Mark Janka may have a gift for crafting frighteningly fragile acoustic lullabies, but, when it comes to spinning tales about his band’s enigmatic name, the tender-voiced frontman for Lesser Birds of Paradise admits he’s at a loss for words.
“I thought I made up a lie that was a good story for that but I forgot the story,” said Janka during a conversation that took place after the Chicago trio recorded The Scenery, a six-song follow-up to this year’s majestic String of Bees.
The band’s moniker was pulled from a random line of poetry, Janka said, a sentiment that spoke to his love of birds as metaphors and symbols.
“That’s the best I got,” he joked. “I’m working on making up a better story than that. If you’ve got one, send me an e-mail.”
Jokes about the obscure history of the band’s name aside, this seems to be a fitting introduction to an emotive ensemble that seems to shimmer brightest when a little lack of clarity is left in the mix, when the tender stories don’t all follow clearly delineated lines and arcs, and when some references go unreferenced.
A native Midwesterner, Janka cut his teeth not on the tender folk and lush, acoustic pop that have become the Lesser Birds’ calling card, but on the alternative and indie-rock scenes of the 1980s and early 1990s. While in college, Janka said some of his biggest influences were American Music Club, Pavement, The Replacements and Magnetic Fields, bands that informed his early efforts at songwriting and performance with the rock act Pillar Box Red.
“That was what you’d expect a college band to sound like in 1993,” said Janka, who described the band — which also featured future Lesser Bird multi-instrumentalist Tim Joyce — as a hybrid of Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins. “It was power chords. I guess we didn’t know a lot of those big solos.”
After Pillar Box Red recorded a demo with John McEntire, Janka said the group disbanded and began focusing more on what he bluntly calls “real life.” While Joyce recently moved to Montana to teach music, Janka’s day job is in the classroom, teaching English courses at Proviso High School in Maywood, Ill.
Janka’s love for music, though, didn’t wane.
Since 1998, Janka, Joyce, drummer/percussionist Greg Thomas and former bassist Tony Bianchi have always made time for the Lesser Birds. The group released its full-length debut — A Suitable Frame — in 2000 and, a year later, came out with the It Isn’t The Fall EP. A four-song split EP with Illinois-based singer-songwriter Jared Grabb followed in 2003, containing a “loud,” radio-friendly version of “Josephine,” an addictive pop exercise that reared its head again on 2004’s String of Bees.
While the String of Bees version of “Josephine” — all pedal-steel weeping, finger-picked acoustic guitars and half-moaned, half-whispered vocals — feels more somber and heart-wrenching than its electric-guitar predecessor, the sentiment below the surface is more universal.
“Josephine/ I think you know just what I mean/ When I say the tank is full/ And Philadelphia’s 12 hours away,” Janka sings on the track, which sits at the intersection of a road song and a plaintive ballad about heartbreak and romantic longing. Sound like a tall order to fill? Read on.
“Romeo/ He’s a boy that lives around the way/ Romeo/ I know you think he treats you okay/ And he might take you to all the dances thrown right here in town/ But I will take you from disapproving glances thrown when you’re around/ Josephine, won’t you drive away with me?”
Janka said the hunger in the song to return to Philadelphia is tinged with autobiography. Though he grew up outside Chicago, his parents were Philly-raised and, on his journeys back to their childhood homes, he felt a connection with the neighborhoods and the landscapes there.
“I just kind of wanted to see a different view of the world,” Janka said. “I somehow felt (Philadelphia) was somehow more real life.”
Driving also plays more than just a metaphorical role in the lives of Lesser Birds’ vocalist/guitarist. Janka said he often scribbles down lyrics and threads for song ideas while making the 40- to 45-minute commute to and from work every day.
“In the true folk tradition, I’ve been kind of using a Palm Pilot lately,” said Janka, who noted that lyrics often precede music when he’s writing new material. Sometimes, he said, he’ll hear something on National Public Radio (NPR) — a topic, a phrase — that catches his ear and he’ll jot it down in his Palm while driving.
Other pieces of cultural ephemera also make their way into Lesser Birds songs. The title of one String of Bees track, “Because We Are Also What We Have Lost,” was pulled from the film Amores Perros, Janka said.
Janka’s English students, however, are only sparingly welcomed into the songwriting process.
