BrownChicken BrownCow String Band defies classification—and that’s the great thing about them. They’re so determined to do things their own way, they fall outside the narrow elucidation of genre. Sure their jangly, traditional, often acoustic styling honors the past, but this foursome’s sound supersedes historical expectations. Just because you see a fiddle, a banjo or an upright bass, don’t peg it as bluegrass. The band (or any bluegrass purist for that matter) will be the first to tell you it’s not.
“What do we call what we do? I have a name for it—we each have a name for it,” says guitarist Justin Morris.
“We’ve been trying to peg that one down for awhile,” adds fiddler Xander Hitzig, acknowledging that the band is easy to mischaracterize—and that accurate characterization may, in fact, be impossible.
“Personally, I haven’t been able to come up with anything specific,” mandolin player Orion Hitzig further explains. “I always come up with some scattered description, then when I’m done explaining it—” he stops to sound an unconvinced yawing.
“Mine is ‘multicultural string music’,” says bassist Matt Del Olmo. And the band does cite far-reaching influences: country, jazz, blues, rock—and, yes, bluegrass.
“What I’ve always told people is we’re an original Appalachian string band,” says Justin, as he describes a timeline of influences in and around the band’s home, West Virgina. “This band was born in the Appalachian mountains, [and] that region is a huge melting pot of culture. There’s a lot in pride in that for me.”
It’s the indefinable quality of BrownChicken BrownCow String Band that I like best, and it’s the direction I’d like to see music—and society at large—head. Labels tend to obscure more than they reveal, and once we’re rid of them we can experience each other—and each others’ art—more freely.
Seem a little heady for a string band? That’s nothing: Justin explains how—when “panning” (i.e. assigning elements of monaural music to make it stereophonic) their last album …It’s A Deep Subject—he was struck with an epiphany, and started seeing sound waves as three-dimensional. “There’s an X, Y and Z axis to sound, a sphere with depth and texture,” he says.
On that note, our conversation delves into the band’s “geeked-out curiosity” about the science of sound. “We’re continually educating ourselves,” says Matt. “Jabber about the physics of music, we’re always in on that conversation. There’s always something new to learn.”
“I like experimenting with the imagination of music,” Xander adds. “Sometimes you mess up and you like it. Experiment with those mistakes and you can write some pretty cool things. Do it once, it’s a mess up. Do it twice, it’s jazz.”
Orion leans in to show me a YouTube video on his iPhone, of what’s called cymatics. That’s when a substrate, sometimes referred to as a Chlandi Plate, is subject to audio frequencies (they pull out a 440 Hz—middle A—tuning fork, to show me an example), and liquid or granular objects like salt or sand scattered on top suddenly and stunningly arrange into intricate geometric shapes, not unlike crop circles. (In case you’re rolling your eyes, cymatics isn’t some sort of new-fangled hippiedippieness—physicist John Tyndall published diagrams of these patterns in 1869.)
As we continue, our discourse becomes littered with gestures and onomatopoeia. As the band shares its insights, they become both more exciting and clear and harder to convey. Xander briefly explains his idea for a music camp with one rule: no talking. Instead, all communication would happen instrumentally. It’s an innovative idea for a sound-meets-social experiment, and suggests these guys are bursting with outside-the-box notions.
But don’t take my word for it, go ahead and ask them yourself (after checking out one of their concerts, of course). I’m sure they’d be happy to engage in a discussion of sound, soul and science—onomatopoeia, gesture and all.
Second only to their born-and-bred home of West Virgina, BrownChicken BrownCow String Band finds solace and inspiration on Maui. If they remain more than a couple weeks in any other place, they say they “get antsy” (case in point: they’ve “crossed the U.S. five times in 10 months—six times if you count the airplanes”). They first ventured to the Valley Isle in September of 2008, a week after their first gig on the Mainland, and have toured here each winter since. When I say they’ve got the schedule of whales, they laugh agreeably, adding, “and this is where we birth new ideas.”
So while Mauians can lay some claim to them and trust they’ll undoubtedly return, they won’t stay here perpetually. In fact, come February they’re off and away again for another worldwide whirlwind, “fueled by adventure, so to speak.” They’ve wrapped up their four-show Ice Cream Tour with Coconut Glen, so your only chances to see them now are at spontaneously planned gigs. Given their eccentric penchant for experimentation and the flexibility that acoustic instruments allow, you might find them anywhere from the bowels of a wine cave amidst antique sculptures to out on a catamaran in the middle of the ocean.
Don’t worry, though—MauiTime is making it easy for you. Check out BrownChicken, opening for the monsoon of sound that is Moth, at the January 7 Wailuku First Friday, helping us celebrate 13 years of independent media. See you there.