One doesn’t expect to hear accordion and glockenspiel music while strolling the streets of a Southern California beach town. The sound—part Amélie, part Django Reinhardt, part carnival nostalgia—exerted a magical force that pulled me in closer. Timothy Desrosiers and Anna Bell travel around their country performing their unique music under the improbable name of Kangaroo Rat. The duo shared their inspirations, aspirations, and methods of memorization.
Brent: Hi, Tim and Anna! Thanks for your willingness to answer some questions about your gorgeous music. Let’s start with the name Kangaroo Rat. Where does that come from?
Kangaroo Rat: The name started out as a joke among friends while we searched in vain—in broad daylight—for the nocturnal kangaroo rat species that lived in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico. We went on our first camping trip together there last year while we were living in Santa Fe, our college town at the time. This name stuck and has now taken a life of its own.
Brent: And you’re committed to keeping it?
Kangaroo Rat: We never think of changing it. As we want to weave the values of conservation into our message as a band, we think it's fitting that our name can bring awareness to a resourceful but endangered species living in the deserts of the US.
Brent: The environment plays an important role in your music, too, right?
Kangaroo Rat: Right, Our band has two projects, both of which have their own unique style of music. What they have in common isn't their genre but rather a sensitivity to their environment. This sensitivity has an effect on everything when we're at work, from our volumes, rhythms, choice of instruments, lyrics, and even the song order. Rather than impose ourselves on the environment around us, our goal is to have our presence fit in and hopefully augment it. That's why we love playing on the street so much: it's fun to watch the passers-by smile and dance as a natural response to our music.
Brent: Being literally in concert with the environment is integral to your music. Let’s start with your first genre, the one I heard you playing on the streets of Laguna Beach, California.
Kangaroo Rat: That’s the project we're best known for: our accordion/glockenspiel music. We've been performing this music around the country for the last half-year or so. We started this project by learning some of our favorite songs from Yann Tiersen's film score of the beautiful Amélie, which might fit best in the genre "bal-musette." We also learned songs from the Swedish folktronica bands Wintergatan and Detektivbyrån.
Brent: How did you decide that these were potential influences you should pursue?
Kangaroo Rat: Learning these songs was a kind of reconnaissance work, getting to know the potential between ourselves and our instruments. However, much like the bands we just mentioned and others like "Les Negresses Vertes," the music we've been writing the last few months (which we will be recording and hopefully releasing this summer) is a fusion of styles around the world.
Brent: Which ones specifically?
Kangaroo Rat: We are approaching our music with an appreciation for world music, minimalism, and classical composition. We're even listening to Ravi Shankar to study the nature of raga, improvisation, and rhythm. We are also exploring the possibilities of our instruments to create our own kind of sound, like using violin bows on the bells and non-traditional techniques with the accordion bellows and bass buttons.
Brent: Sweet! What about your second project?
Kangaroo Rat: Our second project is best categorized as indie/folk, although in the future this project may progress into an acoustic/electronic fusion sort of music like folktronica or dream-pop. Using an alto and baritone ukulele, both easy to carry, and a backpack with our travel recording studio, we are camping and hiking National Parks, seeking inspiration to write and record songs. In the writing and recording process we are constantly focused on the environment's natural sounds, acoustic spaces, and folklore. Some of our inspirations are The Beatles, The National, Meredith Monk, and Tupac, and we also admire electronic artists like Sylvan Esso, Sia, MGMT, and Tame Impala.
Brent: You cast a wide net! Tell me how you approach learning your music, whether original compositions or works by others.
Kangaroo Rat: If we are learning a song by another artist, often we will start by learning the part we've chosen for our own instruments independently. Sometimes we take parts from pieces that use other instruments, like a synth for example, so we usually dissect the song together before we attempt to write these parts for our own instruments. Once we've both practiced our parts, we will practice together. This way we can adjust our rhythm and dynamics together.
Brent: This is similar to the way actors learn their parts, first in isolation, then by running lines with another person, and next as an ensemble. How do you work together on composition?
