Exotic Birds: better music through technology

By Ken Rademaker for Scene on January 22, 1987

"The radio plays my favorite song... I switch on my computer, so I can play along..." copyright 1986 Birdsong Music

The lines above may be only a small passage in Exotic Birds' local radio fave. "Dancing On The Airwaves," but they couldn't say more about a band who just doesn't care whether or not the seemingly ever growing field of rock and roll purists agree with their high tech approach to crafting pop music.

"You're going to get a lot of criticism, especially from the garage band set, where they'll say things like, 'Oh, you guys are just playing with computers. You're not really playing, "says Trent Reznor, the keyboardist and computer programmer for the six-year-old Cleveland dance band.

"We just look at technology like it's another medium to work with," he continues. "It's consistent, it's what we want, and it's a tool that we're working with." Reznor is certainly correct when he refers to Exotic Birds as a band that's "working." Starting out as one of a large. promising, turn of the decade blitz of local groups that included Adults, The Generators, Wild Giraffes, Lucky Pierre and American Noise, they have remained one of this area's brightest prospects for national success.

This week, after a several month layoff that followed the release of their second EP, L'OISEAU, the Birds jump back into the public eye with a one-night stand at the Phantasy Nite Club on Saturday, and an appearance on WMMS and WEWS' "Cleveland Breakout" program that will be video- taped at Peabody's Down Under at 1 p.m. this Wednesday. Jan. 28.

The Exotic Birds you'll see at these gigs, however, will be slightly different than when you may have caught them in the not-too-distant past. For the second time in their career (the first being in the midst of their maiden U.S. tour with Culture Club in 1984) major changes have taken place in the group's lineup. Gone are drummer Tom Freer, bassist Mark Best and keyboardist-programmer Frank Vale. Along with Reznor, only singer-guitarist- percussionist and group founder Andrew Kubiszewski remains from the L'OISEAU-period roster. Joining them is drummer Chris Vrenna, a 19-year-old Kent State University student who's playing in his first band.

Both Reznor and Kubiszewski maintain that the band was stripped down to a trio mainly because of the standard problem of musical differences between members. Although both are deeply satisfied with L'OISEAU, they insist that the period that followed its recording early last year was not the most productive in Exotic Birds' history.

"We were stressing the point of being in a band, and that was the main thing," Kubiszewski, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, explains. "But when that idea began running its course, we sat back and said, 'Well, how about some music now?'

"Everybody knows the cliche that surrounds the musician — you know, that he's hard to get along with," Kubiszewski continues. "But it is difficult to have five guys sitting there going. 'I wanna do this. I wanna do this.' If you can get five guys together and everybody gets along, that's great, but it is a rarity."

The new Exotic Birds, Reznor says, will probably "be more of a Tears For Fears type of thing," in the sense that assorted musical guests will help out on the stage and in the studio when needed. And, of course, with the bare- boned lineup, the group will have even more chances to experiment with devices such as emulators, mechanical percussion, and other high-tech, music-making equipment.

That's a choice — and a direction - Kubiszewski and Reznor defend steadfastly.

"The whole thing is that there's now a lot of trained musicians who are down on the fact that, with the new technology, anybody can make a record," Reznor says. "You don't have to be a violin player to get a full orchestra sound on your recording — that's the way it is now. A bad way to look at it is to say, 'Well, I've practiced my guitar for 1,000 years, and now someone can pick up an emulator and sound just like me. You still have to have the creativity to play the part, and you still have to know what to come up with. Technology just allows you not to have technique. You can get by without it. A lot of bands don't have technique anymore. I'm not afraid of that - I feel I have technique, and that I can use it if I need it. But I don't have to have it."

Despite their fascination with things technological, one of L'OISEAU's best tracks, a Kubiszewski composition titled "Have You Heard The News." makes integral use of a simple, beautiful - and real - acoustic guitar track. Kubiszewski says that the song has managed to turn some heads of those who have closely followed the Birds' distinctly structured, electric dance-pop. He says that it could be an indication that the group will be spreading its musical wings in the future.

"That's a really strange song for us, but it has been good in that it's given us our first chance to really move in another direction, " Kubiszewski says. "Whether purposely or not, it leaves us open. We don't always want to be doing the same thing, and I think we need the room to grow. The more we figure out about ourselves and each other, the more we can say, 'Let's try this,' instead of 'Hey, crank up that bass-synth sound.'

As the Birds embark on their third trip toward the big time, both Kubiszewski and Reznor have nothing but high hopes. Although they don't think its necessary that they get to be as big as, say, the Rolling Stones, they feel that the level they've already reached - combined with a renewed national interest in Cleveland as a music center - will at least carry them on to some form of national prominence.

"I think the aim of the band is that our ultimate pinnacle of success is not going to be like that of the Jesus and Mary Chain," Reznor states. "It wouldn't bum me out to be like the Police, but we're not exactly trying to be commercial heroes."

Kubiszewski agrees.

"We're just going to continue doing what we want to do." he says. "Hopefully, however long we stay together, we'll have the chance to have some more records out. At least sometime in my life, I'll be able to say, 'See these? Listen to these. I did this, and I'm real proud of it.'"

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