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Design and music converge to put indie record on the national stage

Early last week, Mike Brown received two important pieces of mail at his recording studio on the outskirts of Geneseo: a shutoff notice from the local gas company and an invitation to Sunday's 56th Annual Grammy Awards.

That unexpected double-dose of good and bad news seemed to suit Brown, a proudly noncommercial musician who has spent most of his young career working happily outside the mainstream, just fine.

This year, the mainstream found him.

His latest recording project, the gritty, lo-fi record “Automatic Music Can Be Fun,” began six years ago as a series of aimless jam sessions with fellow Geneseo musician Zac Decamp (together known as Geneseo) but evolved into a Grammy-nominated recording package designed by the boutique Buffalo studio White Bicycle.

On Sunday, the elegant fold-out package design of the record, featuring printed lyrics hidden behind a layer of silver ink that can be scratched off with a coin, will go up against albums by Jay-Z, David Bowie, Metallica and the Austin-based band Reckless Kelly in the “Best Recording Package” category.

Full of odd analog clanks and blips and often inscrutable vocals that occasionally attach themselves to a melody, this may be the indiest indie record ever to be nominated for a Grammy. It was recorded mostly in an ad-hoc studio in the Geneseo home of Brown's parents with the cheapest possible recording equipment – most of it analog and outdated – and mixed in the Richmond, Va., studio of Al Weatherhead, formerly of the indie rock band Sparklehorse.

“The concept behind the whole thing was never to make anything that had any tangible commercial value whatsoever. It was just, OK, let's make something really weird and see what happens,” the 33-year-old Brown said in a phone interview on Tuesday from his home and studio, housed in a renovated church on a rural stretch of road between the Village of Geneseo and Conesus Lake.

What happened was that Brown crossed paths with Buffalonian and White Bicycle founder Brian Grunert, a Grammy winner and six-time nominee with a reputation for producing innovative packaging designs. Brown and Grunert worked together on his first major effort, 2011's “American Hotel,” the product of a six-year, cross-country journey during which Brown lived and worked in his van.

Though the record has a very slim chance of winning, Grunert said, the fact that such an obscure project made it onto the radar of Grammy voters at all is astounding. He described his friend Brown as “an idiosyncratic musical guy” with “a ridiculous collection of weird, old instruments.”

“What has less of a chance than a snowball in hell? It would be an ice chip, an ice chip's chance in hell. It's almost unthinkable really. And I don't mean that out of some false modesty,” Grunert said. “I can introduce you personally to the four people who voted for it.”

What got the record in front of the right people was undoubtedly Grunert's track record, which includes six Grammy nominations for package design work with Ani DiFranco and Anaïs Mitchell and one win, for DiFranco's “Evolve,” in 2004. For “Automatic Music Can Be Fun,” Grunert and White Bicycle intern Annie Stoll worked together to produce an interactive package in which lyrics were printed, overlayed with silver scratch-off ink that has been strategically filed away in certain spots to reveal a series of evocative words.

What makes the record distinct from any of the others Grunert or Brown has worked on is the conversation between art and music that ushered it into being. Take either element away, and the record wouldn't exist. The song lyrics Grunert and Stoll chose to make visible – kind of like the inverse of a redacted confidential document – form an abstract poem, which Brown then used as inspiration for the record's final track.

“If I had my pinky off the stem of a wine glass right now, I would say it's a post-modern approach to record packaging,” Grunert said. “I think it is pioneering and is the reason why it was nominated, really out of nowhere. I can tell you that the record has sold probably somewhere in the vicinity of eight copies or something like that. That's not even just making a cool story cooler, it's true. Literally it's probably the least qualified Grammy nomination in the history of the Grammys.”

The process of uncovering the lyrics by scratching off the silver ink, Brown suggested, is not unlike listening to the music itself, which contains thick layers of analog sounds and lo-fi experiments. These range from some 60 tracks of knives being sliced through pieces of cardboard, clanged against metal objects or otherwise instrumentalized to found audio of an elderly couple's recorded Christmas greeting to their grandchildren. Brown and Decamp also used antiquated wax cylinder and wire recording technology and a veritable orchestra of ancient instruments to produce a range of subtle sounds, many of which begin to reveal themselves only after many repeat listens.

That searching quality, in the design and on the record, is just one of the many things that make the appearance of the independent project in the same sentence as the word “Grammys” surprising.

“From an independent standpoint, there's nothing behind the record. It cost almost nothing to make it. It cost very little to print it. It basically just cost everybody's time,” Brown said. “I love the fact that it really exists as a piece of art and it's somehow nominated in this super, super-commercial competition or whatever the hell you even call it. We're up against the guy who has the most nominations this year. We're up against a record that has a Super Bowl commercial. There's a lot of things that are weird about it.”

David Bowie. Jay Z. Metallica. Geneseo.

As Brown prepared for his trip to Los Angeles with Grunert earlier this week, he admitted seeing those words strung together still felt bizarre, but he was happy that his strange little project was getting some unexpected recognition. Still, he added, “I don't do this to make money.”

Hence that gas bill that arrived in his mailbox along with his invite to Sunday night's ceremony in the Staples Center.

“I haven't paid it yet,” he said, with a touch of defiance in his voice. “I only responded to one of those pieces of mail.”