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Interview: Paper Bird

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I caught up with the beautifully harmonic and humble members of Paper Bird on a Friday night in Denver before their show at The Oriental Theater. Their performance was part of a long night of speakers and musicians, raising awareness and money for El Centro Humanitario, promoting the rights and well-being of the immigrant day laborers in Aurora. It is difficult to be in a sour mood, when listening to the melodies of Paper Bird, as they dust off a vintage sound of music, reminiscent of a time when people weren’t lost inside downloaded ringtones stored inside cellphones. Instead, interested in the stunning instrumentation beaming off of guitar and banjo strings, the deeply rooted trombone, and singers staining intricately written words into eardrums.

There are a lot of people in this room. Two of you are sisters. Esme and Genny. Such magical names. Hard to forget them. Can you guys introduce yourselves?

Paul (DeHaven, guitarist)

Macon (Terry, upright bass)

Caleb (Summeril, banjo and harmonica)

Tyler (Archuleta, trombone)

Are you all living in Denver right now?

Macon: Yeah, we all live here.

Were you all working musicians before you met?

Genny: I had just graduated high school when I met these guys. Everyone else were just mutual friends. Denver has a lot of really awesome people floating around, so everyone is pretty good at making new friends and saying, Oh you seen cool! Live at my house! Let’s start a band!

Really? I just moved to Denver. Is that how it works?

Genny: From where?

Boulder. But, I’m originally from New Jersey.

Esme: I was just there. For like, two hours.

Yeah, that’s all the time you need there.

Esme: Newark.

The airport?

Esme: Yeah.

Macon: I moved from Boulder to Denver to find people that were willing to play music and actually make a living out of it and be happy doing it. Then I saw these guys–all six of these guys play within a week of moving to Denver.

Did you have similar musical tastes before you got together?

Esme: I think we still don’t.

Genny: There are things we all agree on. We are all starting to get a feel for each other.

Macon: We all appreciate music.

Esme: We’re omnivores.

Because there is so many of you, is it difficult to have your voices heard? To be creative and experimental?

Esme: You just have to learn how to talk.

Macon: Right before you showed up here, we were kind of checking in. We haven’t talked in awhile. We just got back from traveling for awhile. We haven’t seen each other–all seven of us–until today. We were talking about how we feel and what we want to accomplish. Goals. It’s pretty easy to talk to each other.

Paul: As far as the creative side too, that just comes naturally. That’s kind of the magic of it or whatever. It just comes out when we play. Everybody’s ideas are heard.

Do you all collaborate in the processes of writing the music and lyrics?

Paul: Yeah. It’s great because everybody writes, so there’s all different match-ups. Everybody’s really good at writing.

You have to say that.

Esme: No, it’s really true. On our new album, everyone’s written a song. There’s a song from everybody.

The first time I heard you play, was at the Boulder Theater last April. You opened up for The Waifs. I was blown away at the way you all worked so well together, especially the harmony of you three women. I wondered if there was a lot of work that you needed to do to get that beautiful range of sounds to appear so natural.

Genny: We are so not technical about it. It’s just kind of a joke because we’ll just kind of–

Caleb: They use sign language rather than speak. It’s like the part (sings in different ranges).

Esme: It’s like this part, you know?

Genny: But it just makes sense. We all speak the same language somehow. The better we get at it, the more we can rebel at what comes naturally.

How would you define rebelling?

Esme: Doing little things that are difficult. Like, when I join, they have to sing together so one person has the melody, one person has the higher note. So, I do the low parts and fill in the weird notes. When we were recording this album, I realized that on a lot of songs, I was taking the top part and completely changing it. The chords that someone else would choose to make, by being on the bottom, was completely different from what I do because everyone sings in a different way. Or, we go: we aren’t going to only sing harmony or sometimes the guys sing. They’ve all started joining in.

What would you say influences your music?

Macon: Musically?

In any genre. Art. Music. Literature.

Esme: I don’t know. I hope this doesn’t get to be a bad thing, but I watched a documentary about Fidel Castro today and I think he’s pretty awesome.

