Michael Hearst has rocked more book stores than he cares to mention.
But that’s what happens when your band records an album of 17 songs written by some of the country’s most accomplished authors. “As Smart As We Are,” by One Ring Zero, features original lyrics by such writers as Rick Moody (“The Ice Storm”), Paul Auster (“The New York Trilogy”), Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”).
“We love collaboration,” said Hearst. “And the way we fell into this one was sort of an accident.”
Michael Hearst first met Joshua Camp while working at the Hohner distribution center in Ashland (Hearst was the assistant harmonica technician and Camp was the assistant accordion technician). Both attended Virginia Commonwealth University as musical composition majors and both were active in the local Richmond music and arts scene.
Hearst and Camp fell in love with an instrument called the claviola, a bizarre combination of accordion, piano and flute first manufactured by Hohner in the mid-90s. (It was quickly discontinued due to lack of sales).
They found the claviola so ridiculous and unique that they built a band around it. The pair’s obsession for misfit instruments (theremins, accordions, toy pianos, something called a Jones-O-Phone) helped them build a sound as eclectic as their growing cache of musical toys.
One Ring Zero performed klezmer-circus-cartoon pop in traditional music clubs and even recorded a handful of CDs. But Hearst discovered that their hard-to-define style consistently led them to other artists on the fringe.
One Ring Zero played as part of dance performances, improvisations and stage shows. Eventually they became the “backup band” for Richmonder Clay McLeod Chapman’s “Pumpkin Pie” shows, a series of manic monologues made even loopier by the band’s dark carnival soundtracks.
When Hearst and Camp felt that they had reached critical mass in Richmond, they headed for New York City. One day, while walking in Brooklyn, Hearst stumbled upon a shop simply called Store. More performance art than retail, the tiny space was also the NY headquarters for McSweeney’s, the upstart publishing enterprise of rising literary star David Eggers. Hearst handed the manager a One Ring Zero CD.
The manager loved the music and invited the band to play during readings at the space. Before they knew it, Hearst and Camp became the house band at the epicenter of the hot and hip NYC literary scene.
It was author Rick Moody who first invited the band to improvise during some of his readings outside of the McSweeney’s space. And soon after, Hearst had the idea to “turn the tables” and ask Moody to write some lyrics for them.
The idea gained momentum and other authors were approached. Some declined but many more agreed. After Hearst and Camp composed the music to match the words, the 17-song experiment became “As Smart As We Are.”
“There’s so much competition in the music world in general,” said Hearst, “and in New York City specifically, that it’s good to have anything to make yourself stick out.”
The exposure has opened up an entirely new audience for the band.
“It’s definitely a different vibe without everyone sloshing their beer around,” said Hearst. “There are more glasses in the audience and people pay more attention to the lyrics.”
These days, One Ring Zero finds themselves playing more book shops and cozy pubs than whiskey-soaked dives. But Hearst is thankful for the band’s newfound notoriety in the obscure genre known as “lit rock.”
“I was getting tired of the whole rock thing. This project coincided nicely with me getting older,” Hearst said. “I don’t have to pretend to be the cool guy on stage anymore.”
This week, One Ring Zero embarks on a sort of ‘mini-tour’ that starts in New York, makes its way down to New Orleans and then heads back up north. Hearst considers it a “final push” for the U.S. promotion of “As Smart as As We Are.” Afterwards, the band will focus on promoting the CD in Europe.
For the band’s Feb. 4 homecoming, there will be two different shows. The first, a half-hour free show at Chop Suey Books (1317 W. Cary) at 6 p.m., will feature the core duo of Hearst and Camp.
Down the street at Mojo’s (733 W. Cary), One Ring Zero will pick up drummer Johnny Hott (of the Piedmont Souprize) and guitarist John Gotschalk for 9:30 p.m. set that will be decidedly louder. Cover for the 18 and up show will be $3.
Does the band worry about being pigeonholed as the rock band for book nerds?
“My favorite review of the album went something like ‘forget the Billboard charts, this album should be on the New York Times bestseller list.’ It put us more on the map than anything else we’ve done,” said Hearst. “We’ll probably do a second one.”
With a host of big-name authors that the band counts as collaborators and friends, One Ring Zero has a head start. But Hearst still has a huge wish list of writers he would like to work with.
“I even went to the book store with my Palm Pilot to write some names down,” said Hearst. “It doesn’t get any geekier than that.”