Bay Area pop band the Bye Bye Blackbirds have been at it for a few years, self-releasing an ep and then a full-length. Last year, however, saw the release of their 2nd full-.length, FIXED HEARTS, on the Rainbow Quartz label. It was a big step forward in songwriting and a mighty fine pop record. Main songwriter (and huge music fan) Bradley Skaught was nice enough to answer some questions for me.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the City of Destiny! Tacoma, WA
When did you first pick up an instrument?
A family friend asked to store his drum kit at our house when I was in second grade. My Mom agreed as long as I was allowed to take lessons and play it. I still have the kit – beautiful late 60’s champagne sparkle Ludwig!
First record you remember buying with your own money?
This is going to sound like an attempt to make myself appear extremely cool, but I really did save up my allowance to buy The Velvet Underground & Nico when I was in the fifth grade.
What was your first band?
It was actually an R.E.M. cover band called The Georgia Peaches – I was in 6th grade, the guitarist and bassist were in 8th. I sang and our science teacher, Mr. Layton, was the drummer!
What was your introduction to independent music? Punk Rock? New Wave? Power pop?
I really lucked out in that my older sister had some friends with great taste in music – lots of college radio stuff from the 80’s, which is obviously still the foundation of the music I make. Bands like R.E.M., Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians and Love & Rockets were extraordinary gateway bands that lead me to 60’s pop, soul, blues, country – everything. That same aforementioned science teacher was a bit of a mentor, too – we shared a deep love of Neil Young and he was always handing me interesting left field stuff to check out. I remember he gave me a tape of The Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim one day before class – that was pretty hip.
How did the Bye Bye Blackbirds come about?
Ian Robertson and I had a band called Belle Da Gama that absolutely nobody liked. When that band broke up we decided we wanted to start a new band that was really based on the fundamental things we loved as listeners – songwriting, harmony, cool guitar parts and sounds. It was kind of a back-to-basics approach -- we figured we could still challenge ourselves and follow our idiosyncratic vision, but maybe actually entertain some people at the same time. We found our drummer Lenny Gill and our first bass player William Duke online. It came together pretty quick.
Tell me about the new record, FIXED HEARTS. What was different about recording this one?
Having parted ways with that first bass player, I was called upon to write an entire record’s worth of songs myself, and it was really liberating. I was finally writing things I felt confident about and the band really stepped up in making them shine. So part of it was confidence and the energy of some new bandmates. Aaron Rubin is a very different bass player than Billy was, so the whole personality of the rhythm section changed.
The other big change was that we put it in the hands of Paul Tyler to produce and engineer. He really embraced the songs and had a strong idea of how to present them in clear, direct ways. It’s a much more straightforward record – very immediate. Less fussing around. He always had the songwriting in focus. Paul brought a lot out of each of us – we’re a better band and better musicians for having worked with him.
It’s a very modern sounding record, too – clean and open. Our first digital recording. As much as the fundamental elements of this band are classic, none of us are particularly interested in recreating any particular time or place – the retro thing is not that attractive to us.
How do you fewel aboutyour previous, record, HOUSE AND HOMES, and the HONEYMOON ep, do you still listen to them?
Honeymoon is a bit embarrassing to me, although I like a couple songs and I love the sound. It was so much fun to make – Bill Swan from Beulah produced it and we did vocals in his shower and tooled around at Rogue Wave’s rehearsal space. It works to me as a kind of statement of intent, but it makes me squirm to hear it. Houses and Homes is satisfyingly better than Honeymoon to me – a lot of growth and, again, really fun to make. We experimented a lot – goofy stuff with tape echoes and lots of layers. It also has a few songs I like, but frankly we haven’t played anything off those albums live in years. The new record is almost always the favorite, I guess, but some of the Fixed Hearts songs are quite old now and yet I still like them and am proud of them. It’s the first time I felt like, “Here, this is what I can do and it’s quite good.” It’s a nice feeling.
How did the deal with Rainbow Quartz come about? Will there be more BBB records on that label?
Our connection with Rainbow Quartz came about through The Parties, who are good friends of ours and a band we’ve played with many times. It seemed like a good fit to me, but having been rejected by so many other folks I wasn’t sure – luckily they really got it right away. I’m hopeful we’ll work together again – we definitely worked hard to promote Fixed Hearts. Besides, how could any label afford to abandon such a good looking band?
