#2 | March 2013
Them Bird Things
Editor Eduardo Alonso Contributors Peter Krogholm - All Scandinavian www.allscandinavian.com Will Shade Cover photo Pirita S채rm채 Photos Matti Airas, Siina Haapa-aho ,Tiina Jutila, Aki Roukala, Pirita S채rm채
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I can see Mississippi from here The very first time I listened to Them Bird Things I was puzzled by the vocals. Damn... was that a female or a male vocalist, I wondered after hearing the single, “Like A Fire,” a two-and-half minutes blast of ‘60s garage rock song. I had to listen to the song twice before I recognized Salla Day’s voice and then it took me a little longer to appreciate what an extraordinary singer she is. After that, it was easy to get into the world of Them Bird Things. That first time happened during the summer of 2009 and Them Bird Things were about to release their debut Fly, Them Bird Things, Fly!, a collection of songs from the archives of Steven Blodgett and Mike Brassard, who in the pre-Beatles era formed the short-lived garage rock outfit, Mike & The Ravens. Those songs should have been hits back in the day, but 40 years later Salla’s peculiar and androgynous voice transformed them into something unique. This made the album stand out, because at the end of the day what makes this band unique is Ms. Day’s performances. Before the release of the second album in 2010, Wildlike Wonder, producer Will Shade invited me to listen to the album’s acoustic old-time Americana approach. While going through it, he shared many details and stories about the songs and the recordings, pointing out the band’s chief strength: the lyrics. In these times, when words seem to be an inconvenience, Them Bird Things work hard on every single line, breathing life into strange stories and characters, whether they’re as twisted as the sentencing and hanging of a pachyderm in a Tennessee town or tales of teenage murderers. But hey, this is what popular folk music is all about, isn’t it? Keep on reading and Mr. Shade himself will tell you a bit more about lyrics. Earlier this year Them Bird Things released their third album, titled Pachyderm Nightmares, and this time there were not any Brassard/Blodgett penned songs. Salla Day, along with her band mates, took up the songwriting duties and this time she not only shines as a performer but as a songwriter, recording the band’s most personal and intimate album. Now, Them Bird Things are really flying. Eduardo Alonso
And the pachyderm dreamt the blues
Photo by Pirita S채rm채 4
Text by Eduardo A l onso
A Them Bird Things album is an invitation to a musical journey through old-time blues, country-folk and psychedelic passages. This year the band released their most intimate and personal album to date, Pachyderm Nightmares. Come and join the band. You will meet the killer of Robert Johnson, and Laura Lee, who was gone before she was even 23; also Lt. Sylvanus J. Bliss who drowned off the coast of China, and the teenage murderers, Caril Ann Fugate and Charlie Starkweather, who left 11 dead after a crime spree. The most unpredictable characters wander in Them Bird Things to a soundtrack of acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins, harps, a washboard and even bagpipes. All these characters come to life thanks to a lead singer with a peculiar bluesy voice. encore
ill and Salla, Shade and Day, producer and singer. This is the duo behind Them Bird Things and together they have created their own once-in-a-lifetime band. First, rescuing the songs of forgotten ‘60s rockers, re-arranging them, creating a musical world from themselves. Then recording three albums with the help of top-class musicians like guitar player Timo Vikkula, multi-instrumentalist Arttu Tolonen, and drummer Affe Forsman. It’s just one band, but with different personalities and a different heritage. Will Shade speaks loudly, with plenty of adjectives and hyperbole, always ready to spin a yarn. He’s American. Salla Day is less talkative, of softer tone and does not use any more words than necessary. She’s 6
the Finn. One is obsessive about the details in his productions and his love for old records. The other let’s the songs do the talking. “It’s chalk and cheese”, says Salla Day when asked about the Finnish-American relation. “While both are Western societies, our music and culture only intersect on occasion. I think that’s what makes Them Bird Things so interesting. The crosspollination shows up in our music. Sometimes there’s also misunderstanding, which creates tension within the band’s dynamics that shows up in the music. It can be stressful on a personal level, but it does make for some interesting songs.”
band mates, stepped up to take on songwriting duties. The songs have become a little bit more poetic while still digging into American folklore. Thematically and musically it is an album of contrasts, marked by the duality of new and old sounds, sadness and celebration. A few days after releasing Pachyderm Nightmares, Salla Day answered the following series of questions, which will give you an insight to the world of Them Bird Things.
