Dustin Krcatovich

Dustin Krcatovich
"Stop Pontificating"
Front Man, Actual Birds and the High Spirits; President, CTEC; Host, WCBN Local Music Show

Tottered on: 9 February 2006
Temperature: 29 F
Ceiling: sunny
Ground: snowy
Wind: W at 16 mph

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TT with HD: Dustin Krcatovich

[Ed. note: Actual Birds' and other local Ann Arbor musical efforts can be purchased here. And there's (of course) Actual Birds MySpace.]

HD: Ready?

DK: Yeah, let's get this going.

HD: You know, since yesterday you had a photo shoot for your album, I thought we'd start off by taking your picture and we'll get that out of the way.

DK: Okay.

HD: So let's slow down the tottering action ... I'll get a quick picture ... ready?

DK: Yeah.

HD: One, two, three ... and we'll take a couple more so that I have some to choose from ... cool ... So how did that photo shoot go yesterday?

DK: Pretty well.

HD: Was it grueling?

DK: No, no. We only did one roll. I thought it would be really funny to do shots in my underwear ... because I work at American Apparel. And it seems like every ad that has a boy in it, has a boy in his underwear. So I was going to put that underneath the CD: a picture of me in a T-shirt and underwear, but the roll ran out exactly when I was about ready to drop trou. I considered that a message from whatever higher-up may be, that maybe I shouldn't do that. Maybe that was fate's way of telling me that was a poor choice.

HD: Okay, well, I'm glad that you brought it up because I was going to bring it up. On your website, there's pictures of you with your pants at half-mast showing your underwear. I was wondering if that pair of underwear that's on the web, is that like a special pair of underwear?

DK: There's nothing special about them as far as them relating to me as a person or an artistic or musical entity. Like I said, I work at American Apparel. And they sell briefs in, I don't know, 25 different colors? So I've got a bunch of them. All those pictures were taken kind of as a joke photo shoot related to the fact that I work there.

HD: The ones on the web, I couldn't tell if they're pink or red ...

DK: ... they're fuchsia, so they're like a very intense pink.

HD: You say you have a bunch of pairs like that. All the same color?

DK: No! No, no. They're all different colors.

HD: You have a favorite pair? A pair that you would consider the pair that you would wear if you had a show to play at someplace like ... what's your fantasy venue that you've never played before ... like Hollywood Bowl?

DK: I think it'd be a small place. Like right now I think a place I want to play, that I haven't yet, is this place in Los Angeles called The Smell. Where a lot of people play that are on this label, Not Not Fun Records ... I don't know who runs [the Smell] but they play there a lot. So I feel like they have serious hand in it. That's a place that I haven't seen or played that I would like to play.

HD: So let's say somebody lines up a show there for you at The Smell. Is there a pair of underwear that you'd say, That's the pair that I've got to have on to play that show?

DK: If they were clean by the time I got to Los Angeles, ... probably army green.

HD: What color you got on right now?

DK: Lemon yellow.

HD: It's not that I have a fascination with underwear. But I wrote a song a while back called Happy Underwear, based on the premise that people do categorize their underwear into the happy underwear ...

DK: ... Oh, yeah! ...

HD: ... the underwear that you would wear for a job interview, for a special occasion, to ask your girlfriend to marry you. You make a choice. I mean, you say, Those are the underwear I'm going to be wearing for this ...

DK: Oh, I think that's absolutely true. I have like six pairs of attractive briefs and then many pairs of dumpy boxer shorts. If I'm playing a show, I'd never wear the dumpy boxer shorts. I read this list that Wayne Kramer wrote for this Rolling Stone book years ago about tips for playing on stage with a rock and roll band. He said, Always wear your nicest clothes, it's one of the few places where appearance matters more than comfort. And I don't know if I fully agree with that, but it's stuck with me regardless.

HD: So what are you wearing tonight? You're playing The Blind Pig ...

DK: I'm wearing what I'm wearing right now except without the coat and hoodie. And I can show you real quick the T-shirt I made yesterday. Says, Stop Pontificating.

HD: Mind if I get a picture of that?

DK: Not at all. Let me get the scarf out of the way. Can you see the whole thing?

