Kovacs and the Polar Bear said goodbye to Chris Lee two weeks ago when the band performed a final show with the longtime contributor, but local fans will have one last chance to catch Lee in action before the songwriter moves to Portland later this spring. Tonight, Lee celebrates the release of his debut solo effort (under the Birthday Boy moniker) with an appearance at Emerald Lounge. Fans of Kovacs should already be familiar with his style — Lee wrote or co-wrote several of the band’s songs — but expect a fuzzier, synth-driven approach at tonight’s performance. Where Kovacs is firmly rooted in folk, Birthday Boy leans toward garage and electronics.
Xpress contributor Miles Britton spoke with Lee about his new record and moving to Portland before the final performance with Kovacs. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation.
Xpress: So why you leaving us, man?
Chris Lee: [Laughs.] I think it’s just time. I’ve been talking about it for awhile. My girlfriend’s sister lives out in Portland, and my girlfriend’s been dying to get out there. I love Asheville, but I’ve lived in the Asheville area since I was 9 years old. I’m ready to check out some other stuff, you know?
And just so everyone’s clear, you’re leaving on good terms with the band.
Absolutely. We’re all still really good buddies. When I first told them I was moving, there were probably a couple weeks there where they were pretty pissed at me. Nobody wants to see their friends leave town, you know? But we’re all really good. And I’m trying to leave the Kovacs situation in really good standing. We’re getting other friends in there to take my place. So it’s good. It’s real positive.
Are you going to pursue your solo project, Birthday Boy, in Portland?
I’d really love to do the same kind of thing I did with Kovacs. I’m putting out [Future Apartments] to try to just establish myself as a musician, to kind of show people what I can do individually, and hopefully I can get on with another crew like Kovacs out there. Although I enjoy writing songs and performing live, being the frontman makes me a nervous wreck. [Laughs.] It’s way too much burden. I mean, I’d love to tour with that and be successful with that and all. But I’m definitely more comfortable as part of a group.
So tell us a little about Future Apartments. Does it sound anything like Kovacs?
Well, it’s not as polished as Kovacs. My stuff’s a little more rough around the edges, it’s a little weirder. It grabs from a wider variety of genres. Half of it’s lo-fi garage rock stuff, and the other half is cheap-keyboard electronic stuff. And there’s a ton of vocal harmonies all over the place.
Most of the recording for that album was with free studio hours you won in a songwriting contest, right?
Yeah, through 98.1 The River and CityMac. I won 30 hours of studio time and a MacBook Pro. And I used those …
You won a MacBook Pro, too? Holy crap.
[Laughs.] Yeah. So I used it all pretty well. 30 hours of studio time seems like a lot, but I apparently have eyes bigger than my stomach. So I still had a lot of the project left, the final little bits, so I recorded a lot of stuff at home at the end. Almost all the electronic stuff you hear was all done at home on the MacBook. Then I did a Kickstarter campaign and raised about $2,700. I put all that toward the mastering and the mixing, which Brian Landrum did — he also did the latest Kovacs album [Second Sister]. And right now it’s getting pressed.
From what I’ve heard, Portland isn’t all that different from Asheville. People always say they’re like sister cities.
It’s a pretty fair comparison. They are extremely similar places, especially the attitude. I watch that show Portlandia, which is — everytime I mention that I’m moving to Portland, people ask “Have you seen Portlandia?” [Laughs] Yes, I have seen the show — but it’s just like that with all the environmentally conscious and just plain conscious people. People riding fixed gear bikes and everything. But, you know, it’s a much bigger city at the same time. It’s very industrial. And it’s got public transportation, which is something that Asheville totally lacks.
What do you think you’re going to miss most about Asheville?
The band. That’s one thing that scares me about going out there, is having to prove myself all over again.
Any chance you’ll come back to Asheville?
Yeah, definitely. I love Asheville. This is my favorite place on Earth, so far. But I’ve only really lived here, so… [Laughs.]