Violently Unhip

Papa Byrd: From mild-mannered Midwesterners to lounge-funk superheroes!

Photo by Steve WilberIf there were an unlikely reality TV show depicting the lives of the well-balanced and the mild-mannered, Scott Weaver and Christopher Hall would surely be the stars.

Ask them about politics: "Bah, no need for it!" they'd say.

How about spending quality time outside Orange County? "No way, dude! Are you nuts?"

Jobs? "Been at the same ones for years."

But those mild manners conceal an active fantasy life—and no, it's not the kind that could land them in jail. Weaver, a computer programmer, and Hall, a hairstylist, spend their off hours thinking about spies, space-age bachelor pads and blaxploitation heroes. But unlike millions of others who share the same daydreams, they can live them out. Sort of.

This Costa Mesa duo are the DJ/producers behind Papa Byrd, the lounge/funk breakbeat act whose debut EP, The Many Moods of Papa Byrd, is getting radio play on taste-making stations like KCRW and Orange County fave Cool Radio 94.3. And it's a bit of surprise for Weaver, who comes off as Mr. Midwesterner: this 29-year-old is a big ol' ball of plain talk and decent manners, and it'd be hard to pick him out of a crowd if he didn't occasionally wear goofy 1960s clothes or some bangles on his wrists.

"I'm a simple guy," Weaver says. "I sit in front of my computer and make music. A couple of my buddies come by and play instruments with the music. And we have fun."

It almost sounds like quiet time at kindergarten. But it fits a guy who has been overexposed to crappy 1960s and 1970s TV reruns. Hence the name Papa Byrd, lifted from Black Belt Jones, a 1974 blaxploitation flick featuring a wizened yet impossibly funky karate dojo owner named Papa Byrd, played by none other than the wizened yet impossibly funky Scatman Crothers.

And remember: one music critic's Midwestern wallflower is someone else's recipe for a pretty funky night out. A recent Saturday night at Costa Mesa's Detroit Bar saw a crowd of frat boys and sorority girls getting goofy to Weaver and Hall's mix of soul, hip-hop and classic Michael Jackson. Other Saturday nights, a quieter crowd of hipsters share cigarettes and martinis at Costa Mesa's La Cave, where Weaver and Hall spin Eydie Gorme and watered-down bossa nova—it's lounge music so violently unhip that even the parents of the La Cave crowd rebelled against it.

Somehow, however, the beats from these two nights became the crucible that forged the Papa Byrd sound. Songs from the Many Moods EP like "Spock" are all sci-fi cooing over a fast breakbeat, but tracks like "Mai Tai" mesh with foofy mod flute sounds, the cackles of happy toucans and faux exotica choruses with—yep—driving breakbeats. If this sounds like music for those Clark Kent types dreaming about replacing their Superman suits with Austin Powers outfits, well, it should. And it also almost didn't happen.

Weaver and Hall didn't exactly have a plan to take over the world with their music, Weaver says.

"We have 100 songs written," says Weaver. "I just never played them for anybody—we kept them hidden."

And they would have stayed hidden if their friends hadn't nudged them to play their songs for a music label or two. Fullerton-based DJ/producer Q pushed them to play a track for indie label City of Angels in 1997. They were signed to the label—which had been riding high on electronica's initial wave of next-big-thing-dom—and of course Papa Byrd's experience ended in disaster.

They were paired with a music producer who—same as it ever was—didn't want to take the musical direction they did. They were dissatisfied with the way they were being treated by the label generally, and City of Angels soon dropped them.

But Q saw it as one of those character-building experiences for his friends.

"That's when they realized, 'Why hook up with another producer when we could do it for ourselves?'" he says.

Doing it for themselves initially meant selling all of their newfangled equipment and buying vintage synthesizers so they could make the music they liked. It was tongue-in-cheek lounge, a subtler electronica rarely played at mega-raves. They were happier with their tunes, but their brush with the music industry could have scared them underground forever.

"I kinda went into hiding for a year. We were trying to write songs, and we were kinda frustrated," Weaver says.

But they could hide out only for so long. By 1999, they began distributing a few of their songs by MP3. To their surprise, hundreds of people were downloading them. Then Weaver's former girlfriend, Riley More, a DJ at defunct Internet station SpikeRadio, sent an MP3 to her boss, program director Dave Sanford. Sanford was planning to start a label and wanted to sign them. Two years later, the label Transistor Recordings was launched, and Papa Byrd was the second band signed.

Weaver and Hall are working on a full-length Papa Byrd album, which should be released early next year. They also plan to tour with some funk musicians and, of course, keep their vibe very happy, well-balanced and mild-mannered. Even if happy, well-balanced and mild-mannered won't get them anywhere.

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