by Rom van Alstyne
Accidental supergroup. Inadvertant hitmakers. Family room rockers.
Any way you slice it, awkward phrases are the only options available when attempting
to succinctly sum up The Owls, the intoxicating indie-pop crossbreed of Twin
Cities music veterans Brian Tighe, Allison LaBonne, Maria May and John Jerry.
Their music is simply too varied in tone and execution to adequately get at
the root of via lazy labels or short synopses—although countless by now
de rigueur Velvet Underground comparisons are currently floating around in the
press attempting the trick. The group of thirtysomethings has been involved
with some of the Twin Cities’ best loved pop institutions (The Hang Ups,
Legendary Jim Ruiz Group) with proven track records, but you would be wrong
to assume you could guess the sound of the Owls from the previous work of its
members. Dead wrong …
Something about the intertwining voices of Tighe, LaBonne and
May (May the spotlight stealing soprano, LaBonne the weepy alto and Tighe the
semi-fey male accompaniment gentle enough to slide effortlessly between them)
is pure magic. Whether coalescing on the chorus of the Tighe-led McCartney-esque
piano ballad "Forever Changing" or trading verses on LaBonne's nursery
rhyme-styled pop nugget "Baby Boy," the interplay of the vocalists
is flawless, never ceasing to elevate already sturdy pop songcraft to the next
level of truly classic tunedom.
With all three sharing songwriting/singing/instrumental duties
(and Jerry occupying the drum kit) the Owls are a bona fide musical Cerberus
(the three-headed dog in Greek mythology that guards the entrance to Hell).
OK, perhaps not the best metaphor—the low-key group would arguably be
too tame to operate as viable Hellhounds—but you get the idea.
For a band currently finding itself in the top 30 of the national
college radio charts, fresh off a sold-out CD release gig earlier this month
at the Turf Club and poised to take its first tentative steps toward nationwide
touring this spring—The Owls had exceedingly humble beginnings. "It
started out as a recording project with Alison and myself before we asked Maria
to join us and we were really OK with it just being a recording project for
a long time," recalls Tighe, the Hang Ups frontman for the last 15 years.
"It was really fun, that was kind of my first experience of really getting
in and working on somebody else's songs. It was especially fun with Alison in
the beginning because she was letting me do whatever I wanted."
"That's since come to a halt," counters Labonne laughingly,
who doubles as Tighe's wife in addition to his musical partner.
I'm sitting with all four of the Owls at a St. Paul bar and
it's clear—from the ready willingness to rib one another and the tendency
to finish each other's sentences—that The Owls are an exceptionally close-knit
band. With a marriage involved, the Owls are more of a family then most bands.
"What most people don't know is that John [Jerry] is actually our son—that
tends to be what really throws people off," jokes Tighe, deflecting attention
away from the question of how his marriage changes the Owls experience and simultaneously
poking fun at Jerry's baby-face.
weird because I think the dynamic actually makes it less of a heightened emotional
environment," counters May. "We're all just really good friends who
have known each other since we were 19, and John just slid perfectly into that.
It's a pretty sedate band experience in a way, just having gone through all
of these different phases in life together already as friends."
The product of a casual recording process that took several
years, The Owls leisurely assembled the eight tracks that would become their
debut EP, Our Hopes and Dreams, with Tighe handling the production reigns. It's
quite possible the Twin Cities would have had to wait even longer for the Owls
to finally leave their reclusive tree-fort base if not for the aid of The University
of Minnesota’s Radio K.
"We had been taking our time, it had been like two years
or so of recording by then ," recalls May. "We sent Radio K
a disc of demos just to promote a show we had coming up," chips in Tighe.
"Yeah," agrees May, "We just sent it to let them know we even
existed and then it really took off and all this stuff was happening and we
sort of had the realization of 'Oh I guess we better finish this.'"
The group is too modest to elaborate—skirting around
the fact that May's single "Air" has been nearly omnipresent on Radio
K's airwaves for the better part of the last 18 months, but they don't really
have to. One listen to "Air" makes it clear that Radio K programmers
had no choice but to play the tune to death—with its blend of reverberating
piano, lithe bass lines and gossamer styled vocal layering serving as the perfect
introduction to the Owls’ spare and tautly structured sound.
With plenty of attention coming their way and exciting plans
on the horizon (including a full-length Owls platter later this year), all the
members agree that keeping focused on the reason they started the band in the
first place—for kicks—is key to enjoying the ride. "I think
[success] inevitably changes things," admits Tighe sheepishly. "But
I think that spirit of just doing this because we enjoy it is very important
to hang onto. I tend to think it would be hard to survive if we didn't hang
on to whatever that initial spark was to do the project in the first place."
"It's true," concurs May. "If it got to the
point [where the Owls felt like a job] it would be weird because I think a lot
of the songwriting pool we write out of is a casual thing."
May's comment sends Tighe's mind racing, "It would be
so funny if we were standing around being like, 'We've got to come up with a
hit single now! Where's the catchy chorus - come on people!'" It's the
most animated moment of the Owls’ sit down—and with that the amiable
Cerberus and their kindly drummer paid their tab and headed off into the St.
The Owls play Sat., April 3, at the 7th Street Entry.
With First Prize Killers, World Tour and Kopacz. 8 p.m. $6. 21+. 701 First Ave.
N., Mpls. 612-338-8388.
Head on over to www.pulsetc.com to download an mp3 of
The Owls’ song “Drop Me a Line.”
You can find out more about The Owls on their official website.