ONE RING ZERO with the HIDDEN CAMERAS as part of the Gobsmacked! festival, Harbourfront Centre's CIBC stage (235 Queens Quay West), Saturday (August 28), 8 pm.
ONE RING ZERO as part of the anec/notal musical-lit-riff soirée with Brian Francis , Sheila Heti and Andrew Kaufman at Harbourfront Centre's Brigantine Room, Friday (August 27), 11 pm. Free. 416-973-4000.
It's a poorly kept secret that most writers want to be rock stars. But while this may be true for many of us hacks working in the music-press trenches, busting hair metal riffs and sweating under stage lights isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of, say, capital-A authors like Margaret Atwood and Denis Johnson.
Luckily, Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp, the masterminds behind the carnivalesque klezmatic soundscapes of NYC's One Ring Zero, have made those dreams a reality.
After generating a healthy amount of buzz as the de facto house band backing readings at the Store - the Brooklyn retail outlet of Dave Eggers's hipster mag turned publishing empire McSweeney's - the One Ring Zero boys invited a slew of writerly types to contribute lyrics for their latest album.
As Smart As We Are, a book/CD combo that dropped this spring on the Bar/None label (Soft Skull Press provided the lit component), features a who's who of the lit scene, from McSweeney's regulars like Eggers and Rick Moody to Atwood and Sandman scribe Neil Gaiman.
The contributions are twisted, dark and often delightful, and there's a sense of thematic unity throughout the album, which is odd, says Hearst, since the collaborators had free rein - and many hadn't even heard their tunes.
"We never said they should write with a certain theme or a certain length," he explains. "Some of the authors gave us three or four sets of lyrics to pick from, and a lot of them were very generous in saying, 'If you have any changes, let me know and we can work on them.' But we didn't want to. Who am I to mess with Margaret Atwood's or Denis Johnson's lyrics?"
Paul Auster's Natty Man Blues is kinda dorky, but As Smart As We Are offers some truly beautiful moments. Johnson and Atwood tread familiar ground - a countrified Christ by the dumpster for him, a Frankenstein lover for her - very well. Meanwhile, Myla Goldberg's Golem, based on the Yiddish myth of a man made of mud, gives a new spin to wishing for more than a one-night stand and ends with a darkly poetic punchline.
As the band mythology goes, Hearst and Camp met while working in a rare-instrument warehouse and repair centre in Virginia. Although both had done time in more straight-ahead college rock bands, Hearst claims the two were always fascinated by ethnic music and songs from other eras.
"It's not like both of us grew up loving the circus and wanted to make a band that was circusy, but we've always loved minor keys and waltzes and dark things," Hearst offers, trying to flesh out their aesthetic.
As for the Smart As We Are project, as it got further along, Hearst sent a CD-R with the songs the band had already recorded as part of the pitch to encourage others to write.
"I don't know how influential that was," Hearst says. "Paul Auster, for example, never listened to anything I sent him - he just sent the lyrics.
"Michael Chabon was gonna write us lyrics and never got around to doing it. But he wrote me a long apology of why he couldn't do it, and we decided to make that into a song.
"It's a really goofy song, and it didn't make it onto the record, but we're gonna play it in Toronto to give an example of the process."