HD: I think so. Let me zoom in here. Okay, one two three. Beautiful. So you're going to wear that and that'll be totally visible, Stop Pontificating. Is this an ink-jet, iron-on transfer type of thing?

DK: No, I did the design with bleach and paint markers.

HD: So this is a one-off.

DK: Yeah, yeah. I've done only one T-shirt design that I actually had professionally screen printed. I want to do a lot more, but it's not my first priority for where I allocate my funds right now.

HD: So what is your first priority, ... music?

DK: Yeah, the record label [Casanova Temptations Edutainment Concern]. Other than the obvious practical costs of paying rent and bills, what-have-you ...

HD: ... new guitar strings ...

DK: ... yeah, ... I'm moving away from playing guitar, but musical equipment, CD-R's. I'm putting out a real CD soon, not just a CD-R and that's going to cost a lot of money. So things related to playing music and owning a record label is where most of my money goes.

HD: Your website says hopefully the new CD comes out in the spring. Is that still on schedule?

DK: It's still on schedule. The album's done. I'm working on the cover art this week and the next.

HD: So all the recording is done, what could possibly stop you?

DK: Money. It costs about 1100 dollars to do 1000 CD's and 1000 is the minimum. where you get special prices.

HD: So are trying to recruit investors to help this along? Or is this just a matter of saving enough out of a series of American Apparel paychecks?

DK: What I think it's going to end up being is just me taking out a loan. Because I think if I can sell a third of the CD's ...

HD: ... then you'll break even?

DK: Yeah. And that's just thinking of selling at wholesale price. I'm sure I'll be selling a lot of them at full price, like at shows ...

HD: So are you going to be playing stuff from that album at the show tonight?

DK: A couple of songs from that album. One old one. One that hasn't been recorded for anything yet, or no recordings of it have been completed. And one's a cover of another local musician, Patrick Elkins.

HD: You going to do Crooked Smile tonight?

DK: I am going to do Crooked Smile. But in a really different way than what it sounds on the record. Like I say, I've been moving away from the guitar, especially the acoustic guitar, of late. Not because it's a bad instrument, but because I'm not particularly good at bringing out it's good qualities.

HD: What are you going to be playing instead?

DK: I'm going to be playing some various electronics, tape loops and keyboard for part of it. A friend of mine has a really nice vintage Fender Rhodes keyboard. And I was going to borrow that. But we didn't have it at practice. So instead, just for practice's sake, we had this little Casio. Because that Casio can be amplified ... it's got a headphone jack ... we decided that would suit our purposes just as well, I wouldn't say better. It's just a different thing ...

HD: So it'll be you with a bunch of electronic equipment and it'll be you singing. Will there be anybody else involved?

DK: Yeah, there'll be three people in the band tonight, besides myself. Chris Bathgate, who plays some of the material, and as of right now is in the band Descent of the Holy Ghost Church. I guess they're breaking up within two weeks. Or have broken up and are honoring this one last show that they're going to play or something. And then MC Trashpedal. I don't know if he's still going by that moniker, but I don't want to ruin it if he is and he's trying to trying to keep his real name under wraps. Anyway, he plays trumpet and xylophone and stuff through a series of effects pedals and gets a ...

HD: ... when you say he plays trumpet through the pedals, you mean he's actually got a physical trumpet ... ?

DK: ... he's got a physical trumpet and he plays it through a microphone. The microphone is connected to maybe an octave pedal, a flanger, ... I don't know, any number of things. I don't even know a lot of his pedals. He covers everything up with stickers and you can't really tell what he's doing. I don't know if that's his intention or if that's just ...

HD: ... and then there's an additional third person.

DK: Yeah, there's Sean Schuster-Craig, who goes under the name Jib Kidder by himself, or occasionally with others, but it's kind of his baby. He'll be playing drums or maybe some kind of acoustic, stringed instrument, a melodica or something.

HD: So it's going to be the four of you converging on what to me sounds like a very simple, pure little folk tune, Crooked Smile?

