Fact: there are more albums in existence today than ever before, and, as more albums are released in the future, that number will most likely increase. We, the intrepid writers for Owl&Bear, stand at the frothy frontline of this constant deluge of new music, bravely filling buckets with the good stuff and presenting it as sweet sustenance to our parched readers. We perpetually receive music from PR people, begging us to check out undiscovered artists, and a lot of it is, quite frankly, underwhelming. But once in a while we come across a diamond in the rough, something that grabs us by the ears and doesn’t let go. And so it happened that, mere seconds into hearing “If You” (MP3), I became a fan of Boy Without God.
Hailing from Massachusetts, famed home of the sassy Congressman, Boy Without God is the solo project of multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Birnbaum. His new album, Your Body Is Your Soul, which sounds like Neutral Milk Hotel if they’d been fronted by Johnny Cash, has been on constant rotation in the Owl&Bear offices lately and is shaping up to be one of the best albums of the year. Birnbaum was kind enough to share his influences with us for our newest installment of Poetic Memory.
Poetic Memory is a regular Owl and Bear feature in which musicians disclose their influences—whether it’s albums, songs, artists, or something random. If you’re interested in being featured here, send us an email.
I try to avoid having heroes (by which I mean idolizing people to the point where, when I learn more about them, I will be completely let down), but if I did have one, it would probably be Leonard Cohen. I’m a pretty big lyrics person, and I feel like every time I go through some kind of new experience, Leonard has some lyrical advice for me that I never really focused on before, but which now becomes clear. Like “Myself I long for love and light/but must it come so cruel and oh so bright?” or “We are so small between the stars/so large against the sky.” So much wisdom. Also, everything is ambiguous with him, which is how the world presents itself to me. And, to steal a line from David Berman, all my favorite singers couldn’t sing.
Most of my musical life has been spent playing the saxophone, either in jazz or other improvised music, so the foundations of my taste are all laid in jazz. As I got into my high school years I craved more and more aggressive stuff to release my teenage angst, and some of the most bone-shakingly intense music I’ve ever heard came from Ayler. His music takes simple churchy melodies, played so hard they sound like they’re about to burst, and then launches into improvisation that is almost pure energy. No melody, no meter, no harmony. It was a form of religious ecstasy for him and his brother Don, their equivalent of speaking in tongues, and the sweaty intensity of it will always be something I aspire to.
This might come as a surprise considering my music is almost all acoustic, but I love Dan Deacon, both as a composer and a performer. Much of the music I hear is choking to death on its own seriousness, and the stuff that tries to be fun often sacrifices any musical interest in the name of accessability, but he manages to make music that is both fun as hell and beautifully structured. Not to mention the ecstatic dance parties and singalongs he leads live. Audience participation, when it’s done well, is so important. Watch this:
I have so much admiration for this guy.
Douglas is a trumpet player/composer who has been active over the last 20 years or so in jazz and improvised music. He was one of my first favorite musicians (I was an insufferable jazz snob at the age of 10, trying desperately to follow in my older brother’s footsteps), after the more straight-ahead trumpeter Lee Morgan, and his composition style has had a huge influence on mine. Instead of just writing throw-away melodies to solo over like many jazz musicians do, Douglas is a composer, writing songs which have plenty of space for improvisation, yet which play with form and instrumentation and tempo, and which often have a really conceptual idea at the source. Songs of mine like “Holy Holy Little Fist” (MP3), or “Leaving Boston”, or “Moments of Euphoria…” definitely owe a lot to this approach. El Trilogy is my absolute favorite album of his.
Vandermark is a saxophonist/composer who goes hand in hand with Douglas as far as influence on my writing. His Vandermark 5, which starts with a free jazz core and then adds elements from rock, dub, soul, noise, and everything else, is one of my favorite bands, and their album Airports For Light is one of the ones I would have worn the grooves out on if I’d grown up before the digital era. It lands somewhere between Ayler’s intensity and Douglas’ careful form. Most of my music is an attempt to blend this kind of challenging, fiery stuff, with more normal pop music. I also really admire Vandermark’s restlessness. He’s constantly starting a new project, playing with new musicians (like Dutch weirdo punks The Ex), recording new records, playing with 20 person bands and playing solo.
Elliott Smith, Wilco, Neutral Milk Hotel
These are some of the first rock musicians (besides the Beatles & Paul Simon) that I ever listened to, and it took me until more than halfway through high school. At some point I admitted to myself that maybe there was some music besides jazz that was worth listening to, and I asked some friends to burn me some of their favorite records. I immediately became obsessed with X/O and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and later with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and they were the main reasons I picked up the guitar. The song “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was actually the first song I ever learned. I was a pretty sad and moody kid, always mooning over girls who probably had no idea I even liked them, so the overtones of isolation and desperation in the first two records struck all my chords, and the magically bizarre, ghostly, sex-filled world of NMH was a promise of something more transcendent than a lonely suburban high school experience.
Shira & Shai Erlichman
Much of my inspiration comes from people I know personally, like Shira & Shai, my bandmates in The Tiny Tornadoes and both amazing songwriters and performers on their own. They have a knack for writing songs that are moving, direct, fun, catchy as hell, and deeply interesting, which is not something I can say for many people. In addition to the usual suspects, they draw from a lot of girl group pop like the Shangri-Las and the Dixie Cups, which gives their songs an uncommon buoyancy. I find myself thinking of them a lot when I am writing, and they’ve been listening patiently to me since my first tentative (read: crappy) home recordings and giving me endless support and feedback. The lyrics to “Holy Holy Little Fist” originally popped into my head in a dream (no really), but they were set to a melody of Shira’s at the time, and I had to write a new tune to be able to use them. My friends Jake Estner, Nick Boyajian (who recorded my record), Danny Mekonnen of DEBO Band, and Noah Rubin of The Dead Trees have also had a big influence on my creative process.
Everyone & Everything
I tend to steal a lot of things from a lot of people (not always intentionally, but I think this is how most people work), so in recent songs I can pick out nods to Sam Cooke, Raymond Carver, Bonnie Prince Billy, Strand of Oaks, Bon Iver, The Walkmen, an episode of This American Life, John Updike, Phosphorescent, Animal Collective, and Franz Wright, just to name a few. So really the influences on me go much further and wider than I can understand, but hey, that’s why it’s fun.