Claviolas and Lit-Pop; One Ring Zero
Talks to Pitchaya Sudbanthad
When I met with One Ring Zero at a bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn, they had just gotten out of a photo-shoot for their new album, As Smart As We Are. Both Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp were in suit and tie. They had some instruments that they brought over for the shoot. I almost stepped on their claviola. If you don’t know what a claviola is, that’s OK. No one makes claviolas anymore. Although it sounds like some obscure anatomical structure, it actually is a keyboard instrument assisted by the human lung. The claviola is the symbolic mother-instrument of One Ring Zero, whose sound has convinced many well-known authors to contribute lyrics to their album. As Smart as We Are sounds more like a fiction anthology than a CD: Paul Auster, Denis Johnson, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Ames, and the Dave, among others.
We got something to drink and sat down at a table near the window. Outside on Ninth Street, a couple was walking a humungous white poodle with a flaring, bushy tail. We couldn’t help but stare.
So you guys once worked at Hohner, the instrument maker? How was it?
Joshua Camp: It was a big warehouse in an industrial park about 14 miles north of Richmond, Virginia.
Michael Hearst: We had big crates of accordions and harmonica around us, and we’d have to test them out. I worked on harmonicas and Josh worked on accordions. I’d clean harmonicas and replace reeds and send them back to the customers.
J: It was concrete floors and fluorescent lighting, basically a metal-siding prefab warehouse with a little workstation and a stool for us.
M: There were a lot of Germans. It’s a German company. I spoke bad German.
J: We learned a lot of Germans words that are technical and highly useless in the real world, words like Baβmechanik, which means the carriage in the left side of the accordion.
M: Or the Stimmplatten, which referred to the reed plates.
I wanted to show you guys a harmonica I bought at an antique store a few years ago.
M: This is actually German-made. How much did you pay for it?
J: It’s probably made in the 70’s. That’s my guess.
M: The box says key of E, but the harmonica is stamped key of D. It’s post-World War II, because the ones before the war had a star stamped in this circle.
You guys sound like the Antiques Road Show guys.
J: Those were the kind of people who called us all the time.
And you guys dealt with both old and new instruments?
M: We did everything. One of the tasks I had to do that I hated was to test Blues Traveler’s John Popper’s harmonicas, because apparently at one point, he picked up a harmonica stamped with the wrong key during a concert. He was really embarrassed, and so from that point on, as one of our biggest endorsees, we had to make sure the harmonicas were in its exact key. So I’d get twelve dozen harmonicas and would have to test each one and go, “Yeah, it’s a C-sharp. Yeah it’s a D.”
He needed to replenish his harmonicas that much?
J: This was back in their glory days when he played the harmonica once and threw it out to the crowd.
M: We also had Bob Dylan and Neil Young as endorsees. One time I talked to Harry Connick, Jr. for half an hour about New Orleans.
J: I talked to Steven Tyler once about Harmonicas.
It seems like these musicians got all lonely, and they’d pick up the phone for some hot, steamy action at 1-900-Harmonicas.
J: I think it’s more like they want to geek out on some instrument.
And so you guys bonded over harmonicas?
M: We bonded over the lack of wanting to be at work.
And then the claviola came into the picture.
J: It was the moment, the epiphany.
M: The claviola came in, and we were both like, what the hell is this?
And then New York?
M: We first had bands in Richmond.
J: It slowly evolved. We had our own rock bands and other projects, but what we had in common was an interest in esoteric instrumental music that’s vaguely Eastern European and has lots of weird instrumentation. Mike had his own recording studio, and we'd write and finish a song in an afternoon.
M: That was how our first album Tranz Party went. We pitched it to a local label and they decided to put it up.
If I were a volcano,
I would want you to jump.
Jump into my yellow.
Jump into my hot yellow,
you person made of bones.
If I were a well,
I would want you to yell.
Down my depths, your voice,
My well is deep and black.
Your sound can have a very circus feel to it. When you were kids, did you like the circus?
M: We both had interest in Kurt Weil, Tom Waits and Nina Rota. I grew up with Jewish music. We both wanted to get away from pop.
But you’ve described your current sound as pop. Are you trying to balance out your music in light of the unorthodox instruments?
M: I think we just wanted to write music that was fun, music that we enjoyed recording and playing.
J: It got into more of a pop structure once we started working with lyrics. It was a way of combining our pop writing and our more instrumental writing.
M: This record goes back into more pop, but we’re still One Ring Zero.
