True Widow: Visual-Artist Trio Turns up the Drone in Dallas

True Widow: True WidowTrue Widow: True Widow (End Sounds, 11/11/08)

True Widow: “Corpse Master”

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When Dan Phillips left the metropolitan confines of Dallas as well as his band, the esteemed underground indie trio Slowride, for the ice of Boston and two years of woodworking school, he knew that he’d return, but he didn’t know under what circumstances. Something about his day-to-day work soon enlightened him.

“When I’m working [on the wood], I definitely had the headphones on,” Phillips says. “You’re listening to longer music to just sort of slow yourself down a little bit and be able to concentrate and drone out.”

In retrospect, it is ironic that Phillips’ previous band would have a name that embodies theses very characteristics despite its driving punk sound, because it is Phillips’ latest band, True Widow, formed upon his return to Dallas, that expands on these themes. With True Widow, droning, melting guitar tones hover over sparse vocals, recalling the darker moments of Low or Bedhead mingling with the heavy gain of experimental groups like Sunn O))).

Like Slowride, True Widow is a trio, made up of Phillips, drummer/screen-printer Timothy Starks, and bass player / make-up artist Nicole Estill. After returning from his apprenticeship in Boston, Phillips took a while to find a lineup that suited him; he auditioned a few members who didn’t end up working out. Then he remembered his friend Timothy, with whom he had played when the two felt like goofing off. “I didn’t think of Tim right away,” Phillips says. “I tried out another guy. It just wasn’t working, and I decided that Tim should play the drums. He’s a real simple drummer; it’s perfect for the music.”

Grim songs such as “Corpse Master” and “Mesh Mask” from the band’s self-titled debut on End Sounds certainly don’t sound like something carved from the hand of a specialist in 18th Century American colonial cabinetry. But there’s something dusty, careworn, and very American in the lonely caverns of True Widow’s music. On songs such as “Duelist” and the epic “All You Need,” Estill’s voice mixes with Phillips’ to create an ethereal penumbra over the sluggish march of warbling bass and an oddly tuned guitar.

True Widow has emerged in Dallas during a time when many of the city’s musicians, such as indie-pop band The Crash That Took Me and post-rock outfit The Boom Boom Box, are regrouping and revising the city’s underground music community. While their latest project is coalescing, the band members will have plenty on their hands between the group and their day jobs.

“It would be nice to make enough money making music to not have to hustle furniture!” Phillips laughs. “I’ll always do [woodworking]. It’s just what I do; I couldn’t imagine not doing it.”

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Love is All: Telling Stories with Raucous, Lo-Fi Pop

Love is All: A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at NightLove is AllA Hundred Things That Keep Me Up At Night (What’s Your Rupture, 11/11/08)

Love is All: “Wishing Well”

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In the fourth edition of The Rough Guide to Sweden, the 17th Century port city of Gothenburg is described thusly: “Graced with terraces of grand merchant’s houses…[the city] boasts splendid Neoclassical architecture, masses of sculpture-strewn parkland…[and] a cityscape of broad avenues, elegant squares, trams, and canals.”

It’s one of the last places that an American would go looking to encounter a bubbling independent music scene. But American fans have discovered exactly what lies somewhere beneath the hushed waterways, opulent edifices, and statues of ancient sea gods — an underground music niche, not yet carved into the old city’s consciousness, as are Swedish music giants such as ABBA and Ace of Base, but rather scrawled by its large youth population like cheeky graffiti in the corner of a solemn cathedral.

The regalness of its hometown doesn’t exactly fit Love is All, a band among of a new wave of Swedish indie-pop artists that includes The Knife, El Perro Del Mar, and We’re From Barcelona. If anything, the band’s sound is inextricably tied up with two very different times and cities — New York and London circa the late 1970s and the early 1980s, and bracing post-punk upstarts such as X-Ray Spex, Essential Logic, and James Chance. Yet the band is fond of its quiet, postcard-perfect hometown. “After a hectic tour, it’s nice to go home and be like, ‘I’m nobody’!” says Josephine Olausson, lead singer of Love Is All.

She’s being modest.

After years of quietly performing in various bands around the city, most notably the underrated Girlfriendo, Olausson, guitarist Nicholaus Sparding, and drummer Markus Görsch hooked up with bassist Johan Lindwall and sax player Fredrik Eriksson (recently replaced by James Ausfahrt) to form Love Is All.

