At the start of this year we discovered and reviewed the beautiful Forgotten Lights by Birds Over Arkansas. This month the band have released their brand new single So Much Sky. The concept for the song (as touched on below) is a particularly interesting one, so naturally we were inclined to find out a little more about it. We were lucky enough to catch an interview. Here’s how it went..
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The inspiration is a sound clip taken from a scanning-tunneling microscope. The syncopated, scratchy groove heard in the intro is the sound of the movement of individual atoms, rendered by the microscope. It is this sound that spawned the rhythmic backbone of the chorus and verse aspects of “So Much Sky.”
Hi guys. Thank you for taking the time out to chat. Congratulations on the release of the new track So Much Sky – another song of yours that is nothing short of beautiful. How did the idea for this song come to be? Did it stem from a personal fascination with scientific detail, or a personal experience, perhaps?
Thank you so much for reviewing the song and for taking the time with us, we really appreciate it! The inspiration for So Much Sky actually came from a weekly segment named Who’s That Noisy on a science podcast called The Skeptics Guide To The Universe, where they have some strange audio clip that the audience has to identify and email in their guesses. Of course we never guess the noises correctly, but this sound really fascinated us, and it turns out that it was the sound of individual atoms being moved intentionally by a device called a scanning-tunneling microscope.
We started researching this and the inventions that led to it, and this huge narrative unfolded about a scientist named Reinhold Rudenberg. The short version of the story is, Reinhold’s son was stricken with polio at the start of the rise of Nazi Germany. While quarantined with his son from the rest of his family, Reinhold worked feverishly to invent a device that would enable scientists to observe viruses directly, (the electron microscope), since they are too small to be seen with an optical microscope.
As it turns out, Reinhold’s application for patent was delayed in Germany, presumably because he was Jewish, while two other scientists who were working on it at the same time hold the patent and received a nobel prize for the invention. So that’s really where all the “detail” references come from in the song. We naturally gravitate towards the details in almost everything, and consequently struggle with big picture stuff. So it was satisfying on a lot of levels to write a song that flipped between the micro/macro worlds in the framework of a song about a Jewish scientist in Nazi Germany, inventing an electron microscope to help his son overcome a crippling illness. The song is longer than people’s attention spans these days at 4 minutes 30 seconds, but there’s just so much that I left out of the story. Reinhold’s wife Lily kept a diary during their son’s quarantine, and a lot of that was the inspiration for the song.
To someone listening to the song for the first time, without any background, there’s this sort of beautiful perspective to it that really makes you feel like you’re hearing something brand new. The lyrics make you think differently, and this in turn makes you want to listen again, to dig a little deeper, I suppose – which is fantastic song writing, to say the least. Does it bother you if people don’t quite know the background to the track, or is it a pleasure for you to know that different people will receive it in any number of different ways?
Thanks! We hope people hear it in different ways… we struggled with putting Reinhold’s name in the song, just because it’s so fun as a listener to hear a song and be able to make up your own connections. That lyric is so specific, there was this fear that it might burst that little bubble of trying to connect personally with the lyrics. In the end, we really wanted to make it a tribute to him so we put in his name.
I was wondering a little about the writing process – do you meet up to write, or do your share ideas as and when inspiration strikes?
It happens in different ways, but we have a lot of little ideas, and most of them don’t make it past the initial demo stage. We usually just pick the ideas we’re most excited about, and the ones that we are able to finish together are the ones that we record. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy… The songs we can write are the ones we will finish!
How long have you been writing songs for now, and has your approach to writing changed over time?
I’ve been writing songs since I first started tinkering on guitar as a teenager. John and Laura are the same. My approach really changes all the time because creatively I feel like you just have to take the path of least resistance, but most inspired and creative… the most exciting route you can take to write a song is the one you should use. If you second guess too much you end up with songs in the trash bin. A lot of times if I start to get stuck I will learn the song another instrument and try to find my way through it that way. Getting out of comfort zones is helpful for me.
Who do you remember listening to when you were very young that perhaps ignited the love of music for you?
Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel, Yes… when I was 6, Alex Van Halen made me want to play the drums. That was the beginning for me. John’s list is pretty similar, some other things in there like Pink Floyd. Laura was very inspired by Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston and other huge vocalists like that.
How important is it for you to perform live – as artists; on a personal level (the need to express and release, so to speak) and in terms of getting your music out there for new listeners to discover and enjoy?
We love performing live. Not just for that immediate moment of expression, but we feel like we don’t really know what the song is made of until we try to pull it off live. No matter how organic the process of recording it in the studio is, playing it live is always a completely different game. Of course, there’s no better feeling than playing something and being able to see that someone is really enjoying it. As a listener, I connect to hearing music live in a way that recordings don’t really achieve, so we try to keep that in mind.
What’s been one of you’re most memorable live show experiences so far, and why?
We recently had a decent size club gig that was canceled the day of, opening for a pretty famous band, due to structural damage to the building. John lit a few fires to find another venue last minute, and we ended up landing in this amazing little winery venue opening for this completely perfect Cajun band called T’Monde from Louisiana.
You’re the sort of act that consistently flies the flag for real, thoughtful, passionate music. That is to say – music that comes from somewhere meaningful, as opposed to music to meet deadlines or to make a name for oneself. Does it ever feel like a struggle to find inspiration these days, and has the independent music world changed in your experience in ways that have made it more overwhelming or perhaps even difficult to release music and reach new listeners?
Thanks so much for saying so! Inspiration is definitely not lacking, but trying to find the time to do everything we need to do as a band across to state lines while all holding down jobs can be difficult, as basically all musicians know these days. The state of the music industry, if anything, has inspired us to just make the music we want to make. What do we have to lose? We would much rather have small pockets of fans who really love what we do, than to choke the music to “appeal to something larger” and ultimately fail, because there are 6 billion other bands trying to do the same thing. Sometimes artists have to abandon what made them successful, just to try to creatively stay afloat. You just have to let the songs be what they’re going to be.
Can you recommend any other artists or bands you’ve discovered or have been listening to recently that have a similar sort of love and passion for making music?
Vulfpeck, Deerhoof, Gojira and a phenomenal jazz guitarist named Tim Lerch have been in the forefront. Laura’s been on a kick of going to see musicals in NYC lately… she and I have been digging Hamilton together (we haven’t seen it) and she’s been really obsessed with Waitress, the Sara Bareilles musical. She’s really a frighteningly talented person.
Where can people find you over the coming months – any lives shows or side projects coming up?
We are currently recording a Joseph Arthur cover for a tribute compilation. If you live in Connecticut, you can see Laura and I are trying out new ideas in bars around Milford, but we are working on some bigger fall and winter dates currently.
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