Last week, we posted a feature article that included some quotes from Brendan Mulvihill of Philly weird-folk duo Norwegian Arms. The interview transcript below is where those quotes came from. Read it and see the band this Friday night at Johnny Brenda’s as they celebrate the release of their debut LP, Wolf Like A Stray Dog. Tickets are available here.
The Swollen Fox: You call Wolf Like A Stray Dog “a document of a year spent in Sibera.” Can you tell me a little bit about that trip to Russia—your experience there and what it was like?
BM: I guess to summarize…I guess the best way to put it is I had very little cultural experience with Russia. And in order to go there I had to satisfy a language requirement, which was essentially four semesters of Russian. It’s not a ton. And because I took these intensive language courses, they weren’t really culturally oriented. So when I got there, it was just kind of a mind-blowing experience. I just remember being there and…there’s enough subtle differences…it’s kind of like Freud’s theory of the narcissism of small differences. Where, overall, society kind of functions generally the same. It’s not culturally vastly different, but it’s like the small things that really stick out. And they’re really jarring, just people’s behavior to strangers, and their attitudes towards me. That was kind of a crazy experience, to be in a country where the default for a person treating a stranger on the street—if they found out I was American, the default wasn’t necessarily them being polite or even nice.
So that was a new experience and it was—at the time—very jarring and disruptive and a little bit frustrating. But I think that allowed for a lot of critical thought towards myself and towards the positions of our country, and how our impressions of Russia, how they affect our perception of them and their people and also their perceptions of us. Cause I mean, there’s just a ton of misconceptions that Russians have of Americans, and also equally that Americans have of Russians.
So, the year was equal parts alienating and wonderful and frustrating, but also…I feel like I made large strides, large personal growth strides.
TSF: When you were in Russia, you started an educational program called ESL Folk. I read that you’ve been to Columbia, Ecuador and Chile since then. Can you tell me a little bit about that program and where you plan on going next?
BM: Essentially, because it was through the Fulbright [Scholarship], we had the opportunity to meet with people who worked at the Embassy in Moscow. Basically every single agency has an office called the English Language Office, and they’re in charge of allocating funding for language enrichment programs. So, we luckily just got in touch with a person who was in charge of allocating those funds in Russia and we proposed this idea that I had with another Fulbrighter at the time to put together this little traveling English-language-through-traditional-folk-music project. So we got to spend a month in Russia, and through that same person we got to go to Columbia, Ecaudor and Peru in 2011. And then this past year we got to go to Chile.
So what we do is we go down there and we give lectures and workshops for teachers and also give lessons to students, in a wide range of things. From basic level all the way up to high school or even college level students. And we also try to give free public concerts.
TSF: How do you balance those travels with making and promoting a record?
BM: Well the nice thing about those travels is that a lot of the times the schools we’re visiting do all the planning for us. They’ll put together the schedule with the Embassy. So, it’s actually a lot easier cause I don’t have to manage it as much as I have to manage my own release. I get handed an agenda and I see what we’re doing, and we’ll make small changes, and we just kinda go from there. So really all it is is staying in touch with the other people, they all live out in the Bay Area, so I don’t see them unless we’re traveling.
TSF: When did you start playing music and why? And what was the first instrument you picked up?
BM: Well, I guess technically, I started playing music in 3rd grade. My parents wanted me to take violin lessons at elementary school, and I did and it was cool, I enjoyed it. I switched to viola the following year. So I guess I was 9 or 10 or so. And then, because my parents were very much into contemporary Irish music, like folk Irish music festivals and concerts, there was a high exposure rate for me into bluegrass and Irish music styles. So, as a result I became introduced to the mandolin. Through a friend of a friend we met a mandolin instructor and he was a really cool guy, and I started taking mandolin lessons probably when I was 11. And I took those until I was maybe 14 or 15, and I was like a very serious mandolin player back then.
And then I stopped playing it altogether really until I went to Russia. And the only reason I brought it with me was it was way easier to travel with and I knew I’d be able to get a guitar in Russia easily. But a mandolin is a little harder to come by. And also because I had just recently picked it up again. So I decided to use it as the primary instrument while I was away. So it was a little bit of a challenge to myself and I guess, you know, the cliche “returning to your roots” bullshit.
TSF: When you were in Russia, besides the area and the climate and the isolation. What were some other influences that helped shaped the record—any particular music or books?
BM: Well while I was there I definitely tried to expose myself to as much traditional music as possible. But also, with the internet and massive international music conglomerates, it’s kind of hard. You turn on the radio in Russia and you hear Lady Gaga. There’s not as much of a protected, insular thing. And also contemporary Russian culture seems to want to distant itself from traditional, and I have my own theories for that—one of it being sort of a backlash from the years of not having capitalism or choice, that it’s kind of rubber-banded in the other direction. I’m not really a social scientist, it’s just like a thought I had.
