It’s the bottom of the sixth in game three of the ALCS and the Sox are down five to zip. There’s nothing to be excited about—given that the Tampa Bay Rays are all of a sudden a force to be reckoned with. Kotsay flies out to BJ Upton and the side is retired. In utter frustration I turn the TV off. The only thing to be excited about this early crisp autumn evening is how lucky I am to be checking out Funny Day, the CD by Bird Mancini. The band, or more aptly duo of Ruby Bird and Billy Mancini, vocally blend elements of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and XTC seamlessly throughout the disc. They combine accordion with a variety of guitars, bass, and drums in an interesting menagerie of sounds and thoughts. If you are fortunate enough to catch them live you will be treated to the duo on accordion and acoustic guitar, or with a full band—depending on their collective mood. I met up with Billy and Ruby at one of my favorite little haunts in Allston—the Model. The Model is a little funkier of late with its more laid back vibe in the back room—complete with plush couches, high tables and a DJ booth in the corner. Billy and Ruby are pretty funky in their own way. They are clearly veterans of the Boston and other music scenes and have enjoyed making music together in various iterations over the years. The plethora of styles that they have attacked have gone far afield from blues to covers to original ’60s influenced rock. They are both low-key easy people to talk to. What ensues is a casual conversation over a couple pints.
Noise: Let’s get started with a little background on Bird Mancini. How did this all come about?
Billy: We’ve been together for a very long time. We actually met in a talent contest.
Noise: I can’t think of very many bands that have started that way.
Billy: The prize was a hundred bucks, so another guy that I was playing with at the time and I won a bottle of champagne and the hundred bucks—that we shared that night.
Noise: Not bad—a hundred bucks and champagne?
Billy: Yeah, not to mention a wife.
Noise: [laughs] So, I guess you won on all fronts that night?
Billy: Yes, absolutely. So, we shared the champagne—not just the two of us that night—a bunch friends and everything.
Noise: That seems like an odd way to get started—at least for this area. Was this in Boston?
Ruby: It was actually just for the hundred bucks. At that time in Tucson there were no jobs to be had and we were barely eking out a living as musicians. So, the hundred bucks and the free meal attached was pretty enticing. The whole thing was a big adventure for me to be in Tucson in the first place.
Noise: Where are you from?
Ruby: I grew up north of Kansas City. I was just up for an adventure and followed some friends to Tucson. It just seemed like a really cool place to be at the time.
Noise: Coming to Boston must have really been an adventure then. How did you end up here?
Billy: I’m from New Hampshire originally. I moved to Tucson to get away from this area for a while. When we got sick of the Southwest because we couldn’t get enough work—plus the cities are 500 miles apart—we decided to come back to this area. I mean you can’t just go to Cambridge to do a gig and then to Boston or the suburbs or whatever. We came back here and started a band with the friends that we moved back here with. We were immediately able to work and we didn’t have to get jobs for quite a while.
Ruby: Yeah, for like four years we were on the road. It was a lot easier back in the day because there were a lot more clubs to play at. It was actually possible 20 years ago to make a living playing music on the road.
Noise: That is very rare today indeed. What was the band all about back then?
Ruby: The band was called the Nick Adventure Band and we got a bit of press back then. We were really a traveling Outer Limits type of thing. We played up and down the upper north Atlantic coast.
Billy: We weren’t playing original music back then—unless we were able to slip in an original song into the set. We were playing covers, but we were making money doing that so it beat having to work real jobs. It’s a lot different now playing originals of course.
Noise: What do you find are the differences between playing covers and originals—besides the obvious?
Ruby: I guess just giving the fact that itís harder to get people to come out and support local live music. Covers are an easy sell. Plus, the cover at the clubs is around $10. So, if a couple of people go out together that’s $20 before you even have a drink. People are less likely to take a chance on a live band that they may of never heard of. It’s especially tougher as we get older. We are part of the baby boom generation and we were all partying animals back in the day. Now they all have kids or maybe even grown kids that are going to college so it’s really a different world now. We also had a band for a long time called the Sky Blues. This was blues based and we were able to make a living doing that format as well. We decided that we wanted to do a different type of thing going forward.
Noise: It sounds like you aren’t afraid to attack different genres. Why did the Sky Blues end and what is the band working on now?
Billy: Where we are now is that we are a duo and we only work with a full band depending on the show and the venue.
Ruby: While the real reason that we decided to end the Sky Blues was because of a trademark issue—this really got us into re-thinking why we got into music to begin with. Playing the blues circuit for a while became sort of been-there-done-that and we thought; why don’t we just do our own music? So that’s what led to this whole Bird Mancini thing. Since then we have been an original band. The only real issue that we have faced is in getting people to play with us. If you are really good then everyone else wants you too—not to mention that they make money. Sometimes you get lucky in the way that we have and find people that are really good and are willing to play for not a lot of money. For us it became more of a drag to keep people because it’s hard to get a lot of good playing gigs to hang on to people full time.
Noise: So this duo came more from necessity than from a desire to do something different? How do you normally play out as a duo?
Billy: Yeah, exactly. We normally play as a duo and occasionally as a full band. Ruby plays accordion and I play acoustic guitar as both a bass and a rhythm guitar while sort of drumming. It’s quite a combination.
Ruby: The hardest thing is that when we have our bass player (John Bridge) and our drummer (Larry Harvey) with us, I don’t play any differently. But Billy has to play completely differently. He gets to play lead when we do that. It’s sort of a shame that he can’t play lead all the time because he’s such a good guitar player.
Billy: I have to simplify what I’m doing when I play electric because I have to remember not to play what the bass player is supposed to play. I have to, in essence, get small.
Noise: How far have you been able to take this set-up as a duo?
Ruby: Well, this summer we went to Liverpool to play the International Pop Overthrow Festival. We got to play at the Cavern!
Noise: Wow, that’s like Mecca. Were you in awe the entire time?
Ruby: We thought that we might be like that but once you start playing and get on stage it’s like playing any other club. Well, at least you tell yourself that. It was very cool and we spent a lot of time looking around and exploring.
Noise: Were the bands playing mostly local bands from Liverpool?
Billy: No, Actually, there were bands from all over the world that did this. It’s really grown over the years.
Noise: I want to touch on your influences. There is clearly CSNY and XTC in your sound.
Billy: I think that our sound definitely puts us in a strange place here in Boston. Sometimes it’s tough to figure out who we should play with. Although, recently we played with Leon Russell which was great. He really brought out our bluesy side. It was nice to play for a really involved audience.
Ruby: We actually sold some CDs that night. [laughs] Yeah, it was great.
Noise: It sounds like you guys have a lot going on. What are you working on currently?
Billy: We are always working on new recordings. We are in the demo stages now and we are sending a bunch of stuff off for the bass player and the drummer to put their stamp on. The people that I chose to play with I trust them and give them very basic demos. That way they can add their ideas. I want them to put their stamp on the recordings too. Other people will come up with things that I would not have thought of or would have come out of my head.
Ruby: It’s so cool when you can really click with other people and have them understand what you are trying to put out there.
Billy: The other thing that we are doing is playing with Sal Baglio’s band a bit and of course Urban Caravan. That’s with Mr. Curt, Sal Baglio, Steve Gilligan, Jon Macy, Sgt. Maxwell, and Glenn Williams. We don’t always all make every gig, but it’s a lot of fun. Bird Mancini plays Clear Conscience Cafe on Thursday, 11/6 and the IPO Festival at Church on Saturday, 11/22/08. And check out myspace.com/birdmancini.