Rhode Island duo BROWN BIRD released their excellent new album called Fits of Reason (via the Supply & Demand label) on April 2nd. Weeks later, the male half of the group, Dave Lamb, was diagnosed with severe anemia, and is still awaiting a full diagnosis, forcing them to cancel shows and accruing major medical bills in the interim. You can help them through this difficult time by visiting Dave’s YouCare page to donate.
Yet even through the challenges, there is no doubt BrownBird has still released something special into the world. Fits of Reason builds upon the ever-expanding and shape-shifting instrumentation of Dave (guitar, banjo, percussion, drums) and MorganEve Swain (vocals, violin, cello, and upright bass).
Although Dave and MorganEve captured a lot of what’s to love about their live sound on Salt for Salt, the duo have really hit upon a new stride, one that finds them maintaining some of the minimalistic rawness that has entranced spectators at their live shows, while also expanding their landscape with an increased variety of instrumentation. Fits of Reason is already one of my favorite albums of this year, and one I am confident will be elevating Brown Bird’s profile to new and much deserved heights.
The last time I interviewed Dave and MorganEve of Brown Bird, it was an in-depth conversation regarding their musical history together up to and including the making of Salt for Salt. This time, we pick up where that chat left off, focusing on how Fits of Reason came together.
You have been touring a ton since your last album, Salt For Salt, was released. I’d like to start by asking you how your previous experiences making that record and your subsequent touring prepared you and/ or influenced you as you began working on new material and preparing for your next record?
Dave: Salt for Salt was the first album we recorded as a duo and we really enjoyed touring as a duo, so we definitely wanted to expand on that same formula for the next album. We were working with the idea of trying to get the best songs and fullest sound out of this stripped down line up.
MorganEve: We’re certainly prepared and excited to be extensively touring on Fits of Reason.
When did you begin working on the new material?
Dave: Most of the writing for Fits of Reason happened in between tours in 2012. Whenever we had 2 or 3 weeks at home throughout the year we’d be writing to prepare for recording last December. As some of the new songs were finished we’d play them out live just to try them out and tighten them up.
By last November we’d played at least half of the new songs out at live shows. A few of the songs didn’t come together until just weeks before we actually went into the studio.
What were you listening to and inspired by most during this time?
Dave: We’re always seeking out new music and it is hard to remember exactly when we came across which groups, but over the last few years we’ve been listening to a lot of Omar Khorshid, Sir Richard Bishop, Mastodon, Secret Chiefs 3, Om, A Hawk and A Hacksaw, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Red Fang, Gabor Szabo, The Sword, Bar Kokhba, Bunalim, Black Sabbath, and several compilations of Cumbia, Klezmer, Rebetika and 60’s-70’s era psych-rock from Peru, Turkey, Pakistan and many other parts of the world.
We’ve always been interested in music from all over the world but I think the international influences are more obvious on a larger number of songs on Fits of Reason than on our previous albums.
Can you describe your songwriting process(es) for the new material?
Dave: The writing process has always varied but recently I’ve been writing the music first and then the vocal melody and finally the lyrics. Usually when the song structure is done I’ll bring it to MorganEve and she’ll add her parts to it. Some songs like ‘Bow For Blade’ are an exception though, where we collaborated on the lyrics and she came up with all of the harmonies.
There were definitely songs on the previous albums that were written this way, but there were probably just as many where a vocal melody and some lyrics came first and the rest was written around it.
How else was your writing of Fits of Reason consistent with your previous work? What were some of the biggest differences?
Dave: We feel like Salt for Salt kind of laid the blue print for the diversity of song styles on Fits of Reason. While there might be a more tightly knit rootsy feel throughout Salt for Salt there are also songs like ‘Shiloh’ and ‘Nothing Left’ that show more of a movement towards the slightly heavier and more international feels that you’ll find more of on Fits of Reason.
MorganEve: At some point during the tour, I picked up a Fender P-Bass, and instantly fell in love. I only use it on two songs on the album, but having it as an option when I was coming up with my parts was fun and freeing. It allowed us to introduce another flavor that we hadn’t used before.
Did you have a preconceived vision for the new record?
Dave: The only real vision that we ever work with going into a new album is to put together the best possible songs that we can at that time. We definitely strive to make the songs on an album as diverse as we can, but we also try to make sure that we’re never putting a song on an album just for the sake of having something different, if we don’t feel like it matches up to the quality of the other songs.
Lyrically, there’s not so much a preconceived vision, but in retrospect sort of a loosely recurring theme. Essentially, the theme is about not believing everything you see, hear, or read just because it is presented in an authoritative package or repeatedly thrown in your face by media or society in general. But instead to seek out moments of clarity and contentment with the things we truly value most.
One thing that I find really exciting about Fits of Reason, is how it builds on the feel of Salt for Salt, especially with your increased use of percussion, which brings this album closest (in my opinion) to your live shows. Can you talk about this development?
Dave: This takes me back to our idea of trying to get the most out of our stripped down duo. Several of the newer songs are more intricate than the majority of our previous work, so I really wanted to challenge myself to not just play the simplest percussion parts but to really try to make the percussion as involved and integral as the rest of the instruments (to the best of my ability anyway).