“A lot of times [a song] starts with something that might be a jam; we’re playing along, jamming, and we use separate parts in other songs later. Then we’ll go through five hours of arguing.”

Two self-produced singles, combined with word of mouth, secured the band a deal with the New York City-based What’s Your Rupture? label. After a frantic and explosive three years following its well-received debut LP, Nine Times That Same Song, the band geared up for another fast-paced season with its sophomore disc, A Hundred Things That Keep Me Up at Night.

Under the scratchy lo-fi production and catchy jubilance of punky, whirlwind guitars and skronky sax soloing lies Olausson’s clever storytelling and lyricism. “Cats” is about a woman who lives alone with her cats and may have had something to do with her husband’s mysterious death, and “Boat Song” recounts a sea cruise gone horribly awry.

Although the band’s noisy pop teeters on the edge of implosion, a delicate balance between fun and anxiety permeates A Hundred Things… in songs such as the brutally honest “Last Choice,” in which the narrator describes a one-night stand as a late-night decision between dejected loneliness and an unknown encounter.

“I think it’s just a universal thing, when you’re single and you set your mind on going out and having a good time,” Olausson explains. “I’ve had that experience when you find yourself in conversations that you don’t want to be in, but you’d rather do that than go home alone.”

The songwriting process can be a long one, and that may have something to do with the three-year break between this album and the band’s debut. It’s hard to see the seams in such well-contained pop joys such as the first single, “Wishing Well,” and the insistent “Give It Back.”

Olausson offers a bit of insight into the band’s piecemeal and cooperative songwriting technique: “A lot of times [a song] starts with something that might be a jam; we’re playing along, jamming, and we use separate parts in other songs later.” Adopting a hint of hyperbole, she adds, “Then we’ll go through five hours of arguing. Well, I should say 50 hours, and then we’ll spend time putting it back together the way it was!”

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João Orecchia: Eclectic Electro-Acoustic Collage

João Orecchia: Hands and FeetJoão Orecchia: Hands and Feet (Other Electricities, 11/10/09)

João Orecchia: “Sunshine Girl”

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Most musicians move to places to be surrounded by familiarity and comfort — cities with cheap rent, friendly clubs, and audiences with open ears. But when João Orecchia moved from Berlin, Germany to Johannesburg, South Africa in 2004, he did it for all of the challenges and adversity that he knew he would face.

As a white foreigner who creates skittery, experimental electro-acoustic sound collages, it could have been intimidating to face an audience that hugely consumes hip hop, techno, and the plethora of styles of South African folk music. He was leaving the embrace of Berlin, where experimental techniques have more traditionally been accepted.

“It was a major adjustment,” Orecchia says of the move. “At the same time, there’s something I love about the challenge of it. In Berlin, there’s a space for everything, and even the most off-the-wall shit is normal. Here, you have to work a bit harder.”

To be sure, working hard to find his own space wasn’t exactly something new to Orecchia. As an immigrant son of an Italian father and a Peruvian mother (the traditionally Portuguese first name is just a red herring), Orecchia grew up in Brooklyn amongst the noise of the multifaceted, multicultural melt of the punk, post-disco, hip hop, techno, and art rock that brewed there in the ’80s and early ’90s.

João Orecchia

But one of Orecchia’s most poignant music-related memories of his youth was not of a stained-brick punk club or a sweaty nightclub, but of the Italian restaurants and cafés to which his father, a musician himself, brought him to hear the music of his homeland. “My father used to sing,” he says. “We’d go to these Italian restaurants in the far reaches of Brooklyn, and he’d get up there with the guy playing his keyboard. He was pretty good too!”

His father’s voice can be heard on two tracks on Orecchia’s album Hands and Feet, his first release available as a non-import in North America. Whereas Orecchia explored homelessness on his debut, Motherless Brooklyn, on this album, he tackles the more personal issue of his identity.

“My first sense of identity was that I was a Peruvian-Italian,” he explains. “Growing up in Brooklyn, speaking English at school, it started to change. Then I was in Berlin for around five years, and the question ‘where are you from?’ obviously came up all the time. ‘I’m from New York.’ ‘So you’re American?’”

This confusion was compounded by what he calls life changes, whether it was moving to another continent, turning 30, or experiencing the passing of his father a couple years ago.

“Some kind of imperfection or bad timing is the thing that inspires me most.”

