Not long ago, Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp worked at the Hohner Musical Instruments warehouse, just outside of Richmond, Va. At their workstations, they cleaned harmonicas and fixed accordions. Occasionally, weird musical instruments would arrive, and they’d spend hours together, joined in mutual puzzlement, trying to figure how anyone could make music from what looked like a toy piano with a pipe stuck into an air chamber inside. They blew into the mouthpiece; out came sweet sounds. At first, they didn’t know what to think of it. They also didn’t know they’d eventually find themselves in New York City, and the sound from that odd instrument, the claviola, would help start a chain of events resulting in As Smart as We Are, an album with lyrics written by an all-star roster of contemporary authors, including Margaret Atwood, A.M. Homes, Dave Eggers, Neil Gaiman, Denis Johnson, Jonathan Lethem, and Rick Moody. As Michael recalled, the arrival of the claviola was a moment of epiphany.
One Ring Zero (MP3s here) first became known in New York by performing at McSweeney’s readings. The pair played at the imprint’s small storefront, and later, when the crowds began to swell, at lusty bars jammed front-to-back with the book world’s early-adopter set. While, say, Moody read from his book Purple America, Michael played the theremin, waving his hands in the electrified air around the instrument, and Joshua twiddled their mothership claviola into song. The realization soon came: What they heard in the spaces around their music were words that could be put into song. If they could convince these writers to write lyrics, they would have an album without much categorical precedence.
I met up with Michael and Joshua at a bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Michael took out a copy of the album. It was an awkard size object, not the usual shape of a jewel case, and not big enough to be a full-sized book. ‘It’s more like a CD-sized book, so it fits almost into your CD rack, just enough to be annoying, but it will sit nicely on top of the stack. That’s a part of our design. It will always sit on top of the stack.’
They first tried to sell the album to big record labels and publishing houses, but were met with confused faces. No one knew how to market the project, even with the well-known writers attached to it. The book people didn’t know what to do with the music, and the music people didn’t know what to do with the words. They had created an oddity, a child everyone hesitated to adopt.
Kiss me, you brat.
Don’t make me ask.
Stars in the night sky
don’t ask to shine,
Michael and Joshua both were soft-spoken, introverted kids. They both studied music composition at Virginia Commonwealth University; Joshua was the more academically diligent of the two. Michael often skipped classes to tour with his indie rock bands.
Until becoming coworkers at Hohner, they didn’t even like each other that much, but the claviola and all the outfield instruments they came across in the warehouse fascinated them both. They began experimenting with instruments not a lot of other musicians used, and started to move away from college rock. The songs began to have a more circus-like sound, like Fellini-appropriate scores with Yiddish overtones. They submitted their strange recordings to a regional label that liked them and released Tranz Party, the first One Ring Zero album. This wasn’t music to attract cute, screaming stage-side girls. This was music to be played in the dripping, lonely basements, as they had done.
They traveled to New York to play at their friend Clay’s off-Broadway production, the Pumpkin Pie Show. After weeks of phone calls, they finally snagged a slot at the Knitting Factory, a well-known musicians’ launch pad. They got the smallest room, which they later learned was nicknamed the Penalty Box. ‘We drove all the way up [from Virginia],’ Michael remembered, ‘dented the shit out of the side of the van while trying to park in front of the club, and then played to about seven people.’
But One Ring Zero wasn’t going to go much further in Richmond. Within a few months, Joshua and Michael both had moved to New York. Now they were two more musicians in a city seemingly filled with millions. By day, Joshua worked at a cosmetics company, and Michael took catering jobs. They tried to play wherever they could. At St. Mark’s Theater, where the Pumpkin Pie Show had its run, they never knew how many people might show up. ‘One time, we actually performed to one person. We couldn’t really cancel the show, because he had driven down from upstate to see us. None of us knew him. I remember the guy staring at us with a ridiculous smile while we performed.’
One day, while walking around Park Slope, Michael found a strange store he had heard of. McSweeney’s Storefront sold elephant art, pewter birds’ feet, ferret food, and dirt from around the world. It also sold books. Michael had been a fan of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. He chatted with the sales clerk and gave him One Ring Zero’s demo CD, which eventually made its way to higher powers. The higher powers liked what they heard.
Christ by the dumpster peeling and tossing your lottery tickets
—oh Nazarene drinking dust.
Oh Christ rising and falling, oh Jesus
Christ giving us the finger
in ‘Christ au tambeau’…
Bless now the cancer of the bone,
the last light making beautiful
the poisons in the sky.
Writers are, for the most part, creatures that know the solitude of sunless places. Before, the band’s antique quirkiness had perfumed its sound with Eastern European temples and organ music grinding from the street. Now we can also imagine Walt Whitman singing back up.
‘It got into more of a pop structure once we started working with lyrics,’ Joshua said. It was Michael who spent months tracking down writers via his newfound connections and persuading them to contribute to the album. They had worked before with Moody (two of his songs appeared on their 2002 album, Memorandum), but the other writers were new to them. ‘It seemed like it’d make more sense to have poets, but we thought prose writers would be more fun,’ Michael said. ‘[That] the lyrics that weren’t so standard in their structure made the song more interesting, because it forced us to work with them.’
Reimagining the words into song didn’t come easy. When Paul Auster sent his lyrics, Michael read them obsessively, starting at the page until he fell asleep. He walked around his neighborhood in circles, humming tunes that came to mind (by then, he had the words memorized). There ain’t no sin in Cincinnati. Since I’ve been in Cincinnati. He hummed until it felt right.
Some authors requested specific styles for their songs. Denis Johnson wanted country. When they read Myla Goldberg’s lyrics, they knew her song had to be klezmer. ‘Some of the best songs were outside of the traditional song form, and we had to problem-solve and make the unconventional lyrics work,’ Joshua pointed out.
They recorded the album in a basement with four-foot high ceilings and leaky water pipes. Mildew ate their electronics. ‘We covered all of our stuff with blue plastic tarps when it wasn’t being used. There was the sound of the water heater constantly coming on, and there was some sort of open septic pipe in the corner. We’d try to cover it up with old paint cans, but somehow, what we called the ‘poo smell’ always wafted through. We were constantly lighting incense.’
When they were finished, they sent the songs to the authors. Most were thrilled. ‘We just sent the song back once we were done, and said, ‘Here it is.’ Dave Eggers’s [song] was the only one we had to change,’ Michael recalled.
As smart as we are,
we use water as a clue for food.
As smart as we are,
we go marching through the desert…
We use water as a way of saying things
we do not mean.
We use water as a way of living
free and clean.
The album finally came out. What they initially had called the Authors’ Project took its formal name from a track with lyrics by Lethem. They laughed at the idea that they were hanging on the names of well-known authors. They had come to accept their dumb-lucky position with a shrug. After all, they are still musicians who fell in love with the siren call of harmonicas and accordions. And New York is still a tough, unrelenting city for musicians. ‘We just want to have a career in music,’ said Joshua. ‘If this helps us get there, so be it.’
Before I left the bar, I showed them an old harmonica I had bought at an antique store in North Carolina. Michael picked it out of its green, sun-bleached box. ‘This is actually German-made. How much did you pay for it?’
‘About $3,’ I replied.
Joshua took a look at it. ‘It’s probably made in the ‘70s. That’s my guess.’
Michael took it back. ‘If it were to be made these days, it’d be made in China, not Germany. The box says key of E, but the harmonica is stamped key of D. It’s post-World War II, because the ones before the war had a star stamped in this circle.’ He held the harmonica against the soft light that came through the window, and for a moment it shone as if it were new.