Quit Your Day Job

Quit Your Day Job: Bowerbirds

Just because folks (and Mountain Goats) are buzzing about your band doesn’t mean you can blow off work. Bowerbirds are suddenly everywhere, and each member of the North Carolina trio holds a paying job. Frontman Phil Moore freelances web design with partner Beth Tacular, a multi-instrumental visual artist who paints and draws on various surfaces (paper, salvaged wood, etc) and constructs/sews/paints 3-dimensional objects (for instance, check out the “Voodoo-nicorn”). Or, turning multi-tasking into an art, Mark Paulson — who plays handfuls of instruments on and produced the band’s full-length debut — builds furniture, produces other folks’ albums, restores houses, and waits tables at an upscale restaurant in Raleigh. (He’s also a founding member of Ticonderoga. Phil, once a member, is contributing to the new recordings.)

The trio’s blend of woodsy environmentalism, D.I.Y. idealism, communalism, and rural pop/folk extravagance is reminiscent of the Microphones, another Phil-fronted crew. To get the non-feedbacking/less moody spirit right, cast Microphones’ shinier moments against the wandering jubilance of earliest Little Wings. Might seem silly to stick to K crews, but Bowerbirds are for sure a Southern — well, the two male members are from Iowa — variation on an earlier Pacific Northwest vibe, down to the Crimethinc. in their back pockets. But really, whatever the lineage, it’s a welcome departure from the indie frat party.

After our dialogue about wine, wood, politics, entrail-eating, gardening, and Iowa gay bars, take a listen to “La Denigración” from the Danger At Sea EP, and follow that serving with “Dark Horse” and “Olive Hearts,” standouts from Hymns For A Dark Horse. The latter came out July 10th (yes, yesterday) on Burly Time.


Beth Tacular: vocals, accordion, percussion; Phil Moore: guitar, percussion, vocals

STEREOGUM: Beth, you did the album cover for David Karsten Daniel’s Sharp Teeth. People have strong reactions to entrail-eating. Was the art a collaborative effort or your concept?

BETH TACULAR David came to me after having stumbled upon my art website, saying he liked my style and thought it would go well with the theme of his album. We had a meeting to talk about ideas, after I’d heard the album, and David told me more about what the songs meant. We decided that it would be fitting to have one person eating another, and David thought it would be better for the man to eat the woman, because otherwise people would think he was making some misogynist statement about women being man-eaters. Then I did some sketches at home, of different faces for the man, and different poses for the couple, and we narrowed it down. I was trying to hit right on the line between grotesque and sweet. The moonlit forest scene was my idea, and the trees reminded me of sharp teeth. I was in an artistic phase of loving pointy trees. So it was a very collaborative effort.

STEREOGUM: Your artistic practice is established. Do you consider your band your day job and your art your main project?

BT: I don’t know what I consider my day job. I guess before I met Phil, I did consider art as my main project, but now I spend a lot of time on Bowerbirds. As a kid I was into all the arts: visual art, music, dance, acting, but I ended up having to narrow my focus as I grew older, because I just didn’t have time for everything. Taking up music again has been the most fun thing I’ve done in years, so I naturally devote more and more time to it. I guess now I think of art and music as equal concerns, although I feel that I’ve developed myself more in art than in music up to this point.

Phil and I just moved to the country, where we will be able to save money and spend less time working for money. A big reason I wanted to save money is that being in Bowerbirds is taking up a lot of the time I used to spend thinking about and making art. So, in the country, I’m able to spend less time on web design (money-making day job), and more time on art and music, the activities that I’m most passionate about right now.

I also want to build a little shed/art studio out here, so I’ll have room to make bigger art. I’ve been working out of the Airstream, which is sort of limiting in terms of size and media. We also haven’t had electricity or running water.

STEREOGUM: Where do you show your art?

