If you guessed bird watcher’s convention, you’re wrong! The real answer is a lot more fun (no offense, birders), it’s Saranac Lake’s power string quartet, the Blind Owl Band!
They growl, they howl, and they inspire every crowd they meet to romp around like a bunch of hairy mountain men set loose on a keg of whiskey. Their sound has been compared to bluegrass, but they stray away from the description, as their music doesn’t employ any of the traditional rules and techniques of the genre. Instead, they unleash a highly original blend of American roots music from Rock ‘n Roll to folk. One thing’s for sure, nobody’s left standing after this unshaven band of pirates takes the stage. We connected with mandolin player and vocalist, Eric Munley to find out what makes the Blind Owl fly.
Here’s a scenario: I’ve never been to a Blind Owl Band show, and I want to know what I’m in for. What can I expect?
Well, the first thing to expect is energy. The second thing is a bit of alcohol-infused rowdiness, and the third a band that’s going to try to push the limits of both. You can expect to hear a sound that you haven’t exactly heard before, but that might remind you of a lot of different things. Something that sounds like bluegrass, but is actually something else.
Yeah, talk about that, because your sound seems to be close to bluegrass, but not quite.
Yeah, it starts with the instrumentation of bluegrass banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass. From there each step moves a little bit farther away. We don’t actually play a single traditional bluegrass song. Our original style started a bit like bluegrass, but as we write each song we take a step away from the last one. The music is definitely not bluegrass, as it reflects a lot more on rock ‘n roll, indie rock, stranger traditional music and folk.
How did you come together?
We met about five years ago. I had just graduated from Paul Smith’s College, about fifteen minutes outside Saranac Lake, New York. I was getting ready to move out of the state, but our banjo player and guitar player moved up and started going to Paul Smith’s. We met at Backwoods Pond Fest, and a week later started playing music together. Four months later we played our first show at the Water Hole, which was an impromptu show in front of four people, but that show gave us the confidence to say, “Okay, we can do this.” From there we just started working harder, mastering our craft as musicians, and also as a traveling band business. Touring the past four years has pushed the whole thing in a great direction, which brings us all here today.
As Northerners, we feel safe saying your music embodies a certain aggression along with a truly northern attitude. Do you agree? And do you think that has something do with coming up around Saranac Lake?
I don’t know if aggressive would be the right word for it, but it would be close. We have a drive that pushes us, and we also have a “don’t give a fuck” attitude. We know we have a lot to prove every time we get on the stage, and I think that pushes the aggression.
In regards to the North Country and the Adirondacks, where we’re from, it’s a harsh place to live, and an interesting place to live. It’s separated from other big towns by the mountains. We have to drive two or three and a half hours to get to any gig, so it makes everything a little extreme, and that definitely dictates the approach that we take to our music.
What’s your process like in the studio? Do you have live performance in mind as you write?
Well, it depends. Our music can be looked at in three generations. The first generation, our first album, Rabble Rouser, was released four years ago. That was all songs that anybody could sit in on in a livingroom and within a minute of listening we could be playing it together. Because that’s how we started. It took a couple months for us to narrow the band down from a larger group of friends to the four of us who decided to pursue it. So a lot of the songs we wrote on that album were very simple.
The second album, This Train We Ride is Made of Wood and Steel, was the first time that we really intentionally wrote as a group. It explores a lot of different speeds and tones because the songs were written more from four sides rather than one person bringing something to the group and then developing it from there.
This current album we’re writing, we’re probably three quarters of the way through it, we’ll record in a couple months. It has partly been written with live playing in mind, but other songs are just the results of the emotions of the writers, and come out of that rather than an intent for it to be recorded or played on stage.
So here’s a question, why is the owl blind?
Well, we were playing at Paul Smith’s open mic night. It was one of our first shows. We played two songs, and the stage was in front of a big window. We ended a song, and all the sudden we heard a big smack on the window, and we looked down on the sill at a Saw-whet Owl, which is an owl about the size of a soft ball. So this owl stands up and stares into the room. Paul Smith’s is a wildlife and environmental school, so of course someone ID’ed the bird. A couple weeks later we were trying to think of a name, and someone looked up the Saw-whet Owl, and it turns out one of it’s nicknames is the “blind” owl. So that’s how we got the name. It’s a great moment, and at the time we didn’t think it was a big deal, but then a month later we decided to name our band after it. And now that we’ve done this for five years, it’s pretty crazy to think of that one little animal having such an impact on our image.
It works so well, because it evokes something that definitely comes through in the music. After a show, it wouldn’t be surprising to see people coming out looking like blind owls! But anyway, what have you been up to since Otis?
Well, we’re just about twelve hours from our first practice right now. We took two months off after touring. Last summer we did about seven months of touring, close to 100 shows, over 20 festivals. So we all took breaks. We kick off a month of heavy touring in a week, followed by a month of writing and recording, and then summer will start all over again and we’ll be hitting it heavy from there.
What can people look forward to heading into the summer?
This summer you’re going to see the transformation of the Blind Owl Band show into it’s 2016 form. This winter tour will get about halfway there, but once we go through with the first month of writing and recording in three years, we’re going to get so much material out of it. We’re going to design what we’ll be showcasing over the next year. So it’s an exciting time, and we’re hoping to take a jump with the amount of material we have. We also have a loose goal to put out both a live album and a studio album in the next year.