Interview: Accidental Seabirds

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When we first ran into Jesse Lee Herdman, the lead singer of Accident Seabirds at the 2013 Skate & Surf Festival, we were captivated by his voice and his command of the stage. Despite playing under a leaky roof, on a lousy, unseasonably cold day, he was able to capture the attention of a group of teens who dropped their iPhones in order to let his music envelope them.

Fast forward to 2014 and Jesse’s band Accidental Seabirds drops their latest record, The Greenpoint Spill. The wonderfully unique record is a must-listen. It’s a record that leaves one at a loss for words outside of these — “just listen to it.” It’s one of those albums that has to be experienced in order to appreciate and when you do experience it, you’ll have an intense affinity for it.

Recently, Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin caught up with the lead bird himself to talk about the new record, the band’s sound and how some old beer boxes turned into great album covers.

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Pop-Break: Accidental Seabirds started out as a solo project for you, Jesse. How did the band evolve into a full-fledged four piece band? How did these new members effect the sound of the original concept of Accidental Seabirds?

Jesse Lee Herdman: Well, playing solo isn’t nearly as fun as making noise with a group of people you can connect with. I’ve always loved being in bands. The first Seabirds album was recorded as a solo project, a challenge to myself as a multi-instrumentalist, but to perform those songs live I needed help. And that’s what friends are for, right?

This band has gone through numerous incarnations since the early days in Brooklyn and the return to Jersey, but the guys who are really into the project and have the time and energy to commit to a band like this are Jimmy James Cutrera, Anthony Defabritus and Alex Letizia. All of these dudes are artists and contribute more than just sound. They work really hard and do whatever it takes to keep this thing moving.

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As far as the sound changing since the snow & the full moon it’s all been for the better. I play mostly simple chords on the guitar, and that leaves room for Jimmy James to do his thing. He plays a lot of great melodic parts but some of my favorite stuff is when he stacks weird chords on top of my chords and makes our guitars sound like one big instrument. Oh, and then there’s his effects pedals. People sometimes comment on the keyboard sound on a recording and I’m like, “Nah man, that James’ guitar.” Anthony has a variety of bass sounds, as well. Stomp boxes and different basses for different songs; fender jazz, upright, electric upright, he finds what best fits each song. Some of his bass lines are pretty complicated but he’s so smooth you don’t realize it. Bass players never get enough credit. The bass is what ties everything together, as far as I’m concerned. And on top of that Anthony is a nasty piano player. On the new record he added a lot of color to my simple piano compositions, and came up with some really cool parts of his own. And as for Alex, he’s a truly solid drummer who listens to what everyone else is playing. He’ll pick up on different accents and polyrhythms we do and weave in and out of different grooves. He’s a lot of fun to play with. Great dynamics, too. He can just chill on the softer songs and then be a beast when he need to be. He’s awesome.

Oh, and all these dudes can sing, which allows us to create four-part harmonies, one of my favorite things in music. I love listening to vocal groups, and it feels really good to sing with other people. You can use a vocal harmony as its own instrument. In fact, for the new album I wrote a string arrangement for the transition between the last two songs, and then decided, “Fuck it, we’ll just use our voices.” That way we can still pull it off live if we ever want to.

So overall, the sound has gotten much bigger and more diverse with these guys in the band.

Pop-Break: Speaking of your sound — it’s so damn unique and eclectic. Two things — first, can you talk about the artists that influenced and inspired you guys musically and second can you describe your sound in your own words. And … not to keep harping on the sound of the band — but it’s just so different. Does the fact it’s so unique and eclectic ever bring up any worry for you guys that audiences just won’t “get it?”

JLH: We all listen to a lot of music. I don’t know what comes through in the end, probably a little of everything, but I don’t think any of us are trying to emulate anything specific. We’re not aiming for a sound, we just play music. Our listeners dig that about us, but quite honestly it sucks when we’re trying to book gigs out of town and don’t know how to describe our music. It’s not exactly a selling point.

