Photos by Nicholas Wray

A Lot Like Birds Readies The Release of Conversation Piece

It’s a quiet Tuesday night in Midtown and local progressive/post-hardcore band A Lot Like Birds has 80 or so fans packed into Luigi’s Fungarden as they tear through songs off their upcoming Doghouse Records full-length debut Conversation Piece, set for release on Oct. 11, 2011. Songs like “Think Dirty Out Loud” and “Sesame Street Is No Place for Me,” the album’s first two singles, have the crowd feverishly swaying back and forth to their spastic and energetic rhythms and riffs. Co-vocalists Cory Lockwood and Kurt Travis bounce around the small stage, shaking their long locks, taking turns singing and screaming, fully taking advantage of having co-vocalists (think call and response, harmonizing, layering, etc).

“I’m not the singer and he’s not the screamer,” Travis makes known as the two vocalists and I share a pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon at a local watering hole the Friday following the show. It quickly becomes apparent that this is an important point for them to get across. “We’re both vocalists,” he says. “I scream and I sing. And he screams and he sings. And we yell and we talk and we do spoken word. We do everything, we do all of it.”

Lockwood agrees and thinks of it like this, “I feel like a lot of times with dual vocalist bands that have a singer and a screamer, you’re diverging your fans and you’re going to have people that go, ‘Well I listen to the singing,’ and then you’ve got the guys who want tough music and they’re like, ‘Well I like the screaming.’ So if you bleed both of them, you’re forcing people to like it as a whole.”

Couple the outrageous and entertaining vocal work from Travis and Lockwood with the equally impressive instrumental work of the rest of the band, which consists of guitarists Michael Franzino and Ben Wiacek, bassist Michael Littlefield and drummer Joe Arrington, and you’ve got yourself one interesting record in Conversation Piece. One that crosses genres, tears down boundaries, leaves the listener wondering, “What’s next?” after each track comes to a dramatic close, and one that will most likely take a few listens to grow on you. They are aware of this.

“I know that music like this has to grow on people. People are really slow at picking stuff like this up,” says Travis.

“It’s almost easier for us to do weirder stuff,” Lockwood admits.

And weird it is, although we’re not talking about an un-listenable type of weird here; this isn’t just random noise after all. We’re talking about calculated time signature changes, non-traditional song structures, heavy-hitting breakdowns mixed with luscious reverb and delay-ridden clean parts, impressive and off-the-wall guitar riffs and interesting lyrical content to boot. Take the following lines from “Think Dirty Out Loud” for example, where Lockwood screams, “I spiked both our drinks with a gallon of ink / Now I’m writing a novel from your insides / We’re a spider with our limbs doing anything but walking / A conversation with our mouths doing anything but talking.” Or where Travis sings, “I eat emotional wrecks / And yours is the best.

“I remember the instance in which we started writing the lyrics,” Travis says of the song. “I was totally enjoying myself, just laughing to myself, just thinking I’m the most clever fucking person ever.”

It is noteworthy to point out that in a number of ways, Conversation Piece is entirely different than A Lot Like Birds’ last offering, 2009’s Plan B. The latter was largely the work of guitarist and songwriting catalyst (as well as the band’s original vocalist) Michael Franzino, who invited a horde of local musicians to play everything from trumpet and trombone to cello and violin on the record. Plan B didn’t even feature a live drummer, as Franzino programmed the drums himself via computer. Conversation Piece is much more of a collaborative effort and consists of mostly the band’s core instruments (guitar, bass, drums, vocals), although it does contain some programmed stuff (“A Satire of a Satire of a Satire is Tiring”) and a little bit of horns (“Vanity’s Fair”) as to not depart completely from the band’s tendency to blend live instrumentation with orchestral and programmed elements. One of the most obvious differences between the two records is the solidified lineup, which includes the recent addition of Travis, who up until this summer had spent the last couple years co-fronting another Sacramento-based post-hardcore band, Dance Gavin Dance. “There’s four new members,” Lockwood says of the post-Plan B lineup. Travis interjects, “I’m not the new guy, you know what I mean? I’m the newest by all means. But Plan B was pretty much one or two guys, now this record is everybody giving their opinions and whatnot.”

For the recording of Conversation Piece, A Lot Like Birds turned to Portland, Ore.-based producer/engineer Kris Crummett, a familiar face to Travis, they have recorded two DGD albums together (2008’s self-titled record and 2009’s Happiness).

“As soon as I got kicked out of Dance Gavin Dance, Kris hit me up and was like, ‘Let me know what you’re doing, whatever you do, just let me know,’” Travis remembers. “It was kind of interesting because when I joined A Lot Like Birds, they were already talking about and thinking about going with Kris Crummett. I love that guy, we have a good history; we have a good thing going on.”

The band worked rigorously with Crummett for three weeks, focusing all of their creative energy on the record, which wasn’t even necessarily completely written yet, as Travis and Lockwood both had a fair share of lyrical work to do while in the studio.

“Everybody was hella trippin’, but that’s kind of how I like to work anyways,” Travis says of the high-pressure situation to complete basically half an album’s worth of lyrics on the fly. In the end, things worked out beautifully for the two vocalists, who found themselves locked in a room with Crummett for hours on end, pounding out vocal ideas together.