DK: Yeah, the band is called the High Spirits and it kind of started as me joking with my friend, Scott DeRoche, at a party ... my parents were really into soft-rock kind of stuff: my dad loves John Denver, they like Neil Diamond, things like that. So I grew up around that kind of thing, modern country music or whatever. Jim Croche was the one who stuck with me. So I was joking with Scott DeRoche about starting a soft-rock band to play my music. That's how the High Spirits started. It was originally him on upright bass, me on acoustic guitar, Chris Bathgate on banjo and mandolin, and Collette Alexander, who's played with somebody who might actually qualify as a modern soft-rock singer, Rachael Yamagata. She's a professional cellist, so she was playing cello. And Aleise Barnett on backing vocals. We played three or four shows and that was the original incarnation of the High Spirits. But then I felt like it was really kind of one-dimensional. Everyone was doing a really good job. It wasn't like I felt like anybody was holding back what it could be. It's just, a lot of people didn't have time. Aleise left for Argentina, and she's not going to be living in Ann Arbor for more than a couple of weeks when she gets back. She's moving to New York. So she's kind of out of the band by default. I just kind of decided it wasn't representative of my ideas about music.

HD: So for independent reasons, the personnel changed, and you took the opportunity to change the musical direction of the band at the same time?

KD: Yeah, yeah. I mean I do like pop music. I like things that sound nice. But the issue that I ran into was: I want to be very very good at whatever I'm doing. And I feel like one thing I'm okay at, but not very very good at, is making music that sounds like conventional ideas of what sounds nice.

HD: So your strategy now is to make something that isn't trying to sound 'nice'?

DK: Yeah, yeah. The High Spirits with the acoustic backing instrumentation, in their original incarnation, they sounded pretty. And definitely, the people in the band were capable of doing other things, with the exception of me, and I'm not saying that to be self-deprecating, just honest, ... they're all excellent, excellent, expert musicians. They can do, and could have done, whatever I asked them too. That was part of the problem. They were very good at making music that sounds pretty. I feel like less-well-trained musicians are good at making music that's beautiful to me. You know there's a difference between pretty and beautiful. Maybe I didn't have to have a personnel change ... it might just be laziness on my part

HD: So that's the High Spirits. The Actual Birds, that's just you?

DK: Really, the full name of the band is: Actual Birds and the High Spirits. I was going to change it. For a while I was just going to have it be called the High Spirits. Because I felt like it wasn't like this ego-trip thing: here's me and then here's these other people, whoever they are, it is doesn't matter. I didn't want to give that impression. I didn't want to treat it that way. I talked to a couple of different people, who encouraged me to stay on the road I was on, because people already know what Actual Birds is. Or a significant enough number of people around town know ... a few people here and there across the country know. It is the same songs. It's just a different way of performing.

HD: So you mentioned staying on the same road. Last year about this time you were getting ready to launch yourself into a one-month tour around the country?

DK: Yeah, I did two tours last year. First one was in May and I went via Greyhound Bus ...

HD: I know one of the locations you played was in Bloomington, Indiana? I spent some time in graduate school there. Do you remember the name of the place you played?

DK: I was a house venue so I mean it was like I played in the living room. The place was called Fuck What You Heard. It was a few blocks from Boxcar Books, a co-op bookstore, a bookstore with an idealistic agenda ...

HD: What did you think of Bloomington? Did you have a chance to hang out there?

DK: I did, I did. It's a really nice town. Whenever I find a nice town in the Midwest, I'm really excited and a little surprised. I mean, I grew up in Michigan and I know there are nice places. I mean that not just in the sense that they're pretty, because the Midwest is pretty. People forget that if they've lived here long enough. There are really nice places to go and there are the Great Lakes and what-have-you. But you forget that there are nice places with a large, relatively open-minded community with all the college-town amenities that you would look for in an ideal college town, like Ann Arbor. I found a similar thing in Madison, as well, and like a lot of places out on the west coast: good coffee, good restaurants, good record stores, whatever. So Bloomington had that, and I really enjoyed my time there.

HD: I wanted to ask you, before I forget, about the content, the actual lyrical content of Crooked Smile. There's a lyric that says something like, I can't say that I'm sad. But the song, to me, just plays real sad, so there's a certain poetic irony to that I suppose. But I assume that it was based in part on some real life event, a lost love?