The album is bookended by his father’s voice singing the pop standards “When I Fall in Love” and “Arrivederci Roma.” The vocal tracks themselves were culled from recordings that his father cut in Italy in the 1960s and contrast Orecchia’s off-kilter manner of scratchy blobs of musique concrète, humming synths, and tinkling toy instruments.

“He went to the US in his mid-20s wanting to be a singer,” Orecchia says of his father’s early years.  “There were some strange straight-out-of-a-mafia-movie stories around that. He recorded those two songs straight to vinyl, hoping to get discovered. When he died, someone sent me a CD with the two songs and some old photos of him. First I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do a modern kind of duet with him?’ That’s how ‘When I Fall in Love’ came about; then the other just seemed to fit so well as an ending, and it tied the whole idea together for me.”

Other tracks reveal Orecchia’s sense of mixing strange acoustic instruments with strange electric ones (a new favorite is a Namibian toy trumpet that plays pre-recorded beats), collaborations with artists such as South Africa’s Spoek Mathambo and Chicago rapper Serengeti, and maintenance of a pungent sense of melody.

The electronic waltz of “De Los Muertos” wouldn’t sound out of place if it appeared in a dusty Tim Burton flick, whereas songs such as “Midnight Serenade” and “Gold to Green” could have been culled from a video-game soundtrack.

João Orecchia

The joy that many musicians, including Orecchia, find in accidents and mistakes is ever present; his songs are filled with random bursts of stuff that would sound out of place on any other record, like hissing or chimes or a little girl singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but they weave organically here. “Some kind of imperfection or bad timing is the thing that inspires me most,” Orecchia says.

Often instrumental and dreamily frantic, the modern sound of his music makes it no surprise that Orecchia has found some work in television commercials; the average South African may have heard Orecchia’s music in one of a number of commercials for which he’s composed. These have been for companies that include Nedbank, Vodafone, Netflorist, and Beacon Chocolate.

The spot for the latter is a surreal, computer-animated tour of a fantasy factory where robotic cows and anthropomorphic bees create the eponymous chocolate, accompanied by the click-clack of Orecchia’s music-box-inspired soundtrack.

Besides commercials, he also has composed for theater productions and independent films, such as the 2004 German documentary Fremde Nachbarn (Foreign Neighbors) and the 2008 short film Fuzzy John. Perhaps his strangest gig yet was composing the war cries for a 2008 snowball-fighting tournament / visual-art experiment that was held in downtown Johannesburg.

“Basically, these crazy Swiss guys took the snowball fight to the level of a serious sport with teams and rules and everything,” he says. “It’s meant to be bizarre and a lot of fun, and I think the idea of bringing it to Africa amplified that quite a bit.”

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Digital Leather: Synths And Sci-Fi In The Southwest

Shawn Foree is sitting on a dinky barstool, with his elbows leant over a booze-stained table on the very spot where he and his band, Digital Leather, will be performing in a month’s time. The table is in a bar called Che’s that orbits the penumbra of the University of Arizona’s bar zone in Foree’s hometown of Tucson, and with no stage to speak of, it must be cleared from the floor before amplifiers can be plugged in.

It’s the kind of joint that’s okay to drop in for a drink on a weekday afternoon but attracts that kind of intolerable, binge-drinking hook-up crowd on weekends — occasionally, though, the place books a band that by all rights should be playing one of the places down the street with a proper stage — bands such as Digital Leather, perhaps the best band in Tucson that remains virtually invisible to locals.

Leaning on the table, Foree tries to explain why this is so. “I just started recording on a four-track in the little hovel I lived in,” he says. “I didn’t have any friends for three years, so it gave me time to learn how to play a keyboard.” Though his band tours frequently, it rarely plays the dusty Southwestern town that it calls home.

Despite that fact, over the past seven years, Digital Leather has released seven albums and a large scattering of singles, EPs, and split releases almost as frequently as the band’s line-up and arrangement have mutated. Digital Leather started out as a two-piece with Foree and Ryan Wong (of Destruction Unit, Tokyo Electron, and the Reatards) both on keyboards; now Foree tours with a full band.

In 2008, influential Memphis-based indie label Goner Records released the band’s album Sorcerer. The music on the album could be described as dark synth pop, but it’s so much more — goofy, robotic odes where love is styrofoam and simulated in analog. Foree sardonically portrayed the songwriting process for the album.

