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In 2004, Greg Sullo was a college sophomore spending a semester in the West African country of Mali, and a musician still four years away from launching Dinosaur Feathers. Thanks to a chance viewing of Martin Scorcese's documentary The Blues, he learned that he was a musician living on hallowed ground. "The whole thing starts in Mali as the birthplace of the blues,” says the amiable guitarist/vocalist.
In addition to meeting highly regarded singer Salif Keita, Sullo's music-centric experiences in Mali involved visiting villages around the country on the weekends, which meant communal concerts and ample dancing. As part of an independent study, Sullo had a chance to play music with various locals, including a blind man who specialized in a kind of guitar/harp hybrid known as the kora. "[His band] did this really incredible version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme, and this guy took this extended solo," Sullo says. "He's sitting in this chair, and he's got a pickup on the kora. By the end of it, he's on the floor, thrashing it, almost throwing it against the ground, playing noise kora almost. It was really incredible to see something like that because he lived in this small hut and had next to no money. This is not someone who's like, 'Oh, I was really influenced by '70s punk music or noise music.' This is just somebody who felt something and wanted to explore what the instrument could do just all on his own."
The concert with the kora player may have had no discernible effect on how Sullo makes music today, but there's still something revelatory about how he tells the anecdote. He recalls the encounter with eager awe, as if he's channeling the mix of surprise and delight he felt when first seeing the performance. Dinosaur Feathers have a similarly open and earnest point of view. At their core, the Brooklyn group are an indie rock band, but beyond that, they confidently incorporate more daring flavors such as Afropop and Brazilian tropicália. Like San Francisco's Fool's Gold—a freewheeling group who stir indie rock, Hebrew vocals and African rhythms into one fascinating stew—Dinosaur Feathers create summer music for people who want to imagine spending the season cutting across global music scenes and making new friends along the way. In their hands, culture mashing is a particularly satisfying act.
When Sullo first began working on his band, he was really into Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam and the Ruby Suns' Sea Lion—two records that also merge indie elements with world music to varying degrees. Dinosaur Feathers have a drummer nowadays, but Sullo originally programmed beats on a drum machine, which is where listening to one of those bands especially helped. "I really liked the way Animal Collective used nontraditional sounds in their music, especially with the rhythms and the beats," he says. "I was really interested in ways that I could distort typical sounds and use atypical sounds to try to make something that still sounded like pop music."
While Dinosaur Feathers first gained name value as a world-music-friendly act, Sullo believes those influences have diminished as time has gone on. In their place, he points to three tracks—"Certain Times," "City Living" and "Beatcha"—off the new Whistle Tips that evidence the band's new direction. "One of the things I think that's particularly interesting about what we do is the blending of these very '60s pop elements," he says. "There are a lot of harmonies and stuff, and then there are sort of these noisier outbursts. That first song starts off really gentle and poppy and has some nice harmonies in it, and then all of a sudden, it kind of explodes into weird, noisy, proggy breakdown. Then, that subsides into this really spacious groove. It weaves in and out of all these different ideas: There's hooks in there, there's noisier elements, there's quieter elements."
Sullo finds amusement in the idea of his band as a dichotomy: To his friends who listen to the radio, he's in a really offbeat group, but to others who know more obscure music, Dinosaur Feathers are straight pop. "I like to think that at the end of the day, we lie somewhere in between those two ideas," he says. As he discusses his ambitions for the group, he appears intent on only expanding and twisting whatever parameters they've established thus far. "My dream scenario next year would be to release a stripped-down jazz album and a country album," he says, "but who knows if those are going to happen?"
This article appeared in print as "Papasaurus: Dinosaur Feathers' multicultural tunes are up for anything."