BT: I’ve shown my art locally at Bickett Gallery and Wootini, and for a while I was involved with Team Lump, an artists’ collective connected with Lump Gallery in Raleigh. Team Lump shows together in different places around the country. I also was in a show about toys and games last year, at Giant Robot San Francisco, which was really fun for me.

STEREOGUM: Who do you consider your peers?

BT: I’m not really sure where to situate myself artistically, because I like some of the artists profiled in magazines like Giant Robot and Juxtapoz, but then I feel like my art is often more conceptual and less pop-arty or commercial than a lot of those artists. I feel akin to the Team Lump artists: people like Jerstin Crosby, Stewart Sineath, Allyson Mellberg Taylor, Jeremy Taylor, Lump Lipshitz, as well as other artists, like Saelee Oh, Souther Salazar, Eric Amling, Matt Lafleur, Amanda Barr, Andre Leon Gray, Megan Whitmarsh, Casey Porn, David Eichenberger, Carson Ellis, Diane Barcelowsy and Rachel Sumpter. Those are all artists whose work I like a lot.

STEREOGUM: You two do freelance web design together, but according to your label don’t have Internet in the Airstream. How far is it to town?

PHIL MOORE We actually just set up a way to get Internet at the Airstream, as of a couple weeks ago. We bought a solar panel, which runs our laptops, and we traded in Beth’s phone for this thing you stick in the side of your laptop to get Internet anywhere a cell phone would work. But up until two weeks ago, we had to drive into town to use the Internet, which is 15 minutes away by car. We would just make a day of it and sit all day at coffee shops or the food co-op, and keep ordering food so as not to be obnoxious loiterers.

We did hear that cell phones and wireless internet may be the cause of all those bees dying, though, which sucks, but makes sense. We’re not really sure what to do about that right now.

Beth needs to get a road bike, so we can bike into town.

STEREOGUM: I noticed a link to Crimethinc. at Beth’s site. I’ve read a bunch of their stuff, and their approach to anarchism is particularly aesthetic as well as political. How important is politics to your art, music, and work?

BT: I got a Masters of Art in Visual Art and Social Change, which was a self-created major. For several years, while I was in school, almost all my art was political, and I was trying to make conceptual statements with my art. I was doing this because my politics are really central to who I am and what I care about, and I was really angry about a lot of stuff I had been learning about, in terms of who has economic and social power in the U.S. and around the world, so I wanted whatever I did with my time to attempt to change things. I was really into art, so I decided to make purposefully political art. I made art about U.S. imperialism, gender issues, animal liberation, and ecological and environmental ideas mostly. After several years of forcing myself to make every piece of art have a political meaning, I decided to let myself go with my art, and make whatever I felt like making, so most of my art still has an underlying political meaning, or a connection to nature, at least to me, but it’s usually not as overt as it once was. I just sit down with paper or wood or paper mache or whatever and try to make things as interesting as I can, according to my own tastes, I guess.

Lately, I’ve been really into learning about evolution and human origins, especially since I heard that, according to a recent poll, 50 percent of people in the U.S. don’t believe in evolution. I try to imagine what it was like when every human culture on earth still knew how to find everything they needed in the natural world around them, when there weren’t things like plastic, or widespread disease, or rape. That’s how we were for the vast majority of our time on earth as homo sapiens, until about 10,000 years ago. So, a lot of my recent art is about my ancestors.

Crimethinc. seems to me to be pretty anarchist, which is probably the closest thing to how Phil and I would describe ourselves. Anarchists are anti-authoritarian … personal freedom is important, as is personal expression, and art fits into that category. The Crimethinc. books and posters I’ve seen are well written or painted, and very passionate, down-to-earth, and inspiring. They’ve certainly affected my outlook on life. I really liked a little travel book they published, called Off the Map.

PM: We think that all art is political by its very nature. It always ends up affecting people’s perceptions of the world, because art creates a new or distorted reality. People need stories, art, and myths to help them make sense of things, but the types of stories one tells will affect how people experience things. I think the artist’s political beliefs come through in their work to some extent, whether that’s their intention or not.

