• SumoMe

The New York band Eastern Phoebes is a fun-loving melodic band whose music is just as fun as the musicians behind it. I talked with band factotum Ry Smith, and asked him some questions regarding the band’s background, interests, and for some insight into the peculiar lyrics of some of their tracks.

Electrogent: Who are the Eastern Phoebes, personally? Who is in the band, and what do you do besides rock out?

Ry: Eastern Phoebes is a quartet–my girlfriend Meg Bayley (vocals), Rick Katterman (guitar/bass), Gary Norton (drums), and myself. Meg teaches yoga, Rick flies airplanes, Gary is an electrical wizard, and I’m a graphic artist/poet. We are all fond of nature.

E: I always love hearing how bands get their names, and the Eastern Phoebes is one of those peculiar names that I’d love to hear about. So, how was the band named?

R: Meg and I used to live in a tiny studio loft apartment, and there was a bush outside one of our windows. A little gray bird came to live in it around the time I started recording our first songs. It was a very skittish, methodical creature–basically me in bird form! My bird book said it was an Eastern Phoebe. So when we needed a moniker for our recording project, calling it ‘Eastern Phoebes’ seemed appropriate.

Meg of Eastern Phoebes singing.

E: I have to say it: y’all sound a lot like Of Montreal. Was there any influence there?

R: We get that a lot. I guess it’s the constant harmonies? They’re much dancier-sounding, more electronic-based. And cooler. But yeah, their earlier stuff was pretty influential. I used to listen to them in college. The first time I heard them was when I bought “Satanic Panic In The Attic” because I thought the cover art looked cool. I was hooked on the super-tight vocals and idiosyncratic arrangements. I haven’t listened to any of their albums in the past five years, though.

E: What inspired the band to start making music together?

R: I was in a band a few years back called Camera-Head Shark. We fizzled out and broke up because there was nothing fresh happening musically, and we couldn’t really decide which direction to go in. I always had ideas for that band that I never felt like sharing, for my own selfish reasons. After that experience, I didn’t feel like being in a band for awhile. I recorded a couple of super lo-fi solo albums  (the first recordings I ever engineered myself), and was completely entranced just with the idea of making music to make myself happy.

The inspiration for Eastern Phoebes grew out of a desire to craft better songs and capture them more efficiently. Also, Meg is the queen of harmonies, so I wanted to harness that. For a time, we were just a recording entity–it was only last summer that we became a performing band. I suppose I just got itchy and had to start singing in public again.

E: You have a cottage on Long Island? How did you score that? What’s the story there?

R: Yeah! Meg and I moved from our studio apartment to the cottage almost two years ago. We live with Rick, our guitar/bass player. I had asked him if he wanted to start recording with us for our first full-length album (because I can’t play guitar), and we’d also decided that it was time to try rehearsing songs and start being a real band. So naturally, we needed more space. Our cottage is right on a lake. Ducks everywhere. The sweet sounds of bullfrogs mating in the summertime. Pickerels, trout, foxes, great blue herons, nature with the works. We have a big living room for our practice space, and a screened-in sunroom for entertaining guests. I wish we could go on “MTV Cribs.” Do they still do that?

The band having some fun.

E: The cover of your “Better People” album has you toasting a werewolf. Please elaborate.

R: That’s actually Rick. It’s a photo from the night we were shooting a music video at the cottage. The video is for a song called “I’m A Wolf,” so we went with a literal wolf as one of the main characters. There was a lot of beer and over-proof Jamaican rum involved. The video is still being edited, but it will be done before the year is out.

E: Your song, “We Can’t Have a Cat” is both hilarious and sad. Hilarious because you made a song about that debate of having a cat, and sad because everyone (secretly) wants a cat. What inspired that song?

R: Hah. Meg and I went to the pet store one day. There was a kitten in a cage up for adoption, and once she saw it, she couldn’t leave its side. They definitely had a connection, though. Paw to paw. Meg would try to walk away, and it would mew for her to come back. But Rick is allergic to cats, so we couldn’t just spontaneously adopt it. Plus, our dog probably would’ve tried to play with it like it was a stuffed squeaky toy. The best I could do was pay homage to the situation with a song.

I always wanted to write some kind of duet, just not a sappy ballad or love song. Although I guess this turned out to be a love song anyway. 

E: Why couldn’t you get to Owl Pond?

R: I was on a long trail run (I’m an avid hiker/runner), and my phone battery died, so I lost my trail maps of the area. Also, it was scorching hot and I was covered in ticks and tick larvae, so I gave up. I’m not usually a quitter, so that was a bummer. I wrote and recorded the song when I got home to try and feel better.

E: Other than yourselves, which active bands out there do you admire the most?

R: I’m very very selective about new music, or even active bands. But there are a few that I really dig. Fruit Bats, The Boy Least Likely To, They Might Be Giants, Mother Mother. I only bought two new albums this year: the new Islands record, and the new A.C. Newman record, and I love both. Also, that new Titus Andronicus album is pretty great.

Meg and Ry of Eastern Phoebes.

E: How did all the band members meet?

R: Meg and I have been dating for a little over three years now. She was one of my sister’s college friends, and when I met her, I loved her instantly. Once I found out she could sing, it was on. Rick and Gary grew up in the same town, and went to high school together. I met them both a few years back through the local music scene we all were a part of. I felt that their personal styles would complement my songs, so it all fell together quite naturally.

E: What do you have planned for the future? Say, the next 5 years?

R: Hmm, it’s hard to say. Definitely more albums. Maybe some collaboration? Tour(s). Play shows in strange places. Getting signed to a label really isn’t a priority of ours, nor is recording in a studio or having a song in an iPhone commercial. I’d like to meet some of my musical heroes, especially the older ones. I want the band to remain creatively unconventional. The modern idea of musical success doesn’t appeal to me. I’m not looking for (much) money–just happiness and better songs.

E: What are you most proud about with regard to the Eastern Phoebes?

R: Just the idea that like-minded people can come together to build something out of nothing. These songs all started as melodies I would hum or whistle into my cell phone voice recorder; now, they’re complex arrangements, fully realized by the strengths of each individual musician, musical entities that can be performed live to the satisfaction of audiences. That is humbling, and immensely rewarding.

E: Anything else you’d like to add?

R: I’ve just started a new side project called Eel Pot Alley. It’s a solo thing. Slightly more experimental/trippy than the Phoebes. Not gonna release any albums, but rather just individual songs one at a time. The first one can be found here.

Thanks to Ry from Eastern Phobes for answering my silly questions. You can buy the band’s album, “Better People,” for $2.

Do you have any questions for Eastern Phoebes or Ry? Ask him in the comments below.