“There’s a few select students that kind of know (about Lesser Birds),” said Janka, when asked how much his day job and his musical career blend together. “We had a little secret songwriters club.”
String of Bees almost is the opposite extreme. In addition to the band’s core four members (Janka, Joyce, Thomas and Bianchi, who left the band recently), the 11-track disc features performances by Mark Greenberg of The Coctails, Joe Murphy of Dollar Love Plus, and Max Crawford of Poi Dog Pondering. Norman Phipps (father to String of Bees recording engineer and Coctails alum Barry Phipps) even made a guest appearance on the disc when he played along on the banjolin.
While mention of the band’s “hometown” of Chicago might call to mind the punk- and indie-rock circles of labels like Touch and Go and Quarterstick, Janka said the region is increasingly kind and welcoming to folk acts, which are being viewed as more accessible than they were even five years ago.
That’s a good thing for musicians like Janka, who referred to his folksy, finger-picking style of acoustic guitar playing as something that “is starting to become a minor obsession of mine.”
“When we have to define it, I guess we realize we’re a folk band,” Janka said. “I guess we feel we’re making folk music for indie kids.”
Well, when you’re driving through the night, racing on some impulsive trip to Philadelphia, perhaps, and you need something warm and enveloping to pour out of your stereo speakers, who better than a band that’s already been down that road?
Mark Janka and Tim Joyce offer second thoughts on String of Bees
A Magnet in You
Mark Janka: This is one of several songs that has California in it. I work under the assumption that many Midwesterners have a love/hate relationship with California. California is our geographical “other.” I suppose that’s how it’s crept into so many of my songs even though, at the time of writing String of Bees, I’d only been to California once.
Tim Joyce: The “Magnet” sound was made with a cymbal and a Cole’s ribbon microphone. Since I was little, I have always put things up to my ears and put my ears up to things to see how the sounds they make will change. Same principle applied here. I liked the sound of the cymbal while listening from the side. If you move your head above the plane of the cymbal you get one sound. If you move below it, another. So I put a cymbal on my index finger and would hit it with a mallet and physically move the cymbal above and below the ribbon on the Cole’s microphone. The panning
was done later in the process.
When the Devil Does a Drive-by
MJ: When you start getting into finger-style guitar, you start listening to country blues. And, when you start listening to country blues, you generally begin with the biggies — Robert Johnson, Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, et cetera. I was listening to such fellows and experimenting with open-D tuning (sometimes called “natural” tuning) when I wrote this. I wanted to incorporate some of the style of the guitarists I’d been listening to without writing a “blues.” I felt that it was not my place to write a blues song, but I think I ended up with one anyway.
This song, like “Magnet,” was written during the year and a half that we were working on String of Bees. It was new enough that when we recorded it, I never actually sang the line “When the devil does a drive-by….” I meant to sing that in the last verse, but I just forgot. We liked the take enough to feel like it wasn’t worth re-doing. We did the acoustic guitar and the drums at the same time live in the same room, so there’s lots of bleed which give it a nice “real” sound. I don’t think any of the other songs on String of Bees were recorded this way. Our recent EP The Scenery was recorded almost entirely “live.” I think this track influenced our approach to The Scenery, and gave us the confidence to record that way.
TJ: Greg’s muted drumming and Barry’s microphone placement and choice on this song really makes this song work for me. Remember: there is always room for a little reversed baritone guitar.
This Is the Song I Wrote Last Night
MJ: Played in the DADGAD tuning. The demo was recorded as a humble little folk tune, but we wanted to put more movement and drama into the song. (After all, it is basically the same part repeated five times.) Max Crawford’s string arrangement does that ten times over. We ended up toning it down a little in the last verse. There were so many great ideas in that arrangement that we could pull one out and there was still plenty of great music happening.
“This Is the Song…” was written after coming home from a summer tour in 2002. The title was originally meant to be temporary, but I decided I like the way it allowed the song to remain in present. That way it’s not always about coming home in 2002.
TJ: The noise track on this song was an idea Mark had always had about the band arrangement for the song, and at some point I decided it would be fun to be able to have noise and be able to manipulate it in real time while we played. The truth of the matter is, the most portable thing available to me was a four-track, but it always worked out. Most of the sounds in here are lap-steel and melodica manipulated with delays and cassette tape flips. I think the four-track was actually played onto one track in the
recording process. And I think if you listen really hard you can hear Greg take his headphone off and set them on his snare drum at the end of the song.