Also, if you choose to be an artist at all, you aren’t really choosing to get rich, because you probably won’t. Since you are choosing joy before money, you are choosing to do something that’s non-capitalist, and therefore you’re making a political statement.

The two of us spend a lot of time talking about political things, but it’s mostly on a personal level — how our politics and the politics of those around us affect our daily lives and the lives of our friends (human and non-human) — rather than what specific politicians or countries are up to. Politics are central to our lives and to who we are as people, as is art, so they end up intersecting a lot. We don’t see ourselves as Artistic Evangelists for Anarchy or anything, just as radicals (meaning “to the root”) who like to make art.

STEREOGUM: In the web business, do you have parameters for what you will/won’t design?

BT: We luckily haven’t had to draw a line, because the types of people who ask us to design their sites all seem to be socially and environmentally responsible businesses, or artists or musicians, or non-profits whose work we support. We definitely wouldn’t do a website for McDonalds or Wal-Mart or The Christian Coalition, or like, Dick Cheney’s kid’s wedding or something. We really haven’t been approached by anyone where we had to question whether we’d work for them, probably because our portfolio site is so un-corporate. We pretend tiny birds make the websites, for example. I think that weeds out a lot of people.

STEREOGUM: What are your favorite sites you’ve designed?

BT: Our favorite sites are the ones we’ve designed for ourselves, because we had total creative control and were able to make them exactly the way we wanted. But the second favorites are ones where we’re given some freedom to run with our ideas.

STEREOGUM: Who does what in the business?

BT: Phil does most of the tricky programming, and I do more of the visual stuff, although Phil can do a site from start to finish, and I can too, as long as it doesn’t involve PHP or Ajax, which most of our sites do now.

STEREOGUM: What’s it like collaborating on both a band and a day job and living together?

BT: Working, playing and living together is really great. It works perfectly 98% of the time, and the other two percent we are arguing over something stupid, as anyone is bound to, if they spend that much time together. We work really well together and tend to agree on things pretty easily. We have similar ideas about what we want out of life, and we have similar interests. It seems like all the time we are working on different projects together, and it’s like we’re always playing with Legos or something. It’s really fun living in the country and doing things like trying to figure out how to build a shower, discovering a huge blackberry patch, writing a new song, or planning what to do with our land.

We don’t do everything together, though. While I was working on art for a couple shows I had this spring, I’d be sitting at a little drafting table Phil made me, set up in the Airstream, while Phil would be outside working on a really nice vegetable garden, or building our outhouse, or writing songs off in the woods. At the end of the day, we’d go for a walk with the dog, and then make dinner together on our wood stove. Phil is a pretty magical man to spend my days with. It’s a really happy time for us.

STEREOGUM: If Bowerbirds continues to grow, do you think you’ll stop doing web design for other folks?

BT: I think we wouldn’t mind cutting back on how much design we do for other people, if we were able to pay the bills (which aren’t much in the Airstream) with our other projects. This might mean taking a hiatus for a while from taking on new design clients, but we might want to keep doing design work occasionally, just in case we ever want to start doing more design again — so we wouldn’t forget how to use the computer programs or anything.

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Mark Paulson: back-up vocals, violin, percussion, production.

STEREOGUM: How long have you waited tables at Enoteca?

MARK PAULSON: I’ve worked at Enoteca Vin (or just Vin, as it’s more colloquially known) for over three and a half years now.

STEREOGUM: Any previous restaurant experience?

MP: Besides a short stint in an upholstery shop, it’s been my only job since moving to Raleigh from Iowa. I’d waited tables in a pizza place in Grinnell (Phil and my hometown), cooked in nice Mediterranean restaurant, and done two years of high volume bartending in a gay dance club in Iowa City!

STEREOGUM: How did you end up working at the gay bar? Judging from the exclamation point, you’re not gay.

