Conversation: Michael Hearst

By Jason Diamond

Michael Hearst has one of the most impressive resumes of just about anybody I can think of. His band One Ring Zero had Denis Johnson, Jonathan Ames, Michael Chabon, Myla Goldberg, and others contribute lyrics to the album, As Smart as We Are. He’s involved in the Cassette From my Ex project, a multi-instrumentalist that has toured with The Magnetic Fields, a writer that has contributed to McSweeney’s, and from what I gather, a pretty nice guy.

Songs for Unusual Creatures is his most recent project, and he’ll be playing the songs live at Joe’s Pub in NYC tonight.

How does an animal qualify as an unusual one?
I’m mostly interested in animals that I’ve never seen or heard of before. A lot of my inspiration actually comes from the learning process. Of course, I’ve already learned about cows and ducks, so that’s not as much of interest to me. Though, I should point out that there are several creatures that I’m including in the project that are perhaps not quite as unusual as others. However, I still find them to fascinating, typically because they either look bizarre, behave in a bizarre way, or in one case, make a bizarre sound. I guess it really just comes down to the definition of the word “unusual.” I’m not interested in writing songs about “usual” animals. That’s already been done.

Do you purposely use what could be viewed as “unusual” instruments for songs about unusual animals?
Definitely. When I first started playing the claviola, people would ask, “What is that instrument?” And I would find myself almost always describing it as “a rather unusual creature.” So it’s no coincidence that this project is called Songs For Unusual Creatures. I also have always been a big fan of Camille Saint-Saëns Le Carnaval des Animaux, a collection of compositions inspired by some of the more common animals. I thought it would be fun to write songs about some of the lesser-known creatures that roam the planet, using some of the lesser-known instruments, which I love to incorporate into my work whenever I can.

How did the idea to collaboration with LEMUR come about?
Randomly enough, I was walking down 4th Ave in Brooklyn one day, and passed by, what used to be, the LEMUR studios. I had no idea what it was. While pressing my face up to the window, Eric Singer, the founder, walked up. I asked him what LEMUR was—a question I’m sure he gets as often as I get people asking me what a claviola is—and he explained to me how they make musical instrument robots, such as the guitarbot, the xylobot, and the modbods. Needless to say, I was very interested. I introduced myself to him, and to my delight, he actually knew who I was (or at least knew of my band One Ring Zero). Within a few weeks we were collaborating.

You said that you think the world is oversaturated with the standard guitar/bass/drums setup. I’m wondering if you have always felt that way, or if that was a feeling that developed over time?
I guess I didn’t always feel that way. Like many teen-agers, I wanted to be a rock star. And although piano was my first instrument, when I was sixteen I started playing guitar, mostly so that I could sing Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd songs. But it was really always composition that interested me. With my interest in composition came my quest to find new sounds. I still love a good guitar/bass/drum band, but the world is definitely oversaturated with that particular ensemble. There are so many possibilities of sounds and instrument combinations out there. I think it simply comes down to what people know. People are creatures of habit. I often wonder how things would have turned out if guys like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry all played an instrument like the bassoon. Would that have lead to the psychedelic drug-induced bassoon craze of the 60’s? And then to distorted bassoon rock of the 70’s? Every kid today would be asking their parents to buy them an electric bassoon.

Do people ever suggest ideas to you as to what you should write songs about?
Yes. But I actually find it quite flattering that anyone would care enough about what I do to make a suggestion. Sometimes I’m actually handed fantastic ideas. It was Olivier Conan (owner of Barbes and Barbes Records) who suggested I turn Michael Chabon’s rejection letter into a song. It was Jason Bitner (of Found Magazine and Cassette From My Ex) who suggested I do a series of news songs, which turned into Songs For Newsworthy News.

When you look at your Wikipedia page, it files you under the genres of Alternative rock, experimental music, and soundtrack. While I know artists don’t like to be pigeonholed, I’m curious to know if a stranger asked you what sort of music you make, what you would tell them?

That’s always one of the toughest things for me to answer. I typically stumble on my own words for several seconds before spitting out something like, well I sort of play soundtracky-circusy-strang instrument based music. One of these days I really need to come up with a solid answer for that question.

Is it harder to write music or lyrics?
For me, I’m not sure one is really harder to do that the other, but the processes are certainly different. I find myself writing lyrics most often while riding the train, or once in a while I come up with something while lying awake at night. Music is something I typically come up with while sitting in my studio with an instrument. Though, quite often I also get musical ideas while walking down the street, or in the shower. In fact, those are typically my best ideas.

Last year you performed in the 45th anniversary concert for Terry Riley’s In C. Could you indulge me and share any particularly special memories you have of that?
It was probably one of the highest moments of my career so far. Really an amazing feeling to play in front of a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall, while sharing the stage with some of my all-time favorite musicians and composers. I love to joke that Phillip Glass and Dave Douglas were behind me on stage. But seriously, it was really just such an honor to be part of. I don’t think I stopped smiling once during the performance.