One Ring Zero Does the Planets, Their Way

Lit-rock meets Holst.

Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp of One Ring Zero in their studio, Brooklyn, NY 2003 Photo by Chris Smith Photography

While some bands are busy competing to see whose jeans are the skinniest, the guys in One Ring Zero march to the sound of their own accordion. Embracing a quirky lit-rock sound similar to that of They Might Be Giants, One Ring Zero is more likely to collaborate with New York Times best sellers than guitar heroes. Group leaders and classically trained composers Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp reveal their zest for science and a secret Gustav Holst fetish on their eighth album, Planets.

The aptly-titled CD is a song cycle for the planets (yes, really), and it’ll be dropping on iTunes September 1st. With lyric contributions by novelist Rick Moody (The Ice Storm) and occasionally lush European folk dance arrangements, Planets is not your typical mainstream album. Yet it still manages to entertain, and includes the occasional gem like “Venus,” a pop ditty that sounds like Brian Wilson smuggling a pocket full of gypsies and a tuba through space. I spoke to Michael and Joshua via email last week about aliens, astronauts and their recording process.

Air & Space: Gustav Holst doesn’t get many shout-outs these days. What made you think that it was time, and have you always been a fan of his?

Joshua Camp: After reading about the big row over the International Astronomical Union demoting Pluto to a mere dwarf planet a few years back, we thought this would make a great song. The recording sounded so good that we realized we had to write a whole record on all the planets, and of course Gustav Holst’s The Planets is the definitive work based on our solar system.

Michael Hearst: I think it also has something to do with growing up in the Star Wars generation. I remember the first time I really sat down and listened to Holst’s The Planets, I thought, “Gee, this sounds a lot like Star Wars.” Duh! Of course it was the other way around, John Williams clearly being inspired by Holst. Nonetheless, The Planets has continued to be one of my favorite orchestral works.

A & S: Your songs are usually not lacking in the atypical instrument department. What did you do to bring your sound up to space travel readiness, arrangement-wise, for the new album?

JC: We added a lush orchestral sound of brass and strings, which haven’t been as prevalent on past records . . . Of course, because it’s a One Ring Zero album, we also have theremin (a sci-fi movie standard), as well as accordions, claviolas, organs, and lots of noise-making toys found on all our previous recordings.

MH: Definitely a lot more sound layers were added to this production than some of our previous works. For some of the songs it was like recording an orchestra, one instrument at a time. There are also a few secret hidden gems in there, like the actual audio recording of the Phoenix probe making its descent onto the surface of Mars. We did a lot of research. Not just on our solar system, but also beyond. I even went as far as to talk to astronaut Sam Durrance on the phone, who is a specialist in exoplanets.

A & S: The roster of lyricists that you’ve worked with reads more like a Barnes & Noble bookshelf than a rock ‘n’ roll festival schedule. Any reason you prefer guest novelists to guest songwriters?

MH: When Joshua and I first moved to New York in 2001, we became good friends with the guys from McSweeney's Publishing. Essentially, we were their "house band" for the next several years, which meant we played all of their literary events . . . At some point, it dawned on us that it would be fun to ask some of the writers that we were performing with to come up with lyrics for us. The idea of collaborating with other artists has always been an important part of One Ring Zero’s career, whether it’s with writers, modern dancers, filmmakers, or celebrity chefs. Of course, we also like writing our own lyrics.

A & S: What made you decide to work with novelist Rick Moody?

MH: Of all the writers that we've worked with, Rick has continued to be our closest literary collaborator. It certainly helps that Rick is also a musician, performing both as a solo artist and with his group The Wingdale Community Singers. His taste in music is very much in line with ours, spanning from alternative, to jazz, to classical, to geeky 70's prog rock, which took a big role on Planets. At this point, Rick Moody is pretty much an honorary member of One Ring Zero.

A & S: Describe your sound in three words, using all nouns.

JC: Circus rock melodies.

A & S: I know choosing a favorite song is like choosing a favorite child, but if you could go back in time and have had one track from Planets sent into space on the 1977 Voyager Golden Record to represent you, which one would you pick and why?

JC: Maybe "Mars (Part II)," because it goes through so many musical changes in a very short time. It represents a lot of our interests in one brief sonic statement.

MH: Yeah, "Mars Part II" is a good choice, aesthetically speaking. Though I might put "Earth" on there just to keep things simple. I wouldn't want to confuse the extraterrestrials that find the album. [They might think] "Wait, are they from Mars or are they from Earth?” Then again, we will have probably colonized Mars by the time the Golden Record is discovered. Yeah, okay, on that note, I’ll go with “Mars.”

Jeff Campagna is the Art Services Coordinator for Smithsonian Magazine.

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