Breathe Owl Breathe (due tonigh at the Hi-Dive) is from East Jordan, Michigan, a relatively remote place that forced the members of the act to turn inward for inspiration in its music. This explains the unique sound of its albums including its most recent, 2010's Magic Central, which falls somewhere between folk music and whatever it is you might consider what Bill Callahan does.
Currently touring in support of its combination children's book and 7-inch, The Listeners/These Train Tracks, Breathe Owl Breathe's personal mythology translates into a live show that seems comfortingly insular but is also clearly born of intentionally removing yourself from the distractions of the hectic pace of the urban world most of us know and creating directly from source of your creativity. We recently spoke with Trevor Hobbs about the band's creative process, Rabindranath Tagore and life on and off the road.
Westword: What made you want to be in a band with Micah Middaugh and Andréa Moreno-Beals, as they were kind of a duo before you joined up?
Trevor Hobbs: I used to play in a band with Micah. We started playing together like ten years ago or so, before Breathe Owl Breathe. I was deep into my studies at school, so I couldn't really do it as full time as Micah and Andrea were doing. Then they met up, and we all sort of became friends shortly after. It was a gradual process of developing a really strong friendship with them and having music be a function of that.
Are you still based out of East Jordan, Michigan?
Yeah. We all three used to live together in a cabin, where Micah and Andrea live in now. But I have since moved to Traverse City, Michigan, which is about an hour away. We still say we're based out of East Jordan because that's where we do a lot of our creating and recording. That's where Micah has his printmaking studio.
What is it like there in terms of sharing your art with other people and cultivating experiences that feed into your music?
It's a little tricky sometimes. I think it's easy to create because that's where we're from and that's kind of part of who we are. That place. But we feel the need to venture outward far and away to share our music. There are definitely places we play, but northern Michigan has an end of the road type of feel, where you have to create your own opportunities to make things happen. Bands don't really tour through Michigan. You kind of have to go in and go out. So it's definitely a local-dominated scene back there, which we love, but we also love getting out.
Why was the film Last of the Mohicans such an inspiration to some of what you were doing when you were all in that cabin working on music that would become the songs on Magic Central?
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Micah always likes to tell the story that he saw that movie when he was really young. He's a runner. He grew up running and is still an active and serious runner to this day. But I think the story from that is that when he was seeing that for the first time in the theater, the opening scene where Daniel Day Lewis is running and hunting the deer or elk or whatever, and Micah's dad leaned over to him and said, "You gotta kow how to run." He brings that up now and again. And just the music on that soundtrack is incredible. I think we just resonate with that aesthetic of the lone traveler. Or the adventurous spirit. I think that's the way that it related to Magic Central.
What about that environment of the cabin do you feel engendered creativity then and continues to do so now?
It's kind of a place where it all comes together for us. Having Micah's art studio there, and we're slowing building a recording studio there. It's such a beautiful landscape. There's the musical and art aspect of it, but there's also the living aspect of it. It's so nice to be able to go out the back door and just cross country ski into the woods for hours. Micah's parents live just down the road, and they're really supportive of us. They grow food, and they have chickens. You kind of have it all right there, which allows a lot of time for really digging deep into creative pursuits.
Improvising lyrics sounds like it could get a little chaotic like a live cut-up method or something like that. Did you have concepts to start out or was it more a stream of consciousness thing, and do you try to later impose some kind of coherence later on when sculpting the songs out of your initial creative material?
I think that's just part of the songwriting process for us and for Micah, especially. He's always stringing phrases together and writing lyrics on the road when we're not playing. One way that we learn songs, really, is by trying them out live before we even know them. We might have something really simple and there might be a handful of words and a feeling that is strong. When the show is going well and we're feeling comfortable, Micah will just open up to the poetry that's rolling around in his mind and just improvise lyrics. Which can work really well and can be pretty bad from time to time. But most of the time, it's only us that judge that.
You're the only ones that know what it's "supposed" to be if it's supposed to be anything in particular.
You recorded onto cassette and VHS on your sixteen-track machine. What does VHS allow for or what does it do that makes it an interesting recording format?
