The last time Inara George and Greg Kurstin (a.k.a. the bird and the bee) made a full-length album, their acclaimed self-titled debut, they weren’t certain anyone would ever hear it. “We made our first record for ourselves,” says George, “we didn’t expect to get signed to a label and have it be released.” But it was heard, and then released by Blue Note Records in January 2007, and people began to fall in love with the band’s airy blend of Brazilian Tropicalia, ’60s psychedelic pop, and sparse electronic beats. With the surprise success of the album the Los Angeles-based duo took their act on the road, an experience they say was a major influence on their new album, entitled Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future.
“It was just the two of us on stage with a drum machine and an electric piano,” recalls Kurstin, the band’s multiinstrumentalist and producer. “Playing live made us realize that we wanted to make music that was energetic and danceable. When you make a new album, you walk a fine line between trying to keep the elements that people like about your music and needing to push the envelope a bit. We definitely wanted to evolve. We wanted to play with the pop element and make it sound fuller.” “Exploring new territory felt like a natural progression,” adds singer George, a saucer-eyed gamine who writes the band’s lyrics and melodies.
Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future is definitely new sonic terrain for the Los Angeles-based duo. Every bit as beguiling as their debut, the album retains its predecessor’s lithe melodies and Brazilian influences, but takes its stylish ’60s pop deeper into the psychedelic period of the Tropicalia era, especially on the trippy “What’s In the Middle” and the dreamy “Meteor.” “Reference points for me are mid-‘70s records by [samba-rock pioneer] Jorge Ben, like África Brasil, or early ’70s Caetano Veloso,” Kurstin says. “The new album has less of a bossa nova feel because the rhythms are more dance-friendly than they were on the first record.” Kurstin, an indemand songwriter and producer who has worked with Lily Allen and Kylie Minogue, adds that he was in a beat-making headspace when it came time to write songs for the bird and the bee. “I thought it would be fun to go further with that element in our music.”
The starting point for Ray Guns was “Polite Dance Song,” a hip-hop-inspired creation that first appeared on Please Clap Your Hands—one of the bird and the bee’s two post-album EP’s. George’s bell-clear soprano sweetly exhorts listeners to “put your hands in the air” and “shake it like you just don’t care.” “I’ve always told Greg I would never rap because I just don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do it,” George laughs, “but singing these lyrics in a sweet way seemed like a funny idea.”
Taking a hip-hop cliché and turning it on its ear is just one example of the bird and the bee’s arch sense of humor. “I think if you’re bringing in influences from years past, the music has to have that ‘wink’ about it,” George says. “It needs to be commented on rather than just imitated.” The pair’s sly wit, both musically and lyrically, comes into play on several tracks on Ray Guns, including “Diamond Dave,” a bouncy paean to Mr. Show Biz himself David Lee Roth (complete with swelling strings and spoken-word interlude) and the jaunty, ragtime-flavored “You’re a Cad,” which recalls the daffy charm of The Muppets theme song. “The Muppets have some amazing songs,” George says.
But not every song is delivered with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Others investigate various striations of love, whether it be the childhood friendship sort (“Baby”), appreciation for a country (“Love Letter to Japan”), or pure, romantic love (“Birthday”—a theatrical, 70s-style ballad that George likens to an “Olivia Newton-John-in- Xanadu moment, in that there’s something really sweet and earnest about it.”)
Finally, there’s the title track, which George says was inspired by a 60 Minutes segment about the military’s invention of an actual ray gun. “The song is about how the future is frightening but also sort of practical,” she explains. “In our music, we pull from the past, but when the past starts to reflect in the future, it’s a little scary. That’s this record. We are imitating something in the past that wasn’t actually real but now has become real. Pretty lofty for a band that’s supposed to be lighthearted,” she says with a laugh.
Perhaps, but the bird and the bee are still about amusing themselves and their fans. “What Inara and I do together is meant to be fun,” Kurstin says. “That’s really what this band was borne from.” The two first met in 2005 when Kurstin—also an accomplished jazz pianist and session musician who studied with Charles Mingus’ pianist Jaki Byard, toured with jazz vibraphone legend Bobby Hutcherson, and has appeared on albums by Beck, The Flaming Lips, and Red Hot Chili Peppers—was brought in to play on George’s debut solo album All Rise. “One day after a rehearsal, we hung out near a piano and played all the old songs we knew for three or four hours,” George recalls.
They began writing songs together as a lark, with George contributing melodies and lyrics and Kurstin overseeing all the instruments. The result was their self-titled debut album, which was hailed by critics for its cunning combo of “bossa nova languidity and Beach Boys-style lushness” (as Entertainment Weekly put it). Rolling Stone described their music as “syncopated danceable pop that sounds like audible sunshine.” The album also spawned the hit “F*cking Boyfriend,” a remix of which went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart.
Kurstin and George hit the road, touring with Rilo Kiley and Lily Allen—Kurstin was a producer on Allen’s 2005 debut Alright, Still and is currently working on her follow-up—but they didn’t stay away from the recording studio (i.e. Kurstin’s Los Angeles home) for long. In September 2007, Blue Note released the Please Clap Your Hands EP, which also features a cover of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” (an inspired rendition that was included on the 2008 soundtrack to Sex and the City: The Movie). Finally, the prolific duo released two digital EPs in 2008: One Too Many Hearts, which features an early version of “Birthday,” and the iTunes exclusive Live from Las Vegas at the Palms.
Somehow George also found the time to record and release her second solo album, entitled An Invitation—a collaboration with legendary composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks, an old friend of her father, the late Lowell George, frontman for ’70s blues-rock band Little Feat. Now she’s looking forward to fans hearing Ray Guns and immersing herself once again in the bird and the bee. “There’s something about the way Greg plays, how effortless he is with the music,” George explains. “Everything is easy with him. We’re on the same page about so many things — musical influences, style, humor. It’s rare to meet someone you get along with like that.”