Kangaroo Rat: As for our writing process, each song is different, although the pattern is generally the same. What usually happens is one of us will come up with a chord progression and the other will add what they're hearing for their own part. The process is very organic. Both of our instruments will play the rhythm or melody depending on what the song demands. Sometimes we'll trade off positions, as you can hear if you listen to our only recorded original, “MacMillan Wharf.”
Brent: Describe the interpersonal dynamic of a duo. Is it auditory, physical, visual, and/or something else entirely?
Kangaroo Rat: Because we are traveling, we spend almost every minute together. We're together in many ways too: musically, we're together when we're playing a song we already know, learning to play a new one or composing; physically, we're living in a sedan and tent most of the time, so we're always navigating together and keeping each other warm on cold nights. What probably defines our dynamic, though, is our shared passions and intentions. We both strive together to be more positive and present every day, we both itch to make music, smiles, and to see new places. When we met, we found we had a shared love for music, philosophy, and travel. This has carried with us throughout our life together this last year, and it has certainly led us in our decisions and adventures.
Brent: Has memorizing a particular piece ever given you any trouble?
Kangaroo Rat: We've both been playing music since we were five years old, and we've both studied at least basic music theory, so most of the time the music we learn is pretty easy to memorize. So long as our technique is sufficient for the piece we've chosen, memorization is mostly a matter of repetition. Most of our music lives in our bodies once we've memorized a piece, so when we are performing a song we know well we are usually focusing on the minute details within the piece our bodies have memorized.
Brent: “Lives in your bodies.” Muscle memory is a strong driver. What about when you’re venturing into unfamiliar territory in world music?
Kangaroo Rat: When we stumble upon something unusual that our ears aren't used to, usually we just need to hear it more often. We've noticed even when we're writing a song that what sounds "good" or "natural" to us in music is actually a pattern we can relate to, which usually comes from familiarity. If something is unfamiliar, we just need to experience it some more.
Brent: Once in a while, you must hit some technical challenge, like a flow that’s not intuitive or many verses with variations. How do you overcome that?
Kangaroo Rat: Of course, sometimes we run into trouble just because the rhythm is tricky or a part of the composition is complex. For example, the melody in Wintergatan's "Marble Machine," which we covered in our first album, begins on the upbeat and continually begins its phrases on it. When Anna was learning this song, it was a challenge for her to intuit the places to land the notes in her parts.
Brent: How did she work it out?
Kangaroo Rat: Her solution was to dance to the rhythm, so that when she practiced her part her body could feel the rhythm better. Nevertheless, the mastery of any piece depends on practice. If you listen to our recording of the "Marble Machine," for example, you'll hear a version that was only a day old for us. If you compare it to our performance now, a few months later, you'll probably hear a difference if you're familiar with the piece yourself.
Brent: Muscle memory again! A kinesthetic solution makes perfect sense. A theater professor I spoke with a few months back, Rocco Dal Vera, underscored the importance of movement not only to memorize material but also to embody it and make it resonate more with the audience. Sounds like this song is making a deeper impression on audiences with each performance. Lastly, tell me what’s next for Kangaroo Rat.
Kangaroo Rat: The most immediate goal we have is to record an album for each project that is entirely composed of Kangaroo Rat originals. This way, we can share the real substance behind Kangaroo Rat with more listeners beyond the street.
Brent: How are you doing that?
Kangaroo Rat: For example, we are just beginning to explore the possibilities for outreach within the Internet world. We are putting together a blog now, which will be one way for us to keep our friends involved in our progress. We hope that with every year that we commit ourselves to traveling and making music we will expand our circle to include more people who are passionate about independent art and the social value of live street music and artistic expression.
Brent: I wish you continuing success. Your music captivated me and many others on the street, and it deserves broader attention.
Kangaroo Rat: Thanks for having us on your blog! Happy spring!
Learn more about Kangaroo Rat and listen to their music on their website.