A lot of the times, it's just so we can remember what we were doing visually. Sometimes we'll approach a recording session where we're setting up instruments in a really awkward way that we're not used to. I'll have an organ in front of me and then a couple of drums to my right and maybe a drum to my left. Then a keyboard on top of the organ. Just a pile. That influences how songs come out when we're sitting around creating.
To have the VHS there recording...I mean, I could do it with a digital camera, but we just don't have one. But a VHS is what we have so we use it. There's an aesthetic there that we really love too which is tapes. But yeah, it's mostly so we can look back and see what it was we were doing when we made up a song or when we rearranged instruments.
You have some interesting and poetic song titles on Magic Central. Do they bear any direct relation to what the song is about?
Yeah, I think so. Most of the songs, the title is kind of the most essential visual image that comes through in the song. Sometimes the title will make an appearance actually in the lyrics, sometimes not. I think the titles are the most interesting and essential visual cue that comes up. At least that's how I interpret it. Micah would probably say it differently.
Do you know what inspired "Dog Walkers of the New Age"?
We used to play this game on the road where...and this is something that kind of happens when you've traveled a lot and you're in a van a lot, you come up with games to make it really interesting. We made up this game where if you see a dog, you win. So it was a really short and simple game called Dog I Win. If you see a dog, you point it out and you win. If the dog walker resembles the dog and you call that out, then everybody wins.
And I think that song was starting to reveal itself around that time, but I don't think that that has anything to do with the inspiration for the song. It's kind of a subtle visual thing that was happening a lot at that time, where we were going through urban landscapes and traveling through spaces that when you're in that mode of traveling a lot sort of speak to you differently than everyday experiences.
When you're at home it sounds like you read a lot. Is there anything in particular you like to read and what have you read lately that you found especially engaging?
I kind of like to read really dry stuff to balance out the artistic side of things. Like a textbook, you know. I like to read a soil or geology textbook or something on geography or the cultural history of some far off place. I think Micah likes to read story books. Not sure if I can speak for what Andrea likes to read but probably something related to language or Brazil or traveling.
The last book that I intentionally bought, because I was interested in reading it, was The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin. Have you read that?
It's actually on my list of things I should read sometime soon.
Yeah, it's a really good book. Really good topic. Being able to travel like we do across the country in the past four or five years, I've seen an increase in the amount of wind power being set up in different places. Having an interest in geography and such a connection to using resources to do your job to move around, it's something that's something I'm aware of. I actually didn't finish the book. I put it down because it got a little too dense. I got what I wanted out of it in the first half. I'll finish it someday.
What do you like about the work of Rabindranath Tagore?
Oh...That's a great question. He's an Indian poet and philosopher and pretty much everything--he's a musician and a composer and a political figure and literary genius, he dropped out of school and sort of educated himself from the time he was thirteen and made his way through life in that way but also had a really deep spiritual foundation. I came across him at a time in my life when I was really influenced by Indian philosophy, spirituality and music. He's just an amazing writer. I don't know if I can pinpoint it any more clearly than that. He's just really inspiring. He has the ability write about the human personality in a way that's like no other person, I think.
Since you live kind of away from what a lot of people would consider civilization, what are the most challenging things to adjust to when you do venture out and what do you do to get back into that mode of living when you get home?
I think the most challenging thing when you venture out into the world is sort of dealing with the pace that most people are used to. And dealing with finding food that you really feel like fills you and sustains you. We're so lucky up in our corner of the world to have a lot of really incredible local farmers that grow amazing food that's within reach. I think you have sort similar scene in Denver. Which is awesome. But when you go out and travel you have to be mindful and stay healthy and it can be difficult when you're just out in the busy world and traveling through places and not knowing them.
When you get back, I think one of the things that's tough to adjust to is all the time that you have. When you're out on tour every minute is like what's next what's next? You hardly have time to get sleep. So when you get back you're used to that grind and because you worked for so long out on the road, it's your time to rest. But your mind is still actively in that tour mode so you have to find stuff to keep you busy. Which can be a bit tricky to adjust to especially out where we live because there aren't really things, you know, to occupy you that a city offers. You have to create your own things to occupy you. That is music or art or working on your space or working on long term things.
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