We are the Willows: Touring With Dead People

It's a well-known fact that most band names are essentially gobbledygook, but here at Rocks Off we're trying hard to find meaning in the oddest monikers.

With the exception of any member of its government who may be running for president, Rocks Off loves us some Minnesota. There's just something about the way everything seems half-Viking, half-Canadian that we really seem to dig. That why we're pleased that We are the Willows will be venturing into the sauna that is Houston this weekend.

We are the Willows is Peter Michael Miller, a veteran of the Minneapolis music scene who has branched out on his own. He may have one of the most distinctive voices in all of music. Remember Peter Steele from Type O Negative? If you asked someone to sound like the exact opposite of that, you would end up with Miller's signature countertenor.

His songs are endearingly indie without that unpleasant hipster aftertaste. Appropriately enough, he reminds us of Taken by Trees with his lonely but happy sound, though without quite the empty sadness that fills Taken by the Trees' tracks. No, when Miller songs to us it's a bit more childlike and innocent, about what you'd expect from a former pre-school teacher.

Gun to our head, and why you are threatening us with one over this we'll never know, we're going to endorse "A Funeral Dressed as a Birthday," as the track you must hear from Miller. The weaving of different guitar lines is like pallbearers carrying Miller's vocals in a coffin through an idyllic cemetery. It's a peaceful, cathartic tune that you'd have to be a tombstone not to feel in every inch of your soul.

So we like the band just fine, but that name... We are the Willows? We? It's just one guy, and I've seen his picture. He isn't a tree. What is it with solo artists giving themselves plural names anyway? Looking at you, Primitive Radio Gods. And for that matter, who wants to be a damn tree anyway?

The only answer of course was to email Miller and ask him where the name came from. Usually we would take the Houston Press hovercraft to meet him, or perhaps concoct an elaborate disguise to ambush him and put him off-guard; however, we recently lost both our arms and legs in an unfortunate escalator accident so email had to do.

"We are the Willows started out as a side project to my other band, Red Fox Grey Fox," typed Miller. "The name We are the Willows came from a Red Fox Grey Fox lyric about being a group of trees, deeply rooted, and strong. Also, I'm a sucker for alliteration.

"As I figure out what exactly it is I'm doing with We are the Willows, I find that most of my songs end up being about family narrative and how that makes me who I am. I think each person's 'self' is made of the collection of thoughts, feelings and experiences of the people around them. When you understand these people around you, you may begin to understand yourself better.

"We are the Willows, at least in part, is about exploring these narratives, accepting them as part of my personal narrative, and finding strength in that."

He's a deep one, this Miller dude, so why don't we delve into the meaning just a bit more. Willow trees have long been associated with the dead in various religions. In both Western and Oriental mythologies, willow branches have been used as wards against the spirits of the dead should they return to Earth.

However, willow carvings are used by Taoist witches in order to communicate with departed spirits. Obviously, somebody has it backwards, but regardless, the link between the willow tree and the dead is apparent. Framing the question very carefully, we asked Miller what he would do with the dead.

"Communicate with them!" he said. "I tour by myself for 6 to 11 week periods of time. I could use some company. I want to hang out with Great Grandpa Gunnar! Play driving games with Karl Marx! Arm-wrestle Jesus! Hold my breath through tunnels with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.!"

With that, he signed off and we went to go salve our stumps. Personally, ghosts scare us into ruined pantaloons. We've got a willow branch hung over the door for that reason. We're hoping the Taoists are wrong.


We are the Willows (n): 1. A feeling of artistic connectedness. 2. A signature cry. 3. The opposite of Peter Steele.

We are the Willows play Sunday at The Mink with Tigerparty and Bright Men of Learning.

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