“We started as another band with a different name that shall not be spoken or put into a publication,” says drummer Alec Tippett, laughing alongside bandmates Eli Katz (lead vocals, guitar), Sam Jacobsen (bass) and Seth Terrell (guitar) on a warm spring Sunday afternoon gathered around the picnic table behind Macy’s. And, yes, that name will remain unspoken. But what won’t is Tiny Bird, and the story of how, through life and death and friendship and music and rock and roll, they’ve arrived at the release of their debut album, Halfway up the Mountain.
In the course of hanging with the band twice in as many days, other than the obvious facts that these guys have a good time and share a close bond with each other and the music they craft, they also put their hearts and souls and some serious work into everything they do in the name of Tiny Bird. When we first met them at the Hive on downtown’s Southside, they were performing the tedious job of cutting out masks—something that has become a sort of logo for the band—which they plan to hand out at their album release show on Friday night at the Orpheum Theater. Beyond that, and it almost seems cliché anymore to use the term DIY, but they are very much that, as posters, stickers, buttons and other merch also lined the table.
“It’s just how it happens. It’s how our minds work,” Jacobsen says. “Well, we want this to happen, so let’s do it! Let’s make it right now. Let’s print this out, let’s cut ‘em out, let’s do it.”
“And we’re broke,” Katz adds with a laugh.
But back to the masks. Originally, they were designed specifically for a music video the band shot last year for the song “Watercolor” off their three-song EP, Childish, but the idea of the mask was something Katz for a long time had envisioned—having a specific image that was recognizable and could be used for a lot of different things within Tiny Bird. The video for “Watercolor” was the beginning.
“I think it catches the eye … and it’s a little creepy,” Katz says of the masks.
What started because he needed a haircut, the video—directed and produced by bandmate Tippett and Samuel Bustrum—was shot at the Hive in one single take, and sees an assortment of friends and fellow musicians (all wearing masks) messing with and acting a fool around a seated and blindfolded Katz. As the band recalls, someone even almost got stabbed by a chef’s knife.
“The entire time we were so close to total disaster, but it all worked out somehow,” Katz says.
At the end, a collective scream resounds and Katz yells, “Somebody get me a [expletive] towel!”
“All I know, is we cut out 100 masks, and there were no masks left,” Katz adds.
In the spirit of rock and roll, one of those masks remains caked on the floor under a layer of paint.
Way back when
Right around the corner from Macy’s stands the Hive, a community-based art space and music venue, maybe big enough to park two cars, which acts as a homebase for Tiny Bird. It’s where the band rehearses, where Katz played his first gig as a teenager, where Tippett is currently the co-director and holds a weekly local jam session on Sundays, and where the band recorded the 11 tracks that make up the new cut. It’s also where they shot the ambitious music video for “Watercolor.”
But before any of that, it went a little something like this: Tippett was Katz’s guitar teacher in 8th grade; Katz and Jacobsen, while at FALA together, started jamming on a regular basis; and the confidence with which they did so caught the attention of Tippett who was fresh out of high school and needed people to make music with. With the arrival of Tippett came gear and a transition from acoustic to electric and, eventually, the name Tiny Bird and a band was realized in 2011.
“Our first show was FALA Winter Formal,” Jacobsen says, laughing. But as Tippett is quick to note, “In the way, way back, back—the way back when, we were playing on the streets a lot. We were busking.”
Back in those early days of their youth, it was all about playing house shows, on the streets, and gigs on Heritage Square. At the time, Tippett also—for some unknown reason—lived alone in a four-bedroom house, which opened the proverbial door for random improv jam sessions every other weekend.
“I just did a lot of pushups, and I played a lot of music, and I banged on a lot of walls,” Tippet says of having such a huge creative space within which to work and experiment with new music.
For the most part, Tiny Bird has always stood as a three-piece, but a year and a half ago they added Terrell, who, as Katz says, “was in within five minutes” of their first meeting and session together.
Between all of that, the band has experienced roughly two years of hiatus, with Katz briefly moving to Montana and Tippett to Texas. Then factor in the heavier life biz, which as everyone knows shows its face at the most unexpected of times, and acts as the foundation for which Halfway up the Mountain is formed.
