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One Ring Zero’s Author Project

Rick Moody, Paul Auster and Dave Eggers are just a few of the many authors who have collaborated with Brooklyn band One Ring Zero on the Author Project, the band’s fourth recording. It combines lyrics from renowned authors with One Ring Zero’s distinctive moody melodies, which could be described as "alt-circus." But even though the album is finished, you won’t find it at Tower or HMV just yet. In bridging the literary and musical worlds, Zero defies categorization and confounds media marketers. Does this album require a publisher or a record label?

If One Ring Zero belonged to any category, it could be "art school bands" like Magnetic Fields or Belle and Sebastian. But unusual instrumentation distinguishes them from their musical peers. From claviola to toy piano, Theremin to kitty litter (yes, kitty litter), the two-man band— Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp— culls music from anywhere they can in order to achieve the sound they want. They acknowledge a wide variety of musical influences, from Hungarian folk to Kurt Weill, and consider themselves to be a kind of Nino Rota (the composer for most of Fellini’s films) on processed sugar. As Rick Moody says, "They play ‘uncool’ music in the coolest possible way." They create soundscapes that are at once soothing and eerie, sweet and haunting, but such a eclectic range makes it difficult to market them.

ORZ hails from Richmond, Virginia, where both members worked for the Hohner company, tuning harmonicas and accordions. They moved here two years ago to bring their music to a wider audience, but they never expected to become New York’s most literary musicians. The Author Project "came from outer space," says Camp. Two years ago, Hearst walked into McSweeney’s shop in Park Slope and handed shop manager Scott Seeley their CD. He loved it, and ORZ became McSweeney’s house band.

At one of his local readings, the band approached author Rick Moody about scoring some of his stories. "I could tell they could improvise, just from how they played, so I asked them to back me while I read," he says. Their collaboration with Moody went so smoothly that they decided to ask other authors to participate, and in total they recorded 19 songs with lyrics by literary heavies such as Myla Goldberg, Jonathan Lethem and children’s author Daniel Handler, also knows as Lemony Snicket. "Margaret Atwood wrote us a Frankenstein monster song," says Camp, "and Denis Johnson lyrics are set to gospel."

Hearst points out that literary and musical collaborations are nothing new— Shel Silverstein penned the lyrics for Johnny Cash’s "A Boy Named Sue," and Rick Moody recently toured with The Magnetic Fields. But most of the authors on this record write prose, and tweaking their authorial habits to create lyrics was a challenge for some. For one, "There’s the problem of rhyming," says Moody.

Despite ORZ’s success in the literary world, they’re still to find a foothold in the music industry. "We have a number of factors against us," says Hearst. "There’s less money for the arts in general. They’re taking on fewer new acts at record labels, and then there’s the confusing cross-pollination of two industries. The music world says the literary world should release it and the literary world says the music industry should do it." Since major media companies have both book and record divisions, the album could appeal to companies that could market it to both their book- and CD-buying audiences. "It’s like getting twice the bang for your buck," says Hearst.

"I don’t see why it’s not getting snapped up, since the marketing part would appear to be incredibly easy," says Moody. "I think American culture generally is so full of mindless delusion that it’s not fair to single out the record business. Art is art, and has always catered to a ‘happy few,’ as Stendahl said. This is an ambitious and unusual record that doesn’t sound like anything else. If it sounded like teenybopper records, it would probably have an easier time."

The band now knows how authors feel when they complete a manuscript and can’t find a publisher. "The project is finished," says Camp. "We just need someone to believe in it."


Lisa Selin Davis

Lisa Selin Davis is a writer based in Park Slope.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2003

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