Such contrast is much more evident on Them Bird Things latest album, Pachyderm Nightmares (2013), in which the singer, along with her encore
Can you talk about the duality of the album, tragic and humorous, intimate and rocking? Some was natural, some was premeditated, some was accidental. We wrote a lot of the album during the winter so it’s very dark and grim. That wasn’t planned. It just happened because that was our mood. A lot of the songs are about death, but not necessarily ‘death as subject,’ but rather those left in its wake. How survivors deal with it and grapple with its fallout.
“A lot of the songs are about death, but not necessarily ‘death as subject,’ but rather those left in its wake.” - Salla Day
Sometimes you deal with it in socially acceptable ways like mourning rituals. Sometimes you deal with it by using humor, which might raise some eyebrows. But we also just kicked up our heels on some of the songs and had an Irish wake. There’s a party spirit on some of the songs. I wanted to celebrate life and all its attendant facets, death being only one of them. There’s also joy on this record. How did you feel about doing a Them Bird Things album without Mike and Steve’s songs? I learned a lot from their songs and the first two albums were my apprenticeship. Steve’s songwriting and arranging taught me things from the inside-out that I could never have learned otherwise, i.e. the nuts and bolts. With
Mike it was more about the way he uses his voice. He is a singer of the likes that is only experienced once a generation. He taught me what to look for or I should say “feel for” as a singer. As an example, he rarely sings on-the-beat. He sings “in the cracks” as he puts it. That was one lesson I learned from him. When Mike heard the first few demos we did of our own songs, he told me, “I don’t know why you’re doing our songs. Do yours.” And he was right. It was time to fly on our own wings. A gilded cage is still a cage. In short, it felt very natural to do an album of our own songs because I think I’m just absorbing influences and spitting them back out in my own image. I’ll always have the lessons they taught me in my backbone.
Them B i rd Thi ngs (2013) is: Sal l a D ay: vocal s Ti m o Vi kkul a: gui t ar A rttu Tol onen: m ul ti i nstrum ent wi z ard A ffe Forsm an: drum s Tapani Vari s: bass
Photo by Tiina Jutila
Photos by Siina Haapa-aho 8
I’ve been working with Timo Vikkula for years anyway. He’s been here since Day One and I’ve always been comfortable singing on top of his guitar. In this situation, his musical knowledge gave shape to some of my melodies and structural ideas. Will was still producing and Arttu was still “bringing the feel” so it wasn’t that much of a leap to tell you the truth. Arttu sends me dozens of riffs and chord progressions and I will sit with them, listening to them until I find one that inspires a melody. It’s often immediate. I hear his music and it calls to me, demanding a melody. After that, Will and I hammer out the ideas for the lyrics. He’s a good sparring partner. As both a native English speaker and a writer, he’s very picky with the lyrics and I’ll often have to rewrite a verse or even an individual line ten times before he’s satisfied. Sometimes he gives me a lyrical idea first and I have to find the melody and then I take it to Timo to marry it to music. Then it goes to the band for arranging. We always arranged Steve and Mike’s songs anyway. They often bore no relation to the original demo when we were done so once again, this part of the process hasn’t changed in the least. The recording of the album was marked by the death of Kustaa Haapa-aho. How did this affect the album? I won’t dwell on this at length because I already addressed it in the liner notes to the album, but Kusti wasn’t just a friend and band mate. He was also my brother-in-law. I spent a lot of time with him. My most vivid memories of him will always be of us at our summer cottage, sitting on the dock. We would either socialize like all families do or we’d be brainstorming the art for the next record. His loss affected this record on every level, personally and artistically. He was Will’s best friend in Finland. The lyrics took on a darker turn as Will and I dealt with his death. It’s only natural that art reflects what happens in your life. Anything less than that and it’s not art, it’s just product. Will’s productions tend to be rich in detail and even weird. How much planning goes into these tricks? That’s a question that only he can answer fully, but from the outsider’s perspective I know he obsesses over details for months before we even enter studio. As the songs go through the arranging process at rehearsal, he’s making notes about what he wants to try during the recording and mixing process. But there’s also an element of inspiration involved as well. He’ll try things out in the studio on the spur of the moment. I think it’s a fairly even proposition in that some things are well planned out ahead of time and then there are those “Eureka” moments in the studio. The band’s three albums have received great reviews. Is this reflected in the album sales? Fly, Them Bird Things, Fly! was our most accessible and mainstream album so not only were the critical reviews admiring, but the sales reflected it. As we went off the smooth pavement and began to head for the rockier roads the critical reviews weren’t as lavish in Finland and the average pop fan was confounded. That album was much more appreciated by American critics like Chuck Eddy and John Shelton Ivany. Wildlike Wonder is hands down a better album than the debut, but it’s also a more demanding record. There’s a certain amount of intelligence and focus required for that record and in this day and age of the “five second sound byte” most people aren’t going to spend time with something that hasn’t been thoroughly chewed for them beforehand. Is there a long-term plan for Them Bird Things? To keep making records that are adventurous, intelligent and fun.
