Miracles Of Modern Science: No Guitars Necessary

Dec 11, 2011
Originally published on December 11, 2011 1:31 pm

A lot of rock bands visit the NPR studios with maybe a fiddle or two in tow. But Miracles of Modern Science are not a typical rock band. The group boasts a mandolin, upright bass, cello, violin, drums — and absolutely no electric guitar.

Evan Younger, Josh Hirshfeld, Kieran Ledwidge, Tyler Pines and Geoff McDonald met in college, where they bonded over a shared love of jazz, rock and classical music. But even more important to their chemistry, McDonald says, is a belief that those genres can play nice together, with satisfying results.

"There's sort of a thaw in the music community now between people who play classical music, or whatever you want to call it — concert music, art music — and what we do in music clubs," says McDonald. "And that's a really great thing. You see lots of people doing imaginative things from both sides of what was [once] a divide."

Miracles of Modern Science piled into NPR's Studio 4A to speak with Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish, and to perform songs from their debut album, Dog Year.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Most rock bands that visit NPR take a fair bit of time tuning up before the interview. But the Miracles of Modern Science took it to a whole new level.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUNING INSTRUMENTS)

CORNISH: Miracles of Modern Science is a rock band with all the trappings of a chamber music ensemble.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Strings are the band's driving force. They arrived with a violin, upright bright bass and cello in tow. Yes, there is a drummer, but if you're waiting to hear the electric guitar tune up, don't bother - there isn't one. The closest they'll come is an amped up mandolin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: The members of Miracles of Modern Science met in college. They all come from different musical backgrounds - rock, jazz, classical. What they share is a healthy dose of goofiness.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEATBOXING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's so loud and so annoying.

CORNISH: Here's how it breaks down: there are five miracles, so to speak. Evan Younger sings and plays the upright bass; Geoff McDonald plays the cello and Josh Hirshfield, mandolin. Kieran Ledwidge is the violinist. Tyler Pines is the group's drummer. Their debut album is called "Dog Year," and we asked them to perform for us in Studio 4A a couple of weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOM'S AWAY")

CORNISH: The song they just performed is called "Mom's Away." That song makes me want to, like, run around in a field screaming or like being in love. I love that song, I love that song.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you. Feel free.

CORNISH: What's the reaction that you get from people when you roll up in the club with the cello case or the mandolin?

EVAN YOUNGER: This is Evan. A lot of times we've gotten mistakenly booked on folk bills before. There will be people there kind of earnestly strumming acoustic guitar and then we get up and we're like, you ready to rock?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Completely destroying the mood.

CORNISH: I think we should probably play a song. Is there one in particular you think...

YOUNGER: "Eating Me Alive." It's the first single off our album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EATING ME ALIVE")

CORNISH: That was "Eating Me Alive" by the band Miracles of Modern Science. They're speaking to us here in Studio 4A at NPR. Kieran, halfway through that song you do this really intense bow stringing thing. I don't know how to explain it. Explain it.

KIERAN LEDWIDGE: Oh the - wait, this...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN STRUMMING)

LEDWIDGE: That?

CORNISH: Yeah, yeah. Is there a violin teacher somewhere who's cringing or are you pushing your instrument to kind of the limits of this?

LEDWIDGE: I don't tell any of my old violin teachers about what it is that I do. No, it's a technique. It's called glissando. Ending up and finishing on the right note is a challenge and it keeps me line. But, yeah, it's one of the tuning qualities available to the instrument.

CORNISH: The reason why I ask is because I think of orchestral music as being about control, and rock is basically about the opposite. It's about kind of having, if anything, controlled chaos. And are there times when you push the instrument to its limit or you use it in ways that are unorthodox?

LEDWIDGE: Absolutely. Well, I mean, that's the thing. That's the bit deceptive, I think, is that in being very controlled, there can be a lot of energy and excitement. The techniques that you're using and executing them correctly, hopefully, creates a more intense sound. And, of course, in the heat of the moment in the middle of the show, that will, who knows. But that's my mindset.

CORNISH: There's something, when I was doing my research on your guys, I saw something that maybe raised a few questions. The spacesuits - you used to wear spacesuits.

YOUNGER: We'll never be free of that.

CORNISH: What happened there? What was the idea behind it? Where are they now 'cause now you're wearing flannel.

YOUNGER: Well, use your imagination.

GEOFF MCDONALD: Actually, we're not all wearing flannel.

JOSH HIRSCHFIELD: The flannel is off the records.

YOUNGER: Well, for our first show ever we wanted to do something special, and we kind of on a whim ordered these silver spacesuit costumes off eBay. They sort of drew a crowd on their own. So, our second show, we came out and we started setting up and people started clamoring for spacesuits and we realized we had made a horrible mistake. But there was this ironic juxtaposition of these futuristic costumes with our sort of antique instruments. And then I guess once we graduated college, we were still wearing the spacesuits and they were starting to deteriorate - they started to smell a bit. At one point, we bravely decided to try playing a show without them and we found that people still liked us.

CORNISH: Were you nervous though?

YOUNGER: We were. By that point, it had been such a part of our identity, like we are the band with string instruments that wear spacesuits. But about that time, we realized the music could stand on its own.

CORNISH: One thing I haven't asked you about is lyrics. Is that OK?

HIRSCHFIELD: The lyrics are a source of anxiety for us, I think.

CORNISH: How come?

YOUNGER: I tend to procrastinate on the lyric-writing process, because I'm a little self-conscious on putting my emotions out there. And so we'll get to the point where we're down to the wire. We have the song all recorded. The studio time is booked and we need to sing something. And I think under the pressure of that deadline, that's when the most emotionally honest stuff kind of comes out of me, whether I wanted to or not.

LEDWIDGE: As far as connecting with an audience, there's really nothing more essential than the human voice. If you're going to sing a song, it's always going to be the vocal line and that's what people are going to just naturally gravitate towards.

CORNISH: Well, you are accomplished. The songs are effectively stuck in my head.

YOUNGER: Thank you.

CORNISH: We have one more song left, which does show off your voices a little bit and the lyrics a little bit. And it's a song called "Friend of the Animals." So, before we go, Evan Younger on the vocals-bassist, Josh Hirschfield on mandolin, Geoff McDonald, cellist, Kieran Ledwidge on violin and Tyler Pines, the drummer. You are the band Miracles of Modern Science. Thank you all for coming in to play with us.

YOUNGER: Thank you.

HIRSCHFIELD: Thanks.

MCDONALD: Thanks.

LEDWIDGE: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CORNISH: The debut album from Miracles of Modern Science is called "Dog Ear," and it's out now. You can hear full songs from their performance at NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.