Like the hip hop-meets-jazz improv version of Marijuana Deathsquads, Coloring Time's shows are dramatically different every time. Not only do the songs never remain the same -- they are created on the fly, emcees flexing their freestyle abilities over shifting instrumentation -- but the group itself is constantly fluctuating, adding new members and swelling to create the occasional gigantic 20-person jam session
The project began with No Bird Sing, the jazz-influenced live hip-hop crew fronted by Joe Horton, who was encouraged by his friend Micheal Larsen (a.k.a. Eyedea) to perform a less structured set. To learn more about this unique group's origins and aspirations, we caught up with Horton this week as he kicks off what will be a monthly Coloring Time residency at Honey, the Northeast subterranean bar that's tucked underneath Ginger Hop. The first gig is this Thursday.
When was the first time No Bird Sing decided to play a show that was improvised instead of a pre-rehearsed set of songs? How did it go?
About a year after we got together, Mike (Eyedea) asked us to play a show with Face Candy as No Bird Sing. We decided to play an improv set to go with the theme of the night. Mike, Chris (Kristoff Krane) and Casey O'Brien ended up sitting in with us for our entire set. For me, it was a tutorial on how to run an improv set. Mike was one of, if not the best improvisers ever. It was invaluable to be able to hone those skills with his help.
An early version of Coloring Time with Eyedea, filmed by MPLS.TV
How do you choose who to invite to your improv sessions? Who are the core members of Coloring Time?
Coloring Time started as "No Bird Sing and Friends Improv" with Graham O'Brien, Bobby Mulrennan and myself from No Bird and Casey O'Brien from Face Candy. From there, we just had our friends sit in whenever they were at the shows. Mike and Chris were there most nights. Chastity Brown and Adam Svec also frequently contributed. Then Peter Pisano started sitting in and did so at most of the subsequent shows.
We're comfortable with Coloring Time being a loose concept and that includes its membership. But the idea to move it away from NBS and Friends and into Coloring Time really took shape around Graham, Casey, Bobby, Peter and myself. So in that sense, we serve as its core members.
We mostly just ask our friends to play at this point. People we've played with before and enjoy playing with. That sounds kind of childlike -- I actually think that's appropriate to the sentiment we try and embody. Luckily our friends are monster musicians. We would like to reach out to other folks we haven't played with in the future. To continue the collaborative spirit of the band. I hope the collective keeps growing and growing.
Do you have a favorite Coloring Time/improv gig that you've played so far?
It's kind of like asking if I have a favorite child. I remember a lot of the little lucid moments that make improvised music special. As a core unit, we're playing better and better, having more and more of those moments. In that spirit, the most recent set we played with John Keston and Adam Svec was probably the most connected I've felt in an improv setting.
The large ensemble debut at the Cedar was also very special. Playing with Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Michelle Kinney, JT Bates and co. was amazing. The lineup featured some of my favorite musicians in the world. I felt spoiled.
Do you feel like the more experimental performances with Coloring Time help to inform your songwriting and performance style in No Bird Sing?
Definitely, yes. Particularly with my performance style. It's really helped me explore my vocal technique and stage presence. You have to experiment with unscripted music. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't. It's like one big trial and error session.
Also, lyrically improvising has helped me branch out as a songwriter. You're literally digging into your brain to find new things to talk about. That practice has helped me feel much more dexterous as a songwriter. A lot of the new No Bird Sing material is heavily influenced by vocal and lyrical techniques picked up while improvising.
How did you choose Honey as the location for your first residency?
There are a lot of great venues in the Twin Cities but ultimately we picked Honey because we've played there a bunch and feel really comfortable there. There's no stage, so there's less of a separation between performer and audience member. Plus the dim lighting really helps to get into a creative headspace.
COLORING TIME kick off their monthly residency this THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 3, at HONEY. 18+. $5. 10 p.m. doors (first set at 10:30, second set at 11:30).