It was in part from a series of dinosaur-themed picture books—specifically, the volume about the bizarre winged devil-turkey known as the archaeopteryx—that I first learned, as an eight-year-old, that the so-called terrible lizards were actually closer to giant plucked chickens. Greg Sullo, frontman for the Brooklyn-based indie-pop band Dinosaur Feathers, found out in early 2008: “I was at the Museum of Natural History, and learned the wonderful fact that dinosaurs had feathers—even T. rex and the velociraptor,” he recalls, visibly excited.
He was so inspired by that marbled nugget of truth and whimsy—not hard to believe, given that he used to write songs based on National Geographic articles about Bhutan and the polar ice caps—that it came to define his band, which now tends toward groggy acoustic pop tunes sandwiched between abundant vocal harmonies and a sequenced drum machine. “History Lessons,” the B-side from Dinosaur Feathers’ debut single, is nothing so much as a fossilized Fleet Fox, opening with four-part choral interplay, forest-gully reverb, and triumphant major chords. But the band forges its own textures, thanks to the drum machine, which sounds anything but mechanical, at least once Sullo uses it to get his More Cowbell on, as well as his congas, tablas, and bells, all heavily altered and pitch-shifted, usually with nary a snare sample in sight.
That exotic zest has become one of the band’s defining features, even though it comes from a can. “I think it drives a lot of what this band does, in terms of the flavor,” says Derek Zimmerman, Sullo’s lanky former college a cappella buddy who now plays keyboards and handles most of the vocal arrangements.
“I wanted to create something that seemed sort of fantastical, but when you broke it down into its elements, was still very organic,” explains Sullo, who immediately thereafter describes “taking a look back at those old ’50s and ’60s songs and reimagining them with modern technology that the Beatles and Os Mutantes didn’t have.” Either way, Dinosaur Feathers are evolving nicely—from this summer’s free-download Early Morning Risers EP to the full-length scheduled for March—but Sullo still worries about his favorite paleontological theory. “It’ll be interesting to see where that information goes in 20 years,” he says. “I wonder how much of it is getting into literature and textbooks and the sort of books you’d have as a kid. Maybe we can do our part to help.”
Not necessary, guys: It’s already out there. And, in any case, when faced with a chimera that’s part dragon and part peacock, who can really say which half doesn’t belong?
Dinosaur Feathers play Cameo November 23 and December 7 and 17