Paper Bird's Paul DeHaven: "The ballet changed everything. There's nothing we can't do."
Over the last six years Paper Bird (due tonight at the Fox Theatre in Boulder and tomorrow night at the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins) has become a Denver favorite for all ages and backgrounds. Since dropping its debut album, Anything Nameless and Joymaking, in 2007, the bandmembers have been on a ride that has taken them from busking on the streets of Breckenridge to performing at Red Rocks. In 2009 they were featured on NPR's All Things Considered and have since toured the country several times, opening up for acts like Neko Case and DeVotchKa.
After collaborating with Ballet Nouveau Colorado on a series of performances in 2011 -- resulting in the act's third full-length album, Carry On -- Paper Bird said goodbye to trombonist Tyler Archuletta and welcomed drummer Mark Anderson, previously of Papa Bear.
Adding percussion to delicate female harmonies and whimsical, folky instrumentation has undeniably altered the course of Paper Bird. We recently spoke with Paul DeHaven and newly added drummer Mark Anderson about songwriting, the ballet, and how to stay creative while making money
Westword: Paper Bird looks a lot different today than when you released your first album. How did these changes come about?
Mark Anderson: It's been pretty crazy. It's been a year since we did the ballet, which was the time that I joined the band. They had needed two drummers for the performance, so they asked me and Stelth Ulvang from Dovekins. I wasn't officially in the band at that point, but it was such a good fit that I continued on afterward.
So making music for the ballet necessitated drums?
Paul DeHaven: It did, but we didn't know that when we started writing. Once the material started coming together, we saw that it needed to be a bit more rocking in places -- more textures and more rhythmically diverse. To work with the dancers, it needed that. It wasn't that it failed without drums; it just worked a lot better with them.
MA: That's what was interesting about the ballet. When we first started writing, we noticed the sound was bigger, fuller. It seemed like before Paper Bird had somewhat of an identity of not having a drummer, and now when we do all of the old songs, they've totally changed. It's so different.
PD: It's opened up a lot of things for me. Before I was always playing the rhythm parts with the guitar, keeping time like a snare would. Having drums has freed us up to explore more.
Paper Bird is foremost known for the female harmonies. Does the drumming complement them?
MA: Definitely. The harmonies are what capture people's attention. The challenge is trying to build beautiful melodies that the vocalists add on to. But without percussion it was limited, because the instruments had to be the drive of the music. We've been reworking old material. Now that we have drums, we can expand the sound. And just like how Paul was saying that the drums have freed him up to play around with more instrumentation.
I think that the girls are doing the same. They will rework the vocals from old songs to be more rhythmic and not just melodic. They play off the rhythm with the succession of their voices; they do these weird scales where they're jumping between each other's voices -- like two guitars doing a solo back and forth. And then we can work off their ideas.
PD: And we can relax. Because we're not all worried about staying in time; now we have one guy that's making sure we're staying in time. And then the rest of us can be more intricate, more involved.
Paul DeHaven of Paper Bird
It seems that everyone in Paper Bird has a side project going. The two of you [with Jason Haas Hecker] have Eye and the Arrow, which just released an album. How does that project differ from Paper Bird?
PD: Well, I sing, which is new for me.
MA: Like Paper Bird, there are still vocal elements, but its all electric instruments. And it's much more rocking. It's kind of all over the place, but pretty melodic. When Paul brought us the songs, they were really soft, like Paper Bird, but as we started playing them, they evolved into much more rock songs. But also I think Paper Bird has been going that way, too.
And the old material, now with drums, has a lot more up to it. People who come to our shows who have been coming for a long time now say, "You sound so much different!" We've gotten a lot of pressure to record a live album of old material with drums. The arrangement is the same, but the energy, the feeling, is much different.
PD: A lot of the [Paper Bird] songs we've written in the past have required that ethereal element from the instrumentation -- and whenever we tried to rock, we couldn't. Now the drums have provided that muscle.
MA: I do think Paper Bird is becoming a lot less of a folk band. The new stuff we're writing is not folk. Personally I've never been a fan of folk music or Americana music -- I listen to it and am familiar with it. But I have more a punk influence, more harder sounds. So it's kind of a hilarious mash of influences.
