School of rock

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There's no agent/manager phone-tag involved to get in touch with Paul Siler, the guitarist-founder of Birds of Avalon—all you've got to do is call the admissions office of the North Carolina State University grad school.

Following in the footsteps of other hard-working rockers before him (like Robert Pollard, a fourth grade teacher for years into his tenure in Guided By Voices), Siler falls somewhere between rock star and working-class hero. He's toured Europe extensively with his former band, the Cherry Valence, and Birds of Avalon—whose Zeppelin-meets-Matthew Sweet debut "Bazaar Bazaar" releases May 22—have already established an East Coast rep. But he's still driving the van, setting up his own equipment and negotiating days off to tour.

Siler opened up about what he puts on to pass the time, where bands should and shouldn't crash and how Birds of Avalon ended up naming one of their best songs "Lost Pages from the Robot Repair Manual."

You've been doing the band-in-a-van thing for a long time—what keeps you from giving up?
I think if your body chemistry is OK with it, then it's not so bad. A lot of people just can't get the vibe of driving five or six hours a day, cooped up with five or six people—that's not a pleasant thought at all. But if you all like to look at the countryside and enjoy the same kind of music, then you can look at it as a nice time to listen to music all day and see America.. If the show is good, it's a bonus.

What are the top three records to make long drives more bearable?
Steely Dan—it might surprise some people, but all five of us love Steely Dan. Mid- to late-period Beatles records, "Rubber Soul," "Revolver," we all love "Abbey Road." We'll skip over some of Paul's weaker moments, but the 60-70% that's good is so ridiculously good. Otis Redding…we've been enjoying the Amy Winehouse record, too. I've heard a few people complain about her, [but] I feel like my bullshit detector's not too bad, and she really sounds excellent to me. We got into books on tape and listened to the entire "[The] Shining"—it really helps pass the time.

Do you remember the worst hotel you've ever stayed in on tour?
Usually, we don't stay in hotels. That's the thing about doing this a long time—you find a lot of good people to stay with. A motel's great, but you miss out on getting to know people. If you get big before you actually have to work for it, [you] never ever experience that. I think that's a real shame; if you get into the routine of getting a motel every night, you're really cheating yourself.

So what's the sketchiest house you've stayed at?
We were in Athens and it was January. We got there, and there was like a crusty bunk house. There were 12 people living there, three or four dogs and no heat—it was 21 degrees outside! Two of us stayed inside, and the others stayed in the van. There're a few doozies like that—dog shit everywhere or bizarre things, like people who collect hair from the drain and put it in a jar by the tub. Just weird stuff, man! That house…I remember, everything that could be spilled was spilled, the stove was covered in food. And I think a female lived there too, which is even stranger.

I've got to know where the song title "Lost Pages From the Robot Repair Manual" came from…
We couldn't get a handle on where that song should come from, lyrically, and it kind of sounded futuristic to us. It had a little bit of a sad feeling, so we tried to consider that it was about what would happen if two robots found some emotion and fell in love. Then they found a repair book that explained how their machine worked, and those pages were missing—they couldn't figure out what to do with this "love" emotion. [Laughs] At the end, when the singing freaks out, that's the robots losing it.

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