Everyone in the audience was armed," says Paper Bird's Esme Patterson, recalling making that horrifying discovery on stage at a recent show. "It was like that scene in The Blues Brothers, where they play at the country bar and no one knows what to think."
While you can picture such a scene being de rigueur for certain bands in certain eras — in the notoriously vicious '80s hardcore scenes in L.A. and D.C., for instance, when people wanted to protect themselves from the rampant violence that seemed to go hand in hand with the abrasive music — Paper Bird's cheerful, ragtimey shuffle is the kind that usually soothes the savage beast. So why the artillery?
It was a bowhunters' convention. Such gigs are commonplace for Paper Bird, an outfit that got its start three years ago busking for money on the side of a mountain road, when Patterson, guitarist Paul DeHaven, banjoist Caleb Summeril and singer/trumpeter Sarah Anderson all found themselves in the same mountain resort town at the same time. "We went up to Breckenridge to go climb some mountains," DeHaven remembers. "We ended up meeting some new friends and decided to play some music together."
Armed at first with only a Beatles tablature book, the four playfully ran through classics as the chemistry between them swelled. "That was the first time I met Caleb," Patterson notes. "He had just come out of living in the desert and was this total mountain man. I remembered thinking, 'Who is this guy? He's awesome!'"
Inspired by Summeril's stint in the desert, a journal entry and the experience they were sharing at the time, the yet-to-be-named band wrote its first song, "Jesus and Arizona."
"The lyrics came from a poem by Brian Andreas," DeHaven explains. "That song came about because we were looking through some notebooks containing poems, lyrics and chord progressions. That was something our friend Jason had found and written down, and we decided to turn a song into that."
From there, the group wrote a few more songs and decided to play its first unofficial gig — on the side of the street in Breckenridge. "We went down on the street and played the songs we wrote and got a couple hundred bucks," Summeril recalls with surprise still in his voice. "We were like, 'Right on! Let's be a band!'"
After that initial performance, the friends discovered that booking shows with the sound they had just crafted wasn't going to be that difficult. That same day, in fact, they landed a show at a coffee shop in town. Upon returning to Denver, they recruited Esme's sister, Genny, to help out with vocals, and tapped Macon Terry to play upright bass and Tyler Archuletta to play trombone. And with that, Paper Bird was born.
"I was in Seattle when they were in the mountains," Archuletta points out. "I took a crazy bike trip with Esme and later heard them on the Internet. It was really random how I ended up playing with them at all."
The way Paper Bird developed its distinctive sound is slightly less random. "I always hated country music and bluegrass," Patterson admits. "I never listened to anything with a banjo in it in my life. Now I have a newfound respect for it, but prior to that, I realy liked hip-hop and Motown and soul music."
"I think the sound came as a result of the instrumentation," Archuletta maintains. "I don't think we were trying to sound like we were having a hoopla in the '40s. When you have a trombone and a banjo, it's kind of hard to get away from the Dixieland sound."
Zeroing in on the origin of Paper Bird's sound is easier than pinpointing its lyrical inspiration; that's more of a mystery. Outside of journal entries and poems, the members insist there is no decisive formula for what is written. "We're not writing about it back in the day," Esme says. After espousing several subjects that range from ponies, sinking ships, acid and heartbreak, DeHaven puts it all in perspective. "It happens spontaneously," he declares. "If the lyrics sound good, we use 'em; if not, we don't. I'm thinking of all of the stuff we've written in the past year, and I can't think of a single subject that they're about."
Words and music aside, what truly makes Paper Bird unique are the vocals. Esme, Sarah and Genny belt out three-part harmonies that gently splash off the rootsy foundation. On some songs, such as "The Structure of Love," the trio sounds light and playful, while on others, like "Sacrifice," the music is eerie and dark. Evoking images of early-1900s St. Louis, boxcars and player pianos, Paper Bird's sound — it's as if Scott Joplin had penned the score to Homer's Odyssey, with a trio of soft singing sirens leading unsuspecting saps into a speakeasy to meet their certain death — is capturing the attention of more and more fans. And a new distribution will ensure that they woo even more.
"We worked out a pretty cool distribution deal with the coalition for independent record stores," Summeril explains. "Twist and Shout is part of a collective of awesome independent record stores throughout the country. They offered us a chance to come to their store and play a live show and have that recorded and distributed to independent record stores."
The release in question, Live at Twist and Shout, is due in stores on Tuesday, October 6. And while a record store may seem an odd place to record a live album, for Paper Bird it's merely par for the course. "We've done so many random gigs over the three years of being in a band," Summeril enthuses. "We've played on the side of the road in Breckenridge; we've played bowhunting conventions, the cowgirl hall of fame. You gotta go shake your money maker when it's time."
While learning to adapt to any gig is an invaluable skill that Paper Bird has mastered throughout the years, there are still plenty of slings and arrows to navigate. "I think a lot of musicians just tell people their problems," asserts Patterson. "In this band, I've always try and find a solution to it. That's what I write songs about. One of my favorite things about this band is it's such an uplifting thing. Playing and listening to music is a solution.
"It's always a cathartic experience playing music with these folks," says DeHaven. "I think we've learned so much about interpersonal communications and how to non-violently communicate with each other — not that we're violent people!"
"It gets violent sometimes," Patterson interjects. "The only way out of this band is a body bag!"
Hide your bows.