PD: We're realizing our potential. The ballet changed everything. We're seeing that there's nothing we can't do.
MA: It feels like this is a new band.
It sounds like the ballet was a real turning point for the band. How much collaboration between the band and the ballet was there?
PD: It was a collaboration. Part of the music kind of came first. They came to our practices to see what we were working on, and they gave us ideas and suggestions, telling us the order of the story and helping us with the mood. We wrote the music and they wrote the choreography and the story.
MA: We're doing the ballet again this year, once in September and then two shows in February. And then we're hoping to take it on the road. We definitely want to continue that relationship.
PD: It's the best thing I've ever done.
What were the circumstances with Tyler Archuletta leaving the band?
MA: He's going to be missed. But we all knew there was going to come a time when he was going to leave. He would say "I love playing music with y'all, but it's not what I want to do with my life." There were limitations to the things he could do because we were so busy. The other things in his life were calling him. When we're on, when everyone's in town and we're together, it's full time, but it's not enough to live on. And I think that lifestyle started wearing on him.
Mark Anderson of Paper Bird
PD: The last show we played with him was New Year's Eve. He's moving on to his own career path. He's working on his art and learning new trades -- moving away from music. He's going to be going to Alaska this summer with his girlfriend to build log cabins.
MA: The trombone was such a big characteristic to Paper Bird. Without him, it's similar to the drums coming in: There are limitations to what we can do with the old sound. But it's also opening up new opportunities.
Coming from a DIY/freegan scene of communal living and dumpster diving, does having mainstream success alienate you from that life at all? Does it ever damper that improvisational side of creativity?
MA: That's interesting, because I think there's a new level of seriousness in the band. People have put so much work into this band that they're excited about new and bigger opportunities. I mean, the ballet totally changed who I am as a musician, because we had to be professional. We had to treat it like it was our job. It was a lot of pressure. We had guaranteed pay, which we felt like we had to live up to. Which was so new. We were like: we're full time musicians, what the fuck does that mean? Before that I was in punk bands.
PD: I think we've dealt with that through side-projects. Macon [Terry] has Clouds and Mountains, Esme [Patterson] and Caleb [Summeril] both have solo projects, and the girls have their punk band Harpoontang
MA: After the ballet, we've had a really rough year. Our bus broke down during our summer tour, so we haven't been able to play as much. But we're at a point where we have to play. We have to be professional. We're facing questions like: How do we run a business? With our side projects it's more like Hey, we're just a band playing a show.
But with Paper Bird, we have to take it more seriously, because we own a bus, and we're doing it full time. But we're not making quite enough money to live off of it. And we have to start figuring out how to make more money. We're still involved in DIY spaces, but now we're running into "the music business." And it's a pretty nasty environment to deal with.
Does that ever infiltrate creatively? Like you wouldn't pursue some sound because it might be alienating to a certain audience?
MA: No, we're not there yet. We don't have anyone telling us what to do. We're still 100 percent independent. We're not on a label. We don't have management -- we just have a booking agent. That's it. So we're still running it; we're still calling the shots. But it's super taxing. It's really hard to try and run a business and keep your creativity.
PD: Well, you get older, and your desires change. Before, it might have been fun to just be in a band -- and it's still fun -- but there's a lot more to it now.
MA: I think inside the band it's changed, socially. Like you [Paul], you're always excited to just play around, but for other people in the band they're conflicted cause they're like, "I'm trying to pay my $600 a month rent, and I'm sick of having no money. We're at this brink where we're making money, but it's not enough for seven people.
That's why the ballet was so amazing: Working off a grant was the coolest thing I've ever done. And it wasn't just some stingy deal with a venue -- which can be weird -- but it was people who wanted to support the arts. And that was an interesting intersection of indie music and the higher arts. On a professional level, we are the worst band to manage. No one wants to work with us because we're not malleable. We're too stubborn. But with the ballet, they were like 'you can do whatever you want.'
Paper Bird, with the Eye and the Arrow and Patrick Dethlefs and Nick Jaina, 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 9, Fox Theater, 1128 13th Street, Boulder, $15, 303-443-3399; with Bad Weather California, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 10, Aggie Theater, 204 S College Avenue, Fort Collins, $10, 970-482-8300.
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