In a hip-hop universe where a stage name is critical branding, "Eric Blair" hardly seems marquee-ready. The only other rapper with such a banal-sounding handle is David Banner—chosen, of course, because of the lead character in the TV series The Incredible Hulk. In that hyper-inflated rap-cartoon conception of the world, a live hip-hop band that not only operates without a DJ but without a bass player must seem like it comes from a parallel universe, and crashing across that border with their dark capes fluttering come No Bird Sing.
The band is a hybrid, a product of a city where the MCs listen to NPR, musicians feel free to mix partying and post-modernism, and making something honest is preferable to making something perfect. The crew is fronted by MC Joe Horton, who is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Hamline University and chose the "Eric Blair" stage name because it is the birth name of George Orwell. Robert Mulrennan, a longtime friend and collaborator—the two were half of the now-defunct group Hyder Ali—assumes guitar duty, and Graham O'Brien of Abzorbr mans the drums to round out the trio's atmospheric, melancholic and menacing take on the genre.
No Bird Sing came together in the fall of 2008 out of its members' mutual respect for each other's projects. Mulrennan and O'Brien began composing and collaborating, demoing the instrumentation on Garage Band, and Horton began writing. A little bit of luck that November found them in the studio with producer Adam Krinsky at Masters Recording Institute (formerly Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's Flyte Tyme recording studio), and they walked away with several tracks, including the single "Ars poetica." The track begins with a fuzzy, heavily distorted guitar chord fading in and out, building up to a blast of vocals and a pummeling of drums and feedback. Horton's low timbre, accentuated by a deep rattle, sustains the mood from the opening proclamation that "Ars poetica is dead!" declaring, in essence, that comfortable delineations on the nature of art are a thing of the past.
In conversation, Horton relishes the correlation between being honest and being uncomfortable. "When I listen to a Britney Spears record, it's not that she's not talented, but I feel like I am being lied to, and that's the thing that pisses me off. When I listen to Phillip Glass, I want to ball up and cry. It just makes you want to deconstruct yourself and break into a million molecules. You would think that wouldn't be a good thing, but that's what people want." O'Brien adds that that desire to be scared helps explain the continual appeal of horror movies, and that honest discomfort pushes the medium, saying that "hip hop has matured enough as a genre to cover what we're doing."
Pulling together material over the winter and spring, the trio once again hit the studio in May and churned out a self-titled full-length record. The pace was frenetic, and much of the tracking was done live, without extensive overdubbing or cuts. "Most of those tracks," Horton notes, "are live recordings; nothing is really butchered." All the band members are proud of the work, though O'Brien does admit, "Listening back to the album, there are some things I would have done differently because I played it safe. But it's a great snapshot of where we were. Making an album is the best thing for the development of a band. It kicks your ass. We're twice as good now."
At their strongest, No Bird Sing show off three artists working their mediums to a tense high. The melancholic guitar riffs and sparse drumming of "Devil Trombones" weave a pulsing web around Horton's Clockwork Orange-inspired screed on the terrors of trying to be free; "Legal Blood Money" features thick internal rhyme schemes and an ebb and flow that grows to an all-encompassing crescendo. The work is referential of hip-hop mechanics but humanized through the nuance of live performance.
No Bird Sing also pulls together an impressive supporting cast—MCs Eyedea and Kristoff Krane guest on tracks, and Krane's track "Sparrows" features a compelling back-and-forth between frenetic and measured deliveries. On "Plastic Lines" pianist and singer Alicia Wiley provides beautiful descant to the slow rumble of drums and guitars, accompanying mumbled ruminations on memory and redemption. Pushing out even further, Grammy-winning guitar player Bo Ramsey guests on "Dirty Leaves," a track that he sat in on after overhearing No Bird Sing at Masters.
And as for that persistent question of how to describe their music? Horton shrugs and uses an analogy from a writing course. "I used to sit down and say, 'Well, what genre is this going to be? I don't know what genre this is going to be.' One of my professors was like, 'That's for your publisher to decide. You don't care about that.' We're not on a label right now so whatever genre we are is up for the record stores to decide, whatever section they are going to put us in, and probably it's going to be local. So our genre is local."
O'Brien laughs. "What do you guys sound like? We sound local. Let me get some of that local sound everyone's talking about!"
Horton grins. "Right. Genres are so that people can find you in record stores."
NO BIRD SING play an all-ages CD-release show with Big Trouble and Guante & Big Cats! on FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, at ECLIPSE RECORDS, 651.645.7724; and an 18+ CD-release show with Black Blondie and Kristoff Krane on SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, at the TRIPLE ROCK SOCIAL CLUB, 612.333.7399