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Songs across the pond - Them Bird Things

by Jonathan Mander

Them Bird Things are a Finnish band who perform American songs. Everything started when producer Will Shade introduced his wife-to-be Salla Day to the songs of Steve Blodgett and Mike Brassard. The band's story is one that praises the art of song and combines European strengths with American ones.

A wooden house that is in plain view yet remains completely hidden. If you notice it while walking down the edge of the Kaivopuisto park in central Helsinki, you might ask Does someone live here. Someone does, as I found out when I met Salla Day and Will Shade in it. They are at the core of the story of Them Bird Things and they call the wooden house home.

The word about Them Bird Things spread fast like old-fashioned electricity. After their second gig, excited whispers about mysterious songs and dark moods did the rounds around Helsinki. More information dropped bit by bit: the lead singer Salla Day had played in Branded Women (blue-velvety, subtle and moody rock), the guitarist Timo Vikkula played with Kauko Röyhkä (legendary, sly singer-songwriter) and the drummer Ville Särmä sung and played guitar with Kevin (indie rock). The songs of this new band were said to be long lost works of some 1960s American songwriters. It didn’t add up until you heard the music.

Most of the hear-say was true. It all started after Salla was interviewed about Branded Women by an American journalist-guy and 1960s fanatic Will Shade, who also produces records. He invited her to New York to sing backing vocals on a Mike & The Ravens album. Will had managed to get The Ravens playing together and recording for the first time since some jail-time forced them apart in the early 1960s (we’ll get to that story later). Salla impressed Will and the band with her voice. After hearing Salla was listening to a lot of acoustic and melancholy music such as Nick Drake, Will gave her some of Ravens’ other songwriter Steve Blodgett’s demos from the 1970s. Without a band he had recorded melancholy tunes alone on his guitar in his basement. Life – wife, kids and a job as a lawyer – had taken centre stage from music.

“Steve should be famous,” was Salla’s thought when she listened to the songs. The demos featured focused and melodic songs – not just some Grandpa dallying in the basement. Will, of course, knew this, and one suspects he had something in mind when he gave the songs to Salla.

When she retuned to Helsinki, she knew these songs had to be brought to life. Salla wanted to sing Steve’s stuff.

Pieces come together

Branded Women’s story was coming to a halt with the second album, so Salla knew she should get started with a new project, or she might lose touch with making music. “I’m the kind of person that if I don’t do something immediately, I will never return to it,” she notes.

What a loss that would have been for Finnish popular music! Them Bird Things provides a unique addition to the local rock scene.

Salla knew guitarist Vikkula through her dayjob at the Museum of Finnish Architecture, and suggested to him that they start working on Steve’s songs. When Will was visiting Helsinki a little later, he got the treat of a surprise gig – the first Them Bird Things performance, acoustically in Bar Loose, Helsinki. Right after the gig Ville Särmä walked up to Salla and said: “I am your drummer.” He and Will – who would naturally produce the band – were not the only ones impressed by the performance and the songs.

Even though Them Bird Things performs songs by Steve Blodgett and Mike Brassard (Mike of Mike & The Ravens) it should not be mistaken for a cover band. These are unrecorded songs and both songwriters are involved. Salla picks songs, and arranges them with the band to suit her voice and the band’s character. The lyrics mean a lot, when Salla chooses songs to do.

“They are very important. I pick up on the mood from the lyrics. I see myself more as a visual person than a musician, so I see pictures and often talk to band members saying the song is some colour, or ‘rain on the pavement’, because that’s how I see the song and what’s happening to the character. In this band it’s always a very tight marriage between music and message,” she describes.

Therefore, the music mirrors the lyrics, and for instance why Georgia Mountain ends full-stop. Why would something be played after the narrator shoots herself? But does it ever happen that these songs written by an American man clearly older and of an earlier generation than Salla just don’t feel right?

“I now have probably over 200 songs from Steve and I’ve so far selected 24. So yes, there are a lot of songs I do not want to sing. I only choose songs that touch me. He’s written political songs that feel dated now. And I rarely want to sing songs about misfortune in love,” Salla says.

Meanwhile, Will

What about Will? He now lives in Helsinki married to Salla, so Them Bird Things has had a major impact on his life too. Finland, however, is not as distant to him as might be expected. He already spent time in Sweden earlier in life, and during that time found Finnish bands such as the rock’n’roll group Flaming Sideburns and Branded Women. These bands were a real turn-on for the 1960s freak.

He brought Mike & The Ravens together as a producer – and it was about time they got to making an album after the band’s time together was abruptly cut short after a little bit of vandalism – well, not so little at the time.

“The Ravens were really wild when they were young. Everybody talks about how wild the Rolling Stones were, but if you really look back in perspective what was so wild? The Ravens on the other hand…”

One weekend in 1962 some gigs were cancelled because Mike Brassard travelled to New York with popular rock singer Tommy Roe. The rest of The Ravens were restless with nothing to do. Steve knew a local church, where the church bells were played on a timered turntable through a P.A. system.