MJ: It was important to me that we leave in the sounds of the song being made (Greg taking off his headphones, et cetera). I thought it grounded the lofty arrangement and, like the title, adds to the illusion that the song is always new (or just created).
Mermaid on the Blvd.
MJ: This song was inspired by an episode of the NPR program This American Life about trans-sexual and transgender “girls” in Los Angeles. I wanted to do something with the great slang, symbols, and locales associated with this scene: bricks, being clocked, The Little Mermaid, Benito’s Tacos…. That covered the verses. The choruses came from a little Internet research. I’m still not sure if I pronounced the names of those drugs correctly.
This song uses many stable, jazz chords. That contributed to the lounge feel of the verses. The choruses were known as “the Barney Miller part” due to the walking nature of the chord progression and bass line. That left us with the refrain riff which Barry called “the ‘Jessie’s Girl’ part.” We thought that part was too square to suit the rest of the song. This is where having your record recorded by a former Coctail really pays off. If a part needs to be garage-lounged up, there’s nothing like the Coctails’ network to deliver the goods.
Where the River Meets the Sea
MJ: This song was originally written as a fast, loud song. Some recordings of our attempts at this still exist on a hard drive somewhere. Sometimes I wonder what the hell we were thinking. This was also written on the Palm IIIc while driving. I feel I should mention that writing on you Palm while driving is not the safest practice in the world. I don’t really do it much anymore. I’m a bad enough driver as it is.
It was a real treat to have Barry’s father play on it, and Mark Greenberg’s work on the choruses makes the song for me.
TJ: Mark Greenberg’s OmniChord and pump organ parts in this song give me goose bumps every time I hear them. A perfect complement to Mark’s words and overall idea for the song.
Because We Are Also What We Have Lost
MJ: I love the way Max Crawford’s string arrangement makes the song sound like it ends in a very natural way. You can almost see the fade to black. Without the strings, my guitar part is out of time and sounds rushed.
TJ: The hammer dulcimer is something I have always wanted to get into a Lesser Birds song, and this seemed like a natural choice. I don’t claim to really play that thing, but is amazing what an open tuning will accomplish. I especially like the mixing choices that went into this song. Barry did a great job of making a lot of potentially very disparate elements come together.
You Snooze, You Lose
MJ: This is one of the first songs we worked on. We were very pleased with how it built up and how naturally the odd little noises dropped in. I think I wrote these words to the tune of a different song (a Palace song, maybe). By the time I got around to using them in one of my songs, I’d forgotten the source tune. It’s not unusual for me to have words lying around in a notebook (or on the Palm) for a year or more before I get around to actually finishing the song or coming up with the right music to fit the tone of the lyrics.
For some reason, when I play this song I think of California’s Highway One and my honeymoon (which was in California) although the words were written before I was married and before I’d ever been to California.
MJ: I used to play in a pop band called Dollar Love Plus with Joe Murphy (who plays guitar on this song). “Aphrodisiacs” was a song I wrote for Dollar Love Plus that I thought could also work as Lesser Birds’ song. We’d never recorded it with Dollar Love Plus, but we played it at many a show. I like to think of this as my version of “Sixteen Blue.” If Tommy Stinson grew up in a place like Naperville, Ill., instead of a place like Minneapolis, this would be his song.
TJ: If you listen closely, in middle of the bridge you can hear Mark say “Ahhhhh?” like he just drank a giant glass of lemonade. There was a bit of debate about whether that should be an “Ahhhhh” or a smooth, Barry White “Damn…!” I think the “Ahhhh” won out, but I still think I hear the “Damn…!” way down there in the mix.
MJ: Actually the “Ahhhh” was the idea of Bill Murphy (Joe’s older brother) who played bass in Dollar Love Plus. He was also in an alt-country band before there was alt-country called Bucket #6. Those of you who were kids in the ‘70s in Chicagoland get the reference of the band’s name, I’m sure.
MJ: People are dying for this to be about a real person or a real experience. In fact, the story is fictional, though I feel the impulses narrator are very real.
