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
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
J: Those were the kind of
people who called us all the time.
And you guys dealt with both old and new
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
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
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
And then the claviola came into the
J: It was the moment, the
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
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.
I were a volcano,
would want you to jump.
into my yellow.
into my hot yellow,
person made of bones.
I were a well,
would want you to yell.
my depths, your voice,
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
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
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
ain’t no sin in Cincinnati.
I’ve been in Cincinnati,
got to get out
Cincinnati, or else
dumb, and batty,
I mean to sin,
I mean to sin,
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.
nine feet tall
my skin is grey.
the girls scream
I come out to play.
scream and they scream
they run away.
I am one of a kind.
doctor, you’re the one to blame. You put me together.
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.
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
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
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
Soft Skull Press and Urban Geek Records released their