I mean, really I don’t know which influences stand out. I can tell you that I grew up on 90s Hip-Hop and Grunge and then later got into Jazz, Prog Rock, Indian Classical, American Folk, Psych, Indie, whatever, but that doesn’t say much about Accidental Seabirds, haha. We can all agree on Mingus, King Crimson and Tom Waits, I guess, but I’m not sure how much else all four off us have in common.

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In the end I don’t believe this stuff matters much to our audience. There are so many bands these days that can’t be classified in one specific genre, yet people continue to listen. Not everything needs a label. If someone could label us that would be very helpful, though. Bill, if you can define our sound in three words or less I’ll owe you half a beer for each letter in the term, ha!

Do people not “get it?” Our albums are really long by today’s standards, and some of the songs are a little “out there” but I don’t think that chases people away. If they don’t dig it, they don’t have to listen. I think art & music fans embrace new things, they’re not afraid of foreign sights or sounds or words or people or ideas. We’re not trying be a commercial success with this band, we know it’s not made for TV. We’re not hustling tickets or trying to win a battle of the bands, we’re making art & music because we are compelled to do so. This is poetry, not a Superbowl half-time show. I suppose we are at times just a bar band background entertainment group, like all bands and “entertainers,” but the real purpose of this project is to move people, to make them think, to make them feel. his might sound pretentious but it’s true. Real, every day, honest music is medicine, and it means a lot to those who need it. If people enjoy what we’re doing and want more of it, great, let’s be friends. If they hate it and think it sucks, they can listen to something else.

PB: You just released the album The Greenpoint Spill earlier this month. This might be an odd question but what does this album signify for you guys? Does it capture an essence or a time in the band’s career/life?

JLH: This album means a lot to us as a band. The recordings illustrate the changes we’ve gone through over the past two years. Different living situations, band members, studio locations, etc. AntFARM (bassist Anthony Defabritus’ studio) moved four times since we began the album with two nights of scratch tracks in his basement. This record documents the evolution of the group and gives us something to look back on. We figured out what works for us and what doesn’t during the recording process, so hopefully the next album will be much easier to put together.

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I wouldn’t call this a concept album, but there are common themes that tie the songs together. It’s a collection of songs about people dealing with the world. It’s about growing up, drifting apart, losing your mind, finding yourself, breaking down, breaking up, healing, killing, searching, wandering. We deal with the mundane, the exquisite, the food chain, society, big brother, media control, paranoia, depression, ecstasy, illusion, questions without answers, death and at last, Life.

PB: You guys have a really cool story behind the CD sleeves for the record. Would you mind telling us about it?

JLH: We wanted to do something special for this album. It’s our introduction as a band, it’s a handshake, a greeting. So we made it by hand. The band got together with some friends & family and chopped up a few hundred six packs, folded them, stitched them with a sewing machine, silkscreened the front and back, stamped and numbered them. It was a lot of work but we had fun and enjoyed each others’ company. Music brings people together, and so does beer, kind of, so the packaging is a sign of friendship and evidence of a good time.

The actual “Greenpoint Spill” is a huge mess of oil and petroleum byproduct floating atop the aquifer beneath the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Jimmy James and I lived for a number of years. It’s a great place to be but there’s this revolting blob of industrial pollution creeping around beneath where people live.They say it kills you slowly and your children are already dead. Most folks try not to think about it. I used the Greenpoint Spill as a metaphor, a toxic waste of the mind. I also hoped that by naming an album after it, we might raise some awareness on the issue, even if it’s only to a few hundred people, perhaps someday one of those people will do something to help. Wishful thinking.

PB: Finally, we’ve heard rumors of a tour for the spring. Can you give us any details?

JLH: Nothing major, just a week here and there. Small venues with bands we know, friends of friends, that kind of thing. Trying to spread the word, get the new album into new ears.

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Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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