If the Impound were the Sultan of the Airwaves, Oakland-based The Bye Bye Blackbirds would be a yardstick we’d measure radio worthiness by. Their tunes flow with such snap and seemingly effortless ease (which is actually a hard, skillful trick to pull off) that they seem like something snatched from the Great Jukebox In The Sky, songs waiting to brighten and tickle our days, the shining result of old school craftsmanship, a great nose for melodically charged, harmony rich gold, and a healthy respect for the steps of the giants they stride in. Throw on the group’s latest effort, We Need The Rain (one of DI’s Favorite Albums of 2013) and one is quickly reminded of young, sharp, snappy Elvis Costello & The Attractions, prime Badfinger, and great 80s jangle The dB’s and Let’s Active. It’s the kind of record that sends one trawling through a band’s back catalogue, muttering, “Hey, good lookin’, where have you been all my life?”
Another gauge of a band’s merits is the company they keep and this coming Saturday, June 14th, The Bye Bye Blackbirds will open for rightly beloved indie rock cult faves The Rubinoos at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall (pick up tickets here). It’s about as perfect a bill as a power-pop enthusiast could want. We snagged BBB’s chief singer-songwriter Bradley Skaught to find out more about this emerging Impound fave.
One of the first things that hits one with The Bye Bye Blackbirds’ music is how bloody catchy it is. The modern era has really sullied the idea of pop elements mingled with rock ‘n’ roll but it seems like your band is dedicated to the more classic benchmarks of the 60s, 70s & 80s. What are your thoughts on pop and its role in what you do?
I guess it’s just where I come from in terms of influences. My first exposure to music was all about the immediacy of melody and songwriting, and I find that I just have never lost the taste for hearing a new great piece of songwriting. I also feel like there’s always a new twist to put on something. I realize I’m probably in the minority that way right now, but I’m still knocked out by how a guitar rock band can reflect all the individual and idiosyncratic elements of an artist – how it can be so familiar, but so different at the same time. I don’t lean on classic rock benchmarks because I think they’re the best or because I think it’s how everything should be done, it’s just the musical vocabulary I fell in love with and acquired, and I don’t think it’s played out as an artistic medium at all – maybe socially, maybe commercially, but not artistically.
Your band is part of what I regard as a long tradition of fantastic pop-rock artists in the Bay Area that goes back to Moby Grape and the SF Summer of Love scene. However, it seems in the past few decades it’s been harder for kindred spirits like Bart Davenport, Chris Von Sneidern, and yourselves to reach audiences. What are the challenges of getting your music heard in a climate where it would sound great on radio – seriously, “Butterfly Drinks” on the new album would Top 10 in a just world – but radio isn’t looking for new, non-industry groups?
I wouldn’t even know where to start. By comparison, Bart and CVS are superstars. It’s not that I don’t care or spend time trying to find ears (or wish that I could achieve some success in that way), but at this point I’m just befuddled by it. I just try to be good, you know? I just try to make something special and interesting and meaningful. There isn’t a scene. There isn’t an outlet or anything that has ever felt available to us as a means for finding an audience. I also have a particular gift for not meeting the right people, not making the right impressions. I might even have a gift for actively dissuading those people from being interested!
Tell us a bit about the other guys in The Bye Bye Blackbirds and how the band has evolved since your 2005 debut album.
I’m so blessed to have these guys to play with. Every version of the band so far has been full of skill and imagination. There’s a degree to which I steer things and I’ve been the only songwriter since 2010, but every member has really stamped their identity on the songs and I’m proud and honored by that. The current version is, by far, the most rocking version. Lenny Gill switched to guitar and brought his whole 70s classic rock-meets-90s-indie rock thing, and Aaron Rubin and Ian Lee are like Entwistle and Moon! They’re just explosive and nuanced and loud in a way that really takes everything new places. More than anything, there’s just a freedom and a level of improvisation that hasn’t been there before. I write detailed, structurally busy songs, so it’s a refreshing degree of craziness to have injected into things. And it’s really loud. It certainly wasn’t planned this way, but when the previous line-up started playing “Broad Daylight” by Free, I feel like maybe we planted the seeds for this version to come along and pick up some of that spirit. We also have KC Bowman on board most of the time as an auxiliary dude, and that just sort of blows the doors open to any kind of musical thing you need – harmony, arrangement stuff, recording. He’s a wizard.