MP: Iowa City is the typical university town in that most of the high volume bars are real sporty/fraty, and to bartend at those types of establishments, you basically work your way up from working the door (freshmen/sophomore), barbacking (junior) and finally, maybe, bartending, and that’s if you had enough friends already working there. Or you had to be a “super-hot” girl. I’d been bartending one night a week at a great little place but needed more nights, so I dropped in at the gay bar on a lark. The co-owner interviewed me for about two minutes, asked me if I would bartend without a shirt (no), and I was training later that night. All in all, I would say it was the best bartending job in town — a built in regular crowd that was still there in the summer, good tippers, never had to break up a fight, awesome co-workers, and we got to take regular dance breaks when an awesome song came on (“Get Me Off” by Basement Jaxx was my jam). I figured if people assumed I was gay for working there (wouldn’t be the first time), then that was their fallacious assumption. And the rampant sexual harassment only made me stronger! That wily co-owner!

STEREOGUM: What’s Vin like?

MP: Vin is pretty upscale, a wine bar with “seasonal New American” cuisine a la Alice Waters. I thought that the job would be pretty easy due to my previous service industry experience, but I knew nothing about wine, and it took a long while before I was actually waiting tables — infuriating at the time, but completely understandable in hindsight.

STEREOGUM: Can you recommend some good summer wines? What goes well with humidity?

MP: When it’s hot out, or I’m grilling or something, my go-to wine is usually a rosé. Good rosé has the crisp, refreshing characteristics of white wine (it’s cold), plus the great fruit that you only get in reds. The best rosés traditionally come from the Tavel and Anjou appellations in France, but when I’m back-porching it I go for the California fruit bombs (not White Zinfandel — that shouldn’t be considered wine). Any wine store worker worth their salt should be able to recommend something tasty and affordable. Like my friend Brian O’Hara says, good rosé is like Kool-Aid for adults.

STEREOGUM: Do you enjoy dealing with customers? Food service can be rough.

MP: I would not describe myself as naturally conversant with strangers. I’m always amazed by a couple of my co-workers who can go to a table for an order and twenty minutes later still be rapt by their conversation with them. I just try to be discrete — no one would accuse me of being overtly obsequious or garrulous. That being said, if people come in and are really into food or wine, I can really enjoy steering them through the menu, pairing wines and all that. This job forces you to amass quite a bit of food and wine knowledge and lore, so when you actually get to use it and make people happy, it’s pretty validating (as a waiter, not necessarily as a human being). Pretty much anyone who genuinely enjoys and seeks out good food and wine are easy customers. It’s the people who just want their Diet Cokes refilled all night, who go out every night rather than use their glistening untouched $100,000 kitchens at home, who don’t even seem to taste what they’re putting in their faces who make you hate your job.

STEREOGUM: I already hit you up for wine advice, but since you said you like pairing wine and food for the customers, could you pair some wine and food for the Stereogum readers? A member of Panthers manages a wine shop/knows his wine, too, and I asked him what went well with tofu. Seemed like a challenge. What are your thoughts on a good tofu wine?

MP: That’s a hard question because tofu is so malleable flavor-wise – it really depends on the context, as you can kind of make it taste like whatever you want. If it’s in like an Asian deal, or something spicy, I like Gewurztraminer (means “spicy grape” in German, so there you go) or maybe an off-dry Riesling. Those grapes tend to hold up better to more piquant dishes. The whole point of “pairing” wine with food is usually to make sure one doesn’t overpower the other, so you can still enjoy their food-y and wine-y characteristics. You don’t want to spend $45 bucks on Chablis that you’re not going to taste because your taste buds are drowning in fat from the rib-eye you’re chewing on.

STEREOGUM: How about something that goes with fried fish?

MP: Go high acid to cut though the oil, like Sancerre (French Sauvignon Blanc) or crisp and minerally Savennieres (Chenin Blanc). Maybe a Viognier blend.

STEREOGUM: How about a good local North Carolina wines?

MP: I haven’t had any North Carolina wine I would ever drink on purpose. I’m not saying good North Carolina wine doesn’t exist, just that I’m not aware of it, and don’t see the point of going through the horrible process of trying to find one.

