Shortly after 8 p.m. Friday, a giant horse introduced itself to the audience at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton. Consisting mainly of a large white sheet and faux skull suspended by separate wooden poles, the creature crept out from behind the curtains and wound its way carefully around the numerous instruments on stage before taking up residence near the drum set. While a bit of a surprise to those in the crowd, the appearance of such a wondrous beast was just business as usual for the orchestral folk rockers of Lost in the Trees.
Hailing from Chapel Hill, N.C., the six-member group led by songwriter and vocalist Ari Picker was already in mid song when their equine friend emerged from the shadows. In fact, Picker and multi-instrumentalist Emma Nadeau had been playing together for several minutes, accompanied merely by acoustic guitar, before being joined by the rest of the band. Now whole, what followed was a bracing wall of sound that somehow took the chill out of the room, and left many in attendance with open mouths and excited ears.
Though listed as the opening act for indie fave Neko Case, Lost in the Trees ably earned their place on the bill and no doubt earned quite a few fans in the process. Playing cuts from their debut album, “All Alone in an Empty House” the group’s set featured violin, cello, accordion and even horns. While an audience sing-along experiment ended with decidedly mixed results, fun was still had by all, including one initially skeptical blogger.
Fortunately, a few hours before show time, the Underground managed to catch up with Trees’ frontman Picker via e-mail and asked him his thoughts on touring the country with such a large band, teaching classical music to kids through the Project Symphony program, and why he thinks YouTube sucks.
Underground: The genre of your band has often been described as “orchestral pop music.” Can you elaborate on what this style of music actually constitutes? For the uninitiated in the audience, what might a listener expect at one of your shows?
Picker: I really enjoy orchestral music, and try to take pinches of Beethoven or Shostakovich and put it into my songwriting. Some of the ideas are more rooted in songwriting, which is where the “pop” may come from, while other ideas are more composition based.
We are a little chamber group with three strings, tuba/horn, bells, accordion, and a rhythm section. Our live show is a bit more energetic and distorted than the records, so if you’re expecting quiet folk music, than it may be a bit jarring.
What is it like being signed to the same label as artists like Tom Waits, Mavis Staples and Neko Case (who you are currently touring with)? Do you think added expectations are made of you by being associated with such company? Why? Why not?
Anti is an awesome home for us! Their roster is very eclectic and allows us to fit in well – I’m working harder than I ever have to make the best and most interesting music I can, and having Anti behind us certainly motivates that. However, the only pressure I feel is from myself.
Your group is responsible for starting the educational program Project Symphony, which is designed to inspire students with the collaborative process of mixing classical and folk-rock music in a live concert setting. How did this idea first come about? Whose idea was it? What has the experience been like? And, what have you as musicians learned from the process?
Project Symphony started as a program to raise money to aid young composers in writing and performing their works and has evolved from there. There are not a lot of resources out there for new composers, and I wanted to help do something good for the world. Just focusing on the writing of my songs has a selfish quality to it, and it was important to me to help others in some way. This seemed like the best way for me to do it. The band going into the classrooms or working with youth orchestras is another way to connect with younger musicians. It has been a great experience so far and the students we work with all seem to think it is a breath of fresh air.
What are some of the benefits/ drawbacks of playing in such a large group? Having six plus members traveling on the road together must create some interesting stories. Any favorites you would like to share?
Being on the road is not reality, it is this weird alternate universe. So having nine great people in your band helps keep your insane time enjoyable. For instance we all went out to a goth club called the “castle” after our show Ybor City (something I would never do at home). It was three towering stories of odd ‘80s fetish vodka haze. I do remember them looping scenes from the movie “Lost Boys,” which was pretty awesome.
We are a slow moving bunch, so that can be a drawback if we are trying to keep a tight schedule. And if you want any privacy, than you’re pretty much out of luck.
Songs on your debut album have drawn comparisons to such indie-faves as Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. What do you think of these connections? Are you fans of these other artists? Who are some of your personal favorites?
I’m honored! I do love Arcade Fire’s first two albums very much! I listen to a lot of classical music, Radiohead, Blonde Redhead, Talking Heads, any band with the word head in it.
While many in the music industry are heralding the death of the compact disc, vinyl sales are rising to some of their highest levels in years. Did such news have any impact on your choice to release your music in a vinyl format?
CD sales are certainly down, and vinyl sales are up, but people still buy many more CD’s than they do LP’s. I enjoy the LP format better than the plastic CD’s, the LP lets you have more of an experience when you’re listening. Anti was awesome about doing vinyl for us, a bonus!
I’ve noticed your band not only has its own website, but also is on Twitter, Facebook, and even posts many of its videos to YouTube. What is your opinion on the impact social media has had on the music business and the way bands get to interact with their fans? Has such an experience worked positively for you?
I hate all this stuff. YouTube is tough because the sound quality sucks and the videos don’t do bands justice a lot of time. Plus you have no control over what goes up online. Over all these tools certainly do help getting our music out there. It is a bit over saturated, and word of mouth still trumps all!
What influence has the Chapel Hill, North Carolina area had on you musically? What has your experience been like within the city’s music scene?
Chapel Hill has been so good to us! There is a great scene there – so many amazing bands doing so many things. However, I don’t think Chapel Hill has a certain sound as much as just a lot of creative people working really hard and lifting each other up. We have everything from our first label Trekky Records to Merge Records, of course, whom we totally love.
Finally, what are some words of wisdom you would like to share with other young musicians out there? Has your experience in the music industry been a good one?
It is an interesting adjustment going from a small town musician to having your stuff released internationally and having so many more people involved in your music. On the one hand it is a dream come true, but it can be a bit overwhelming at times. My advice is stick to your guns and make the art you feel like making. Don’t compromise. There are a lot of little choices that will be made in ones career, just make sure that the core of what you’re doing remains true to who you are.