The Volen Group sat down with one of the members of To The Bird, the band headlining our Annual Soiree for the second year in a row, to ask a few questions and find out more about the origins of the group and uncover some intimate details. The answers we received were at times hilarious and also really fun to listen to. We hope you will enjoy this script, our first music interview!
TVG: So who are the “birds?”
TTB: I am Kevin Drew and my bandmate and the canary in the coalmine is named Michael Itkoff. He is originally from Ohio and studied at Indiana University. He helped form an acappella group called Straight No Chaser while in college. They are actually still touring and making music today. They are an extremely impressive set of musicians and have multiple gold albums which Michael very humbly showed me once. He enjoys long walks on the beach, cooking, sculpting, origami, karate if it is in the garage and chasing waterfalls – although he has been warned not to do the last one on more than one occasion.
I am the 2nd person from New Jersey to ever move to Ponte Vedra Beach. The witness protection program has been really good to me. Just kidding, of course. I don’t rat. After attending Clown College in Providence, Rhode Island, I had a great tour with Ringling Brothers. I used to play guitar for the dancing poodles and for the bearded lady during her opera set. It was a cool gig but we all know how the Greatest Show on Earth ended.
In all seriousness, we are both professional fathers and husbands—which we both really dig.
TVG: How did your band get started?
TTB: We are a Covidian-creation, founded on libation, touring the nation, playing songs like “New Sensation”, on a permanent vacation – so feel the vibration. I just made that up and stole from INXS, Aerosmith and Mark Wahlberg in the same sentence.
Actually, we started after the end of the first major quarantine in 2020. So the end of this May will be our second anniversary. We were both super freaked, like Rick James and the rest of the World, but were invited to a mutual friends’ backyard to hang out in a group of less than eight or ten – something like that. My wife and I had been friendly with the Itkoffs for years prior and used to hang out with them on the beach occasionally. I knew Michael was a singer and he knew I played guitar, but we never made it a priority to try to play together even though I think we consistently mentioned to one another as something we should do.
Anyway, we wound up in the same post-quarantine number one backyard and started chatting. We didn’t even know if we should be within six feet of each other much less singing and playing together. But when a guitar from our host’s house magically materialized, we figured “why not?”. We stepped aside from the party to see if we could get a few songs together. I think everyone at the gathering was pretty starved for some live entertainment or at least some type of normalcy at the time, so four hours and twenty-plus ad hoc cover song renditions later we became a band.
One of our friends filmed part of it on her phone and sent it to Sawgrass Country Club. They hired us to play outside and oceanfront about three weeks later.
TVG: What’s the meaning of the band name?
TTB: We have been sworn to secrecy by our manager and the president of our fan club, The Birdhouse, on that topic. There is a contract and everything. They are already both into us for 10% of profits so we really don’t want to see what type of damage they could do to us in a courtroom. I can tell you off the record though. Please don’t tell them that I told you.
TVG: How did you form such great relationships with locals and local businesses?
TTB: It might sound corny, but the outpouring of support from our friends and family has been unparalleled and they really formed us and helped refer us around Ponte Vedra Beach and beyond. I truly thought we would play for two hours for one night at Sawgrass and be “one and done,” a one gig wonder if you will. We have met so many cool and kind people since To The Bird’s inception. We started getting repeat Club gigs up and down Ponte Vedra Boulevard, in Sawgrass Village and on the Intracoastal Waterway. And then corporate and private events started blowing up quite a bit. It has really been an honor to play at people’s major life events and to provide a soundtrack for it. Birthday parties, retirement parties, rehearsal dinners, engagement parties, holiday parties and just party parties have all been so much fun to be a part of. We have also done some great fundraisers for great causes. I think some of the work we have done for places like Mission House or the local public schools sort of paid it forward and paved the way for hired shows, like the Volen Group’s Spring Soiree. Plug, plug. Always be selling and always be closing.
TVG: What is your favorite venue to play or the best concert you’ve put on?
TTB: Why the last Volen Group show at Julep, of course. Shameless, I know. But like Tom Petty said, “we’ll never sell out unless we need the money”. A close second would have to be playing the Florida Theatre. The history and iconic nature of that venue are just really kind of epic. When you walk out onto the same stage that has welcomed everyone from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello, there is just something unique about it. You can almost feel the ghosts in that place. And the sound is absolutely tremendous. Just hearing the guitar and Michael’s voice at soundcheck made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle. Walking out to and playing to a large audience in a special place like that is definitely a highlight I would want put in my obituary. And back to the community and the relationships we have formed; they chartered a bus from Ponte Vedra to come downtown and see us. I mean, so amazing and so wonderful. And I think the crowd felt really into it which always provides us with fuel.
TVG: What is the best thing about your fan base and where do groupies find you on social media?
TTB: Our fans are really the coolest people on Earth and are really extended family at this point. They are all really big music geeks! They have a wide variety of genre tastes which makes it so fun to come up with new songs or unexpected covers and arrangements. I think because we started playing at such an uncertain time, there was an instant bond and friendship pioneered between the group and anyone who would come out to listen. Everyone was going through some type of challenge or new experience in the Covidian Era—so to put a smile on people’s faces for just a few hours was something we took pretty seriously and really still treasure every time we play. The pandemic definitely made us an extremely grateful duo. We have the old school web site at www.tothebird.com and are @tothebirdmusic on Instagram and Facebook. We do not tik the tok, snap the chat or twit the tweeter yet.
