The music of Breathe Owl Breathe is steeped in magic. Their songs seem to occupy that hazy space between wakefulness and dreaming—where the tangible, earthly world meets the transcendental. It’s been nearly a decade since this trio of friends began making music in a remote cabin tucked away in a Northern Michigan river valley, but despite the growth and experiences that have happened along the way—including recording five albums, releasing a children’s book, and logging several cross-country tours—the band’s sound is still deeply rooted in the mysticism, warmth and wide-eyed wonder that imbued their earliest songs.
Passage of Pegasus, Breathe Owl Breathe’s sixth album, is in many ways a return to that world. But it also marks an evolution: the songwriting has grown, the compositions are more textured. This is a rich, complex record: Each song is like a little diorama, constructed with engaging imagery, beautiful harmonies, and affectional (at times minimal, other times cacophonous) instrumentation. Crafted over a two-year period in various homes and studios between the West Coast and Midwest, many of the songs went through intense versioning, while others waited in the wings for the rest to find their positions on the album. As such, Passage of Pegasus captures the spirit of an odyssey, and the listener can’t help but be pulled along for the ride.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with Breathe Owl Breathe’s Trevor Hobbs to discuss the record. This is what he told us.
When did you begin writing the material for your most recent album?
It’s difficult to narrow down when new songs for this record started coming… probably sometime in 2011. Songs are always coming, especially to Micah. Some may be borne out of an improvisational session (both lyrically and musically) during long treks touring across the country; others may take months to form, and still others seem fully realized almost right away. They might get captured first on the Miranz tape recorder or an iPhone voice memo. And we’ll then work it out in various ways. In any case, it’s always tough to tell what the final version of the song is. How can you know when a song is done?
What was the most difficult song to take from the initial writing stage through recording and mixing? Why was it so troublesome?
I think that the three of us would each answer that differently. You have an impression of a song when you sit together and play it in a room with no audience. Then, playing it live, you have a totally different experience of the song. The studio presents yet another kind of experience of the song, especially if it is approached in an over-dub kind of work flow. In that situation, you get to witness one of your band mates react to a conscious experience in the song (in headphones), while you listen live and silently judge their performance, trying to decide if the spirit of the song was captured (i.e., what you thought the song was when it was first played together). Sometimes it’s easy to know, and everyone agrees and moves on. Other times, not everyone is on the same page. It’s the most objective subjectivity you can engage in… or is it the most subjective objectivity you can engage in? It’s hard to know why some songs are troublesome. It could just be that you need another cup of coffee, or a cookie, or a walk.
Which of the songs on the record is most different from your original concept for the song?
“Wave Face”, for sure. It started as this 6/8 doo-wop like groove, and turned into an epic, syncopated, layered orchestral piece. So much fun.
Did you have any guest musicians play or sing on the record?
We were lucky to get to create this record with some of our favorite musical personalities and song-writing heroes. Many of the demos for this record were recorded at Victoria William’s studio in Joshua Tree, CA. We ended up keeping some of her tracks from the demos on the final versions of the songs. We also visited Michael Hurley in Astoria, OR, and recorded a few tracks at his home. Jim Becker (Califone, Iron and Wine) came up to our studio in East Jordan, MI along with Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats, the Shins) to lay down the foundation of the songs for the final version of the record. And our good friend Kyle Field (Little Wings) laid down some amazing bass too. It was such a pleasure to work with all of these fine people. They added such an amazing spirit to the record.
Who produced the record? What input did that person have that changed the face of the record?
The record was produced by Eric D. Johnson. A couple of years ago at a festival he somewhat jokingly said “Hey if you guys ever want to do a country record, I’d love to produce it!” We all laughed about it for a while and kind of put the idea on the shelf. We’re not a country band, but… how would that sound? Some writer once classified us as bluegrass. That’s hogwash.
So we called up Eric and pitched the idea (sans country focus) and he was way into it. In many ways, I think that Eric is the reason the album was actually finished. It’s been an interesting couple of years for us, rearranging our lives, which has made for some rich (sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes self-conscious) song writing, and an affinity for the song-writing process over the end result. Eric’s role, beyond his incredible creative input, was to lay down the law, and communicate to us when these songs were done. If he hadn’t taken on that role, we’d still be working on this record. Again, how do you know when a song is done?
Is there an overarching concept behind your new album that ties the record together?
Yes, though we didn’t intend it at the onset. In my mind, it goes like this: there’s a path that leads through a variety of scenes and a variety of landscapes… High plateaus, canyon land deserts, perhaps the surface of Mars, through the forested ferns, and into a cold low-lying lake- a stop in a mansion along the way. The traveler along this path is alone and is the same being in each song, though dressed in a different cloak, with a slightly different internal constitution. These characters are part of Micah’s personal folklore. They’ve been appearing in his mind on and off throughout the years. I have a feeling they’ll keep showing up.
Have you begun playing these songs live and which songs have elicited the strongest reaction from your fans?
Yes. It’s been fun to let these out in live situations. In fact, in some ways, it has been playing them live that has helped us decide what they’re all about… and I think we are still trying to figure that out. “Explorer” seems to illicit a good response from crowds. It’s quirky and fun, and weird, and groovy, and comes across in a theatrical way on stage. We made a video for this song with our good friend and fantastic film maker Joel Rakowski. It’s somewhat of a one-on-one showdown on and off the court. If I were you, I’d watch it.
(Breathe Owl Breathe recently cast out to sea their first single, “Silent Movie Reel,” from their forthcoming album, Passage of Pegasus (out October 15). Now they invite you for the maiden voyage of the Passage of Pegasus, which is available to stream in full via Paste.
The band tour in support of the album later this month. Here are the dates:
Fri. Oct. 25 – Denver, CO @ Leon Gallery
Sat. Oct. 26 – Boulder, CO @ Kelly’s Barn (Benefit for Sound Circle Eurythmy)
Thu. Oct. 31 – West Branch, IA @ Scattergood School
Sat. Nov. 2 – Grand Rapids, MI @ Lamplight Music Festival
Sat. Nov. 2 – East Lansing, MI @ SCENE Metrospace
Sun. Nov. 3 – Kalamazoo, MI @ Shakespeare’s Pub
Wed. Nov. 6 – Hancock, MI @ Orpheum Theater
Fri. Nov. 8 – Brethren, MI @ Brown Township Hall
Sat. Nov. 9 – Traverse City, MI @ Grand Traverse Circuit)