“As we went off the smooth pavement and began to head for the rockier roads the critical reviews weren’t as lavish in Finland and the average pop fan was confounded.” - Salla Day 9
Those reviews usually highlight your voice. Are you tired that it is always described as it being “peculiar and different”? No, of course not. I like the fact that it’s unique. What I don’t like is when it’s compared to other female singers that I bear no resemblance to. There’s plenty of female singers that I do admire, but I’m fairly certain my timbre and phrasing don’t sound anything like the vocalists I’m often compared to. Which singers, female or male, have inspired your singing? Judy Henske and Mike Brassard. And Eric Burdon. Branded Women had an indie-pop sound, but Them Bird Things has increasingly focused on folk, blues and country. When did you start researching the more traditional sounds? I’ve always been interested 10
in the more organic traditions. They’re all about the “feel.” That word can’t be stressed enough. To quote Will, “If you can’t feel it, it’s not worth a pinch of dry owl shit.” Can you name your three favorite albums? That changes every week, if not every day. During the making of this record I listened to everything from the Sex Pistols to John Mellencamp to Doc Watson to Karen Dalton. And the first album you ever bought? It was an Elvis collection. I can’t remember what it was called. I still like Elvis although I am not into the kitsch or camp aspects. I think his early stuff is still fresh, especially the Sun recordings.
in my mid-20s and my friend, Julle, formed Branded Women one night in a bar and asked if I wanted to be in the band. I said, “yes” although I’d never played a single note in my life. Soon enough I was playing organ and it’s just gone from there.
If you would not have Them Bird Things, in which band do you think you would be? I’d be a solo act.
Them Bird Things music is very American. Have you ever thought about trying to move the band there? First, why take sand to the Sahara? Second, logistically that’s just impossible. Band members live here and have families here. It’s not an option.
How did you start playing music? Basically, on a whim. I was encore
“During the making of this record I listened to everything from the Sex Pistols to John Mellencamp to Doc Watson to Karen Dalton.” - Salla Day
Photos by Pirita S채rm채
Eat beef, you bastards!
Do not take lyrics for granted. Writing good lyrics takes hard word, especially if English is not your first language. Producer Will Shade writes about the value of a good lyric and the writing of Salla Day on Pachyderm Nightmares.
remember hitchhiking through Queensland in the late ’80s. Billboards in the cattle capital of Australia brazenly declared, “Eat beef, you bastards!” What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China or the music of Them Bird Things I hear you ask… well, lyrics matter, you bastards! I worship at the altar of lyrical geniuses like Shane McGowan, Ray Davies, and Andy Partridge to name just a few without even thinking too hard about the topic. Yes, of course I love the sweaty, hormonal rock n roll of everybody from Gene Vincent to AC/DC, but even their lyrics MEAN something. It’s not just a bunch of nonsensical syllables filling up the melody. And to tell you the truth, Bon Scott was an idiot savant, lyrically speaking that is. Who wouldn’t sacrifice their left nut to cough up the gem, “she had the body of Venus with arms”? But I digress… Since the first album, Them Bird Things have been known for their lyrics. And it’s not just a case of the first two discs being penned by native English speakers. Even within the ranks of American songwriters, the
lyrics of Steve Blodgett and Mike Brassard stand head and shoulders above 99% of the competition. On this album, Salla decided she wanted to sever ties with the two veterans and work with Timo, Arttu and me. A bold move that. She was left shouldering the majority of the responsibility for the topline melodies and lyrics. In comparison to Swedes in the pop music business - who work very hard at their second language skills – Finns often seem a little blasé about their lyrics when working within the self-imposed constraints of English-based music. And that right there is the crux of the matter. If you’re choosing the language you’re going to work in, honor it. There’s nothing more annoying than filling up melodies with words that don’t amount to a pinch of dry owl shit.