“I can’t sing very well, so I’ll just kind of talk,” he says. “And I don’t really have much substance as a human being, so I’ll just talk about [science fiction novelist] Phillip K. Dick shit.” It’s true that the music channels the iciness of old Human League records, but there’s also a warmness somewhere between the obvious knack for melody and the warbling, in-the-red keyboards that attests to Digital Leather’s deeper control of sonic dynamics.

Although Sorcerer is Digital Leather’s latest release, it is misleading to say that it is the band’s newest material. “That record is three years old; the two records that I put out in 2007 (Blow Machine and Hard at Work) are actually newer than Sorcerer,” Foree explains. The new material is closer to power pop than the icy robo-pop of Sorcerer, as Digital Leather is now playing with a straight-up three-part rock combo—guitar, bass, and drums.

Despite the confusion, Foree seems to revel in the chaos of the lineup changes and out-of-order release schedule, and that impishness bleeds over into the band’s live shows. He recalls a disastrous show that the band played in Texas for a crowd of crossed arms and silence that culminated in the explosion of one of his keyboards. For Foree, a good show is one in which he and the band don’t get their asses kicked — but maybe almost do.

But lately, the chaos has been dying down. Foree has been recording his next album in a Phoenix recording studio for almost a year, for which he has yet to find an interested label, though he’s had a few bites. He’s confident about its potential. “I want this one to go further than all the others,” he says. “I believe that it will.”

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Dysrhythmia: Hyperactive Technicality

Strip down, way down, the layers of the moody energy of Brooklyn post-rock metal trio Dysrhythmia’s fifth album, Psychic Maps (Relapse), and you can hear an indication of the agility responsible for the band’s deep intensity: intricately finger-plucked acoustic guitar doubling gained-up electrics. It’s a testament both to the band’s attention to detail and guitarist Kevin Hufnagel’s varied virtuosity on guitar.

“I just love acoustic guitar and the combination of heavy guitars and acoustic thumbing,” Hufnagel says. The guitarist’s style is a big reason why this record sounds so dynamic and compelling after more than one listen. Critics have dubbed the band as everything from technical post-rock, which doesn’t jibe with Dysrhythmia’s jarring immediacy, to prog metal, which again would suggest the music puts on airs that it simply doesn’t.

In the past, the band’s approach to recording has been to bring the forceful energy of its live show to a 50-odd-minute album. Throw in high-profile producers Steve Albini, who produced the band’s highly acclaimed 2003 Pretest (Relapse) album, and Martin Bisi, whose bona fides include working with Brian Eno and producing scores of classic underground artists (Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, John Zorn, Sereena Maneesh), and you have the structure that birthed the band’s last two records.

But this time was different. Although the band would’ve loved to work with Bisi again, he had retired. Thankfully, they had a ready solution to the question of who would produce the new album in bassist Colin Marston, a sound engineer who has worked with the likes of Genghis Tron and Child Abuse. The band decided to hole up in their Brooklyn apartment and record the album on their own.

The relative freedom of being able to take their time to record led the band to explore new directions. “It allowed me to do more things guitar-wise as far as adding a lot of orchestral embellishments, more guitar layers,” Hufnagel says. “There’s lots of stuff to listen to in the mix. I wasn’t concerned with it sounding exactly like we do live; that can get boring.”

Although their intensity never wavers, playing live and recording are definitely two different things for Dysrhythmia. Hufnagel is happy to start using the studio as a more exploratory stage to craft songs that the band has played for sometimes up to two whole years before recording.

The lapse in time could be partially explained by the band members’ own hyperactive involvement in other projects. Hufnagel recently released a full-length solo album entitled Songs for the Disappeared; Hufnagel and Marston are new members of recently reformed Canadian metallers Gorguts; and Marston was, until December of 2008, still working with his former band Behold…the Arctopus.

“We all have so many different things now. So rather than try to throw it all into one band and end up sounding like Mr. Bungle or something, we’d rather really focus our energy elsewhere,” he says.

And right now the energy is focused on Dysrhythmia. Where contemporaries such as Mastodon and Isis have taken off in the past few years thanks to a burgeoning interest in independent metal, Dysrhythmia is still lurking in the shadows, nursing a fan base that’s been created during a decade of touring.

Hufnagel sighs heavily when I remind him of his band‘s age — it’s not a sigh of defeat, of course, but simply one of amazement. This is a band that has earned its following, not gained it overnight; and Hufnagel knows that in many ways, that’s the following that you want to have.

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