C-VILLE WEEKLY: North by southeast: Heron & Crane’s Firesides arrives via online collaboration
That’s how long Heron & Crane’s first record, Firesides, has been in the works, whether or not Travis Kokas and Dave Gibson were aware of it.
Kokas and Gibson met at a sparsely attended rock show in 1997, while both were students at Ohio State University in Columbus. They got to talking and discovered they shared a myriad of interests: Both were film geeks, and they had “all the same musical obsessions,” says Gibson. (Incidentally, they’d both go on to become librarians.)
They became buds, and soon after that, bandmates, playing in a band called The Cusacks “like John and Joan,” says Gibson, who describes his and Kokas’ first musical collaboration as a “power-poppy, Elephant 6-sounding band” that took inspiration from a recording collective comprised of some of the most notable indie rock bands of the 1990s and 2000s, such as Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control, and The Apples in Stereo.
When Gibson moved to Charlottesville, the friends kept in touch, talking often, visiting occasionally, and keeping tabs on one another’s musical projects. Gibson played psychedelic power pop with Borrowed Beams of Light for a while, and founded catchy indie pop band Weird Mob (with Renee Reighart) and kosmische-krautrock-synthwave duo Personal Bandana (with Travis Thatcher), while Kokas pursued a solo psych-pop project, Cryptids After Dark.
Gibson (as well as Reighart and a few other area musicians) helped Kokas record some of those Cryptids After Dark tracks while he was visiting from Columbus, and the two kept working on the songs after the fact and from afar, sending digital music files back and forth.
They discovered it was an exciting way to collaborate on music, and decided to start a new band where they could play the “weird, mellow, instrumental, folky” music they both love, says Gibson. It was “an opportunity to do music that we enjoy, that didn’t exactly sit with our other musical projects.”
Dusty old demos hatched fresh new ideas, and after an initial Charlottesville basement recording session in fall 2017, with just a drum machine and 12-string guitar, Heron & Crane took flight across the internet, with Gibson and Kokas trading off building up a track—a synth part here (Gibson), a guitar part there (Kokas).
Both say that it was exciting to open emails and see that the other one had uploaded a new file to their shared Dropbox, each time an aural surprise that would either confirm the direction they were following, or suggest a new one entirely.
“We built and built, and then we almost had too much stuff,” says Gibson. “Here are all the possible ideas…then for the sake of not totally overburdening people’s ears with different parts, we whittled it down to what it became.”
Firesides became a record in which Gibson and Kokas use a limited palette of analog instruments (no software sounds allowed)—including a 12-string guitar, a variety of MOOG and Yamaha synthesizers (including one that could do everything from sampling to Mellotron mimicry), an Oberheim DX drum machine, and an organelle—to explore the gentle, pastoral topography of electronic music.
The Heron & Crane name is, among other things, a reference to Russian filmmaker Yuri Norstein’s The Heron and The Crane, a 10-minute animated short from 1974 based on a fairy tale about a hapless courtship between the two titular birds. It’s also a nod to Mike Heron, a member of the highly influential British psychedelic folk act The Incredible String Band, founded in the 1960s. Renee Reighart designed the Firesides cover art, capturing the colorful, calming landscapes that Kokas and Gibson kept in mind while composing.
“You can tell we were feeling ourselves out a bit on this record,” says Kokas, pointing to the variety of sounds and feelings stretching across the album’s 10 tracks. Side one of the LP (they pressed 100 copies to red vinyl) is a bit more experimental, with the Electric Light Orchestra-inspired “Stars Over Nara,” the krautrock song “Surf Trials,” and Kokas’ ode to Gibson’s basement, “Cave Cricket Crossing.” Side two is a “bit more cohesive,” says Kokas, with the Gibson-penned Stereolab-y “Space Junk” and the duo’s favorite, the Kokas-written “Companions Of Fish & Turtles,” which they both say best captures the vibe they aimed for from the start.
“It’s very much ready to be played during a Folger’s coffee commercial,” says Gibson with a laugh. “A lot of what influenced this record is weird music from old educational films and stuff.” All that “library music” used in film and television scores, and the British psych-folk that both he and Kokas bonded over more than two decades ago.
Somewhere out there on what Gibson calls the “weird fantasy landscape” of Firesides, they found a new frontier worth exploring together:“It’s probably the funnest record I’ve ever done,” says Kokas. “I feel rejuvenated.”