Breathe Owl Breathe on Its Theatrical Live Shows, New Children's Book, and Natural Inspiration
Many bands that employ gimmicks like costumes, storytelling, and adorable instruments (e.g. melodeon or kazoo) are relegated to the land of twee. But Michigan's Breathe Owl Breathe lacks the cutesy artifice of certain Juno soundtrack singsongers. Perhaps due to the band's incredible musicianship and outside-the-box performance approach, BOB manages to put on unpretentious and purely entertaining shows. The folk trio Breathe Owl Breathe stops in the Bay Area several times each year, often performing with local folk favorite Little Wings. It returns tonight to co-headline with Portland folk singer Laura Gibson at Bottom of the Hill.
The band consists of three multi-instrumentalists/vocalists: singer/guitarist Micah Middaugh, cellist/singer Andrea Moreno-Beals, and keyboardist/percussionist Trevor Hobbs. Now Middaugh is adding "children's book author" and "illustrator" to his already long list of talents. BOB's latest release, The Listeners/These Train Tracks (out on RAD) is a limited-edition two-song 7-inch that comes nestled in the pages of a specially designed block-printed storybook. With masterful craftsmanship, the two stories start on separate sides of the book and meet in the middle, where the hidden 7-inch is housed in a copper block-printed sleeve.
In an interview last week, prolific author Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) told Stephen Colbert, "I don't write for children. I write and somebody says that's for children." Similarly, BOB's music toes the line between childhood and adulthood, with audiences deciding the purpose of the work more than the creators. We recently caught up with the BOB trio to talk about children's books, performance approaches, and more. Unsurprisingly, the members' answers were often as unusual as their art.
Let's talk about the songs on the new 7-inch and their corresponding stories.
Trevor Hobbs: The Listeners/These Train Tracks is comprised of two stories, one to wake up to and one to fall asleep to. "The Listeners (The Mole and the Ostrich)" is about the unique and powerful relationship between a mole and an ostrich. They meet, nose to nose, underground in the sand. "These Train Tracks" is a bedtime story, a journey through the mind's wanderings as one falls asleep. All of the pictures in the book are woodcut illustrations by Micah. It was bound and printed with the old world in mind. The canvas-textured cover is embossed and foiled with images from each story.
What was the impetus behind making a children's book?
TH: The book is almost wholly Micah's creation. After a successful Kickstarter fundraiser, the idea for the book became a reality.
Micah Middaugh: When I started writing "These Train Tracks," I was mowing the lawn. I kept a lot of pocket notebooks handy in my fannypack to write down thoughts. So while mowing, I had this succession of thoughts about a train turning into a caterpillar and the caterpillar turning into an airplane, and so on. The book existed in a very small form for quite a long time in my pocket book. The pocket book idea came from my youth. My brothers and I used to make small flipbooks all the time. I'm making wood block carvings all the time these days, so it was a natural thing to turn the pocket book into a life-sized book. From beginning to end, it was about a three-year process.
The design was an important concept to try to pull off. I was always inspired by old styles of book printing and binding, and books from the late '60s and '70s that had music that went along with stories. I guess the main concept was trying to work on something from the old world, but with a little of the new world -- for instance, having the heavy vinyl in the middle, but with an MP3 download for the kids. In the end, I wanted the texture of the book and the texture of the music to be able to live their lives together, in a capsule, on their own.
How was working on a book as a group different than working on music together? Did the roles change for each of you?
TH: Working on the book aspect was a learning process. Micah was the spearhead/creative director behind it. Andrea and I were there to help facilitate the more objective decisions that needed to be made. We made cookies when there needed to be cookies. Roles defined: Trevor, a web of his own, Andrea, a thread of her own, Micah, a bread of his own. And together, there is a forgiving fragile strength.
MM: My mindset was: move slow but diligently, meditate often without knowing that you are, hikes are welcome, at the end of the day, VHS movies are a given, dart boards give nice breaks.
Why use visual components, theatrics, costumes, storytelling and sound effects as opposed to straight musical performances?
MM: We are inspired by art and music that engages the whole listener: visual, kinetic, and auditory experiences. There are trilogies that pervade our group and friendship: lyric, melody, rhythm and action, contemplation, devotion.
TH: It's just a natural part of who we are to make music that is more than an auditory experience.
What are your musical and non-musical influences?
MM: I enjoy the silent sports. I try to have a multiple ways of voyaging through the day. It breaks up the routines of daily life. You never know what you might see or think or feel. It's nice to let the rhythm of the body reveal a fragment of a song. That's why many songs end up being built around a simple line. Many songs are simply thoughts and ideas that I gathered from a run, just stitched together.
TH: I'm inspired by patterns, especially when they are derived via some combination of human and non-human communication. I mean, if you look at a graph of the fluctuations in the discharge of a river over time [Trevor is a geologist], then turn that into music, what does it sound like?
Andrea Moreno-Beals: I study languages, specifically Portuguese and German. I'm quite fond of Brazilian music and was fortunate to go there the last couple winters to immerse myself in the culture and learn some traditional Brazilian percussion instruments.
You guys seem to lean towards a more childlike approach to music-making. It's a children's book, but is the music meant for children or is it a way for adults to access childhood innocence?
MM: I don't think the vision for the book was intended for any audience in particular. It was a project and we treated it that way. We were trying to think about how we could discover something about our creative process that, once released, could live on its own. We used old ways of printing and found sounds, those not-quite-identifiable instruments to the ear. The reactions have been very positive. It might run out of print. All kinds of people, old and young, have expressed appreciation for it. I hope it sounds fun.
Whose voice is on "The Listeners" besides Micah's?
MM: When we started recording that song, Andrea was an assistant teacher at the Rudolf Steiner School she attended growing up. That voice is one of Andrea's first graders. She was so amazing in the studio!
You just went on tour throughout Michigan with one of the Bay's own treasures, Little Wings. Tell us about your history with Kyle Field.
MM: Kyle is a shape-shifter of inspiration. The first show that we ever played as Breathe Owl Breathe was with Little Wings in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Since then, we have had a number of voyages and "radventures" in Alaska, Marin, Michigan, Spain, Phoenix, France, Tucson, and Ireland. Kyle's songs and drawings take on worlds of their own and he feels these worlds to the core. The Bay Area is lucky to have such a treasure and we are lucky to have him as a true friend.