“Remember this was 1962 – rock’n’roll was still the devil’s music. Steve, who was 17, said: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we played a rock’n’roll record through the steeple?’ Which they did,” Will explains.

The Little Richard song started blasting at midnight – they wanted to play it when people were walking into church, but couldn’t figure out the timer – and the music was heard in a town 15 kilometers away. It woke everybody in the valley up. Three of the Ravens went to jail for it. When they got out their mums told them to go to college or the army.

“Steve’s done a lot of stuff, played with all kinds of people, he’s studied to be a lawyer and has kids. But he still says that the moment he felt the most alive, was when they were running away from the church and could hear Little Richard and see lights popping on in the windows,” Salla says.

So that is the spirit and the background, where the Them Bird Things’ songs come from. And that’s why Mike & The Ravens broke up and left Steve Blodgett writing songs on his own.

Second album lucky

The debut Fly, Them Bird Things, Fly got things on a healthy roll. It received almost scarily unanimous praise from critics and led to a nice run of gigs. But the band was not ready yet, thought Salla. She now says it was the second album, Wildlike Wonder, that really got the band to find its character.

“I really like the first album and we had to do it to get to where we are now, but I think the band really clicked, when Arttu Tolonen and bass player Jarmo Vähähaka joined,” Salla notes.

She wanted the second record to be acoustic but also to rock harder than the first one. “She told me that even though it’d be acoustic, she didn’t want it to be played soft like Europeans do – she wanted intensity,” Will adds.

He explains that Steve’s way of playing guitar is to hit the chords clean but hard. That’s more like the British folk musicians’ way than the American way, where chords are often hit hard but sloppily.

This is why the second album better captures the European-American mixture that Them Bird Things is. Salla believes that the set-up of the band has an influence on what makes it unique.

“A key element of the sound comes from us not being American but doing American music with Americans. None of the band’s boys would be playing country if I hadn’t forced them to. If we do a country song, they can’t bring the cliche to the music because they don’t know it. Instead they bring a strange European twist, which means the playing is a little gentler,” Salla explains.

Purist music bores her, so a twist is welcome. Producer Will tries to make the most of the musicians’ different backgrounds. Arttu Tolonen of eg. Giant Robot and Black Audio opened up new possibilities upon joining.

“The rest of the band is very slick and polished, but Arttu is a Neanderthal. He likes to break things. And I like him to break things,” Will says with a school-boy grin.

On Raised in Bangor Timo has a beautiful thing going on with the guitar. Will asked him to imagine he was John Coltrane joining in with a country band to play some freaky jazz chords in the middle part of the song.

“And he did these beautiful, sophisticated, wild-ass chords. Then I told Arttu what I’d ask Timo to do, and he in turn should play the part of the 14-year-old who’s never played before and someone’s given him his first fuzz box, and he shits all over the country band and John Coltrane. And that’s what Arttu did,” Will says, laughing at the destruction of too much beauty.

Arrangements continue to be fine-tuned in the studio, but the basic interpretation of Steve’s or Mike’s song is made when Timo and Salla get to work on it, transforming the vocal and guitar demo to a Them Bird Things song.

“Always the motivating factor when we arrange a song is: Make room for Salla. If we make her shine, everybody shines. Her voice is so unique.”

In praise of song

The story of Them Bird Things is a story in praise of the song. In these days, when songs are being churned out on conveyor belts across the world, it is easy to feel that songs are not special as such. But the way Steve and Mike’s songs connect first with Salla and her band, then the ever-growing audiences, shows how magic can be created through craftsmanship. Steve works hard to get his songs right, sometimes using six months to compose. Georgia Mountain took 17 years before he was satisfied with it – and some 35 years before it was recorded. While playing for a tape in the basement, Steve kept himself amused by coming up with “freaky chords” (Will’s words), but his main aim is always to catch a hook.

“Steve came up in an era when the two-and-a-half minute single was king. So Steve is, 50 years later, still enchanted with the mystery of the hook,” Will adds.

The band in Finland respects Steve’s effort and the care he gives the song by giving it the same attention. Will is reminded of Salla’s definition of a good song.

“She has said that a song has to be something you can sit down to listen as somebody plays it on a guitar, and it will hold your interest all the way through. Most songs today you can’t sit down and play through with a guitar, because they’re created on a computer with separate parts here and there. It takes away the organic feeling.”

But Steve and Mike are definitely old school composers, who sit down with a guitar, find the chords, find the melody and wonder if the song will hold the listener’s interest throughout. After over 50 years of songwriting – Mike wrote his first in 1958 – it is easy to imagine Steve and Mike are somewhat excited about the new life their songs are being given in faraway Helsinki.

“One evening Steve said to me: It’s really wonderful what you’re doing. It’s like you send your kids to college, you don’t see them for a while and then they come home for Christmas. They no longer share your ideas or political views anymore, they’ve grown their own identity, but you can still call them your kids. And that’s the way he feels about the band.”

“Steve gets the best of both worlds. He gets to do the sophisticated arrangements with this band and the Ravens are much more straightforward,” Will adds before Salla says:

“This is the band Steve would’ve wanted to have when he was 30.”