But I did try to expose myself to other types of music. And I actually had the wonderful opportunity to travel to the Tuvin region of Russia and spend a couple of days with a group of throat singers. So I got to run around with some Tuvin throat singers and we met up with some, like, nomadic shepherd guys and, like, slaughtered this goat on the side of a mountain and boiled it and ate it and drank a lot of vodka. And once we were drunk, we started singing and playing some songs together. I remember specifically I played that song “Runaway” by Del Shannon and the throat singers dudes were throat singing to it. It was a surreal experience. Just being drunk in, like, the most beautiful place I’ve ever been with nomadic Tuvins and playing Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and everybody knows it cause it’s apparently it’s just one of those international songs. Kind of crazy.
But beyond that, there are other things that really…each track kind of is more or less like a vignette in a way. A lot of them are… track 2 ["At the Formerly British Council Supported English Center"]… I worked at a Formerly British Council Supported English Center and it just tickled me that it was “formerly British council supported English Center,” because it was originally funded but there was that whole diplomatic fiasco with England and Russia so they pulled out all their funding. But that’s how they introduced it to me and I was like “that’s so weird why don’t you just call it the English Center,” like who cares? You don’t need to inform me of its past glory. And that’s kind of about the people there and how, because the funding was cut, they didn’t have a supply for new materials and everything becoming out of date over the years.
And then “She Lives in A Secret Town”—there’s this city right next to where I was living in Tomsk called Scversk. Up until, maybe ten or fifteen years ago, it was a classified city because it contains a nuclear power plant. So it was never on any maps, ever, until recently. Because the Soviets didn’t want people to know where the nuclear power plants were. But still I actually wasn’t allowed to go there because in order to get inside you have to have this identity card that says you live there because it’s that protected, still. I had so many students who would live there and I was never allowed to go. So the song was kind of like me contemplating “what the hell?” “what is this like” to be in that area.
So, I mean, a lot of the songs kind of have little snippets attached to them and those are two kind of the more narrative-style examples.
TSF: There’s a fascinating juxtaposition on the album in that it was written in Siberia but it’s a pretty upbeat and fun album to listen to. Did you write the songs with that intention or did they just tend to develop that way over time?
BM: The thing is, it’s one of those things where I didn’t consciously think about that they were upbeat. For me, I guess, I would come home from work and I would have a stressful day dealing with stubborn people or students that didn’t care or just, you know, it’s negative 40 degrees out so you hate your life. So, I guess, to a certain extent maybe the songwriting was therapy. I think it definitely functioned as a form of separating myself mentally from what was around me. None of them were really written with the intention of coming off as happy, or whatever. I never really thought of them as upbeat or happy until I was recording it and people were like “whoa, these songs are all pretty upbeat and fast.” And I’m like “really?” cause, to me, I think about, I guess I just have these emotional ties with them. I don’t think about what they sound like to a casual listener. But I guess it is kind of interesting that it worked out that way and kind of cool that they are sort of like—to me, a lot of them are melancholy, but people get joy out of them.
TSF: I think that Eric Slick plays a big part in that as well, just in the rhythms of the album and how he plays.
BM: Yea, I absolutely think so, too. He’s such a dream to work with. Before I left for Russia, I had actually just written that one song “Jitterbug” and that was kind of the first song that was this new era. Because before that, they were generally slower, guitar-based songs. I guess, more a la the Grizzly Bear spectrum of things. I like pop songs, I like writing short songs. I’m really into short bursts of energy. And he kind of understood that I like that there’s a rhythmic element to it, like a tribal element to it, that I was definitely going for. And he just, being the person he is, he just can pick up on that immediately. We really hashed out these songs really quickly once I came back.
TSF: How did you come to know and start working with Eric?
BM: I met Eric at a basement show in South Philly in 2008 or something. It was the first Norwegian Arms show ever, but he was not in Norwegian Arms. He was actually at that time playing in Dragonzord, which was the precursor to what is now DRGN KING. And I had a bag of gummy bears—I think he has a different version of this, but what I remember from that night is that I had a bag of gummy bears and that he was playing drums and I was a little bit inebriated so I put a gummy bear on the far side of his ride symbol and kind of motioned to him to hit it and launch it into his mouth. And it didn’t work, but we kind of hit it off after that.
TSF: How did you come to go by the pseudonym of Keith Birthday?
BM: Well, at the time, when I started the project, I was actually a teacher. I taught PSL night classes up in the Northeast and I also taught Saturday and Sunday German language classes. So, at that point, I was already starting to write, like, little poetic elements, short story snippets, on a blog and the reason why that branched over was cause I wasn’t necessarily too keen on these students of mine Googling my name and finding this stuff.
I guess, I also just like the idea of pseudonyms. I like the idea of playing with identity a little bit, to kind of like re-purpose yourself through another name. The name came about because the Fishtown house I was living in had one of those popcorn ceilings. And one night I was wondering, like, “who’s job is it to do that and how do you apply it” and I, for some reason, I was just like “his name’s Keith Birthday.” And it just stuck from there.