Interview: Phil Moore (of Bowerbirds)

on March 08, 2012, 2:39am

It’s been about three years since we last heard an LP from indie folk darlings Bowerbirds. A long three years. Thankfully, the folksy trio from North Carolina has returned with The Clearing (out now via Dead Oceans). Recently, we had a chance to look behind the curtain thanks to a conversation with vocalist/guitarist Phil Moore about the band’s new direction, creating a bigger, broader sound, recording at Bon Iver’s studio, and the UK’s love of all things folky.

There was a lot of personal drama, including physical and emotional ailments, in all of your lives in between 2009’s Upper Air and your new album, The Clearing. What kind of effect did that have on the process?

It’s hard to say exactly how all the drama and the interpersonal relationships in the band affected the music. We kind of just plugged away. I would say it was mostly just difficult being in an indie rock band and not necessarily making a bunch of money, and yet we’re dedicating so much time and energy into this one thing that it’s more likely to affect our interpersonal relationships. I think we all work hard and care so much about the music that we make that things end up getting done regardless of the circumstance.

The rustic sound you guys have been known for is still present on this album, but it’s a lot bigger. You wrote a lot of it in the same place you wrote most of your other material, the woods of North Carolina, so why is this record different?

I would say that living out in the country gives me, and has given me for a long time, the space to concentrate. It’s hard for me to concentrate and get down to actually doing something creative unless I personally have a lot of space. City noises kind of bum me out. That’s one thing why I’m not in the city anymore. I didn’t create anything. Maybe it’s like attention deficit disorder, I just can’t stay on the same track.

Do you like taking time between the records?

I don’t like taking as much time. To be honest, I really love the creating part of the album. And I love the touring part of the album. It’s the parts that we aren’t responsible for, like the printing records, and publicity parts where you have to just wait for so long. That’s always difficult for a band that just wants to create the music and get out there and show people as soon as possible. If it were up to me, I’d probably do an album every year. Not even do an album, just do little EPs. I guess that it is up to me, but there’s kind of like this involvement in a record release, and people tend to pay more attention if you’re actually releasing a record. People get behind that a little more.

You recorded this album, parts of it, in Bon Iver’s studio, April Base, in Wisconsin. Why didn’t you just go ahead and record the entire thing up there? You split it up between your cabin in North Carolina and Wisconsin, right?

Yeah. I think what happened was that we were going to record everything there. We had a bunch of demos, and it was all ready. We were really super proud of the arrangements they were in. Then we went up there to record, and things just started sounding different. Like, all the little quirks of the demos that were real and dear to me… some of them didn’t make it onto the album, and some of the songs just sounded totally different, and we had to make up for that by redoing the songs back at home, making them a little bit lo-fi, actually. It ended up being a little lo-fi and dirtier, but there’s, like, a base layer of really well-recorded stuff.

And then we had the release pushed back because we were trying to force an album out, turning it in by May. And we had recorded in April. Turning it in by May, that never happened, and it was never going to happen. So, we had all this time, and we were listening to our songs, and we were like, “Wait, you know what? This would be awesome if this were more, like, expansive or landscape-y” or whatever.

Do you think you’re going to change the songs even more when you play them live?

Yeah. Actually, that’s an idea we’re having… kicking around… especially for video performances and things like that. We want to make those special.

I noticed that the first single, “Tuck the Darkness In”, got elected as BBC’s song of the day, and it’s been charting in the UK. I’ve found that the Brits have an affection for alt-folk and folk music.

Totally.

Can you compare the receptions the Bowerbirds have received in the UK and in the US?

Well, it’s hard to say. They’re totally two different… markets… I guess. And I would honestly say that we’ve gotten a pretty good reception in both the US and the UK, and Europe, too. But, I wouldn’t say, for us at least, we’re not like David Hasselhoff over there blowing up. But, I think it’s pretty equal honestly, our fans here and there. I see that love, and I think there’s something about American music…

bowerbirds the clearing cos Interview: Phil Moore (of Bowerbirds)I’ve noticed listening to The Clearing that the songs flow together. I kind of felt like it created one large listening experience, and it capped off with the beautiful “Now We Hurry On”. Was there a conscious decision behind the album’s sequencing?

Yeah, we definitely put a lot of time into the sequencing. We went to friends, and of course there’s the people in the band, and deliberated on that for quite a while, for like a month and a half or so. We were very conscious… we cut songs from the album.

Do you have enough to do a B-sides release?

Yeah, we’re gonna have a b-side… one of them we just had to cut. We fixed a couple that just didn’t fit on the album, and actually we re-recorded one of the songs that was going on the album but just didn’t fit at all. That’ll be a b-side, too. We recorded in that interim time from April ’til September. We ended up doing a lot of editing, re-recording, and experimenting for months and months… on one tiny little guitar part for a day and completely scrapping it. Things like that. We have several versions of the same song, which is something we’ve never done before but was awesome.

You’ve released all three of your albums through Dead Oceans. What is it about that label that attracted you to work with them, rather than, say, a hometown label like Merge?

Well, you know, I think at the time if Merge would have come up to us and asked us to be on their label, we probably would have said, “Hell yes,” because I’ve loved Merge for years. But we actually had a local label that was a really small upstart label that was run by members of Megafaun and Grayson Current, who writes for The Independent. We were kinda, like, on that label, and then we dropped them. Then we were floating around by ourselves, and we wanted to get on a label who could actually do some things that we needed to have done.

Is there a sentimental reason to starting your tour off in Chapel Hill/Carrboro?

Oh, it’s just nice to have friends around when you’re starting off sometimes.

Do you try to make sure and play a hometown show on every tour?

Yeah, we definitely try. I think a hometown crowd is one of our most forgiving crowds.

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