STEREOGUM: Okay, what do you think it takes to be a good waiter?

MP: Man, I’ve thought a lot about this, because in some ways, it can be really humiliating, dehumanizing work. Almost no one wants to be subservient to over-privileged, under-appreciative, tasteless patrons. Especially when you’re trying to be an artist, because, god, actually accepting the fact that you’re a waiter would be, like, totally antithetical to your artistic vision, and actually caring enough to get good at your job would be like totally giving up, and you’re probably not a real artist anyway, so you should probably just forget it, right? And even the act of caring enough to be a good waiter would sort of, in some way be disparaging to your art, right?

I used to actually feel that way, or at least feel there was some truth to the sentiment. But I slowly came to realize that what was more damaging to me as a musician was doing the job but not doing it well. I mean, if you simply can’t remember orders, or just can’t cut the multitasking because your brain doesn’t work that way, that’s cool, try something else. But if you can do the job, yet you don’t fill that dude’s water glass because he’s a bad tipper, or get snippy because she blurts “pepper” instead of “excuse me, could you please get me some pepper” then please don’t work at my restaurant. I feel it takes more integrity to do a good job in the face of a table full of fuckers than caving and allowing them to define your behavior and self-worth. Because it’s not about caring about the job so much as it’s about caring about what you’re doing because it’s you doing it. It makes it a lot easier working in a place where the chef really kicks ass and puts a lot of passion on the plate — the same goes with a lot of the winemakers we deal with — nothing excites me more that being around people who are doing what they believe in wholeheartedly. It makes you not only want do your part to help facilitate their craft, but also helps you to stay inspired and devoted to your own path, go home and write a better song, stay true. Plus, it’s pretty much the only job I could keep that could let me do Bowerbirds, Ticonderoga, record bands, go on tour, and also pay the mortgage.

So my advice to all the people working in the service industry is: Keep those water glasses full, and when your band gets it’s first licensing deal, quit that shit.

STEREOGUM: You also build furniture. Do you do this for money or is it a hobby?

MP I haven’t sold anything yet.

STEREOGUM: How did you learn the craft?

MP: After college, I moved into a place that had all built in cabinetry, desks and everything, so when I left that place, I had nothing but a bed, my music stuff and some clothes. I was determined never to get another couch from the side of the road. I’d done a lot of theater shop work and house restoration, and was pretty tool proficient but had never worked with hardwoods. I talked to a retired woodworker that my parents had used for antique repair, and he let me work in his shop, in addition to giving me a
ton of guidance and being pretty much an all around wonderful human being.

STEREOGUM: What sort of stuff do you make? I mean, style, materials…

MP: I started with Craftsman style stuff, based on the original Stickley designs, all quarter-sawn white oak. I was in a hotel once when I was 13, and the lobby had all this beautiful Craftsman furniture, and I totally loved it. It’s a good style to get started with, because the designs employ simple lines, but carry that Prairie School design aesthetic, and the proportions are really nice. Since moving to Raleigh, I haven’t had regular access to a shop, but I’ve done some work at the NCSU woodshop, but that was more music related. Most of my DIY output has been me wanting stuff I can’t afford and figuring out how to build it instead, and lately it’s been more music related — cloning mics, pre’s and compressors, building speakers. All the Bowerbirds vocals were done with mics I made.

STEREOGUM: You’re basically a woodworking Steve Albini.

MP: Well, I don’t want to kill the guy who invented compression, but I am a
member of Shellac, so, sure.

STEREOGUM: Ever collaborate with Beth on projects? Her art, your furniture?

MP That would be awesome. Not yet — not enough time — I gotta finish the
Ticonderoga record, then quit my job … then it’s on!

Bowerbirds – “La Denegración” (MP3)
Bowerbirds – “Olive Hearts” (MP3)
Bowerbirds – “Dark Horse” (MP3)

Tags: Bowerbirds