Photo: Alexa Nikol Curran

Finally Unchained: the bird and the bee Tackle Van Halen’s Legacy

In 2010, the quirky electropop outfit the bird and the bee scored a hit with an album of Hall & Oates covers. Now, almost a decade later, the duo reinvent the hair metal machismo of Van Halen into one of the most joyous albums you'll hear all year.

Interpreting the Masters Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen
the bird and the bee
No Expectations / Release Me
2 August 2019

Against all odds, it was a hit.

the bird and the bee certainly had a reputation when they showed up on the scene in 2007, the duo garnering kudos for a quirky pop style that anchored Greg Kurstin’s expertly overstuffed pop productions with Inara George’s powerfully expressive voice and lyrics.

In 2010, they dropped an unusual concept record called Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates. Effectively taking hits from Hall & Oates entire career and filtering them through a modern pop aesthetic, it was a striking album that not only paid loving homage to the ’80s pop titans but also allowed the bird and the bee’s distinct style to shine in a whole new light. “She’s Gone”, “Private Eyes”, “Maneater”, “Rich Girl”, and “Kiss on My List” were all giving striking reinventions, and the gambit paid off: to date, it’s the duo’s highest-charting album, and Spotify lists their take on “I Can’t Go For That” as one of the group’s most-streamed tracks.

Of course, the bird and the bee’s discography is so much grander than a single cover record, even as people kept prodding the duo for hints as to what a “Volume 2” would consist of for years. The group’s Recreation Love album dropped in 2015 and Inara put out her fourth solo effort Dearest Everybody in 2018. Greg Kurstin ended up working with little-known artist Adele on her album 25 and may have won a Grammy or four for his efforts.

In early June 2019, the bird and the bee announced that Interpreting the Masters Volume 2 was happening, and this time, they were tackling Van Halen.

While reaction to this announcement was nothing short of ecstatic, true fans know that the group’s love of Eddie, Alex, and the rest of the gang could be traced back to their 2009 sophomore album Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future. The album featured the song “Diamond Dave”, which was a love letter to VH’s notorious frontman. “Diamond Dave / No one can hold a candle / Nothing else is quite the same,” Inara cooed over Kurstin’s string-laden, explosive production, and it’s true: as a frontman, few could top his outrageous antics.

“I think we threw a bunch of ideas out there but nothing that really stuck until we landed on Van Halen,” says Kurstin, speaking to PopMatters. “We had the song ‘Diamond Dave’, from our album Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future, about David Lee Roth. Having that history made the decision seem right.”

While Hall & Oates’ peak-era was accessible pop-rock, Van Halen is one of the most foundational rock bands of the hair metal era. While their knack for a pop hook is undeniable, songs with leering subject matter like “Hot for Teacher” are suddenly recast as different beasts under Kurstin and George’s gaze. (“Teacher”, especially, gets assisted by a winking, leering cameo from Kurstin’s frequent collaborator Beck.)

The way Inara George tells it, the project didn’t come into focus until they started work on “Running With the Devil”. “I’m not sure this is the first song we started working on,” she tells us, “but it was the first song where we found our voice in the project. It’s such an amazing song and rethinking it and rejoicing the chords kind of set the tone for the whole album for us.”

“Runnin’ with the Devil” is one of five songs pulled form Van Halen’s iconic debut album, along with their Kinks cover of “You Really Got Me” and even the Eddie Van Halen star-making instrumental showcase that is “Eruption”, here given a wild piano-and-drums reinvention under Kurstin’s watch. “I think ‘Eruption’ is such an important part of Van Halen’s first album,” notes Kurstin. “It really shows how unique Eddie’s guitar playing is. Not only is it technically innovative but has such a beautiful movement to the chords outlined in the arpeggios. I thought it suited the grand piano and would bring out the more classical side to it.”

“The debut Van Halen album is the first one I ever heard which turned me into a big fan,” Kurstin admits. “I do love all of the Dave-era albums, but that first one might just be my favorite.”

So with over half of the album cuts devoted to Van Halen’s debut, why not just go the distance and remake that record from scratch? “We originally planned on doing the first album from start to finish,” notes Kurstin, “but we couldn’t pass up doing some of the big ’80s jams, so it turned into more of a greatest hits tribute.”

For such meticulous deconstruction of a beloved discography, Inara George notes there was no overarching intent on tackling their versions of the songs. Instead, they found their groove within each standalone work. “I think we always just look at each song as its own unique entity,” George says. “Part of the fascination in doing these cover albums is that we can look at how a song is crafted at what works about it. What was it about these songs that Van Halen wrote that just lit up the whole world. And then how can we take that same song and put our spin on it.”

Of course, right at the end of the new record, the twosome acknowledges their history with Van Halen by covering their own track “Diamond Dave”, this time giving it a loungey, piano-ballad vibe. “It’s kind of funny to think that we wrote that song so many years ago,” notes George. “I don’t think we had any idea that we’d ever do a full album devoted to David Lee Roth era Van Halen, we hadn’t even come up with the idea of our first Interpreting The Masters. Of course, there is way more personal attachment [this time around]. I also think it’s a testament to the power of manifesting something.”

On top of all of this, the bird and the bee are heading out on tour following the release, guested with Alex Lilly and Samantha Sidley (and, due to his busy schedule, sans Kurstin per usual). There’s even a special show in L.A. that will feature Dave Grohl on drums. Of course, now that the bird and the bee have toured without Kurstin before (save maybe a duet via iPad as the last song), have the fans gotten used to Inara leading the charge on a live stage?

“We’ve never been a band that’s toured much, so our live show hasn’t been seen by that many people,” George jokes. “I’m sure the audience misses seeing Greg, so we try to stay as true to the sound of the records as we can. And then we add him in through the iPad. It’s a fun way to incorporate him into the show.

“And yes, we’ll add some Van Halen,” she notes. “It will probably be three-to-four songs? Still working it out.”