“Sometimes when people mumble, they say good things”

Brooklyn-based trio The Mumbles shares a name with a British electro-goth group, but that’s where the similarities stop. Born by accident from 14-piece hip-hop collective Chronic Electronic Orchestra (CEO), singer-songwriter Keith Burnstein and drummer Ethan Shorter invented their uniquely vintage-y, jazzy folk sound one night when they were the only two musicians to show for a CEO gig.

Enunciation is overrated: The Mumbles sing harmonies, play vintage keys and look like they stepped out of 1971. Photo by Daniel Burnstein.

The Mumbles played their first official show about three years ago as a duo to audience raves, though many listeners suggested a female voice would be the cherry on top. When Burnstein came across vocalist Meredith Claire, he knew the band was complete.

The Mumbles’ upcoming tour includes a show at Philadelphia’s World Café Live (some performances from this venue wind up on NPR’s popular show, “World Café” with host David Dye). Burnstein explains that while this Mumbles performance won’t find its way to NPR, future shows might.

Local listeners can catch The Mumbles at BoBo Gallery. Burstein tells Xpress more about how three people make such a big sound, what it’s like to travel with vintage equipment, and what the band’s name is all about.

Mountain Xpress: You have such a rich, full sound on your recordings. How do you reproduce that, live, with only three people?
Keith Burnstein: Piano players have split brains. I’m a piano player so that’s why I can say this. All piano players are a little bit crazy. You have your left hand and your right hand. What I do is split them in half. I have a keyboard for my left hand and it’s the bass player. And I have a different keyboard for my right hand—it’s the piano player and the organ player and the Rhodes player. And the three of us sing. You’d be surprised. It’s a small band but it’s a really big sound. It sounds like the recording. There’s no guitar player, but other than that, it’s the same. The recordings are tracked live.

Do you travel with a Wurlitzer?

We used to but it became a pain in the ass with learning how to fix it and taking it apart. We traveled with the Wurlitzer for about a year, but the thing is so finicky. I’m a huge fan of old vintage keyboards, but the more we travel, the less I bring them. It’s nice to have space in the car.

What I use is called a Nord Electro. It does only vintage keyboard sounds like Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Hammond B-3. It has a nice piano sound. It’s efficient. On any given day I’d rather play the real thing, but it’s good for now.

A big sound is at odds with the stripped-down folk sound that is popular right now.

I think that’s just what we all gravitate towards. Out lead singer looks like she’s from 1969 and I look like I’m from 1973, so together we’re about 1971. I enjoy the old, rich recordings. That’s just what comes out.

It’s also a very cinematic sound. Have you ever scored a film?

I used to do it a lot more in college and right when I finished college. I still do it from time to time but I haven’t really sat down and done a whole entire score to a film in a long time. I’ve always kind of played an epic style. Again, it’s just the way the music comes out.

The music I write is less visual only because I’m very close to being legally blind. Music for me is much less visually based than feeling-based. It’s ambient. I don’t start with an image. I start with a feeling and let listeners take their own image.

What is the song-writing process within the group?

It starts usually with myself or Meredith writing something. I’m like a hen: I sit on the idea for a while and let it marinate. I get to where it has form, then I bring it to the band and we give it a definite shape. Ethan adds his quirky, cool things to it and helps us arrange it. It’s a very collaborative experience.

How did you come up with the name The Mumbles?

I always used to say that everybody has the mumbles. Everybody mumbles at some point. Sometimes when people mumble, they say good things. Mumbling is guttural. It’s soft. You’ve got to listen closely. The Mumbles just fit—it has a scrappy sound to it and is a little bit raucous.

The DNA of this band is that it’s impressionistic. You can take things in a lot of different ways—the songs, the lyrics, the name of the band.

who: The Mumbles
what: Jazzy retro psychedelic pop
where: BoBo Gallery
when: Saturday, Feb. 21 (8 p.m. www.bobogallery.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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