Jherek Bischoff makes his heroes sing.
Jherek Bischoff plays bass, banjo, piano, ukelele and drums. But he does not sing and he does not write lyrics. So when the 32-year-old Seattleite began conceiving a wildly ambitious orchestral project two years ago, he had a problem.
“Singing and lyric-writing drives me nuts,” Bischoff says. “I feel great about songwriting, I feel great about arrangement, I feel great about recording, so why don’t I get some different singers and lyricists to come in and collaborate?”
Bischoff is no stranger to collaboration. He’s performed with a long list of musicians, becoming a journeyman in the world of avant-garde pop. While making music with the Dead Science, Parenthetical Girls and Degenerate Art Ensemble, he has worked with many distinctive vocalists.
For Composed, Bischoff wrote grand instrumentals inspired by cooing indie pop hero Mirah, alt-country growler Carla Bozulich of the Geraldine Fibbers and devastatingly fey Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls. He toted his laptop to the studios of a dozen instrumental collaborators, recording and layering tracks of strings, woodwinds, percussion and brass into a full-length recording that sounds like an orchestra of 100. Then he sent the songs to his singers to lay down the vocals.
But there was still a problem: Bischoff had written some of the orchestrations with his musical heroes in mind, including David Byrne, Caetano Veloso and Craig Wedren, leader of D.C. punks Shudder to Think. He’d planned to voice the parts himself, but as the project progressed, that seemed like an increasingly bad decision.
So Bischoff sent the song he had written for Byrne to an acquaintance who was a dancer on the former Talking Head’s solo tour. It was a long shot, but not a misguided one. Bischoff shares Byrne’s rock roots and anthropologist’s interest in the music of other cultures.
For Bischoff, that interest started when he set sail on the high seas at age 15. When his parents had saved up enough money to quit their jobs and travel the world.
“The floor was about this by this,” Bischoff says of his room, his large hands marking out a spot the size of a shoebox on the floor of his First Hill apartment. “I knew that I could either have a floor or I could have my bass amp.”
For three years, that amp traveled with Bischoff’s bass, and his father and brother’s drums down the western coast of the Americas. When the family pulled into an anchorage, they’d throw their instruments into an inflatable raft and go to shore, where they joined jam sessions with local musicians.
When Byrne listened to the song Bischoff wrote for him, Bischoff’s musical experimentation and global experiences were evident. Byrne contacted Bischoff the next day. He was in.
Emboldened, Bischoff approached all the singers he had written songs for. Soon, he had confirmations from Veloso and Wedren.
“The only one I didn’t get was Kate Bush,” he says.
Byrne not only lent vocals to Bischoff, he also arranged a New York performance of Composed at the Ecstatic Music Festival, where Bischoff will debut his first full orchestral work later this month. There he will direct his friends and heroes in a performance of his songs, singing along in his head.