What has the best and worst reviews said about your band?
You know, we’ve never really gotten a particularly bad review – our bad reviews are mostly just about how we’re not groundbreaking enough. They tend to be “nice if you like this sort of thing” reviews – hard to feel strongly about that kind of criticism. I think if you’re going to like us you’re going to be attuned to something other than how cutting edge a band sounds. We can do things with lyrics and melodies and structures that are pretty special, but it’s a way of working that requires a little attention.
Good or bad, there’s likely to be a Tom Petty comparison involved. I don’t hear it, but if I can sell a record with it then I’m willing to pretend it’s intentional.
I know you’re huge music fan…what are your top 5 records for last year (2011)?
Oh yeah, I’m a total new release junkie -- I have a ton of things I love every year. My 2011 favorites were probably the new ones from Destroyer, Low, David Kilgour & The Heavy Eights, Marry Waterson & Oliver Knight, Reigning Sound and maybe the Kanye/Jay-Z Watch The Throne record.
If push came to shove, what is your favorite record of all time?
As a songwriter, The Loud Family’s Interbabe Concern just seems to me like the realization of all the promise of the craft possible in guitar pop music. It’s not even a perfect record, but no one else has accomplished the things that Scott Miller accomplishes on that album – it’s so diverse and wildly imaginative. It’s heartbreaking and funny and strange and really angry – the use of language is unparalleled, the melodies just baroque and magical. It’s a difficult record for a lot of people, I think, but the work required to engage with it only makes it that much more rewarding.
I could make a strong case for Lal and Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus, too, which is direct from the spirit in a way that’s hard to explain. The depth of their experience in traditional English folk music combined with the enthusiasm for pop songs and poetry – it’s so rich and resonant. How did Lal ever learn to write like that? It’s no surprise that Mike would be a clever genius, but Lal is really unlike anyone else and I don’t know how expected that was. Also, if you need a couple guitar players to play on your record, Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson are pretty good choices.
Top 10 desert island discs?
My ten favorite albums that include songs about islands: Dumptruck’s For The Country, Magnetic Fields’ Holiday, Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me, Donovan’s A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, Fiery Furnaces’ Gallowsbird’s Park, The Kinks’ Face To Face, The Millennium s/t, Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Van Dyke Parks’ Discover America, Destroyer’s Trouble In Dreams. The featured songs on those last two are both about Trinidad – is that cheating?
What’s next for the band?
I can’t wait to record the next album. It’s mostly written and the new stuff sounds great – it’s a much stranger, grittier and sexier record. I’d like to get it out this year if possible. We’re also going to record a single as the backing band for Dr. Frank from The Mr. T Experience.
I’d love to tour a bit, too, but the logistics are so tough – families and jobs and money stuff. People deserve us, though – we should make it happen.
Any words of wisdom? Final thoughts? Closing arguments?
One thing that’s kind of new to me as a songwriter is collaborating. I’ve written a couple songs with a good friend of mine from New York named Paula Carino and it’s been really fun – I’ve sent her some melodic and structural sketches and she sends back lyrics that we then fuss around with for awhile. I’m happy with the results – they’re songs that I would never have created on my own. One of them, “Hats” is on Fixed Hearts, and a new one called “Brand New Sitting Still” will be on the next album. I’ve always worked in isolation and maybe felt that my style was too idiosyncratic to work with someone else’s, so it’s nice to find this new way of writing and to have such strong results. My pal Lindsay Garfield (Or, The Whale) and I have been working on some stuff, too.
Finding this new creative avenue has made me even more appreciative of great songwriters who maintain their craft for a long time. I think about folks like Elvis Costello, Paul Simon or John Cale who have already accomplished so much, but they’re still finding new ways to challenge themselves. I think the myth of rock’n’roll as a young man’s (or woman’s) game is being exposed as phony. Anyone who’s seen Ian Hunter live lately has been taught that lesson for sure. It really is a calling as rich, rewarding and capable of illumination as any fine art – with the added bonus of more beer and ass shaking.
I made it this far without talking about the San Francisco Giants or Juventus. I must really like you.