The young San Francisco rockers in Birdmonster took a decidedly mellower turn for their latest album From the Mountain to the Sea. When the band pulls into Popscene at 330 Ritch Street in San Francisco October 16 to debut its new material, it’ll do so armed with mandolins and banjos.
Now on indie label Fader alongside Saul Williams and Editors, vocalist Peter Arcuni, drummer Zach Winter, bassist Justin Tenuto, and guitarist David Klein decided to ditch urbanity for sessions in the Mojave Desert for their third release, teaming up with producer Tom Schick — whose credits include Norah Jones and Ryan Adams. The formerly straight-up rockers are trying to drill down into the fundamentals, says Arcuni, who spoke from a parking lot outside the brick facade of WFPK in Louisville, Kentucky, part of the band’s 28-date national tour.
“What sometimes gets lost is: you need a good song to start with, in its very basic form,” Arcuni explains. “Otherwise you can have all this noise, you can have all this attitude, but there’s not a fundamentally sound foundation there. When I listen to music I don’t connect as well to that stuff, because it seems aimless. What we tried to do is keep the song intact,” he says.
The new emphasis ends fence-sitting for the band, which formed in 2004 when Connecticut native Arcuni — who holds a bachelor’s degree in cognitive neuroscience — met up in San Francisco with San Diego native David Klein and his UC Santa Barbara friends Zach Winter and Justin Tenuto. Raised on Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, and middle-class comfort, they had a lot in common; even a borderline man-crush on each other.
“Our buddy said it best,” says Klein. “We have a frighteningly healthy relationship.”
A self-titled EP in ’04 led to the ’06 self-released LP No Midnight and a meeting with future record label Fader in Austin.”They gave us an early break and had us play their party at South by Southwest, which was the first time we actually booked a tour,” said Arcuni. “They totally made that whole tour worthwhile, and right from there, we were like, ‘Those guys are cool. They saved our asses once already and we don’t even know them.'”
The award-winning magazine’s unique label arm let Birdmonster alone, says Arcuni, which meant practicing off César Chávez Street, rehearsing in the desert at a friend’s cabin, and recording with producer Schick at SF’s Hyde Street Studios.
“We just cut ourselves off from everything and spent so much time playing music basically from when we got up till about 11 or midnight. In between playing music we made goulash,” Arcuni jokes. “It was the only thing we did.”
Inspiration-wise, a lot of the imagery on the album comes from landscapes, which is also reflected in the song titles, says the vocalist. “Touring, you get to see the landscape changing and unfolding, and you get to see how diverse America really is, and it’s something that is totally inspiring to me.”
Schick helped emphasize the “less is more approach” and a raw sound that embraced imperfection. They’d record basic tracks live and overdub discretely, says Arcuni.” Everything was kind of ‘of the moment,'” he says. “If we’d make a mistake or something was a little weird or different from the way we intended it, Tom was adamant about it if it was emotionally right or interesting on some level. He’d be like ‘We gotta go with this. We gotta stick with this.'”
That rawness comes through on tracks like “New County” and “Born to Be Your Man,” which are likely to draw comparisons to Tom Petty and Springsteen. Some say the world has enough of that, but Birdmonster just shrugs and keeps getting bigger — approving another dozen comments from cute girls to their MySpace page. In a world of institutionalized charlatanism, Birdmonster is oddly pure of heart.
“One critical word that appeared early on and I thought was interesting was ‘earnesty,'” Arcuni says. “Which is funny, because I don’t think we’re misunderstood, but I do think earnesty is misunderstood. It seems as if people were saying that was a bad thing. For me, the whole point of music is to do something pure and honest and uh, not full of bullshit. So the idea that is like ‘earnesty as negative’ just doesn’t really compute with me.”
Too bad they have to win over some of the most proudly jaded fans on the planet. “We’re definitely going to be challenged in seeing how people, who are used to our shows just being 100 percent energy, are going to react to something that’s a little bit more balanced,” he says. “But hopefully, the idea is the quiet moments will make the big loud moments even more powerful, and vice versa.”