I drew that line in the sand and dared Salla to step over it. Of course we worked together and I would be there to help when needed, but if her lyrics were to make it to the new album they had to stand toe-to-toe with the songs Steve and Mike had written on the first two discs. Otherwise, why fuck with the formula? Well, Salla delivered some real humdingers. “Bird’s Beak Lock (To Bury a Child)” blew me away. The psychological analysis and descriptive power of “she has the kind of man who tucks his tee-shirt in his jeans” beggars the question, “She’s not a native English speaker?” Seriously, I’d be proud to have captured a man’s character in one line like that while also supplying enough physical detail that you can see him in your mind’s eye. The anal retentive type… Probably got his ass kicked in high school to boot. Just
“There’s nothing more annoying than filling up melodies with words that don’t amount to a pinch of dry owl shit.” - Will Shade encore
the kind of man who would shut down after the death of his child and leave his wife to drift through the halls with a glass of wine while he played with model trains in the basement. Phew. Then the poetry and heartbreak of a lung disease gone horribly wrong summed up in “when you’re drowning, brother, do you mind the rain?” on “Eight Lungs & Counting.” The yearning, the fear and the ultimate futility… the sensation of suffocating yet again. The verse about friends abandoning you in the hospital like so much of last winter’s snow… Salla captured the nuance and terror in a manner I’ve never even remotely heard before. Name a better lyric written this year. I can’t. I was humbled working with her. She’s the best English language singer in Finland. Of course, that’s like being the best mountain climber in Kansas, but I digress… Not only did Salla see the bet, she upped the ante. I’m very excited to see how she evolves on the next record.
Will Shade Producer of Them Bird Things
Every song tells a story Someone sang once that every picture tells a story and in the case of Them Bird Things every song tells a story. Next Salla Day shares some of the secrets behind the songs of Pachyderm Nightmares.
“Never a bride Still Charlie’s little bitch the years, they have passed and the only hitch is who to be Caril Ann, what’ve you done to me?”
Will lived very close to the town - Erwin, Tennessee - where that happened so it’s been part of his personal folklore for many years. He showed me the famous photograph of Big Mary hanging from the steam derrick and it shocked and disgusted me. It’s very hard to be shocked in this day and age when we‘re bombarded daily with grotesque images on television. He wanted to do a song about it for a long time and I fought him for five years, but finally he persuaded me that it was a timeless tale of terror. Arttu Tolonen came up with a chord progression and drum pattern that just called to me and I knew the story of Mary would be tailor-made for it. It fit like a glove. It was so horrific that I had to approach it from a childish and naïve point of view hence the quality of my vocal performance.
This one is about the girlfriend of spree-killer Charlie Starkweather. She’s still alive. I just wondered how she deals with the guilt 50 years later. This was my attempt to understand the psychology of violence and its consequences on those who are the perpetrators, not the victims.
“Bliss” was inspired by a gravestone that doesn’t have a body underneath it. It’s in West Brookfield, Massachusetts. Our producer, Will Shade, took me there a few years ago and showed it to me. The sailor, Sylvanus J. Bliss, was a real person who disappeared with his ship off the coast of China. We wanted to write it from the point of view of his wife who waited for him for the next forty years. He actually didn’t have a wife that we know of so we took poetic license, but emotionally it’s “true”.
Photo by Matti Airas
Bird’s Beak Lock I write a lot in my head when I take walks by myself. That’s how “Bird’s Beak Lock” developed. I came up with the chorus melody first. I had no idea the song was going to be about the premature death of a child. It took about a year for all the elements to come together on that one. Since I don’t write with a guitar or piano, there’s a lot of strange time signature changes within the songs themselves. Cumberland Head Ferry Blues Timo came up with the Celtic music for “Cumberland Head Ferry Blues” and at first the plan for it was to be an instrumental. But then I heard a melody in it and got a lyrical idea and it came together very quickly after that. The Madgalene This was a fragment of the hook - the signature lyric and the Gregorian chant part - before the rest of melody came gushing out. I sang it one time after that and Timo came up with the guitar chords for it. We played it that one time at rehearsal and then a year later we did it in one take at the studio. It’s very fragile. It has to be the perfect performance or it doesn’t work. It was really magical and it might be my best vocal ever.
