The Best Album You’ve Never Read

By Dimitri Ehrlich

Published October 10, 2003, issue of October 10, 2003.
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Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp met in 1995 while working at the Hohner musical instrument warehouse and repair center in northern Virginia. There, as Hearst tuned harmonicas eight hours a day while Camp worked as an accordion technician, the two developed a friendship based on a shared interest in oddball instruments. The Hohner factory in Germany would occasionally send over prototypes of strange musical instruments that never caught on — such as the claviola, a modified accordion that you blow into to produce sound — and Hearst and Camp soon came up with the idea of forming a band based on one-of-a-kind instruments that few other musicians had ever heard of, much less learned to play. Thus was born One Ring Zero, a duo that occasionally swells to a sextet and specializes in the sort of 19th-century, gypsy-klezmer circus-flea-cartoon-music you mainly hear in your dreams.

Two years ago, after receiving the sort of micro-acclaim sometimes accorded to artists whose chosen genres ordinarily doom them to a fetishist’s obscurity, the founders of One Ring Zero decided that they’d gotten as big as instrumental avant-klezmatics could get in Richmond, Va., and headed north to New York. Walking down the street in Brooklyn one day, Hearst dropped into a bookstore (called, simply, Store), which writer Dave Eggers had created as an outlet for his publishing company, McSweeney’s. Hearst offered the clerk a copy of his band’s CD. Within a month, One Ring Zero was McSweeney’s house band, accompanying the cream of New York literary hipsterdom during weekly readings.

It was at Store that One Ring Zero met author Rick Moody, who, after hearing the band play, asked the musicians to perform with him during readings. “We felt it was only fair to turn the tables and ask Rick to write lyrics for us,” Hearst said in an interview with the Forward. Unwittingly, One Ring Zero had stumbled upon an entirely new direction: an album of songs with lyrics specifically written for them, by their favorite authors.

The result is “As Smart As We Are” (the title comes from the opening line from the final track, “Water,” by author Jonathan Lethem). The album, featuring lyrics by Jonathan Ames, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Dave Eggers, A.M. Holmes and Darin Strauss, among others, will be released in the spring by Bar/None Records, along with a book published simultaneously by Soft Skull Press. (Meanwhile, you can hear them perform this weekend at the 215 Festival in Philadelphia.)

Auster, long one of One Ring Zero’s favorite writers, was near the top of Hearst’s wish list, but tracking down the author through official channels proved impossible. “Paul doesn’t even use e-mail,” Hearst said. “Nobody seemed to know how to find him. But I went to one of his readings at some temple in Park Slope, [Brooklyn,] and after the event handed a CD to his assistant. I thought, ‘That’ll be the day when I hear back from Paul Auster.’ But two weeks later, I got a call saying Paul has written you some lyrics. And amazingly, we became friends and just recorded a whole album with his daughter Sophie singing on it.”

“As Smart As We Are” was made using an old 8-track reel-to-reel, some typical instruments and lots of obscure ones, including a theremin and the claviola, the instrument that first brought Hearst and Camp together. Musically, the album has one foot firmly in klezmer territory, with lots of wandering clarinets and trombones, and the other kicking around in indie rock record bins, knocking old musical clichés into surprising new shapes.

Some authors seem to have used the collaboration as an opportunity to express a new side of themselves. Daniel Handler, better known as the best-selling children’s author Lemony Snicket, contributed one of the album’s best songs, a kind of Elvis Costello-meets-klezmer hybrid called “Radio.” With sharp wordplay of the sort one would expect from an author, the song is a fast-paced alt-rocker in a minor key, adorned with flourishes of clarinet. The final chorus, however, is not what one would expect from a children’s author: a rising squall of an obscenity repeated over and over.

Others contributed just what you’d expect: big words, vivid, surprising turns of phrase and language that seem more suited to libraries than arenas. Myla Goldberg, author of “Bee Season,” wrote the lyrics to “Golem,” most likely the first song ever to use the word “kaolinite.” Syd Straw, who had auditioned for a role in the movie version of “Bee Season,” managed instead to land a role singing the song, and actually pulls off lyrics like “imperturbability will be your birthright” — not exactly classic rock fodder.

Today, One Ring Zero has become so intertwined with the McSweeney’s extended family that over the summer, the band assembled the publishing house’s softball team. “We’re a bunch of dorky glasses-wearing Brooklyn kids who could barely throw a ball,” Hearst said of games played against The Paris Review, WNYC, The New Yorker and “The Daily Show.” “We lost every game. It was great fun.” Their softball skills notwithstanding, with “As Smart As We Are,” One Ring Zero may finally have a home run.

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