"So we sent some music to Denis Johnson, and he thanked us for the CD. But he said he really didn't hear his words being set to German circus music," says Michael Hearst. Hearst comprises half of the eccentric music duo One Ring Zero, a band whose reputation looms so large in literary circles that aspiring authors send them unpublished novels. As Smart as We Are, One Ring Zero's concept album featuring lyrics by some of America's brightest literary lights, will do little to squelch the rumors that Hearst and Josh Camp are as well-connected as they are well-read.
Johnson, the award-winning Munich-born author of such critically acclaimed novels as Angels and Jesus' Son, wanted to write a simple country song. "We said, 'Hey, no problem,'" Hearst explains. "Josh used to play in a country band back in Richmond, and we can do that." So the two self-proclaimed geeks who are generally incapable of making music without inserting theremins and glockenspiels into the mix played it straight.
"Bless now, the cancer of the bone. The last light making beautiful the poisons in the sky," they harmonize Johnson's lyrics over a Byrds-inspired bit of classic honky-tonk. In spite of the song's dirty, urbanized Christ imagery, it's treated as reverently as any hymn. Other lyric-contributions of the literati include Dave Eggers' song about volcanoes, Margaret Atwood's valentine from Frankenstein, and playwright and monologist Clay McLeod Chapman's sultry vaudeville teaser about the advantages of being born with male and female sex organs. And there's more. As Smart as We Are is an 18-song disc filled with big words and grand themes and tempered with sonic silliness and unexpected moments of stark sincerity.
After finishing music school in Richmond, Hearst and Camp found themselves underemployed. They played in pop bands and worked for Honer, the musical instrument company famous for its harmonicas. During Hearst and Camp's tenure as instrument techs, Honer introduced the claviola, a floating-reed instrument that looks like an accordion that ate a bagpipe. Only 50 of the bizarre instruments were ever produced, and seven were shipped to Richmond.
"Josh got an idea to build a band around this instrument," Hearst says. And so One Ring Zero was born.
"We realized that there might really be a future in this silly shit," Hearst says. And when the group finally outgrew their hometown, they moved on to New York to seek their fortunes as the world's foremost claviolists.
"I remember I was reading Eggers' book [A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius] when a friend told me that Eggers had a store in my neighborhood."
Eggers' Store (yes, that's what it's called) didn't have a sign. But Hearst knew it wasn't the tattoo parlor, and he knew it wasn't the German restaurant. Using a process of elimination, he found a shop filled with useless, randomly priced objects, strewn here and there with copies of Eggers' literary journal McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. It was a perfect blend of art and tomfoolery, and Hearst felt right at home.
"There was a cubbyhole full of plastic toothbrushes," Hearst recalls. One was 50 cents and one was $8. Everything was random." He gave the store manager a copy of his band's demo CD and half an hour later One Ring Zero was McSweeney's house band, warming up for celebrity authors and celebrities.
"We even played when Viggo Mortensen came in to read poetry," Hearst says. "And it was like, 'Look over there, it's Aragorn.'"
On Wednesday, February 9th, One Ring Zero should feel right at home when they play Jay Etkin Gallery on South Main. Etkin's gallery is a place where you can purchase serious art by some of the region's best artists. Or, for a discount price, you can buy a bag of Etkin's discarded pear stems. "You'd buy one of Picasso's pear stems," the artist and proprietor says to his prospective customers.
Sounds like a match made in heaven.