Continuing the Cleveland recollections…

One of the more (only?) popular New Wave acts from the Home of Rock & Roll in the early 80s (I’m excluding Akron) was Exotic Birds, formed by three students at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1983. The line up evolved over the years, but one constant was singer/songwriter/percussionist Andrew Kubiszewski. The Birds’ music was right in touch with the times, very much in the early Depeche Mode/Erasure style, with one unique difference – Kubiszewski’s ever-present xylophone.

Thaaaaat’s right, Andy could shred the xylophone. I’m not being glib here. During the Birds’ live shows, Kubiszewski would stand behind a xylophone, playing his intricate, lightning fast melody lines while singing, never hitting a bum note. For most bands, this would cross over into pure gimmickry, but Exotic Birds had strong songs so the xylophone was never the musical focus, just another layer.

After a single, an EP and a reshuffled line up later, Exotic Birds released a second EP, “L’Oiseau”, in 1986. Joining the band for this EP was a local keyboardist and part-time music store employee who had been bouncing around several minor cover bands and original projects in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. His name? Trent Reznor. Here’s Trent and the Birds talking about being part of this newfangled wave of “computer musicians” along with Thomas Dolby on Live on 5 in 1985. Clevelanders will note the cameo by über-Stepford anchor Wilma Smith, whose chemically and surgically preserved face has not changed one iota in the passing 21 years:

”Dancing On The Airwaves” was “L’Oiseau’s” leadoff single, continuing a tradition of Birds’ songs with “dance” or “dancing” in the title (I can name three off the top of my head – hey, it was a theme). “Airwaves” was the first Birds single to cross over onto Cleveland Top 40 and AOR radio, getting some minor airplay. But it seemed that whenever the Birds seemed ready to break through on a national level (MTV had briefly added a video for “No Communication” off the first EP), the band would retreat, take a few years off, retool, then return. That was the case here as well, as “L’Oiseau” would be the band’s last release until 1989.

Reznor had left the band at this point to concentrate on his own project, a little thing that a short year later would become Nine Inch Nails, but he still contributed some keyboards and programming to the Birds’ actual first full-length album, “Equilibrium”. Some of the Reznor sound comes thru when listening to the album’s single, “Imagination”. The off-kilter beat and a bit of the synth guitar squall effects would resurface soon after on NIN’s debut single, “Down In It”, and boy, doesn’t that little spoken-word bridge sound familiar?

One of those three aforementioned “dance” titles pops up later on the album, “Dance With Me”, another Andy xylophone showcase. The Birds were a little derided by the then-hipster groupthink around Cleveland because of their accessible dance sound and fearlessly mainstream ambitions. Well, poo on them. I loved the Birds and spent quite a few bucks going to see them play at the Phantasy Theater and Spanky’s in happening North Ridgeville, Ohio. Besides, the band’s alumni went on to become one of the most influencial alternative/industrial bands of the ’90s (Trent and NIN) and drum for bands like Prick and Stabbing Westward (Andy – he even wrote Stabbing Westward’s big alterna-hit “What Do I Have To Do”). Everything’s incremental.

Here’s a link to an Exotice Birds website that hasn’t been updated in a while, and as a bonus, here’s the first Exotic Birds video, “No Communication”, from 1983. This is the one that got added to MTV’s playlist and earned the Birds some local bragging rights:

“Equilibrium” is long out of print, but you can find used copies on Amazon.

“Dancing On The Airwaves” and “Imagination” did not chart.