Why LA's The Bird And The Bee Covered Van Halen For An Entire Album
Indie-pop duo the Bird and the Bee created the beloved Interpreting the Masters Volume 1 in 2010, offering lovingly crafted reconfigurations of fellow pop duo Hall and Oates. While it would be easy to treat that band as a punchline thanks to the use of '80s synths and even more '80s hair, the Bird and the Bee played it straight, bringing out the band's top-notch songwriting.
Nearly a decade later, they're back at it with a second volume of the series — this time covering legendary rock band Van Halen.
Singer Inara George — the "bird" of the band — grew up in Los Angeles, as did "the bee," producer/musician Greg Kurstin (also known for producing Kelly Clarkson, Pink, and many more). George said there's definitely something SoCal that comes through in their music.
"I think there is something about the weather, and the sun, and even the traffic — I mean L.A. specifically," George told LAist.
Still, she doesn't know exactly what that je ne sais quoi is.
"I know it affects our music, but it's almost just like saying, 'Why do you talk the way you talk?' It just is," George said.
They went through a couple different options before settling on Van Halen. George loved the idea of exploring the music of another L.A.-area band. Both George and Kurstin were fans of the band at an influential time in their lives, as they were with Hall and Oates. They even wrote a letter to the band explaining why they wanted to cover them.
Kurstin's first Van Halen experience was hearing their take on "You Really Got Me" on the radio.
"It just sounded dangerous, and it just sounded like it came from this world I didn't really understand, I was scared of," Kurstin told KPCC's The Frame. "I saw the photo on the first album, just the four of them, and I was like, 'Wow, these guys are sweaty...' but I loved them."
George's mind was blown when she saw Van Halen live, with David Lee Roth as the frontman. They wrote an original song about the legendary Diamond Dave years ago, which also appears on the new album.
"It was like, are you the best showman I've ever seen? Are you on Broadway or are you in a rock band?" George said.
George and Kurstin decided to tackle Van Halen because, much like with Hall and Oates, they thought putting their spin on it would push them out of their comfort zone. The Bird and the Bee started out based on their overlapping musical interests, and these albums became an extension of that.
"It's kind of our little, not to say our dissertation, but this feeling of, how can we take something that obviously lights up the world with these songs, and has inspired so many people to listen to this music?" George said. "So we know the songs are good, and so how can we take it in a different direction, and yet still honor the songs."
While they're a duo, they wanted to embrace the fact that Van Halen was a full band, so they brought in more instrumentalists to fill out their sound. They started out by renting a studio and playing through the first Van Halen album, start to finish — but felt it didn't sound like the Bird and the Bee, because they weren't that kind of band. So Kurstin played with one of the tracks and started to reconfigure it, coming up with what ended up being their take on "Running with the Devil."
"It's like taking the jazz elements of our style, and infusing it into [the music]," George said.
They realized that one of the best ways to make it a Bird and the Bee project was to have Kurstin play Eddie Van Halen's guitar parts on the piano.
The other song that stands out to George on the album as being particularly exciting is "Eruption."
"'Eruption,' for me, to listen to that and to just hear — there's something about that's so emotional for me," George said. "I always feel a little bit moved by it, because it's just so beautiful."
George also had an embarrassing story to share about Van Halen's "Panama" from when she heard it growing up, which appears on the album.
"I think because, in my kid mind, I was learning about the Panama Canal when I heard that song, I really thought it was about the Panama Canal," George said. "And then you read the lyrics and it's about a girl and a car — of course."
Making Interpreting the Masters a series wasn't always the plan.
"When we made that first record, I don't know if we had the intention of making a second," George said.
But when they decided to title it in the style of a classical music album, sticking "Volume 1" in the name, they knew they had to make another one. It's taken a while to work out the timing for the next round. They wanted to make time for another original album in between, and they also had to work it in around other projects and new commitments in their lives.
"We used to work like lightning speed, but that was before we were married and had kids," George said. "Greg's super busy with his producing career, and I'm primarily a stay-at-home mom, so it's just, the windows of time are just smaller."
It may be a number of years, but George said she would definitely do another volume of Interpreting the Masters — even if it's another decade down the line.
"I think the idea of us being so much older is wild to me to think about, but I think Greg and I have always had the intention of just continuing to be a band until whenever — until forever," George said.
George said that maybe the Bird and the Bee could have been bigger if they'd devoted more time to it, but that through it all, they're still doing what they love and having fun.
"We feel lucky that we still enjoy it, and there's no pressure — I think that's kind of one of the unwritten rules, is neither one of us can pressure the other one to make it more than the other one wants," George said.
They've thought about the next set of reinterpretations, according to George, but haven't gotten as far as picking an artist to cover.
The Bird and the Bee is currently on tour. George decided to bring her kids with her on the tour bus for her longest tour in the past 12 years.
"You start to really feel like, oh, this is so temporary — they're not going to be around much longer, or even want to hang out with me much longer," George said. "That's where my attention is — and yet, I still put out records, and I still do mini-tours here and there."
The band's next L.A. show, returning home after being on the road, is at the Grammy Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 11. Interpreting the Masters Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen is available now.
Read the Bird and the Bee's letter to the band explaining more about why they chose to do this project here:
You can also watch the Bird and the Bee on the Late Late Show with James Corden covering "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" with the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl on drums here:
This story includes contributions from KPCC's The Frame.