DK: Oh, yeah.

HD: I was just wondering when you write a song like that, do you worry or do you think at all about the person it's about ... that they're gonna come to you and say, Hey is that song about me? What are ya doin' takin' our lives and making a song out of it, for crying out loud?

DK: I do keep that in mind, because as unoriginal as it may be, a lot of my songs are about relationships or would-be relationships. I mean, every interaction with a person is a relationship ... it could be a romantic relationship. I think about it, but I feel like my conscience is such that I'm not going to write anything that I don't mean ... I definitely think, Am I comfortable saying this about this person who I know they're going to know it's about them? Because I'm not like a Casanova ... despite the name on my record label!

HD: Yeah, I was going to say, if you're not, then it's an unfortunate name for a record label.

DK: I can explain that, too! Basically when I write a song, maybe not 9 chances out of 10, but 8 chances out of 10, the person that I'm writing about is going to know it's about them, if they hear it. So yeah, it's definitely a concern, but like I said, my conscience is such that ...

HD: ... clear. So is there someone that's there for you, to listen to a first performance, after you've worked on a tune and you've got it to a point where you think, Okay this is ready for somebody else to hear, but maybe not do at a show? You have confidants who are willing to sit and listen? People you would trust to say, You know, Dustin, this really sucks?!

DK: Yeah, yeah. I mean there aren't a lot that are consistent. I usually have a tendency to hang out with somebody a lot for like a month. And then we'll not drift apart, but not hang out as often after that. So usually it'll be whoever that is at any given time. But Fred Thomas, who records and produces a lot of my recorded output. And Chris Bathgate. I trust them both a lot to offer opinions and thoughts on something to actually ...

HD: ... so these are guys who are not necessarily going to say, Oh it's great, it's great, everything you do is just wonderful !

DK: Yeah. Fred, him I trust more than anybody to give an honest opinion about a song, to tell me exactly what he thinks. Partly because he knows that that's what I'm expecting from him. But also just because he wants me to be at my best. When we were recording the new record, we had conversations about what I could be doing better. So yeah. Him more than anybody, but also Chris Bathgate.

HD: Well, as long as we're riding a teeter totter, which is fundamentally a children's toy, I wanted to ask you about a desire of yours you describe on your website to compile a collection of children's songs. It wasn't totally clear to me whether that meant songs composed by children, sung by children, ... I wasn't sure what exactly was entailed in this concept.

DK: I'm interested in both, but in that particular instance I was referring to songs performed by children.

HD: So not necessarily written by children

DK: Preferably, but not necessarily. Because once you get into a certain age, you become more aware of the radio and then you start singing along to whatever your favorite pop song is ... It varies from kid to kid, but the average child becomes aware, ... , of like Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake or whatever. That's one thing and that's fine, but ...

HD: ... so you're interested in hearing children's voices as they might sound without any of that overt influence ...

DK: Yeah, just like what kids have to say and they way that they have to say it. That's really an interesting thing to me. The first time I realized how much I loved listening to children singing, was a CD that was released a few years ago that was a reissue of couple of albums that were recorded in the 70's called the Langley Schools Music Project.

HD: This was the Australian ... ?

DK: No it's not Australian, it was somewhere in rural Canada. This guitarist, who I guess played in a bar band, ended up being a music teacher at these elementary schools ... so rather than teaching the kids how to sing and play you rudimentary versions of whatever children's standards, he taught them pop songs. And made recordings of them. So it's them singing like Sweet Caroline, or Venus and Mars, or Mandy ...

HD: ... I have to say ... the thought of that sounds like a nightmare, sounds like a train wreck, to me ...

DK: Oh it's amazing. Because it puts the melodies in this context ... it puts the songs in a whole new light that makes you think, Maybe these aren't all bad! Not all the songs are songs that you'd typically consider bad anyhow. But it puts you in touch with what is good about the songs. Obviously, it's little kids singing and maybe playing bells or whatever. So obviously there are imperfections about it. But it's this really beautiful thing. The first time I heard it, there was a 'zine I'd been working on for a year and I put the master pages on top of my car and drove off without taking them off ...