There are so many kinds of rhythms out there and I didn’t want to limit ourselves to the typical ‘boom-chick, boom-chick’ beats that come the easiest. It can definitely be a struggle, and it has made recording more difficult at times, but I do feel like we succeeded in stepping up the percussion a notch from our previous recordings.
Was there a tune that set the course for the material?
Dave: It was more of a song-by-song accumulation, but the first couple of songs written for this album were ‘Iblis’ and ‘Threads of Measure’. So to some degree I guess the songs that followed could have been either a reaction to, or a continuation of the feel we got from those.
For the most part, there was a lot of work put into all of these songs. Usually I start with individual parts of songs and try them out with multiple other parts to see which ones fit together and then come up with more parts to finish it off. That process alone can often take several months.
Then sometimes I’ll try the songs in different keys or rhythms or time signatures to see what feels right. That’s usually the point where I’ll bring the song to MorganEve and we’ll work on it together for a while.
We made a demo of several of these songs over the summer and then when we returned home from touring in the fall, we went back to that demo and changed a couple of those songs dramatically. Others we didn’t touch. Then we wrote a few more to finish off the album. The only song on Fits of Reason that came out completely spontaneously was the short acoustic instrumental ‘Abednego’, which I wrote while we were spending an idyllic week off at a friend’s apartment in New Orleans after SXSW.
Can you talk about your recording process for Fits of Reason?
Dave: I can’t say that any one recording or production style influenced the sound of the new album. We mainly just worked with Seth Manchester and Keith Souza (from Machines With Magnets) to try out different mics and find the ones that we felt worked best for the overall sound of the songs.
What was your studio set up?
Dave: We talked a lot with Seth and Keith about how we wanted to try a different method than the ‘one-room, live-style’ that we used on Salt for Salt. As much as we enjoyed the old school straightforward approach of playing the songs together in the same room, we really wanted more freedom in the mixing process this time around.
For example, if you’re recording live and you want the bass to be louder and the bass microphone picked up a lot of the wood block, you’re gonna end up with a louder wood block whether you want it or not. We isolated ourselves in different rooms this time around and for the most part laid down percussion, guitar, and whichever instrument MorganEve was playing at the same time. Then we went back and added our vocals and any other overdubs after that.
I should mention too that MorganEve’s brother Spencer came into the studio to join us playing violin on the song ‘Barren Lakes’. That was during the overdubbing process and the three of us all kind of pitched in to co-write his part together. He’s insanely talented and we’ve been lucky enough to have him join us previously on ‘Shiloh’ from Salt for Salt and now again on the new album.
Now that Fits of Reason is finished, what would you say distinguishes this record most from your previous ones?
Dave: One of the most noticeable differences is the presence of the electric guitar and electric bass. During the writing process for these songs we felt like the more melodic nature of the guitar and bass parts on many of the songs lent themselves more to electric instruments. We’re very pleased with the way the integration of these instruments is sounding and we feel strongly that it’s a good step forward in the evolution of our overall sound.
I think that more of our influences from music from different parts of the world are starting to come through more in our songwriting. MorganEve is also singing on a lot more of the album, which we also hope to explore more as we move forward.
I really enjoyed your recent Daytrotter session with Joe Fletcher (who you have toured with and collaborated with). Can you talk about your musical kinship, and share your connectedness to the Providence music community?
Dave: Joe Fletcher is a very good friend of ours. We’ve both known him longer than we’ve known each other. There was a period just after I moved to Rhode Island where Joe was in between band mates and MorganEve and I would sit in as Joe’s band for a number of shows. His songwriting is great and it was only right and natural the way we all played together.
Joe is a hardworking and talented musician and we hope that he’ll get the kind of industry support that we’ve been lucky enough to experience over the past few years. It was great to have him with us on our last leg of touring and I’m sure we’ll be doing many tours together again in the future.
There definitely is a strong sense of camaraderie between a lot of the bands in Providence. Whether it’s touring together or just showing up at each other’s shows, it’s definitely a supportive community.
MorganEve: There are a lot of bands in Providence who we love. We’ve done some touring with The Low Anthem in the past, and during our upcoming April touring we’ll be bringing our friends Last Good Tooth with us. If there’s one thing Providence has, it’s a strong community of incredible musicians. There is so much talent here: Alec K. Redfearn, Deer Tick, Death Vessel, Keith McCurdy, Joe Fletcher, and more. We hope that there is much success in store for everyone.
I’ve been part of this community for almost 10 years now, and would be sad to leave it. The friendships forged out of the musicians here have been incredibly rewarding. The Providence area continues to be a great place to come home to after every tour.
I am excited to see you play ay The Wildwood Music Festival in Willamina, OR. Can you talk about how you connected with the organizers and decided to join the lineup?
MorganEve: We had a great time playing at the Wildwood Hotel last year, ghost stories and all. What an incredible place to walk into, especially not knowing what to expect. Our hostesses were incredible, the food was great and we enjoyed everything about our experience there. We’re thrilled to be coming back to this awesome little community.
What’s next for you?
MorganEve: Touring! There are some exciting possibilities coming up: some great festivals, rejoining our friends Trampled By Turtles, going out to Alaska, some more shows with The Devil Makes Three (who are practically family now), and we’re looking forward to our time with Last Good Tooth.