still play) most instruments quite badly, namely keys, guitar, and French horn. I was in concert band starting in 5th grade, and marched a Mellophone in college. After college I saved up and splurged on my first 4-track recorder, and started making cassette tapes of some really strange songs, always with 5-part vocal harmonies. I'd record them in my bathroom, for the reverb-y tile acoustics. After these 'bathroom recordings', I performed a little around the East Bay as a solo singer-songwriter. After one of my house concerts, my dad told me that my songs are amazing, but that I should never (ever!) sing them myself. I took his advice to heart and started fantasizing about Bjork or NIN singing my songs, but a couple years later, after a consultation with an LA music-industry pro, I realized the somewhat obvious fact that these alternative artists write their own. This guy had produced big names and so I asked him what the hell I should do? And he said, pressing pause on the boom box playing my homemade demo:
“I see you as the new, female Trent Reznor. Your stuff is dark, would be perfect in horror films. Why don't you dress the part, get a producer who shares your vision, raise $100k and put out your own album!”
“Ok?” I said. And then continued, “But I can't sing!”
“Who sang on these demos?” he asked.
“Well, slap some Protools on that s#$% and you're good to go!”
I walked out of that session in a daze, wondering how I'd raise $100k and picturing myself in Goth attire exploiting auto tune with a producer in LA. People outside the door waiting for their turn to meet with him asked me anxiously – “So?? What happened? What did he say about your stuff?”
Calmly, I stood there and told them that I was going to be the next NIN.
DC How did you form the band? Did you ask people or were you playing with the other members and said, hey, let’s do this, or did you have a very specific idea of what you wanted? Did you see having an 8-member line-up?
HA No, to all of the above. I had a specific idea of what I wanted, but what I created was absolutely nothing like it. At the time (circa late 2004), I was listening to a lot of Pinback, Modest Mouse, Silversun Pickups, and I really wanted to form a band that sounded something like Radiohead meets Silversun Pickups. Instead I started something that sounded like a tribal choral ensemble. I originally posted separate ads on Craigslist as a band looking for different parts — but I was really looking for EVERY part and had no band. I posted for a bassist, a drummer, guitarist, keyboardist, vocalists… you name it. I received some emails, but no one actually ever showed up. So then I answered a drummer's ad. He'd posted that his nationally touring, signed band had just split up and that he was looking for intermediary band projects. I considered myself a project, though I had nothing to offer but the songs in my head. We met for coffee in Oakland, swapped bios over French fries and cans of Pabst, and I thought he was a catch. He had been playing drums professionally for 17 years. I told him I had a ton of songs in my head, that I had formed a band in junior high that rehearsed under my house, wrote a song about a janitor, and split up after a driveway debut performance to one member's grandma.
We went to his practice space and I sang a cappella from my diary. He followed my every move and played the exact rhythms I'd imagined, but didn't know how to verbalize. I was floored. I decided to do whatever it took to keep playing with him and somehow, that worked. After a year and a half of playing in the closet as a duo, I posted an ad for vocalists without telling him. He was away visiting family for the holidays and we weren't speaking because we'd just broken up. :-0 This is a much longer story — of which I'm tempted to write a screenplay or something, as it was really so bizarre and wonderfully odd. But here's the shortest possible version:
I found ten awesome — and utterly enthusiastic — singers. I rehearsed with them all, teaching them our songs by ear on Mondays and Tuesdays, five singers a night, accompanied by iPod recordings of the drummer. I hung in there for two months, until they flaked and fizzled down to our final four. I had only been looking for one or two 'backup singers', but when I found ten who could sing better lead than I; I decided to just play it by ear, letting them slowly 'eliminate' themselves. When Kevin returned to find my surprise band mates, the final five of us sang over just a drum for a while, hence, the resulting 'tribal choral ensemble.' I didn't quite think about the fact that Silversun Pickups uses about four guitars in their sound, and that without even one guitar, we were never going to sound like them, let alone even fall into the same genre. Instead, totally organically, we'd become something absolutely peculiar — and really cool, I thought! We later added cello — because who doesn't love a cello? And we needed a 'bottom end.’ And then Celtic harp because my friend played one, and after seeing our first show, she asked if she could join in. And again — now really, who doesn't love a Celtic harp? Plus, she rocks out like no one's business. Much later, we added keys because we realized one of our singers could play. Fast-forward three years from that first vocalist audition: we have lost two of the original four singers and replaced them with a singing male keyboardist, and a multi-talented violinist. Now I can firmly say, we sound positively nothing like anything I ever imagined — nor actually, anything I've ever heard! I did not envision—nor desire — our massive body count when I first set out. Maybe it's like an animal lover who discovers their home has become a zoo, when all they meant to adopt was one tiny kitten. Not that my band mates are pets, but they are lovable and adorable and now that we have each other, let's just say, no one's getting euthanized.

