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North Brother Island Is The

Best Weird Band In Phoenix

Image retrieved from North Brother Island Facebook page.

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Phoenix Based North Brother Island — A Chamber-Folk Five-Piece — Will Play Their Sixth Show Of The Year At Icehouse Taxidermy Show This Friday

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By Jeff Moses
Modern Times Magazine

Nov. 22, 2013 — Not every band is looking to get famous and not every genre is meant for the masses, and Phoenix-based chamber folk quintet North Brother Island is one of those bands just trying to carve out their own little niche.

“Tiny Desk Concert,” was drummer Aaron Hjalmarson's answer for what “success” looks like for North Brother Island.

His band mate Dario Miranda added “NPR that’s the pinnacle for a band like this.”

But for the group of experienced musicians, fame and glory are not part of the decision making or creative process at all.

“We’ve kind of all been in bigger bands where you play every weekend it doesn't matter where. You just play just to book shows, but with this band we can be really really picky about our audience, our venue, the whole event. So all of the shows we’ve played so far have kind of been completely ideal to us,” said Megyn Neff, violinist, formerly of Dry River Yacht Club.

North Brother Island recently played a Halloween show at Crescent Ballroom accompanied by a creepy film screening, and even with Crescent’s partition up that blocks off a good half the venue the size of the show was still a success.

“That’s right on the edge of being a little too big for us. We like small spaces. it was fantastic. the sound was great, the audience was amazing but we just need to have more control,” said Miranda.

North Brother Island’s next show will be under their complete control and taking place at taxidermy show at downtown Phoenix’s Icehouse 429 W. Jackson St.  “It’s a little different than your typical Friday night going out to see a show. It’s at a taxidermy exhibition, so taxidermy kind of has this sense of weirdness and a little bit of doom maybe and it's just kind of out there and then icehouse is a just an amazing historic location which is what we like,” said violinist Megyn Neff.

It’s a great backdrop for us,” added Miranda. “I  think the people that would go see a taxidermy exhibition would really like to listen to our music, whatever that says about us.”

The exhibition has been going on all month and Miranda, Neff and Hjalmarson will join their band mates, pianist Jason Mohlenbroch, and cellist Ambur Keryne Gore to play the the final night. Along with Miranda and Neff’s side project Towncraft, which they do along with Michael Krasner, Rick Heinz, and Shane Kennedy.  The show is free all ages and begins at 8 p.m.

North Brother Island incorporates banjo. violin, drums, piano, and cello to create their unique, slow, and haunting sounds. But what truly makes the band stand out among the rest is what their songs are written about. All of the songs are about strange goings on in history. Even the name North Brother Island is the name of an Island in New York City’s East River that once had hundreds of dead bodies wash up on to it following a boating disaster. As well as hosted a quarantine hospital that once housed the infamous “Typhoid Mary.”

But the songs go deeper, such as their track “Dancing Plague,” which according to the band is about a plague in Stausberg, Germany in 1518 where near 400 people danced themselves to death.

“They were having heart attacks or dying from exhaustion, they’re not exactly sure what caused it there a few different theories. One being moldy bread, others think it may have  just been there was a famine at the time and it was just peoples way of dealing with it,” Miranda said.”The thing I liked about it and the reason I wanted to write a song about it is because the way they tried to deal with this was to build a stage in an area for everyone to dance. They had a band play so everyone could dance it out and I love the idea of having this band that is going to play for people who are going to dance no matter what and that we try to do that with the song. We have these weird time things going on because the band would be playing a certain time but the people had their own time so we try to be more impressionistic.”

Another of North Brother Island’s songs of historical oddity and tragedy is their song “Molasses Disaster,” which is about an early 1900’s molasses spill in Boston which left part of the city crippled for days while trying to clean up the mess.

One that hits particularly close to home for Phoenicians is their ode to downtown murderess Winnie Ruth Judd. The song is about its namesake who, according to Miranda, was arrested in the 1930s along with an accomplice for murdering two of her friends.

“The accomplice in this ended up chopping up the bodies and putting them in a trunk, which is actually where the Trunk Space gets its name,” said Miranda. “This happened on like Thomas and Central. Her accomplice put her on a train and said go to L.A. where her husband was and everything will be taken care of for you. When she gets there, she ends up getting caught and they both go down for it but she gets put into a state hospital and they just let her come and go as she pleased and he spent a good amount of time in jail.”

Miranda, the band's chief songwriter and only remaining original member, admitted that he cannot write songs about love, and break up and other more popular themes in contemporary songwriting.

“Those songs take things that are very small like a relationship or a break up. They try to make them big. Like my love is a mountain, I would cross an ocean always a hyperbole,” said Miranda. “So the approach I wanted to take is, take these things that are big and break it down to the smallest piece of it which is basically one person’s experience. So I try and put myself in their shoes so its kind of like being an actor.”

Jeff Moses a senior contributor at Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at jmoses@moderntimesmagazine.com.
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