Cairns shows up most any bluegrass band with not one, not two, but three mandolins in the group’s rotation.
Frontman Ryan Carr picked up the instrument around eight years ago, after trying piano and drums. But the mandolin just felt right to him, albeit in a unorthodox fashion.
“I’m very strongly against the idea of traditional rock bands,” Carr said. “I don’t want to be another white boy with a guitar.”
There’s a very strict no-guitar rule, he said, although the band did recruit a guitarist at one point before the ban was in place.
“Who needs 'em?” drummer Brian Tremper added.
Well, when Carr brings his mandolin, mandola and mandocello to shows, he more than makes up for a lack of guitars, especially when the instruments are plugged into several effects pedals.
The unusual instrumentation doesn’t hold Cairns back from a heavy, indie rock sound on their debut record “The Language of Birds,” out June 13.
The album features Carr, Tremper, trumpet player Jenni Long and former bassist Trey Jorgensen.
Carr’s mandolin leads are sonically not too out-of-left-field; there’s a good chance an uninitiated listener wouldn’t realize he wasn’t just playing an especially tenor-y guitar.
With the help of three main pedals, a Diamond compressor, Matthews Effects Astronomer and Obscura altered delay, Carr creates ringing chords, chunky lead lines and an impressive depth of sound.
Playing his mandolins through effects pedals took some trial and error, Carr noted, since his instruments aren’t exactly made to be played with such effects.
The mandocello especially fills in the low-end gap left when Jorgensen departed the band.
“It fills out the sound,” Tremper said, with Carr adding, “it removes an urgent need.”
There’s also a bit of an unusual dynamic between Tremper and Long (both University of Montana music grads) and Carr, who’s self-taught, but writes the songs and leads the band.
“We make it work,” Tremper said matter-of-factly.
Until around 2017, Cairns was essentially a solo act, but Carr sought out band members in order to broaden his sound and record an album.
The then-quartet went into the studio after a few months honing Carr’s songs live.
The first album single from “The Language of Birds” appeared in December, 2017, not long after the bulk of the band’s recording was finished at Levitation Studios.
Mixing, mastering, rerecording vocal takes (and the fundraising to do all of this) stretched into 2018 — a little longer than the band expected, noting it’s a little strange releasing the album only now, after Jorgensen has left the band around two years after events depicted in Carr’s lyrics.
“It’s great to have the album out,” drummer Brian Tremper said. “To have something to show for it.”
Aside from single “Moon Rabbits,” the band was especially happy with the album cuts of “Watermelon Snow,” “Nuclear” and title track “The Language of Birds.”
For “Watermelon Snow,” Carr noted it was fairly different than they’d played it live, with addition of toy glockenspiel played by Tremper. Elsewhere on the record there’s doubled-up trumpet lines in harmony and hints of flugelhorn.
“Nuclear” and “The Language of Birds” came out closest to their concert best, a hard thing to capture for a band in its first studio sessions.
But listening back, the group is happy with their first effort, even though it feels a little distant by now.
“I love listening to first albums,” Carr said. “You can see what was pent up in them.
“(Now) we’ve been playing together long enough we have enough material for another album.”