Sarah: I don’t really think there’s a band we sound like–

Well, not even sound like. You listen to someone and feel turned on and excited about what you’re hearing.

Genny: I get that way with all music.

Paul: I was feeling that with Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan’s sixth released album).

Macon: I like writing songs about collage work. I know it’s weird.

Genny: I really get excited when you look at some of the bands that are so obvious why they are so good, but also the bands that started out really awesome and then kept going like, The Beatles or even Radiohead. You just see what a band can become and they aren’t locked into a genre. These people just stay together and they keep pulling out such different things from each other. It just makes me so excited because this album we are putting out is really different from us. Once we get this album out, we can say: okay, next album? All electric or something. We can just go in any direction we wanted to go to. I really think that what I know from all of us musically, I really think we can pull any of that off. It just makes me really excited for the future. Trying more different things. Totally rebellious.

Tyler: I’m really into the idea that people a lot of times file us under folk or something like that. To me, folk is like, the people’s music. For the past thirty years, it’s been electric. That is the people’s music. It’s electricity. It’s doing a combination from the oldest people’s music to the newest. What we were raised in. Bringing that essence to it. We were trying to add our own little flavor to whatever came of us. Experimenting. Having fun.

Genny: I’m gonna start rapping.

Yes!

Caleb: As far as influences too, we play it for the folk. Does that make us a folk band? You know, not necessarily. But that’s my influence and that goes back to the days when Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie played benefits, like tonight where it is for a cause and we can make people aware and conscious of issues that they might not know or just want more support for. It goes to Marley and other bands who I’ve seen that move you. We play music because we have to. It’s in our souls. It’s what we want to do. But if it wasn’t for the people listening and feeling it, what’s the point. That’s the influence. That’s what it’s all about.

But if there wasn’t an audience, you would all still be playing music.

Caleb: Yeah.

Genny: Absolutely.

Caleb: We are each other’s audience.

Paul: Definitely.

What do you think it is about people having to assign a category to people’s sound? Do you think that’s important?

Caleb: I don’t like it very much.

Genny: I understand it, though. I think a lot of our society, there’s a machine behind a lot of stuff, like marketing stuff certain ways. Also, funny little stereotypes of artists or musicians that realize the shift in life that this is the focus and you have to be a lot more self-motivated because you aren’t necessarily working a nine-to-five job. It’s kind of funny when people say: Oh, you’re a musician. Oh, okay. They expect you to be eccentric or whatever, but–

Caleb: Even humans just naturally need to define things better. I understand when people say, what kind of music do you play? It’s really just them trying to understand where I’m coming from or whatever my passion is. But it is frustrating sometimes to have that label on us or on anything, separating them from us. Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom didn’t say, let’s start playing freak folk. Someone just throws a label on it.

Where did the name of your band come from? I think of origami. A little intricately folded swan.

Macon: We had to decide a band name because we had one and we didn’t like it. White Tiger.

White Tiger? That makes me think of spikes and leather.

Macon: We sat around the table free-associating words to come up with something we liked.

Esme: We were almost Paper Legs. But then someone said Bird and we were like, that’s good.

Genny: We all liked pelican a lot too.

Esme: We were close to Our Latest Birthday Cake.

Then, at every show, people would bring you cake.

Caleb: I know. That’s true!

Sarah: I like cake.

Caleb: No one brings us birds, though.

Any interesting fans? Anyone throwing paper underwear at you?

Esme: The woman that drives our bus–our school bus–that we go on tour in–when I first met her, she asked me to sign her boobs. Which is pretty awesome.

Oh, well, that’s the reason to become a musician, right? To sign someone’s body parts.

Esme: It was great. I knew I loved her then.

If you weren’t making music right now, in this kind of way, what might you be up to? What else inspires you?

Esme: I was just sailing for a week and that’s what I would be doing. I’d sail around the world.

