Ticketfly Talent: Brendan Mulvihill–Singer, Songwriter, Russian Translator

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Give it up for the next entry in our “Ticketfly Talent” series, which showcases the many talents of our Flyers. We’ve got loads of musicians, DJs, singers, and artists of all types who are Fly by day and rock stars by night (though we tend to think they’re rock stars 24/7). They’re awesome, and we want the world to know.

Today, we catch up with Brendan Mulvihill, one of the hardworking guys on our client support team. But that’s just one of the bullet-points on his eclectic resumé. Brendan is also the man behind solo “freak folk” band Norwegian Arms and a foreign language expert who occasionally translates articles for Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova. Here, the multitalented and multilingual renaissance man talks about his music, living in Russia and why vinyl rules.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m 29. I live in Brooklyn. I’m a client support representative at Ticketfly. I’m originally from Philadelphia.

How long have you been making music?
Probably since around 18; the tail end of high school. I got involved with the local punk/DIY scene in my hometown. I had a band and started setting up shows, putting out CDs and trying to go on some semblance of a tour as a 19-year-old guy with no connections at all in the suburbs.

When did you start Norwegian Arms?
I started Norwegian Arms more or less in 2009. It was me and Eric Slick for a long time but he became very busy with his other band, which is a much more well known band named Dr. Dog. He’s the drummer. He’s recorded on both of the Norwegian Arms albums—the one I released and the one I’m finishing up now—but he doesn’t really play much with us any more. It’s always basically been my project. I do all of the songwriting and arranging myself. But the band is also a keyboard player—a very close friend of mine—and one of a number of very talented drummers, depending on availability.

According to your band bio, there’s no Brendan Mulvihill. You go by the name Keith Birthday instead.
I do. I mean, I don’t but I do. I was originally going to be a teacher professionally. At the time I was working a bunch of teaching jobs and just for the sake of personal privacy, I decided to not use my real name when doing band things. You figure the parents are Googling you. It’s not that I was doing something that would bother them, but you have to keep something for yourself, some semblance of a private life, especially if you’re an artist trying to express yourself.

It was kind of a joke that grew to become something of a necessity. I used it as a pseudonym for a lot of writing I was doing.. At this point it’s just sort of a thing where I’ll get an email addressed to him (Keith Birthday) and I’ll be like, “Well, my name is actually Brendan,” or they’ll think it’s another person. People will come up at a show like, “Where’s Keith?” and it’s like, “Oh yeah, funny story about that…” It just allows me to explore ideas a little bit and look outside of myself.

So does the name mean anything? Is there any reason you chose that name?
That’s a really dumb story. I was just in my house in Philadelphia and I had this popcorn ceiling. It looks like tiny little things embedded into the ceiling. I just tried to imagine what’s the process of getting that onto a wall. I imagined some guy having a Ghostbusters-style gun to shoot that stuff onto the ceiling. I decided that that person’s name who had that job would be Keith Birthday. I was with a bunch of friends and we were being stupid. I remembered it later when I was looking for a way to mask myself from the Googling parents of my students.

If you were a teacher here, how’d you end up in Russia?
I’ve always been a foreign language guy. When I was in my last semester of my undergraduate, I just needed a class, so I took this intensive Russian class … I got really into it and fell in love with it. I was looking to do a fellowship the following year in grad school. I always heard about the Fulbright Fellowship, so I just applied for one under the English teaching assistant program. I was sent to a city called Tomsk in the middle of Siberia. I got placed in a polytechnic university to redesign their English language curriculum … I did an ESL folk music project  that was created as a result of my time in Russia with one of the other fellows. We got grants to go to South America and Russia and travel around and write a text book.

I’m actually finishing my graduate degree [in applied linguistics] now. I’ll be done in December.

Congrats! So what came first, Russia or Norwegian Arms?
It kind of happened at the same time. I started performing as Norwegian Arms in December of 2008 or January 2009. I graduated college, started grad school, started Norwegian Arms and also started a DIY space in Philadelphia called The Ox, but then I got the fellowship. I came back in June of 2010, continued running the DIY space and also started tracking the first Norwegian Arms record.

Can you tell me more about The Ox?
It was this DIY collective with nine other people. We ended up having shows with bands that now are really recognizable. It felt very  good from a curatorial standpoint. We had Lightning Bolt, we had Simian Mobile Disco do a DJ set once, we had Future Islands when they were a tiny band. That was a very important time in music in my life. Also, before I worked at Ticketfly, I worked as a client at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia as an assistant buyer at the venue. I went from being an artist and having this venue, then being a talent buyer and graduating to the ticketing world.

How did living abroad impact your music?
The first album’s entirely about that year in Russia, but I would say it affected me more in an emotional or spiritual way. It didn’t really affect the music itself. It was definitely an important year for me in self-growth, reflection, understanding and perseverance. The experiences I had there were really informative. I got to travel around the country quite a bit. It was just a year where I didn’t have to worry about anybody else. I didn’t have a massive circle of friends. I didn’t have any social obligations. I was doing what I wanted and trying to get a better idea of who I am as a person.

Your Russian must be pretty good now since you do translation for Nadya from Pussy Riot.
I hit the books pretty hard. Being a native English speaker gives me a huge leg up in the translation world. Any real translator only translates into languages they consider themselves native speakers in. That was funny. I follow her on Twitter just to mostly read stuff in Russian and keep current with Russian affairs. She was soliciting translators on Twitter so I tweeted back at her. Ever since that happened I’ve been working with her on a Vice column.

Let’s switch gears and talk about your music. How would you describe your sound? 
Wolf Like a Stray Dog was very much in a folky direction. This new album is a little bit less frantic, little bit more groove-based. I definitely started borrowing elements from R&B and, specifically, there’s a people in Africa called the Tuareg people and they’re a nomadic population from sub-Saharan Africa. They make this really interesting rock ‘n’ roll music that’s deeply based in their folk tradition. There’s actually some bands from that area that have become quite large, such as Tinariwen. They just have this really beautiful groove-based music that’s heavily based in folk but they use a lot of contemporary elements, like a lot of electric guitars, and they’ll use auto-tune on some things. I found a lot of that to be really special. I’m definitely not reappropriating or stealing from them. I would say at its core it’s definitely still a folk album but has a lot of elements from other things like R&B, post-punk and a little bit of that Tuareg music. I would still just call it pop or, I don’t know, experimental folk-pop or something.

When do you expect to have it out?
Early 2016.

Your last record was pressed on vinyl, which fewer and fewer people are doing. Why’s it important for you to keep that tradition going?
I wanted to have it mostly for selfish reasons … The limitation of records were not so much that people didn’t love them any more, but that they were a pain in the ass to deal with and you couldn’t put them on your phone or whatever. Now that it’s super easy to get a download with that, it kind of eliminated that barrier. I think the CD was a whatever format; it was just getting us into the digital age. If a record is going to be released physically, I feel it’s definitely better to focus on the analog duplication. Just having an analog copy is a much better tactile, personal experience with a record.

You’ve got quite a record collection yourself, we hear.
I only have 400 records. It’s not huge, but it’s mine.

Any shows coming up?
The only thing I have is in New York at the Knitting Factory. That’s on 12/3.

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