HD: ... bummer ...

DK: ... so I'd lost a lot of work and I was really upset. In all honesty I was crying. I was at my sister's house and I was going, This is horrible!! And I got on her computer and I had heard of the CD a year before and by happenstance looked it up and listened to sound samples of it. And I felt so much better! I realized at that point, and it became clear as time went on, that I really liked listening to kids singing. It's something about the innocence of intent ...

HD: ... you know, the quality of innocence is something that on the background vocal to Crooked Smile, ... that was the extent of the research I did, I listened to that one song over and over ..., but the background vocal by Kelly ...

DK: Kelly Jean Caldwell, yeah.

HD: It has, well, not imperfections like you described as associated with children's performances, but there's a certain a child-like, innocent quality to the voice, you know what I'm talking about?

DK: Sure.

HD: I don't know what it is that make it sound, well, 'innocent' really is the word I would use.

DK: Yeah, that's something that I've heard said can be used to describe the kind of music Kelly makes ... to a lesser extent the kind of music Fred Thomas makes. I don't think it's intentionally any kind of trend around town, but it's something that's has been happening. There are people who maybe sing in an untutored way or play guitar in a really simple way, or something like that. Which has a history before anything like that happening in Ann Arbor that I'm aware of. I mean, there's like K Records in Olympia, Washington and any number of things prior. Daniel Johnston comes to mind. People who are singing or playing in a really simple, or untutored, or maybe imperfect way ... that some people view as being more pure. ... And I don't necessarily agree with that. But it's definitely something that isn't unique to me or unique to Ann Arbor. But it's something that I suppose I do, and there's other people in Ann Arbor who fall into that category as well. I feel like they probably all like listening to little kids singing as well!!

HD: ... Final question: why no beard? I was all set to lay my favorite line on you that I say to other guys with beards, and most other guys with beards I can say this to: Mine's longer than yours! I really enjoy being able to say that.

DK: Well, now you can definitely say it!

HD: Well, no. Because you don't have one at all.

DK: Yeah, I shaved it all off. It's a surprisingly complicated answer to a really simple question. But I'll try to keep it relatively concise. The two-word answer is: seasonal depression. The more complicated version of that is: I'm around town a lot, I'm a man-about-town I guess, quote unquote, and people have this certain image of me, Oh there's the guy with the thick glasses and the beard ...

HD: ... so you figured you'd take one of those descriptors away, now you're just the guy with the thick glasses ...

DK: Yeah, I was the guy with the thick glasses, and the beard, who wears a lot of bright colors, and who's super-sunshiny most of the time, really positive-minded ... and I felt like I was becoming kind of a cartoon, Oh that's Dustin, that's what he is, that's Actual Birds ...

HD: ... cartoons these days are pretty dangerous, a pretty dangerous topic, cartoons of any kind, I think ...

DK: Yeah! I just wanted to move away from that. and I come to find out that girls like it a lot better. Guys are like, Where's your beard, dude? But the first time I went out after I shaved, I felt the most attractive I'd had in years. Which is strange, because I don't think it looks better.

HD: But you're getting positive feedback from the female community?

DK: Yeah, which, since I don't really care at the end of the day, it [having a beard or not] doesn't really matter to me, I'd say that's a positive thing.

HD: Yeah, it's good. So what form does that feedback take? I mean, I don't mean to be prying too deep, here ...

DK: ... oh, nothing X-rated! The funniest comment I got from somebody was, Oh my God, you look like Morrissey! Which is funny because I actually hate the Smiths and Morrissey. I don't think she knew that, but she meant it as a compliment, so I took it for what it was.

HD: Okay, any final thoughts you might have to share ?

DK: People need to support their local music community. Because it's an important part of the community and community-building. And, you know, don't be afraid to have a beard. Don't be afraid to not have a beard.

HD: I'm afraid to not have one.

DK: You've got a great beard, Dave. I have to say, I am definitely still a beard-admirer. I'm like all the other guys in that I'm really pro-beard, despite current physical evidence to the contrary.

HD: I'll let that be the final word then. That's a good final word. Okay, ready to dismount?

DK: Yeah.

HD: Okay, here we go.