One Ring Zero

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One Ring Zero prove the claviola can be mightier than the pen

By Sara Bir

Though there are works of well-known writers that have notably been converted into song–the present-day longevity of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example, owes a great deal to Iron Maiden–it’s generally uncommon. We have yet to see, for instance, P-Diddy covering Joyce Carol Oates. With the release of As Smart as We Are (Urban Geek), a little band from Brooklyn called One Ring Zero has changed that. The CD’s lyrics are penned by 17 authors (among them Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Dave Eggers, Neil Gaiman and A. M. Homes) who usually write books rather than songs.

This is not what One Ring Zero initially set out to do. In the late ’90s, two guys named Joshua Camp and Michael Hearst became friends while working, respectively, as accordion and harmonica technicians at the Hohner distribution center in Richmond, Va. One day a small shipment of a prototype instrument called a claviola, which Hearst describes as looking like “a swan run over by a car,” arrived. Hearst and Camp, instantly intrigued, formed One Ring Zero to play reconfigured 20th-century klezmer music utilizing accordion, guitar, claviola and a rotating cast of musical friends and household appliances.

The claviola and its spectrum of sounds–which approximate anything from Zamfir playing a clarinet to Stevie Wonder covering Zamfir–has a large role in the One Ring Zero’s grab bag of Eastern European folk traditions, country music balladry and refined avant-garde audio mayhem. It’s a musical context that almost any author, A-list to Z-list, would be proud to find his or her words embedded within.

The author project came about after One Ring Zero became regular performers at the McSweeney’s bookstore in Brooklyn, sharing a very small stage with very big names during readings. It’s there that Camp and Hearst met writer Rick Moody, who asked the band to play while he read. One Ring Zero, in turn, asked Moody to write a song for them. That collaboration launched an entire album with Moody, which led Hearst and Camp to pursue the concept on a much grander scale.

It’s a brilliant idea, but the realization of it wasn’t so simple. “The whole business angle to the project has been tricky,” Hearst explains over the phone. “It seemed like such an easy way to market two industries–give this to record stores and bookstores–but it didn’t work out that easily. Because this has never really been done, the distributors really didn’t know how to handle it.”

Many bands work very hard for years and receive only marginal attention from the press, but Hearst says it never occurred to him to feel resentful that One Ring Zero’s sudden leap into the spotlight–lots of press, an appearance on Fresh Air–came via the cred of well-known authors.

“Part of me knows that it takes whatever you can do to get recognized,” he says. “And the one thing that was very important to me with this album was that you could have no idea who wrote the lyrics and it would still be a great album. So even if people are buying it because of the name Margaret Atwood, I feel like we did the best we could to make a good record.”

Composing music for the vast assortment of lyrical material that they received was not as daunting as one might assume, says Hearst. “We have been scoring for theater and modern dance, so it really was not all that massive of a stretch. I’d say if anything, the thing I learned most was how to collaborate with 17 different egos.”

Just as with standard-issue pop songs, some of the lyrics of As Smart as We Are are great and catchy (the Tin Pan Alley echoes in Paul Auster’s “Natty Man Blues”; the transformation of Myla Goldberg’s “Golem” through Syd Straw’s smoky vocals into a klezmer torch song), while others are . . . different. Jonathan Ames’ “Story of the Hairy Call” is basically a nonrhyming personal essay (“When I was a little boy, I was very troubled / I had a bad back and an elevated testicle”) somehow worked into charming nursery-school music.

This brings up an interesting point: can writers of novels and poems write decent pop lyrics? I imagine that anything William Faulkner or Hemingway might have produced would not even pass muster, while Charles Dickens or Jane Austen might have somehow become the Brill Buildings of their times.

Ultimately, it seems that even bestselling writers want to be rock stars.

From the August 25-31, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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