DC Blue Rabbit gets called a lot of different things in regards to genre. What, or who, are your main influences? And how has your approach to a song changed, if it has, since you formed the band?

HA With eight of us, and decades of musical life spans between us, this answer could be a mile long if I didn't just go out on a limb and pick one example. Let's go with Radiohead because I listened to ‘Creep’ on cassette until it broke, and followed their every move until making a backwards recording of ‘Ok Computer’ in college, just so I could take a break from listening to it forwards. And because I read a music theory book recently on writing melody, and I got a kick out of something it said.
It said that you could recognize a band's style by analyzing the patterns of intervals between notes and the rhythmic phrasing of the band's melodies. And then once you determined an artist's 'formula' or 'sonic algorithm', you could easily whip out a fake sort of 'knock-off.’ The book used Radiohead as an example, and it pointed out that they tend to do this, that, and the other (e.g., use lots of 2nd intervals, etc.). And the book came with a CD, on which the author had created a fake Radiohead song — and I'll be damned if it didn't sound just like a Radiohead song, but it wasn't!
What I'm getting at is that I finally had a concrete way to identify Radiohead as an influence on me, because I tend to (unconsciously) write music with a lot of the same 'trademark' characteristics, at least according to this author. Now, if I could just do it as well, and have us open for them on their next tour!!
About my approach to a song pre-and post-band formation: I think it would be an increased attentiveness and effort. Alone in your bedroom you can sing anything, but there's just another level you have to try for in order to be willing to ask your friends to sing it, because they've got to be able to like it, feel it, and enjoy it at least enough to take it from there. Also, this may be obvious, but suddenly you have to actually 'finish' a song.
DC What’s next? Can we expect something different from your next recording?

HA I hope so!? I think our sound has gelled a lot since that first recording. We've had more time to 'bond' in all ways — vocally, musically, personally, and I think that comes across in the way a band sounds. We also have a violinist who wasn't on the first album, and he adds an element I was craving. I love how he dances with and against the vocals — it's like a magic mirror that had been missing from the room. That, and there's something different about our newer songs. I can't put my finger on it yet, but I can tell there is something 'new' that is happening to us. I'm excited. Oh, and I'm not sure what — if anything — will happen with this, but we were recently contacted by legendary producer Ron Nevison (whose album credits include The Who, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Grace Slick, and on and on). He emailed to tell me that I am "f#$%ing cool." Haha! And that he'd be interested in working with us. I wrote him back a few days ago and haven't heard anything we'll see. Who knows!?

Blue Rabbit's current line-up is Heather Anderson (voice, guitar); Arami Reyes (voice, shakers, tambourine); Sarah Rocklin (vocals, cowbell); Timothy Galida (keys) ; Kristin Harris (cello); Eah Herren (Celtic harp); Kevin Weber (drums) and Adam Willumsen (violin). The band headlines the GoGirlsMusicFest at Cafe Du Nord, November 17, 8pm-1am, San Francisco, CA