Discography It’s Them Bird Things!
Them Bird Things Pachyderm Nightmares Playground Music Finland 2013
Them Bird Things Wildlike Wonder
Every once in a while you come a across a band that has that unique something most bands - at least those with artistic ambition reaching further than to get with the ladies - strive to find and posses. That something that makes a band impossible to ignore, whether you like them or not. That something Them Bird Things have.
1 Pachyderm Nightmare 2 Roundelay 3 Bible & A Buick 4 Caril Ann 5 Bird’s Beak Lock 6 Eight Lungs & Counting 7 I Know Who Killed Robert Johnson 8 Drunk, Wild Eye 9 Bliss 10 Cumberland Head Ferry Blues 11 The Magdalene 12 Hang Your Heart On High
Standing on the shoulders of past rock giants they might not be unique in sound - heck, the principal songwriters on the first two albums, Americans Mike Brassard and Steve Blodgett, enjoyed success as Mike & The Ravens in the early ‘60s, so the retro-stylings were kinda given - but the songs are amazing, the production rich on twists, turns and surprising tweaks, and then there’s Salla Day: The something that makes Them Bird Things completely impossible to ignore. Soon after I first came across the group in 2009 they released their debut, Fly, Them Bird Things, Fly!, on which the former Branded Women organ player delivers with impressive feel, providing an extra dimension to the songs ranging from old school shuffle R’n’R over folk with bossa nova aspirations to lazy blues played expertly by Timo Vikkula, Ville Särmä and Esa Jussila. I wrote then that her voice is expressive, androgynous and definitely an acquired taste, and earlier this year - speaking of their third full length Pachyderm Nightmares - I went on to admit that it continues to take me by surprise and it’s like I have to start liking it all over with every new album.
1. Northern Curve 2. Raised In Bangor 3. Silver Oldsmobile 4. Marie 5. Marionette 6. Birmingham 7. Underground 8. Once I Found A Snake 9. White Lipstick 10. East Colorado Plain 11. No Love To Give You 12. Georgia Mountain
Fortunately that is not hard, as her delivery of the often quite gloomy lyrics simply is truly remarkable on every release - perhaps more so on Pachyderm Nightmares than earlier, as the collaboration with Mike Brassard and Steve Blodgett has ended and Day now stands on her own lyrical feet, making it even more personal. There really is nothing quite like it out there. Musically Them Bird Things travel known roads but have done so in their own right and have always been evolving. Where the debut was rooted in Blodgett and Brassard’s early hey-days with Mike & The Ravens in the ‘60s, the follow-up, Wildlike Wonder, pleased with dusty Americana, while Pachyderm Nightmares stands on the shoulders of both, reaching back and pointing forwards, taking something very American and molding it to something very Scandinavian in all its icy melancholy, and all three are really just impressively whole albums.
Playground Music Finland 2010
Them Bird Things Fly, Them Bird Things, Fly! Playground Music Finland 2009
1. Like a Fire 2. Blood Bank 3. Hudson Falling 4. Blue Parakeet 5. Dreaming the Dream 6. I Can See Russia From Here 7. Shame, Shame, Shame, Shame, Shame 8. Copper Bells 9. Your Baby’s Not Your Baby Anymore 10. Black Petals 11. Pockets of Rain 12. Tomorrow
Back in 2009 Ms. Day protested my notion that their debut was retro, instead calling the songs timeless. I accepted the timeless aspect then and I do so speaking of the other two albums, but I will also keep claiming that most of Them Bird Things’ output to me carries with it a feel of the past. It is, however, a pointless discussion, because basically good songs are good songs no matter when or where they’re written and executed. And good songs is what Them Bird Things have. In abundance. And when wrapped in Will Shade’s curious production, colored by Timo Vikkula’s intriguing guitar work, nuanced by multi-instrumentalist Arttu Tolonen and defined by Salla Day’s forceful vocal the result really only makes sense describing as: Them Bird Things. - Peter Krogholm All Scandinavian
Photo by Aki Roukala
The second issue of Encore is dedicated to Finnish band Them Bird Things. After three albums, this band continue being a superb blending of...