On June 14th you open for The Rubinoos, a band legendary amongst record store staffs and those that love and support them but almost unknown to the greater world. What do you dig about this wonderful band? How does it feel to know you’ll share the stage with them?
Well, ultimately, I do love power pop. And these guys have been so amazing at it for so long! It’s also another part of the Bay Area rock ’n’ roll tradition – another group that made a mark here and added to the local dialogue. The pop thing here gets overlooked sometimes, but The Nerves were founded here, you know? There’s a deep melodic rock ’n’ roll vein that runs through the Bay Area. It’s exciting to feel like we get to share in that a little bit. I’m also just a huge Al Chan fan. This is a way for me to get to watch him play and sing without having to pay for a ticket.
The music business is an incredibly competitive one but my experience in the Bay Area has shown a bit more camaraderie than some other places. Musicians frequently show their support for music they dig by sharing bills, playing on sessions, and the like. Has this been your experience being part of this weird little microcosm?
It may just be that we desperately cling to each other because it marginally improves our chances of getting booked! There has been a certain amount of working together and sharing that has helped a lot, no doubt. I think we all recognize talent that is being ignored generally by local press and radio and whatever and there’s a bond there that’s valuable.
So, the band is four albums into their catalogue. What sort of record haven’t you made yet that you want to? What’s a few beloved albums that serve as north stars for you creatively?
I don’t really think that way, to tell you the truth. I find I just write the songs, bring them in to the band, put them together, and then the albums start to take shape. The times in the past where I’ve really pursued a particular idea about what I want to happen have resulted in awkward compromises – things that are neither themselves nor the things I envisioned. In those cases, I feel I let the songs down. Songs have a way of letting you know what they want to sound like – you try them out and you can feel when they’re working. There are usually points where I step back and see where things are going. “Oh, this is what the record is like! This is what this song is about!” – those sorts of experiences. I don’t really pursue any solid ideas of albums – there aren’t any albums that are something I’m after. I let the songs and the band dictate where they want to go and how they fit together. I have a lot of faith in the songs to do that.
Your music is so well sculpted and harmony rich in the studio. What’s fun and/or challenging about bringing it all together live?
Getting the detail and nuance of the songwriting while still being loud and energetic and rocking is a chore sometimes. You don’t want to be too studious or careful, but you don’t want to just pummel all the subtleties out of it either! Each version of the band has had a different sort of strength to it. This one is very much an ensemble and there’s a kind of heightened energy and electricity to it that’s fun and exciting – it’s big and it can get crazy. It’s not the vocal-focused version that maybe the past few have been – if there’s a challenge, it’s probably in really trying to find a place for the singing live sometimes.
Comparison is the most common way to describe a group’s sound in print journalism, but often the artists themselves have no connection with the comparisons cited. So, what are a few bands/singer-songwriters that do resonate strongly for you? Who’s company don’t you mind keeping, so to speak?
I’m mostly really honored by comparisons we get, even if it’s something I don’t really have any personal connection to. We get Big Star a lot and there really couldn’t be a greater compliment. As a band that cares about the combination of the classic and immediate with adventurousness, individuality and a truly artistic perspective, there aren’t many better. The Kinks, too, who, as I get older, just become more and more the band of that era that speaks to me. REM was a starting point for me as a writer and musician, so that’s another one I’m happy to hear. Anyone who wants to drop a smart, interesting songwriter with a kick-ass band full of cool guitar playing on me as a comparison is going to make me happy generally.