Multi-instrumentalist and D.C.-area native Tamir Kalifa has to stop and count when he’s asked how big Mother Falcon was when they played their Tiny Desk Concert this summer.
The popular All Songs Considered series invites musical acts to perform live in the NPR Music office. In the office that day were cellos, violins, guitars, assorted woodwinds and more, the musicians taking up their instruments and sitting on chairs and on desks and standing shoulder to shoulder along bookshelves and filing cabinets.
Kalifa can’t remember for certain, but he thinks there were 16 or 17 musicians playing that day. He takes a moment, saying names under his breath as he contemplates, before settling on 16.
NPR calls the band a “chamber-rock collective,” and their Tiny Desk show is proof enough of the band’s hybrid classification. They pair the robust sound of a chamber orchestra with the energy and dynamism of a rock act, intellectual intrigue with pop sensibility.
In terms of logistics, the Tiny Desk Concert wasn’t their most difficult to pull off. Kalifa says that dubious distinction goes to the gig that first caught All Songs Considered’s attention.
Mother Falcon was playing The Lodge in its native Austin during South by Southwest. On any other night, Kalifa says, the venue’s small stage might feature a single country guitarist or a blues-rock outfit, but that night it would play host to more than a dozen musicians. But they’ve learned to adapt, to work around a venue’s constraints.
“We’re not high maintenance,” Kalifa says. “We just go, because we’ve seen what it’s like to lose a crowd because we’re trying to perfect our sound. We just go and let the energy carry us.”
The drums, bass, piano, and two cellos took up the stage. A handful of string players straddled the windowsill near the stage, and the horns section was set up outside on the street. These were the arrangements they made to play only a few songs. But an NPR host saw the performance, and soon the band was invited to perform its Tiny Desk Concert, with its 16 or 17 musicians.
The number fluctuates, Kalifa explains, because some members leave to further their education at prestigious music schools. The same core of 12 musicians have been with the band since 2009, though, including Nick Gregg, who founded the group in 2008 as a high schooler with some fellow musicians who shared the desire to pull away from their classical training. Members of the band were schooled from a young age in classical or jazz music. Most have more than 10 years of performing experience, some more than 15.
“Everyone has been studying music for a substantial part of their lives,” Kalifa says.
The musicians bring that experience to the songwriting process. While Gregg is the primary lyricist, all Mother Falcon members contribute by channeling their knowledge of their instruments into the formation of a song.
“Whatever you hear people playing, those are the parts that they wrote,” Kalifa says. But it’s not just classical music they’re bringing to the table. Rock and hip-hop serve as inspiration. Gregg and Kalifa have even been working to interpret bossa nova rhythms in Mother Falcon style. They may be many in numbers, but when it comes to making music their size is not a hindrance.
“What’s really awesome about our instrumentation is that we’re not limited by anything, Kalifa says. “In fact we have the freedom to do pretty much anything we can think of because there will be a way to translate whatever sound is in our head onto an instrument.”
• Mother Falcon will play Iota Club and Café on Jan. 9. For more information about Mother Falcon, visit motherfalconmusic.com.