Just as his minimalist junkyard folk act Norwegian Arms was getting off the ground, Brendan Mulvihill skipped town to live in Russia for a year. It was September 2009, the group only had four real gigs under its belt, and Mulvihill (stage name: Keith Birthday) received a fellowship to teach in Tomsk, Russia. The band, he decided, could wait. Living and writing abroad pushed his music in a new direction, and upon returning to Philadelphia last summer, Mulvihill not only had reinterpreted Norwegian Arms’ setlist for performance on mandolin—the childhood instrument he brought along to Siberia—he wrote an entirely new body of work reacting to being alone in one of the coldest parts of the world. Collaborator Dr. Awkward, aka Eric Slick (a versatile drummer, also of Dr. Dog, Paper Cat, and Lithuania) worked with Mulvihill—along with a rotating cast of other players—to flesh out the Russia-oriented songs. Some were heard on this year’s self-released EP Trimmings of Hides (which you can download here), the rest will make up the debut full length Norwegian Arms is recording later this fall for release in 2012. You’ll be able to get a broader taste of Mulvihill’s Russian suite when Norwegian Arms opens for Architecture in Helsinki at World Café Live tomorrow night; earlier this week, I sat down with Mulvihill and Slick to talk travel, teaching, and trashcan percussion.
The Key: It’s intriguing that you wrote the new songs not on guitar but mandolin. It’s also interesting that you played that instrument growing up.
Brendan Mulvihill: I guess the whole thing was I’d taken such a long break from it. I played it pretty seriously and took lessons, starting from when I was 11 up till I was 14. And then really I just stopped playing it altogether. The main reason for bringing that to Russia was its portability—I knew I wouldn’t have any issues with traveling or carry-ons. Or, like, “That’s not your personal item, that’s too big.” And it was also because I knew I could get a guitar over there, so I thought I’d bring something a little more bright.
TK: How was writing these songs on mandolin different from writing on a more conventional instrument?
BM: I think one thing I definitely did was adjusted the way I played it a lot. I ended up developing what would be considered I guess a non-traditional style. Because it’s not picked—I don’t play with a pick, I beat the hell out of it, I bleed on it. Not on purpose, but I think it’s because when you’re playing alone it sounds fuller to incorporate some sort of rhythmic element.
TK: When you brought those songs back, was it clear how the other players in the band would fit into them?
Eric Slick: We just kind of adapted the songs for the instrumentation we had before Brendan left. Which meant…I don’t know, he came over one day and I had set up all my trash cans. I had them set up by size order, and I had some pots and pans. And I said maybe we should just go junkyard with this whole thing. It might make it a lot more fun, and a lot more “dangerous” or something.
BM: A lot more Stomp.
ES: Yeah, when I was a child, I saw Stomp, it changed my life. [Laughs.] But it just seemed to work. It seemed to take up the amount of space without overpowering the mandolin. And it also seemed we could do shows so much easier—I could fit the mandolin in the trashcan. We could just carry it and get to the show. There’s no car involved. We could essentially play right now if we wanted to, we could play on this surface. [Drums on table.] It’s cool that we can kind of play a Norwegian Arms show wherever.
TK: It doesn’t need to be amplified. It can be, but it can exist either way.
BM: It may become amplified, but for now this works, and for the batch of songs it works, so I’m not going to mess with it. But it’s like kind of the sound I wanted anyway. Sort of rough, and I guess minimal in a way.
ES: Lots of attack, like a Rubbermaid bin.
BM: I guess the songs in themselves, the content is intense, so the fact that the music is somewhat intense is fitting.
TK: The music you wrote in Russia was your reaction to being over there, alone, kind of culture-shocked perhaps?
BM: Yeah. I’d say the most intensively creative period was January. I had just gotten back from a month-long vacation when I got to go to Germany, Italy, see some friends and get out of Siberia. And going back, it hit me very hard. The college wasn’t in session, I was working at the university and had nothing to do, all my friends had gone home. So I was really alone—and it was negative 40 degrees out at the time. I didn’t want to go outside. So I’d just walk to the corner store, get bread and cheese, come home and work on songs.
TK: So what’s it like bringing these songs that were born out of isolation to a setting where you’re playing with your friends and to crowds of people. Do they still have the same feeling for you?
BM: Yeah. I would say so. I try to remember to take a few seconds to focus before the set to kind of attempt to recreate that feeling. Basically, all the songs are constructed out of snippets of observations or experiences and I would just expand them. So I guess in a way I attempt to emotionally relive those as I’m singing the songs. I would say they’re still very personal, still very meaningful.
TK: Tell me more about why you were over in Russia in the first place.
BM: I was in Russia because I’d gotten a Fulbright fellowship, and I was there working at the Polytechnic University of Tomsk in Siberia for a year as an English professor. I was there to teach and help them redesign their curriculum, and also to have a research project. Originally the idea was educational research through comic books, but the University rejected it. “That’s silly, who can learn language from a comic book?” The educational system there is a little old fashioned. So when that got thrown out the door, I focused on the project being these songs. So I started getting in touch with musicians, I worked at a rock and roll school there for a bit. I tried to see musicians perform in an attempt to mold my song craft.
TK: That was last year, 2010. This year you got to reprise the project in South America. How did that come about?
BM: At the tail end of the Russian situation, one of the other Fulbright guys and myself had created this proposal; they have all these English language camps spread throughout Russia, and they wanted us to teach English there and travel from camp to camp. But we were presenting it through traditional American folk music. It went over really well, we wrote this textbook, it ended up getting turned into a CD-Rom that got published and distributed—which is so funny.
ES: A CD-Rom for Windows 3.1. [Laughs.]
BM: But it went over so well that word got out and the person responsible for our funding was transferred to South America, and he basically wanted us to reprise the whole situation again. So we wrote a new textbook and then just spent a month down there.
TK: What was it, working with students, getting them to play music and express themselves through music? Or more about teaching them about traditional American forms of folk music?
BM: The focus was really just having fun and learning songs. We had teacher workshops where we explained the lesson plans in our book, and how they worked, but the main goal was just to go down there and have fun with kids. Sing silly songs, “Froggy Went A Courtin’” or “O Susanna.”
TK: Did you do any writing when you were down there?
BM: I did, a little bit. We were so busy that I really didn’t get a chance to, but I have some fragments that I’m hoping to flesh out. My plan is to maybe go back there next summer and do some more actual songwriting.
TK: Are there plans for another release before then?
BM: We’re hoping to record the songs I wrote in Russia this fall and winter to release as a full-length next year. I guess the album will be the ultimate exercise in narcissism. I have a feeling it’s going to come off as egoistic because I’m hoping to make it a compilation of all of the output I had, the things I created over there; the music, also some photographs, short stories and poetry, and hopefully it will be in a book type format. And maybe a candy bar.