Give and take
In a perfect world, no kid ever grows up too fast. But sometimes life has other plans. For Katz, those plans included the loss of a best friend at age 19 to an overdose, followed shortly by the news that he would be a father at age 20. It’s this give and take that flows through Halfway up the Mountain and the band’s identity, with most of the songs finding a voice after processing the fact that he was having a kid.
“Most of the album is not directly about her, but just the result of being a young parent and everything that comes with that,” Katz says of his daughter, Carmalita, who will be 2 years old in July.
As for his friend, “He was a self-proclaimed Satan worshiper,” Katz says. “He said that he sold his soul to Satan on a beach in Portugal, and then he died when he was 19.”
The first two songs on the album, “Paint it Blue” and “Clampton,” speak to both of those incidents and set the tone for the rest of the record.
“That’s what the album’s about: life and death, losing people and loving people, and all of the things that come with being a young adult. It has a lot to do with time and managing time,” Katz says. “Life for me in the past couple years has been based around time and money and love and balancing those three things, understanding the value of those three things separately, and then trying to figure out a system to get the most out of life.”
It’s this balance that has allowed him to keep making music. He goes on to say that when Carma entered the world, people told him he should drop music altogether to make time for her and to provide more. But as a father, that’s not the kind of example he wants to set for his daughter.
“I don’t want to set an example that you just completely give up on things you like doing … something comes up and you set everything else aside,” Katz says, “And it’s still a dream. It’s still something we’re all aspiring to do.”
The other side of it is resolve, which comes across on “It Takes Time” and the album’s catchiest hook as Katz sings: “Find your own way out, out of the truth/It’s alright, it takes time/It’s alright, it takes time.”
That sense of duality also extends to the recording process for Halfway up the Mountain. Recorded by friend, musician and engineer David Strackany, the band elected to go the route of recording via tape, in part because of the different, raw sound it offers. Limited on time, the band recorded the album over the course of one week, each song with a complete live setup, and executed in just one take.
“We had to come to terms with how sort of flawed it was going to sound—because you just do one take, and so every song you’re hearing is one take,” Terrell says. “There’s lots of mistakes and lots of little things that are wrong, and it’s just a raw sound.”
Katz adds, “It’s really true to the live experience. Nothing is polished and it’s all in that moment.”
The other component that makes Tiny Bird’s sound so unique is Katz’s gravelly voice, to which he asks, “Can I say that all my favorite singers are s****y?”
He cites his favorite singer as Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock’s as well as the Pixies’ Frank Black.
“I don’t want to listen to something that’s super polished. And I honestly don’t want it to sound sweet and soothing, ‘cause I think it’s a more interesting form of expression to me when someone’s freaking out. They have more to say,” Katz adds.
His voice is also the product of years of playing, as he says, “way too [expletive] loud with s****y equipment,” the product of playing house shows and singing as loudly as possible so he could hear himself.
Tippet adds, “That’s totally the embodiment of what it is to be a teenager: Look at me! I am unique!”
It should be mentioned here that Katz hates covers. And as explained by Katz, they had just finished recording Halfway up the Mountain and he and Tippett were hanging out a week later when Tippett said: “Man, if you don’t start writing again, we’re gonna have to start doing covers.”
Stressed about it, Katz wrote three songs in two days. The band recorded them immediately and, with a fourth song that didn’t make the full-length, they plan to release a new EP, titled Bonus Round, soon.
“We’re gonna do a four-track bonus round CD, and it’s like a genre sampler. So, it’s four songs, four genres, we recorded all four of them at different places with different producers and different equipment. It’s like four entirely different songs across the board,” Katz explains.
With no set release date and spanning hip-hop, folk, trance and heavy “atheist” (the latter of which was recently recorded at Mudshark Studios), the band plans to film the EP’s promo video at the Orpheum show on Friday night. And through it all, they’re just stoked to keep making music.
“It seems like a lot of luck to me most of the time—how things work out,” Tippett says. “I think it’s a miracle that we get to do what we’re doing in a lot of ways.”
Join Tiny Bird during their album release party for Halfway up the Mountain along with some of their favorite local bands and closest friends on Fri, March 31, at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen. Sol Drop, Four Cornered Room and Naming Our Monsters will get things going. Doors for the all-ages show open at 7 p.m. and the music starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at Rainbow’s End or at the door the night of the show. For more, call 556-1580 or visit Tiny Bird on Facebook.