Tyler: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I think I would probably try and buy a house and make sure that all the technology is sustainable and culture-based. Allowing myself to live in the society but also put good intentions in the society. Like, hey look, you can grow your own food and collect your own water, you know? Filter all your shit, create your own energy, you’re set. You’re giving back to the city. You’re putting electricity back into the power grid. Just doing things like that. I never felt like I could be in an office, so if I was working, like not doing this, that’s probably what I’d be doing. And he’d [Macon] probably be doing it with me.

Macon: I used to install solar panels with the people that are taking us on tour. They took us on tour last summer and they’re taking us on tour this summer. So yeah, I’d be working with my hands. I’d like to be like a traveling carpenter. Be able to go to any country and build houses. That’d be fun.

You could always volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

Macon: Yeah. But I’ve got this great band!

Genny: I’d probably try and find something that involves speaking another language, ocean and doing a lot of yoga. That would be really good. That probably exists, right?

Make it exist. Sarah, do you know what you would be doing?

Sarah: I really like kids.

Tyler: That was a really good question.

Sarah: I’d probably be around kids. But, the thing is, that’s a really hard question because all the things that I want to do, I’m already doing. This isn’t taking up my whole life. This is allowing us and is going to allow us to do anything. It fulfills and involves us in such a deep way and allows us to branch out and try different things too. We’re always supportive of each other.

Do you have any solo projects going on?

Esme, Genny, Macon, Tyler: We all do.

Music?

Tyler: Music, art, writing.

Macon: How many bands do we represent? They’re in a band (motions to the women).

Genny: We’re in a band. Harpoon Tang.

Harpoon Tang. Like the drink? That kind of sounds a little like a sexual–

Macon: Poon Tang.

Yeah. Like a juicy vagina.

Sarah: (Laughs) You’re my favorite interviewer! You win!

Great band name! Just think of the things that could be thrown on stage.

Tyler: I’ve got my own project just Archuleta, but that’s my art and my music. And I’m dating someone and we’re doing a solo project.

Esme: I have a solo project. There’s a lot.

Any good books you’re reading write now? I’m a writer and I get inspired by what people are reading.

Tyler: Arne Naess. Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle. That’s why I’ve been thinking on that wave of things. But it’s all about eco-philosophy.

Macon: I’m reading this book called Make Your Place Right Now (by Raleigh Briggs). It’s hand written, sort of like an avid way to heal yourself and have a healthy home.

Esme: I’ve been going back and forth between Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy.

Genny: Me too.

I haven’t read any of Cormac McCarthy, but I keep meaning to.

Esme: You have to read him.

The Road is getting turned into a movie.

Genny: I’ve never read that, but The Border Trilogy is incredible.

Esme: I’ve been on a Steinbeck and Vonnegut bender. I was just on an airplane and I read two Vonnegut books and I’m reading Sweet Thursday.

Sarah: I’m starting Harry Potter.

Genny: You are?

I’m rebelling against Harry Potter.

Genny: Esme tried to rebel against it and our parents used to own a bookstore and our parents are both book snobs, well, not our Dad so much. But they both read a lot of stuff. So, Esme kept saying, I don’t want to read it. My parents and I have read all the books that had come out and went to see the first movie when it came out and Esme came with us. Then, she read the first three books in a weekend.

Wow.

Esme: I did not leave the house. I was just like, this is awesome! There’s wizards!

Sarah: Have you read The Golden Compass?

No, you know what? I’m not really into those kinds of books.

Sarah: You need to read that.

Can I throw out a title?

Genny: Yeah.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. Phenomenally written. The lineage of a family from India living in America.

Genny: I’ve heard of that.

It was turned into a film, but you know the book is always better.

Macon: Cool. We’ve got a library on our bus.

Do you really?

Macon: Yeah, well, shelves.

Genny: Uusally when any of us moves, it’s two boxes of clothes or something and then four boxes of books.

Tyler: And then a list of instruments.

On that note, thank you all so much for talking with me.

Paul: And you win the award for being the best interviewer. (Hands me a hand-made flower created from twisted wire)

Thank you so much! Have a great show!

by Aimee Herman

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