Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a special series profiling Michigan artists featured at this weekend’s Mo Pop Festival in Detroit.
The Messenger Birds love the name “Kevin.”
The Detroit alt rock duo heavily reference “Kevin” in their Facebook and Instagram posts, ranging from “Kevin is a place on earth” (imagine hearing it to the tune of Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’) to “Kevin hard at work making a record” to “Lights, Camera, Kevin.”
But who the heck is Kevin, anyway? “Kevin is all of us, Kevin is everywhere,” said Parker Bengry, the band’s vocalist and guitarist.
Chris Williams, drummer and vocalist for The Messenger Birds, esoterically added, “We refer to each other as Kevin, we see ourselves as Kevin, and everybody who listens to our music is Kevin.”
While The Stratton Setlist hasn’t cracked the case about “Kevin” yet, we do know “Kevin” will be invading the Mo Pop Festival Saturday to see his favorite band, The Messenger Birds, play a coveted 1:30 p.m. opening slot on the River Stage.
The Messenger Birds will join 27 other emerging artists, including Vampire Weekend, Tame Impala, Lizzo and Ella Mai, during the two-day indie rock, pop and hip-hop festival this weekend at Detroit’s West Riverfront Park. Nearly 20,000 people are expected to attend the boutique and niche festival, which returns for its seventh year.
Each year, Mo Pop kicks off both festival days with opening performances from Michigan-based artists to expose attendees to some of the area’s rising local acts. The Messenger Birds and Siena Liggins will perform Saturday while The Doozers and the Craig Brown Band will take the stage on Sunday.
It’s been nearly three years in the making for The Messenger Birds to perform at Mo Pop. Back in 2016, festival organizers asked the band to join the lineup after another act dropped out.
“Parker got a call, and he was in New York. It was like two days before, and they were like, ‘Hey, can you guys play on Saturday at this time for Mo Pop?’” Williams said. “It was shocking.”
Bengry quickly reflected on the situation: “My flight back from New York was supposed to get in that evening, but there was no way for us to get back in time to do the set.”
“This makes much more sense this year. We have developed a lot more as a band and our following has grown a lot, too,” Bengry continued. “We’re just much further along and playing as part of the lineup just makes much more sense. I’d rather have it that way than to just hop on it days before.”
Three years later, The Messenger Birds have released three stellar singles and a four-song EP, “The Good Years,” that would make The Black Keys, Royal Blood and Band of Skulls jealous.
Their latest single, “Phantom Limb,” is an emotionally-charged, guitar-driven ode to fighting anxiety and depression: “Now I can’t shake this feeling/It keeps adding up, keeps stacking up/I finally found a meaning/There doesn’t need to be a reason/So put the pieces where you need them to go.”
“I’ve got a lot of friends and family members who deal pretty heavily with those issues and mental illness,” Bengry said. “The songs we write aren’t necessarily ever like internal or reflecting our personal situations. Sometimes there are little bits of that in there, but a lot of them are really just telling a story.”
Bengry and Williams recorded their latest single at Rustbelt Studios in Royal Oak with Steve Lehane and Jim Kissling and released it last Halloween. To date, “Phantom Limb” has racked up nearly 3 million streams on Spotify alone.
“That was a song that came together pretty quickly. I had an idea in my head like I thought it was gonna go, and then Chris and I got together and jammed through it a little bit,” Bengry said. “Then, we started working on the lyrics and the vocals for it, and then we quickly went into the studio, and we recorded that in a day.”
Another alt rock gem, “Self Destruct,” opens as a drum-fueled anthem, but quickly transforms into guitar-laden track bemoaning the 2016 presidential election: “Doesn’t matter where you’re from/Long as you’re one of us/We’ll keep spinning ‘round the sun/Till we all just turn to dust.”
“It was post-election, but it was the buildup of the surrealism of Donald Trump actually getting elected into office and the months following,” Bengry said. “There’s definitely a couple of visceral references in there that are obvious, but again, those are more devices for telling stories.
Bengry and Williams have been telling musical stories as “just two guys” in The Messenger Birds since 2014. They’ve quickly gained a reputation for their loud, energetic live shows and honed a sound filled with catchy hooks, monster riffs and unapologetic lyrics.
The duo met while playing hockey in middle school, discovered they both played music and shared an affinity for blues, grunge and alt rock. That quickly led to jamming in basements to Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine and exploring different genres of music together in school and jazz bands.
“We’d always hung out throughout the years, but there was a period where we weren’t hanging out as frequently,” Bengry said. “Once the bands that we were in died out, we started hanging out more, and The Messenger Birds facilitated out of that time frame.”
Five years later, The Messenger Birds are getting ready for their long-awaited Saturday Mo Pop set, which will include new and current tunes to share in the Motor City. They’re also getting ready to release a new full-length album, “Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually,” which will feature “Phantom Limb” and “Self Destruct.”
“We hope people have a good time with it. We’ll bring some energy, and hopefully, they can take away some of the power from it,” Williams said. “The main goal is to play the set, have a good time and run these songs in front of our hometown.”
Fans will hear a new single, “No Pardon,” Friday from The Messenger Birds in advance of their Mo Pop set. They’ll also hopefully discover the true identity of “Kevin.” A series of Facebook and Instagram promos are teasing to reveal “Kevin.”
If “Kevin” doesn’t come forward on Friday, then we’ll keep our eyes out for him at Mo Pop.
Tickets are still available for this weekend’s Mo Pop Festival. Single-day passes are $95 while weekend passes are $149.50.