Tim Arrowtop has played high energy, aggressive punk rock shows for seven years with his band Reptile Dysfunction. But in 2007, he started listening to Leadbelly and other old-time, roots musicians he found in the record collection of his friend, guitarist Keith Moore. Moore, likewise, scavenged through Arrowtop's punk rock albums. And when the two musicians—inspired by the crossroads of those music genres—began jamming together, Bird's Mile Home was born.
"When my mom heard Bird's Mile Home for the first time," says Arrowtop, "she said, 'I can hear you sing! This is wonderful!' And she gave me a big hug."
The local band—which now includes drummer Jesse Naab and cellist Genevieve Smith—captures that fusion between Americana roots and punk. Some songs evoke the cowpunk of Drive-By Truckers or Elmer, while others recall the old-school punk ballads of bands like Social Distortion or Screeching Weasel. You can even hear bits of the Beatles' melodies, especially once you know the members of Bird's Mile Home harbor a shared adoration for Revolver. But the band also excavates dark acoustic riffs reminiscent of Irish drinking laments and sad country tunes, especially with Smith's low rumbling cello and part-time mandolin player Adam Sherba's high-lonesome pluckings.
The fact that Bird's Mile Home appeals to different genres has led the band to some surprising gigs.
"We definitely play shows with a vast array of bands," says Moore. "We play punk shows, we play rock shows, we play folk shows, we play shows we probably shouldn't play. We've played with metal bands before and bar shows, which is not our cup of tea."
Unlike Reptile Dysfunction, which is loud and in-your-face enough to be able to override the distractions of a hectic bar room, Bird's Mile Home plays music with a more nuanced storytelling aspect that is best heard with an intimate crowd. For Arrowtop—and even the other band members who came from a punk rock background—the acoustic shows were, for a while, an alien experience.
"I'm not used to playing acoustic shows or being put out of my comfort zone—my comfort zone being loud, violent, aggressive music," Arrowtop says. "Now we're getting a lot better at it and acoustic shows are becoming very cool for us."
Despite its eclectic sounds and roots tinges, you would never mistake Bird's Mile Home for bluegrass. So when an old friend of Moore's asked the band to play the Boats and Bluegrass Festival in Winona, Minn., in September 2008, the band was a little shocked.
"He asked us and we were like, 'Well...I guess. We're not bluegrass at all,'" recalls Moore. "But he was all about it. He said that the festival needed to get some variety in the music."
The band drove 20 hours to the small town of Winona, which overlooks the Mississippi River. Standing by the stage area next to banjo players and dreadlocked guitarists, Arrowtop remembers feeling out of place, not certain that they really should be there. But when he started talking with some of the bluegrass players he found out that many of them used to play in punk bands or listen to punk music.
"All these hippie dudes were telling me how they'd been in a punk band in Minneapolis for years," says Arrowtop. "One guy had an Operation Ivy shirt and a backpack but was totally dreaded out. They were happy we played because we brought some of that punk flavor."
The band plans to attend the bluegrass festival again this year, and seek out other odd festivals where they might not typically have thought to play before.
Bird's Mile Home is set to release its eponymous debut album on vinyl this week. Its sometimes upbeat, often dark composition offers a cohesive feel that was, according to the band, completely unintentional.
"It seems like a conceptual album but it isn't," says Arrowtop. "We didn't mean for it to happen that way. We were going back through the lyrics and it reads like really weird chapters in a book. At first it was like, 'Wow. Are we unknowingly pretentious?'"
But it's the mark of good storytellers that the narrative threads through the album so subconsciously. In the first track, "Singin,'" a man finds every which way to drink his life away. And then as each song on the album progresses, you can hear some new perspective, as if the character is changing over time. It's not a heavy-handed thread, but it's there. Moore says that in the first track the guy is falling into a pattern of drinking and then, on the second, he's leaving his family. In "Let's Die in War," the man is looking at horrible death. In "Winona," he's on the road but remembering something good. And then the last song he's going home.
"It's fiction in my mind, if anything at all," says Moore. "It depends on how close you're looking at it, really."
In a way, that kind of inadvertent storytelling mixed with its brew of genres is what gives Bird's Mile Home an edge. Arrowtop says he loves playing with Reptile Dysfunction—that's still a part of who he is. But Bird's Mile Home offers him a chance to wander into other soundscapes and storylines with the same punk spirit.
"And maybe that's the key," he says. "Still having the punk energy but playing something that has a little more—I don't want to say accessibility—but has a more sharing quality."
Bird's Mile Home plays an album release show at the Zootown Arts Community Center Saturday, April 17, at 7 PM. $5.