From the outside, it looks just like any old mom car: bronze mini van with a rocket top. But this particular vehicle doesn’t hold kids on their way to soccer practice or a family on a summer road trip. Instead, the van plays four-wheeled home to one of the most refreshing musical groups I’ve heard in a while: Birds of Chicago. Their upbeat and unusual brand of indie music is a catchy soundtrack to any summer that is sure to have you tapping along.
I had the privilege of talking with JT Nero, one of the two main faces of the band, as he rode with his band in their van down a highway in Missouri.
Nero talks to me from the back seat next to Allison Russell, his wife and co- bandleader. Nick, the drummer, drives the van while bass player Nick “twiddles his thumbs and stares out into the void.” This is a great picture Birds of Chicago, a group that spends the majority of their time lately on the road on a tour that started in Northern California and has worked its way south, east, and back north again.
“The traveling life is, to some degree, either in your blood or it’s not,” says Nero. “The basic part of road life that we love is just the clean slate every day. If you happen to have a less than fantastic night somewhere…you get to put physical space between you and that night. You get to be put 300 miles between you and that night.”
Their tour finished on June 27th in Chicago, their home and an obvious influence on the Birds. Originally the group went by their names, and Birds of Chicago was meant for the name of the album. But the name stuck and became the face of the project. “Birds come up in almost all our songs…we’re pretty relentless with the ol’ bird imagery,” explains Nero. “We like that name to because it gets us back to the collective. We have kind of a revolving family that we trust.” When you see Birds of Chicago it could be the full collective of seven or an acoustic show with just Nero and Russell.
This constant flux is indicative of the spirit behind Birds of Chicago as a concept and as a group of musicians who Nero says surprise and excite each other on a regular basis, and with whom there’s a high level of trust involved.
“Within our own circus family of musicians…there is kind of constant musical challenging and inspiration from within our own little tribe…we feed off each other,” Nero says.
However, despite the many musicians involved, Nero and Russell are the centerpieces of the story, meeting as artists in their own separate bands who eventually ended up together—in more ways that one.
“It’s been kind of a natural evolution,” says Nero on how he and Russell decided to form the band. “We went from being just mutual fans of each other’s bands and songs.” The two first shared the stage when they toured together, Russell with her band, Po’ Girl, and Nero as their opener. The rest was history. “[Birds of Chicago] didn’t feel like a big leap but it definitely felt like it was time for us to put our own spin on something we’ve been doing for a while.”
The duo marries (get it?) charming lyrics and bouncy indie beats to create a sound that is filled with sunshine. Birds of Chicago has a really organic vibe of true naturals with a gift for music.
Surprisingly neither of the duo studied music in college. “I am pretty much a classic roots musician in that sense,” Nero says. He taught himself a few chords on guitar and never looked back, singing in his first band at Kenyon College, “We were called The Kingfishers and we were, in our minds, an extremely vital and important band on the Kenyon coffee house scene,” says Nero.
“Alli, the most hyper-educated human I know,” says Nero, “actually only did one year of college. She was swept up in the world of music before I was. I am always afraid she is going to leave the band and go do a triple major history, English, philosophy somewhere…she will at some point.”
When Nero thinks back to his time at Kenyon College, the waffle iron and waffle batter made available to students 24/7 hold a special place in his heart, “I ate roughly 14,000 waffles over the course of my college career,” he says.
Nero’s advice for students with dreams of being a musician is to take it as seriously as one would any other craft or profession. “Immerse yourself in the business and practical sides of the life sooner than later. If this is a problem—if it sucks the joy out of the actual art-making for you—then you should keep music as a hobby,” says Nero.
Check out “Trampoline,” off their self-titled album, below, and keep your eyes peeled for a live concert album in the near future.