Five years ago, Nat Russell quit his job at Luna Music and moved to Berkeley, Calif., to pursue his graphic-design career as an artist-in-residence.
Birds of America will play the Big Car Gallery in the Murphy Arts Center on Friday.
This week, he's returning to town as the creative force behind the band Birds of America, an avant-folk troupe whose music emanates a homemade, meditative feel and which has gotten national praise.
Although he'd played with bands in Muncie and was briefly a member of Bloomington's Impossible Shapes, it was his art, not his music that was his focus when he got to California.
"When you move, you can only take so many things," Russell said in a recent phone interview. "And I brought a guitar that my dad had given me. I was living in an attic apartment and ended up making four-track recordings all the time."
While working at a record store in California, a coworker released a lathe-cut 7-inch record of Russell's music. It whetted his appetite for more.
He set up a four-track in his apartment and began creating music with his roommate, SamFlax Kleener. "The record is a testament of staying up late and talking and pressing the record button every now and then. Then it became something else," he said.
"Every night, we'd sit down to record and we'd make food. We'd sit and make food and talk about what was going on in the world, and in our lives and our friends' lives," he said. "About two hours later, we'd say that we needed to record. We were staying in this old Victorian home with these 12-foot ceilings. We'd turn off the lights and play and press the record button with our foot."
Full of whimsy and exuberance, Birds of America's music is hard to classify. "When we played Chicago, someone wrote that we played 'catatonic folk.' When you play guitar and sing, it's so hard to explain to people what you sound like. Another time, a friend came up to me and said our stuff was 'prehistoric.' I really dug that description too. But I think the way to describe our music is stripped-down, prehistoric folk."
On tour, they're expanding a bit, adding electric guitar and a Casio keyboard, but it's still minimalistic. Birds of America is all about extremely complex simplicity, and it's hard not to get caught up in their enthusiasm.
On their new disc, Current Carry, they experiment with a variety of sonic textures, including a gently-rumbling Rhodes electric piano, bass and a periodic horn burst or two. Songs seem to magically create themselves and then slowly dissolve.
It's challenging and entertaining and quite unlike most music produced these days.
"It's basically about the voice and the gurgling and rumbling sounds underneath it," Russell said.
The result is a delight for low-fi aficionados. They've been compared to The Microphone, Skip Spence and even Paul McCartney's early, self-recorded, solo work.
Having lived both in Indianapolis and California, Russell said there isn't much difference in the way bands build audiences and a creative scene develops.
"It's almost the same all over. I think that there are just more people in the Bay Area," he said. "Sometimes, I play a show and it's just me and a couple of friends, you know? But I feel like there is a good community of musicians who stick together and play shows together. I think I only played one show in Indianapolis when I was there, probably because I was too nervous or wasn't good enough.
"But a lot of my best musical experiences happened in Indianapolis," he said. "I saw so many great house shows and a couple times I saw people just set up amps in the park near Circle Centre. The important thing to remember is to keep working. If you can't fill up Radio Radio, try and play a house party. I think it's more about having creative friends and not giving up."
For more information on Birds of America, visit their Web site at www.thisishowwedo.com/birds/.