That Dave Eggers song is really catchy. I can’t get it out of my head.
M: Yes, the hooks are good.
Even with all these well-known authors contributing lyrics, you guys still had trouble finding a label for this album.
M: People were confused about how to find a way to market it. The idea on the get go was to make a book/CD combo item, but it was confusing whether to find a record label or a publishing house. In terms of distribution, it was hard to figure if we should market it to bookstores or record stores or both. Now, Soft Skull Press is publishing it, and will distribute it to the book world, and then we’re going via an independent distribution route for music. It’s more like a CD-sized book, so it fits almost into your CD rack, just enough to be annoying, but it will sit nicely on top of the stack.
Tell me more about your first project with Rick Moody. What was it like to work collaboratively beyond music alone? Was it the first time you guys had worked with a prose writer?
J: That was the initial relationship. Rick, who was a musician as well, asked us to improvise for his reading, and gave us chords behind Purple America.
M: Well, before New York, we worked on quite a few modern dance scores and we had been working with Clay McLeod Chapman and his Pumpkin Pie Show, but working with a big name was also new and exciting. It was fun. I was playing the theremin and Josh was playing the claviola. Every sentence in the opening chapter of Purple America started off with “Whosoever.” We played what we felt worked with the words.
There ain’t no sin in Cincinnati.
Since I’ve been in Cincinnati,
I’ve got to get out
of Cincinnati, or else
plumb, dumb, and batty,
since I mean to sin,
wherever I am,
since I mean to sin,
whenever I can.
-- Paul Auster
So when you had the Author Project going, how did you reimagine the lyrics into song? Did you aim for a specific effect for each writer, having known about his or her works?
M: Not necessarily. I mean, they were authors whose work I loved, and I’m sure that it does have an influence. With Paul Auster, I heard this dark, circusy thing, and I also knew that he was a friend of Tom Waits. What usually happened was I’d get the lyrics, and I’d read it like 50 times, over and over. I literally took them to bed with me and just read and reread, before I’d even thought of music. I found myself walking through Park Slope with the lyrics memorized, humming melodies (sings There ain’t no sin in Cincinnati).
J: My method’s pretty intuitive. I’d just read it once. Depending on the lyrics, if they’re already in song form, the music might come immediately. I’d just pick up a guitar or an accordion and just sing.
M: But at the same time, I read Myla Goldberg’s lyrics, and I was immediately thought that the music has to be klezmer. Some authors had asked for certain styles. Denis Johnson insisted that the song be country.
J: Some of the best songs were outside of the traditional song form, and we had to problem solve and make the unconventional lyrics works.
M: It seemed like it’d make more sense to have poets, but we thought prose writers would be more fun. The lyrics that weren’t so standard in their structure made the song more interesting, because it forced us to work with it.
I’m nine feet tall
and my skin is grey.
All the girls scream
when I come out to play.
They scream and they scream
and they run away.
I am one of a kind.
Doctor, doctor, you’re the one to blame. You put me together.
You forgot the name.
How closely did you work with the authors?
M: Some we worked closely with. Some were just like, here you go; here’s the contract. Obviously, Margaret Atwood lives in Canada, and I’ve never met her in person, so the project was developed entirely through e-mail. We talked to Neil Gaiman frequently via e-mail, and Daniel Handler actually played accordion with us when he came into town.
Did you send samples back to the authors once you had music for the lyrics?
M: We just sent the song back once we were done, and said here it is. Dave Egger's was the only one we had to change.
Speaking of the Dave, as good as the songs are, there’ll be rumblings about how you’re hanging on the coattails of McSweeney’s and these famous writers. What do you think of that?
M: Yeah, of course. So be it.
J: We would just like to have a career in music.
M: We also asked a lot of authors that weren’t really famous whom we loved.
M: McSweeney’s has been good for us. It wasn’t a hipster thing that we jumped into. It was just a great outlet for us to play, and they were fantastic. I’m aware of the negative, but I don’t know what that is all about.
J: We got to meet great writers, right?
One Ring Zero is Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp. Based in New York City, they perform regularly at venues around the city including The Knitting Factory, Galapagos, Barbčs, and Tonic. They recently performed at the Whitney Museum of Art, at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park, and at the Central Park Summer Stage with George Plimpton and Paul Auster.
Soft Skull Press and Urban Geek Records released their
album, As Smart As We Are, in May 2004.
A profile of ORZ by editor Pitchaya also appears at The Morning News.