Greg Kurstin went from indie-rock has-been to the go-to producer for Lily Allen, P!nk, and Kelly Clarkson, but the Bird and the Bee, his loungey pop project, is his true passion, and after a five-year hiatus, they're finally back.
It started, as it usually does, with a car commercial.
A young Greg Kurstin was in a band with his friend Tommy Jordan, and the two Pomona, CA-based songwriters went under the name Geggy Tah. Signed to David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, their first album, Grand Opening came out in 1994, with their lyrically-obtuse pop rock numbers eventually finding a small audience. Their best disc, Sacred Cow, came out in 1996, but much like their first, it never broke into the mainstream in a significant way ... at least until 2001, when Mercedes-Benz licensed the quirky "you let me change lanes" song "Whoever You Are" into a memorable TV spot in 2001, and before long, this five-year-old rock number started climbing the charts just as Geggy Tah's third and final album, Into the Oh, hit shelves following a restructuring at Virgin Records.
Yet Geggy Tah's success happened an interesting time in Kurstin's' life, as the young music prodigy was genuinely debating with himself whether or not to become a legitimate jazz musician or pursue what would be a more lucrative pop career. Even now, he doesn't hold his time up with Geggy Tah with a lot of reverence: "I don't really talk about it that much, I guess," he tells PopMatters. "It was such a different time in my life, so it'll either age myself or, I don't know. A lot of people are like 'Huh? What? The '90s? What? I don't know.' They either remember it or, ya know, I don't even bother explaining."
Kurstin isn't bitter, though; in fact, he notes how during his time there, "there were some great moments and exciting times. I sort of grew up [with them] and it was an important part of growing up. I learned how to produce and record music. Everything happened." It's just that since Geggy Tah's final album, as well as various touring stints with the likes of Beck, Kurstin started trying his hand at producing music full-time. After meeting Inara George, the bassist and singer for the Living Sisters, the two found much creative inspiration in each other and ended up creating a stylized throwback pop duo under the name the Bird and the Bee. Their first single, 2006's "Fucking Boyfriend", topping the US Dance Charts and ended up on the soundtrack to the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Their success may have been sudden, but that couldn't prepare Kurstin for what would happen next. His other job, that of a songwriter and pop producer, took off rather quickly, scoring a UK chart-topper with Lily Allen's "The Fear", and before long, manning the boards on such iconic hits like Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)", Foster the People's "Helena Beat", Pink's "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" and "Try", Beyoncé's "Standing on the Sun", Ellie Goulding's "Burn", Tegan & Sara's "Closer", and Sia's "Chandelier". Not only has Kurstin transformed into a Grammy-nominated pop maestro, but his work damn near captures the post-millennial pop zeitgeist.
Still, it's been five years since anyone heard from the Bird and the Bee. Now, at long last, the group's fourth full-length, Recreational Love, has arrived. So why the long wait? "Well, there were a lot of distractions," he admits. "I got a lot busier with my producing of other people, but also Inara had babies. We both kind of raised our families and we had that going during our time off while that was happening, getting adjusted to parenthood, etc. We continued to work, but we work at a really slow pace, working a couple of hours on a Friday. We had a sort of ritual: 'Oh, I'll see you next Friday from 10 am to 12 pm' and sometimes we'd be off for months and not have that but then we'd go back to our usual ritual. It wasn't like a lot of hours so much as it was just a very spread out, slow kind of process. Some of the songs we were working on since the last album are five years old. It was an actually an interesting way to do an album, as we sort of weeded out songs, some songs sort of fall off, like 'Yeah, this doesn't fit with the core of the record.' But it was very easy and fun process. We just took our free time and waited until we were ready."
