Breathe Owl Breathe, the ethereal, off-folk-band from the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, is on tour promoting its recent project, The Listeners/These Train Tracks — a children’s book with accompanying two-song record. Fans familiar with the band will not be surprised to hear it made a book for kids, or that the two stories are surreal and odd. The Listeners is about a mole and an ostrich – one blind, the other only technically a bird – that find each other in the darkness and form a band.
Fans will also not be surprised to find those darkly emotional sub-currents throughout — this whole project fits in perfectly with the persona of the band. Breathe Owl Breathe made its 2010 album Magic Central while holed up in a cabin in Michigan for the winter, and you can feel it. The album has an I'm-snowed-in-and-going-stir-crazy vibe.
And its live performances are just as interesting and weird, and for a folk band, conceptual — it's borderline performance art (choreographed hand motions for their song “Swimming," performed in animal masks). The band's tour make a stop in San Francisco this Monday, Feb. 6 at Bottom of the Hill.
In a 2008 interview, Micah Middaugh, the band’s front person, likened Breathe Owl Breathe's music itself to swimming. In a recent phone interview from Michigan, Trevor Hobbs, the percussionist, said their sound evolved to be more like adventuring: like “when you are stepping out to go cross-country skiing but you do not really know where you are going to go.”
This sort of childlike whimsy, a promotion of living and strangeness, is the hallmark of the band’s style, but it always seems to be cut with something dark, sometimes lyrics or melodies, sometimes images that populate its music videos. “Own Stunts” includes quick cuts of Andréa Moreno-Beals, cellist and singer for the band, outside in a nighttime snow being pulled into the shadows by the spindly branches of a tree.
The Listeners/These Train Tracks is both fanciful and eerie. It is also hand produced — Middaugh, the band’s singer and songwriter, over a three year period, wrote the stories that double as lyrics for the songs, drew the images, and carved them into wood blocks. The whole book is letterpressed and it's made in Michigan, like Magic Central and everything else about this band.
While the book should pique the interests of the craft-focused, D.I.Y. artist, or anyone that likes kids books or indie-folk, it's not targeted for any specific audience— it's child-like, but the band is only performing at adult venues. “There are subtle tones of navigating through the world with people you love,” Hobbs said.
And expect Monday’s show to be high energy as the band is “inspired by artists that like to captivate the room,” Hobbs said. Middaugh introduced “Lion’s Jaw” at a festival in August by telling the crowd “so you are moving through life, and little do you know, you are being carried by a large lion.” He then asked everyone to feel the loose skin on the back of their necks where the lion picks them up. But “do not be afraid in the lion’s jaw,” he told the crowd.