A Banjo And A Trombone Make Paper Bird's Vintage Sounds

Paper Bird, an indie-pop bluegrass group out of Boulder, Colo., talk about their new release A Sky Underground, which mixes banjo, trombone, and a host of other instruments to create a vintage sound that wouldn't be out of place coming from an antique radio.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUY RAZ, Host:

For the past two years, the Denver-based band Paper Bird has been playing to packed houses throughout the West. The seven-piece band mixes multipart harmonies with a deliberately vintage sound. It's a style that's hard to pin down, but here's an attempt. It's a mixture of bluegrass, folk and indie pop; and a sound that almost belongs to a different time and place, as if it might be playing on a giant, wooden console radio from the 1930s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST BOYS")

ESME PATTERSON: (Singing) I've been traveling on this land where my feet don't understand the red, rising ripples of the sea. And in this place I call home...

RAZ: This song is called "Lost Boys," and it's off the band's new EP, titled "A Sky Underground." Banjo player Caleb Summeril and singer Esme Patterson, from Paper Bird, join me from KCFR in Denver, Colorado.

Hello to the both of you, and welcome to the show.

CALEB SUMMERIL: Hello.

PATTERSON: Thanks for having us.

RAZ: So I made an attempt to describe your sound. How did I do?

PATTERSON: It's really a tricky thing. People ask us that all the time, and I wish I could explain it better. But whenever somebody asks us what kind of music we play, I always just say "joyful."

RAZ: And there's a moment in this song that almost sounds like a church revival; this beautiful chorus that comes up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST BOYS")

PATTERSON: (Singing) Sing to the birds. Sing to the snow. Singing to you is all I know.

SUMMERIL: I think it's got a little element of that revival - or whatever aspect you want, 'cause I think the idea for it kind of came about from our live shows, where we like to get everybody in the crowd involved in the hand- stomping, hand-clapping sing-a-long; always good at doing that.

RAZ: Caleb, you play the banjo. And of course, you know, a lot of people hear the banjo, and they instantly think bluegrass. But there is a - kind of a bluegrass sound to a lot of your music, don't you think?

SUMMERIL: Yeah. Yeah, of course. I've been influenced by it, for sure. And I love that style of music. But it's nice to not get pigeonholed, as an instrumentalist, in one type of music or the other. You know, some people do think the banjo is only a bluegrass instrument, which - it's a great one, but it can also do a lot more. And I like exploring the boundaries of where it can go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD MAN'S BONES")

PATTERSON: In this song, at the beginning there, the name of this song is "Dead Man's Bones," and Caleb was playing the banjo to try and sound like some clacking bones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD MAN'S BONES")

RAZ: One of the most distinctive things about your sound, is the harmonies. How do you guys arrange those? Do they just sort of evolve naturally, or do you plan them out ahead of time?

PATTERSON: You know, we never write them out, or plan them out, at all. And I often am just surprised by what happens. (LAUGHTER) Really. Because the three of us always just say OK, well, here's the melody, and here's some words; and let's just sing something that sounds good. And so we'll all sing together and we'll be like, oh, maybe that wasn't; let's do something better. And we'll just sing together again. And often, that's how it works. We don't write it out, and we don't work it out at all. And it's just what comes out that we use.

RAZ: Let's hear some of those harmonies in the track called "Lullaby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LULLABY")

RAZ: Tell me a little bit about Colorado, and the - sort of the role Colorado plays in your music; first, in terms of the way it sounds.

PATTERSON: Oh, I'd say it has a huge affect on us just because, you know, we started playing outside, and Colorado has about 300 days of sun a year, you know? And I'd say that that really has a huge affect on our band, is the - you can hear the sunnyness of the place that we live.

RAZ: How did you all come together, to find this voice that you found? I've read - and I don't know if this is true - but I've read that you holed up in a mountain cabin one weekend, or one, week to - actually, paint. But somebody forgot their paintbrushes, and you started to play music. Is that true?

PATTERSON: Yeah, that's partially true, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PATTERSON: I think I remember Paul saying that. And that's a very Paul thing to say.

RAZ: Paul is the guitarist of the band.

PATTERSON: He is the guitarist.

RAZ: Paul DeHaven.

PATTERSON: Yeah. And we went up to - just go hiking, and just be in the mountains. And Caleb happened to bring some instruments, and that - it really was completely serendipitous that we started writing songs together. And we had so much fun that we decided to keep doing it.

SUMMERIL: Yeah, we went and played on the streets of Breckenridge, Colorado, after we wrote these songs. And, you know, all of us had been musicians before - in various, different incarnations - and just went out on the street, to try to make some money for dinner. And it ended up being really successful. And - got a gig the next day - at a coffee shop in town - and said hey, let's keep it up, and see where it can go. And it's kind of been the story of things, so far.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LULLABY")

PATTERSON: (Singing) Take the step and you'll see the box with the wings in the dirt. It holds one cup of the moon, some yellow, a tune quite like this...

RAZ: That's the Denver band Paper Bird. Caleb Summeril plays banjo, and Esme Patterson is one of the singers. Thank you both for joining me.

PATTERSON: Thank you so much.

SUMMERIL: Yeah, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LULLABY")

PATTERSON: (Singing) You can stay warm in the sun, with words of the wind in your hand. I'll be gone for a while, the stop signs have all turned around. But I will think of you twice when feathers fall close to the ground.

RAZ: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great evening.

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