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A conspiracy of muses

One Ring Zero blends its brand of psychedelic beer garden music with 17 literary talents.

June 10, 2004|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

Is it a CD or a book? A musical tribute or an author anthology? The short answer for "As Smart as We Are," the newly released fifth album from Brooklyn quirk-pop duo One Ring Zero, is all of the above.

Building songs around the lyrics of authors, it is literary rock and musical literature, the result of an experiment that paired New York's literary elite with odd-instrument aficionados One Ring Zero. "Staggering Genius" Dave Eggers, self-deprecatory essayist Jonathan Ames and Daniel Handler, alter ego of children's author Lemony Snicket, are among the 17 writers who put pen to paper for the project -- a 32-page, CD-sized book and disc inspired by a string of happy accidents.

In 2001, Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp left their jobs tuning accordions and harmonicas at the Hohner factory in Richmond, Va., to take a chance on the big city. They moved to Brooklyn, where, having just finished reading Eggers' bestselling "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Hearst set upon finding the famed novelist's Store, a shop that doubled as an outlet for Eggers' newly formed McSweeney's publishing house.

Three days of searching eventually landed him at a place with "no sign, just this window and a couple tubs that were growing sprouts," he said. Stepping inside, he found "logging supplies and lumberjack stuff and weird taxidermy things." There were magazines about potatoes, books on raising miniature donkeys and bags of pewter birdseed. An "Alice in Wonderland" take on consumerism that would have prompted the more timid to run, it had the opposite effect on Hearst. "As wacky as the place was, I loved it immediately," he said. "It kind of fit with how my brain works and how our music is."

Hearst, now 31, handed the shopkeeper a CD -- a collection of instrumental tracks performed with a theremin, vocoder, claviola and accordion. He left the store. Half an hour later he returned with his roommate. One Ring Zero was playing in the background. The group's unique brand of psychedelic beer garden music was, apparently, the perfect soundtrack to Eggers' oddball curio shop.

Within a couple of weeks, One Ring Zero was the warmup act for weekly readings at the McSweeney's headquarters. The first gig went so well, the group was asked to play another. And another. Before long, they were a sort of McSweeney's house band, warming up for Handler, novelist A.M. Homes and others.

When it came time for them to play at Rick Moody's reading of "Purple America," the author of the classic swinger novel "The Ice Storm" took a different tack. Instead of having the group perform beforehand, he asked them to improvise while he read.

The seeds of the concept for "As Smart as We Are" were planted. The idea then made a pit stop on the band's 2003 album, "Memorandum," where One Ring Zero broke with its instrumental-only tradition to record two songs with Moody lyrics. With their latest record, Hearst and Camp cast their net further -- to feminist novelist Margaret Atwood, novelist-poet-essayist Paul Auster and satirist Ben Greenman.

Greenman, who is also an editor at the New Yorker, gave them a reworked "scrap" from an unfinished story involving a songwriter. "The strange part of it was to see how it became a song," he said. "I thought I knew what it might sound like, but it was very different once they finished it."

What he envisioned was something basic. Instead, he got a song that sounded like "Leonard Cohen, George Harrison," said Greenman. "I don't know if they met ever, but if they had met and sat down together and written a song and called me for the lyrics, this is what it would have sounded like."

He added that the instructions he got were "pretty interestingly vague: We want authors whose lyrics we like to write lyrics for us. It's not like we had a meeting and they said " 'Give us a verse, chorus, verse.' "

Unlike most of the novelists contributing lyrics to the record, Greenman took it upon himself to at least rhyme. Many submitted prose devoid of any rhythmic convention. Eggers' "The Ghost of Rita Gonzalo," for example, begins with the challenging "If I were a volcano, I would want you to jump / jump into my yellow / jump into my hot yellow / you person made of bones."

Less adventurous musicians might have been thrown by such linguistic curveballs, but for One Ring Zero they were an allure. "We didn't want people who knew so much about the rules of songwriting, so we were forced to come up with some more interesting structures," said Camp, 34, the band's accordionist.

AuSTER was so thrilled with One Ring Zero's take on his "Natty Man Blues" that "within a week or two he had written another song for us, and the week after that written another one," said Hearst. "I couldn't turn him down. This was Paul Auster."

The author has since collaborated on an entire album -- as yet unreleased -- with One Ring Zero, with Auster composing the lyrics, Hearst and Camp writing the music and Auster's 16-year-old daughter, Sophie, singing.

Moody has also finished an album with One Ring Zero. Remember that musical reading of "Purple America"? That was recently committed to CD, though who will release it is up in the air.

The problem lies in the packaging. Is it a book? Is it a CD? The same questions, of course, bedeviled "As Smart as We Are."

"There was definitely a lot of time spent trying to figure out how this should be presented, because it's difficult," Camp said. "It doesn't fit into any category."


'As Smart as We Are'

Who: One Ring Zero; published by Soft Skull Press

Price: $19.95


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