The resulting disc makes for an album that features a sonic unity that harkens back to their 2007 debut, a very streamlined, '70s-inspired brand of dance pop with an unmistakably lounge-y vibe. In short, this is martini music. As such, the aptly-named Recreational Love captures numerous perspectives on love, from "Runaway", which encourages a lover to not run from a good thing, to the slightly darker (but still unabashedly fun) "Doctor". As for the idea that Recreational Love is a bit of a loose concept album about love, Kurstin notes how "Inara does all the lyrics, so I think it's one of those things where the songs started to stick and having a common theme, so we just said 'Go with it' and continued down that path. I think Inara kept that in mind while writing the last few songs on the album, and I know sonically I wanted to bring it together as sort of 'one sound,' but we both thought it was cool to have a sort of theme to the record. It kind of is a concept album. It started out thinking we were going to do something different, but as it came together, we made sure to kind of pitch it like that.
"We have departed [stylistically] on certain songs," Kurstin continues, "and on our second album [2009's Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future], it has a little bit of a wide variety, but I think we've experimented more sonically. For this album I kind of wanted to go back to the simplicity of our first album, so I limited myself to the instruments and sounds that tie together, and on this one there's a similar thing, but it just sort of ... happens. I wanted to have a cohesive sound going on, so I worked with the same instruments and really didn't want it to be all over the place."
One of the album's more striking numbers is "Los Angeles", a pro-L.A. song in a world that is full of songs decrying the city. Based in L.A., Kurstin takes special pride in his city, as well as the group's song about it. "Both Inara and I were over in Los Angeles and we lived here and sometimes we come across that: 'Oh, L.A.? So sorry. Poor you.' But I always have loved this city and it's my favorite city to live in.
"It was funny: I was reading this David Lynch book and he was talking about Los Angeles and the light and how he felt the light is kind of different here. He found it inspiring and I thought that was kind of cool to hear his take on his experiences here, but I love Los Angeles. I get defensive of it sometimes and some people go there and stay in only one part like West Hollywood and think the whole city is like that. There's a little bit of that I think, but I love songs about L.A."
While several people still love the group for their original compositions, it was their last disc, 2010's Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates that actually garnered them a unique audience all their own, as their revamped and reworked versions of Hall & Oates classics proved not to be as fun as as it was quirky, but even landed the group in (of all things) the VH1 Behind the Music on the group. Kurstin knows full well of the album's reception, as well as that lingering "Volume 1" qualifier, implying there's much more to come, which, according to him, there is.
"Well, we just thought we'd mix it up a little bit," he says about doing the wholly original Recreational Love instead of another "Interpreting the Masters" as the group's next album. "We're still going to do another covers album, and we just started thinking of ideas to try something out. It may happen next I think, but I dunno: because it's been a long time and we love writing songs, we wanted to do that now and do some originals."
When pressed about his biggest regret during his astonishing career, Kurstin is upfront, noting that "I don't really have any regrets about anything, even though it's taken me a long time to figure out who I am, but I love where I'm at now and I'm so happy. I can't say I'd have a regret 'cos if I did anything differently, I wouldn't be here. I maybe could've gotten to where I am earlier in my life, but I'm kind of glad I didn't do that. I think to myself that I had all these decision to make early on, like with the Geggy Tah deal, and I was faced with that decision as I wanted to be a jazz musician and I wanted to pursue that but then I got a record deal and it could've gone either way, but I signed and it was a really educational experience having one modern rock kinda hit."
As for his proudest accomplishment, he mulls the questions for a bit, before inspiration strikes: "This is sort of a random thing, but I remember as a jazz musician, I played at the Village Vanguard with Bobby Hutcherson, and that week I thought 'I checked that off the list' as I got to play with a jazz legend at the Village Vanguard! You know, one of the big things for me, a breakthrough, was doing that Lily Allen song 'The Fear', and that was kind of an intense process and I feel like we sort of overcame the obstacles and then it came out and did well and was looked at in a positive way. That was a big thing, and a turning point in my career, I think, in a lot of ways."
Of course, this leads to an obvious follow-up question: did you see Whiplash? "I did!" Kurstin exclaims. "It's funny: on some level, I think I went through that, and even though I wasn't as abused, obviously. I went to New York to study jazz and there were some teachers that were kind of intense and I did get yelled at a couple times. It was almost kind of hard to watch for me cos it was so intense. I didn't really understand why he stayed and finished it. 'Why isn't he leaving?' That's what I would've done. I didn't understand why he had to be in that band so badly."