“I don’t think either of us had any idea how well we were going to work with each other,” Lockwood says of co-writing. “I’ve never worked with another vocalist before.” Travis pointed out that because the group was away from the everyday distractions that come with being home, they were able to channel everything they had into the record. “When you’re in your home town and you have all your stuff, you know, you have your job that you go to, you’ve got your girlfriend, you’ve got your parents and all this stuff. Sometimes it’s distracting,” Travis says. “I hella missed that when I was a full-time touring musician. You kind of just focus on music. So when I got to Portland, I was just kind of like, ‘Ah, I don’t have to think about anything other than just this record,’ and it got all of our attention.”

Even still, the band didn’t finish everything they needed to in their allotted time with Crummett, and they had to record one song in Sacramento with friend and sound engineer Chris Miller. Crummett was still producing even from hundreds of miles away, though, as the band Skyped him during the sessions with Miller.

“He was still there like being able to hear the takes,” Travis says with a chuckle at the thought of Crummett’s face on a computer screen in the room for hours on end.

“He was just like eating Chinese food and shit,” Lockwood says through a laugh while air shoveling a bite of imaginary food into his mouth.

After three weeks spent in Portland with Crummett and a couple more days’ worth of sessions with Miller in Sacramento, the record was finally done, or so Travis thought. “Knowing my luck, we do like two days with Chris and then we get everything done and we’re like, ‘Yes! Fuck yes, it’s done,’” Travis says. “And then I get a call from my guitar player and he’s like, ‘You’ve got to come back and do some more stuff,’ and I was just like, ‘Dude, when is this going to end? We’re not even in Portland anymore.’ But it was completely worth it and the song came out way better than I even thought it could.”

In between the Portland and Sacramento recording sessions, A Lot Like Birds even found time to embark on a week-and-a-half long West Coast tour. It proved a good opportunity to work out the brand new material in the live setting and to gauge people’s reactions to it as well. “It was really like a testing the waters sort of thing,” Travis says. “To see who gives a shit right from the get-go. It was a good response!”

Lockwood recalls one particular night in Anaheim when a girl came up to him at the merch table after the show and told him that she hadn’t heard music like theirs in years, since the early ‘00s. “That’s definitely when I started playing music, that’s when we both started getting really into it. So if anything, if we draw comparisons to stuff from back then, that’s all I’d love to hear.”

Unfortunately for A Lot Like Birds, references to the sounds of the early ‘00s aren’t the only comparisons they’re receiving, as a large number of people (mostly via the Internet) are saying they sound too much like Dance Gavin Dance. No doubt there will be comparisons: both bands are from Sacramento, both have two singers, both have ripping guitar players and rock-solid rhythm sections; heck, they even recorded with the same producer, so yeah, sonically speaking there are some similarities too. But what’s funniest to Travis and Lockwood about the whole situation is that these quick judgments are coming from the album’s two singles, because those are the only two songs off Conversation Piece that the general public has heard.

“People have been really quick to go, ‘Oh, this is what their whole album is going to sound like,’” Lockwood says.

“They don’t even know how versatile it is,” Travis contends. “You know how the Internet goes; people are very, very quick to judge. It’s funny, it’s almost tickling. They have no idea. It’s going to be cool, because they’ll realize it when it comes out.”

Travis also wanted to get off his chest how he feels for Lockwood, who seems to be receiving the brunt of the reviews. The problem? Apparently he screams too much like Jon Mess, DGD’s co-vocalist. “Dude, if you have ears, you would know that it’s completely different,” Travis demands. “Their screaming styles are completely different. It’s just kind of like Jon Mess is the only person they can reference. It’s so funny, like when people compare me to Jonny Craig [DGD’s original vocalist who replaced Travis when he re-joined the band this year], it’s like, ‘Are you fucking retarded? Do you actually have ears? Because I sound nothing like him.’ Not that I couldn’t sing Jonny’s stuff and not that Jonny couldn’t sing my stuff, it’s just, we don’t sound alike. It’s the same thing with Jon Mess and Cory, and I just feel for him.”

Travis has gotten his fair share of attention, too, ever since his departure with DGD. “It’s just something that you have to deal with,” Travis says of constantly being asked about his situation. “It’s like one of those things about your job that you hate but you have to do anyways. I kind of relate it to that, because no I’m not upset, no I’m not tired of it. It’s just one of those things that I know that I’m always going to have to address and that’s fine. If I didn’t have all of that then I wouldn’t have any of this amazing stuff that’s going on right now. So, I think of it that way. Not like, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to talk about the past.’ All of that shit needed to happen in order for this amazing stuff to happen. I look at it like that so I’m not upset when someone is like, ‘What was it like? You got kicked out! Blah blah.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I did, but things worked out.’” And if you’re wondering, everything is cool between all the members of DGD and A Lot Like Birds. So much so that the two bands will share the stage together on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 at Sacramento State’s University Union.

After weeks spent listening to an advanced copy of their new record, an hour spent over beers at a local pub and a killer live set witnessed, it’s apparent to Submerge that A Lot Like Birds are their own band with their own identity and their own sound. Conversation Piece is no doubt the record that will solidify that and as of right now, getting the album out and into the hands of people who care about it is the only thing on their minds. With a grin from ear to ear, Travis says, “I think things will pop off real fast once that happens.”

A Lot Like Birds’ Conversation Piece will be out on Oct. 11 via Doghouse Records. See them live at Sacramento State’s University Union Ballroom alongside Dance Gavin Dance on Oct. 13. Sacramento’s own Ten After Two will also perform. Tickets are available at the University Union Box Office.

    Jonathan Carabba

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