Actual Birds Archive: Smooth Jazz On Cassette

The TOTALLY AWESOME HOUSE was a house and all-ages show space near the corner of North Main and Summit in Ann Arbor, Michigan, used for shows for eight months in 2004-5 (don’t bother looking for it, it’s a vacant lot now). I lived there with Patrick Elkins, Jason Adam Voss, and Penelope Bristol. We had shows every single Tuesday (minus one week, which we took off for a house viewing of Ghostbusters), plus a couple of scattered shows on other days. The Tuesday shows were known as “The Totally Awesome Supper Club”, because we almost always made food and/or had a potluck.

Totally Awesome House is looked back upon with a special fondness by most participants/onlookers (there were few who weren’t both), and with good reason: this was one of those brief moments in Ann Arbor where it seemed like any and all musical/artistic/multimedia permutations were possible. This made for strange bedfellows: noise dudes were playing with folk dudes were playing with punk dudes were playing with rap dudes (non-gender-specific, but I hope that’s obvious), “hipsters” were contributing to “punk” zines, and none of it seemed forced or weird like it usually does. Kimya Dawson and Casiotone For The Painfully Alone played the house, but so did Dead Machines, 25 Suaves, and Tyvek.

That autumn, I watched the climax of the notorious Ann Arbor shopping cart race outside of the house with special guests Calvin Johnson and Ian Svenonius (the former was at the house to play a surprise show, the latter hanging with the former during a night off on a DJ tour); later that night, our house was taken over by punks for a few hours. I went to bed. These sort of things just happened there. At our last show at the house (the first TOTALLY AWESOME FEST, natch), Patrick and his band Hot Meat For Young Lovers ended their set outside on the roof. Depending on who you ask, Patrick ended the set by jumping off the roof onto the “makeout mattress” I’d put in the front lawn (I say he didn’t, but whatever).

It was in this incubator that Actual Birds, my long-running nom de guerre, was nurtured into something resembling what it is today. Actual Birds was originally the name of an attempted psychedelic rock trio consisting of me (vocals/electronics), Johnny Ill (drums), and a wailing blues guitarist named Loren Hsieh, a total character with an immaculate pompadour, a goofball sense of humor, out-of-control instrumental chops, and the most incredible skill as a draftsman and visual artist I’ve ever witnessed firsthand. He made R. Crumb’s cross-hatching look tentative and sloppy. Loren, where are you?

That band never recorded or played a show. Johnny dropped out early (“too bluesy”), but it was just as well, as Loren moved to California shortly thereafter. I was left to my own devices, pondering what to do with the name, which I still really liked, and the psychedelic (in the literal “mind-expanding” sense of the term) intentions that came with it.

When I moved into Totally Awesome House, I organized a series of sets as “The Actual Birds Mind-Expansion Ensemble”, wherein anyone who was there was encouraged to play along, on whatever instrument they could get their hands on. I envisioned this as a modern take on what people were doing at the birth of jazz over a century ago, wherein people got together in town squares and played long, open-ended jams just for the hell of it. That said, it sounded more akin to the “free form freakout” portions of the first Red Crayola LP. This yielded some amazing moments, but even the moments that may’ve sounded terrible were a ton of fun.

Eventually, I started writing more with a tighter, more pop-informed structure. This was not meant to be a “new direction”, and I didn’t really intend to approach shows any differently. However, when you get up in front of people with an acoustic guitar in a living room, especially in an environment as receptive and open as Totally Awesome House, they tend to sit and listen more than freak out and participate (going on the road, it’s even harder to foster this kind of spontaneity). Thus it came to be that Actual Birds ceased to be a name for a cathartic group experience, and came to be a name for me (later, there would be a revolving cast band called “The High Spirits” to flesh out the songs live in a more traditional manner, but that’s another story for another time).

As I started to hem in my egalitarian idealism live, I was also recording various sound experiments around the house on a cheap 4-track. Not a lot of this saw the light of day (although snippets from that time period are scattered throughout the track “Tender Shades of Fuchsia and Greige” on the 2006 effort Vive La Fantastique! Avec Actual Birds and Friends), but the first ever Actual Birds release, Smooth Jazz on Cassette, made available after I’d already gotten some attention locally as a “folk singer”, was a prime example of those experiments.

The first side, “Meditation”, is a meditative (duh) blues performed with Ian “MC Trashpedal” Fulcher, which I slowed down to half-speed for release (if you download the entire album, you get to listen to it at its original recording speed); the other side, “Exhortation”, is a gurgling, chopped and screwed sound collage that still makes me smile and, on occasion, wonder what the hell I was doing to make it sound the way it does. I released it on cassette in a gloriously sloppy edition of 30 on Casanova Temptations, the label I operated before FM DUST.

I don’t even have a copy of the original tape anymore (I had to borrow Ian’s to make the digital transfer)… the masters are long gone. Still, this remains one of my favorite recordings in the Actual Birds catalog. I listen to it as a time capsule of a brief moment where I felt like everyone was together, everyone had something to share, and nobody was shot down.

Dustin Krcatovich is a cartoonist, writer, designer, founder of FM DUST, and a collector of certain curios and ephemera (with a focus on 20th century "junk culture"). His writing and illustration work appears frequently in The Quietus, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Esquire's Culture Blog. He is also a former editor and contributor to Secret Zen Garden,Saagara's illustrated mindfulness/wellness blog for young people. He currently resides in Portland, OR.