TVG: What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you during a show?
TTB: Oh boy. There are a lot of them and many are probably too inside to resonate with others as funny. There are times when Michael hits a note in the stratosphere that sounds so awesome and actually surprises me into a laugh. And then he starts to laugh back so I laugh harder and on it goes. There was a show where a big Spring Break crew showed up and literally stole the show by the end of the evening. They hopped right up, grabbed mics and started editing the last set all the way up until the encore. Not a care in the world.
I think one of the funniest moments was part of the standing joke that started early on; which is basically that it rains every time we play. We could and only wanted only play outside venues when we first started given the state of the union. This is all well and fine unless it rains of course.
We open up with the National Anthem most of the time and Michael does an awesome tribute to it. So during our third of fourth gig we thought we had finally avoided a rain delay of any kind. We get up and at it and are really excited because the crowd was sizeable and ready to roll. Michael is all “at the twilight’s last gleaming” while the sun is behind us with a glistening ocean in front. It was a beautiful summer evening when, out of nowhere, a squall just starts to dump. Tropical storm-like rain and heavy, heavy wind. Like call an exorcist because it was just beautiful two seconds ago weather. So we are plugged in, my guitars are all out, Michael is chest deep into the Star Spangled Banner and the crowd is all standing at attention. All of us frozen in indecision. I mean no one knows the right thing to do in that scenario. Then God decided. Thunderclap! Lightning strike by the lifeguard stand! The beast is on top of us. People are springing off the beach and the entire audience heads inside in an orderly but definitely concerned fashion. In true showman style, Michael continues on but ups the tempo to finish the song. Like a punk rock tempo so you think his voice is going to turn into the Chipmunks tempo, “and the rockets red glare.” I am saddled to our original PA System which was probably already a fire hazard to begin with. We are getting soaked and I know Michael is getting shocked by the mic as he finishes out, “and the home of the brave.” to an empty bar deck. And then as soon as we shut the power off and were about to run inside, calm appears. Sunshine and an ocean breeze. It was like nothing ever happened. Everyone came back out, dried off the seats and away we went.
TVG: Do you have a favorite song to play?
TTB: We started writing our own songs so some of those are quickly becoming my favorites because they are personal. It is also fun to blend them into a set to gauge the reaction from people. It is always a nice hidden compliment when someone asks, “who was that?” anticipating that it was some well-known artist. In terms of covers, we have so many to choose from that it makes the answer kind of difficult. We have never played the same set twice and always try to sprinkle in new material so it doesn’t get stale. That said, I know Por Ti Volare is one we do not do often but I love to hear Michael sing. Neither of us had done any opera before To The Bird so playing this is always a challenge and a lot of fun. It is like our mini-tribute to the brilliance of Queen but is also a beautiful, beautiful song and sentiment. I like it when we create a good arrangement and medley with a wide range of styles. One of the first times we tried this was playing Jane’s Addiction with New Kids on the Block in the same song. It would be hard to find two more unlike sounds or groups to put together, but rhythmically and structurally it works and is both funny and cool in my ears.
There was a night at the Cabana Club where we ran a medley in A minor from I Wish I Knew You by the Revivalists to Hit Me Baby One More Time from Britney Spears to When Doves Cry by Prince to Ain’t Talking ‘bout Love by Van Halen into Michael Jackson’s Beat It. That was definitely one of my favorite jams. There were a bunch of people in from the Midwest on vacation in attendance and they started to rock with us. Singing every word and understanding the diversity of the music we were putting together.
TVG: Which band or artist inspires you the most?
TTB: You might want to grab a Snickers because its gonna be a while. Our influences are our potion for motion and emotion. I was fortunate enough to grow up as the youngest of seven children in a place with New York radio. 102.7 WNEW was our main stay station. That is where Bruce’s Born to Run received its first heavy airplay. 105.5 WDHA was, and still is, a New Jersey Station that really had the up and coming sounds. 92.3 KRock is where Howard Stern spent many years and had the earliest grunge-focused lineup that I can remember. And then there was Z100 and 95.5 WPLJ. PLJ was actually a rock music station in the early 80s, I think. It, like Z100, eventually went heavy pop. My older brothers and sisters all listened to the radio emphatically. They also had massive vinyl record collections and still had eight track tapes when I was growing up. These records really helped form my early love for music. Of course, growing up outside of New York in the 80s also had its not-so-radio friendly music coming in via the Punk and New Wave scenes at places like CBGB and the Bottomline. There is so much great music from a generational perspective and so much more to hear and learn. For me, personally, Edward Van Halen is the king of 20th century music. Not just his guitar playing, but his overall musicianship, work on piano and keyboards – and his uncanny abilities to innovate and invent. We really had a Mozart on Earth among us in Eddie. So all of the pop and rock and punk and blues and jazz that is possible to listen to goes into our music. Michael’s vocal range makes it possible to play songs that very few people can sing. He also opened my ears to a whole new world of music. There were a lot of more current artists that I had been missing out on. Before next year’s Volen Group Soiree, um, plug, it would be cool to have him list out some of his favorite cantors. We are a little bit of yin and yang from a musical influence standpoint, but I guess that is why there are two birds in the band.