With “Josephine,” I was trying to emulate the songs of the Vulgar Boatmen. In the early 90s, the Vulgar Boatmen would come to Chicago about once a month, and I went to nearly all of their shows. Many of their songs are about driving, leaving, planning to leave, or deciding to stay after all. Many of their songs use girls’ names in the titles and city names in the lyrics. While the story of the song is an attempt to write a Vulgar Boatmen song, the music is not. I think of the chords as just regular old song chords — something to keep the whole project afloat.
For a long time I tried to write a song that was exactly like a Vulgar Boatmen song. Their songs are technically simple; I thought I could do it. However, I never felt like I could capture that purity—the essence of the Vulgar Boatmen, so I gave up on it. “Josephine” is all I have to show for those efforts.
Come to the City
MJ: Tim wrote this one. I love the way this songs has strong elements of doom that run through it. (In some ways, I see it as the sister song to “When the Devil Does a Drive-by.”) The song is so solid in its mood, you hardly notice that the chords progressions could just as easily support a surf song (though most surf songs are not in waltz time). The trumpet and the strings give it a great spaghetti western vibe, but not so much that it’s being campy.
TJ: This songs idea came from two places. The verses are a drawn from a discussion I overheard a friend from Montana (Aaron Taylor) have with his mother. She had a distant friend who was psychic who had a dream that Aaron was in. There was an evil giant black cloud over Chicago and another over Charleston, S.C. The scary part is she had no idea that this guy lived in Chicago at the time and had already made the decision to move to Charleston.
Soon after all this I wrote the verses and decided myself to change locales and move out to Montana. I taught grade-schoolers out there and also have some nieces and nephews that live in a small town out there. I lived in a very small town, too, but could never decide if I could make it out there for the rest of my life. I always imagined being able to commute between Montana and Chicago and being able to show these small town kids something bigger. There is definitely a push-pull here between the city and the country. Certain parts of Max’s arrangements that are more right on the money than I could have ever heard them in my head.
MJ: That cello line, for instance.
Back There on Foot
MJ: This song was originally written for my friend Darlene Poole to sing, but the original version sounded too Indigo Girls for me. By the time I worked up a better version, it didn’t seem like there would be a proper outlet for her to use it. Fortunately, we got her to contribute some vocals to the track.
The title of the record is a misheard lyric in this song. The real line is, “Around my neck’s a string of beads.” Which is much less interesting than a string of bees. I often sing the bees line when we play it live because I like it more.
Please note the California reference.
TJ: I think Barry came up with the paddy-cake idea. I just wish I would have had a camera to film Barry and Greg sitting in the middle of the studio in front of a Neuman clapping hands like old pros. One take, folks!
Scene Two, Take One:
Mark Janka and Barry Phipps on The Scenery
Mark Janka: The Scenery EP mentioned above is a six-song (five new Lesser Birds songs and a cover of Pavement’s “Here”), short-run recording done for Barry Phipps’ new label, Tight Ship Records. You can purchase The Scenery EP at Lesser Birds’ shows or at http://www.tightshiprecords.com.
Barry Phipps: I was really proud of the way the Lesser Birds worked on String of Bees. It was recorded off and on over a period of 18 months. Most of the ideas were developed in the studio through lots of experimentation. They would lay down tons of overdubs and we would sift through them to find the gems. They recorded many songs that didn’t fit the tone of the record and had the good sense to leave them off. Some songs were recorded several times in different ways until they developed into the matured versions on the LP. There were no compromises through tight deadlines, so it just matured until it was naturally complete.
The Scenery EP followed the completion of String of Bees.
The idea for The Scenery was to have them come in to the studio with six songs completely finished that we would record live and simultaneously mix straight to my Ampex 1/4″ two-track, which is the way all recordings were made before the invention of the first multi-track in the late ‘50s. I felt that it would be very satisfying to make a good record that was completely finished in about four hours, which is what we basically did.
They played in the same room with no separation, and no headphones. I did end up recording it to six tracks instead of going straight to the two tracks, but in the spirit of the original idea, I spent no more than ten to fifteen minutes of mixing for each song. We ended up throwing two overdubs to Naomi, “Are You Lonely?,” which was a baritone guitar and a flute, but the recording is still very sparse and open, as it was only three people playing at one time. This is my favorite-sounding record that I’ve recorded, and by far the most satisfying.
MJ: For the record, we also overdubbed the singing on “Here,” too. And with that, I still sang the words all wrong, but who really knows the words to that song anyway? – Delusions of Adequacy, Oct. 18, 2004