The Repository #7: Plankton Wat

Plankton Wat’s newest album, Future Times, came out last week on Thrill Jockey so it seems like the perfect time to revisit Jordan Anderson’s interview with him from late 2011. Dewey’s music has always inspired me. He’s got an innate ability to take listeners on an aural trip and with Future Times, he finds new levels to explore. It’s a fantastically deep, rich sound world that is full of seeds of hope and optimism after a brutal year. I definitely recommend picking up a copy (with that beautiful art from Tiny Little Hammers).

Dewey Mahood is perhaps best known for his work with the band Eternal Tapestry and for his solo project Plankton Wat, platforms through which the Portland-based artist creates music that is both deeply expressive and original, and which have both found an outlet recently through the Thrill Jockey label.

He kindly spoke to Foxy Digitalis about what music has meant to him throughout his life, and what he hopes for his music in the future. 

What do you feel you look for most in music you enjoy?

Oh man, so many different things!  I love so much music, different styles and time periods, it just really depends on my mood, what happens to feel right at any given moment.  I think music that comes from the heart, music that sounds like it had to be made.  Like the band had no choice but to get it out.  Music filled with passion and drama, intensity, beauty, creativity.  It’s always fleeting moments, no one can sustain that kind of feeling forever, but musicians who can hit a nerve always appeal to me.  My favorite players are the ones that somehow sound like nothing that came before.

How did Eternal Tapestry form?  How does expressing yourself with a band differ from expressing yourself in the releases for Plankton Wat?  Had you played in many bands before that point?

I formed the band after seeing Nick Bindeman play in Hustler White and then becoming friends with him.  I liked his playing and ideas immediately – we both come from a similar background of playing in arty punk bands and free improv type stuff, weirdo music I like to call it.  Nick and I starting jamming in his basement, and then I brought him to see the Evolutionary Jass Band play.  We were both staring in amazement at their bass player Bob Jones, so we asked Bob to come jam with us and Eternal Tapestry was born.  I’d played in about 10 bands before Eternal Tapestry started, and had already been doing Plankton Wat for a few years – the first Plankton Wat CDR came out in 2002.

To me the biggest difference between playing in a band and solo performance is in a group context you are always compromising.  Not in a negative sense, but that you are working with a group of people and everyone has their own ideas about things.  In a band you find the middle ground where everyone’s ideas meet and tend to stay within those perimeters.  When making solo music I can go off on any tangent that inspires me at the time.  I think that’s the real core of Plankton Wat – using different instruments, experimenting with sound, trying to always do things a little differently.  It’s what drives me forward and keeps things rewarding.

At what age did you first become interested in music, and why do you think it interested you at that time?

I’ve been into music all my life.  Some of my earliest childhood memories are of laying in bed at night while my dad sat up and played records.  My parents grew up in the 60′s, so stuff like the Kinks and Quicksilver Messenger Service are burnt pretty heavy in my psyche.  My mom has always been a Beatles freak, and as a kid I would jump on the couches to their more rocking numbers.  The first music that was “my” music was punk.  My aunt left me a tape of the first Clash record and that was it.  From there it was California hardcore, SST, Discord, all the classic skate punk shit from the 80′s.  I’ve always loved raw expression, anything that makes my body move and transports my mind somewhere new and different.  By the time I reached high school I had to start making noise myself and formed my first band Empty Offer with a few of my best friends.  I’ve played in bands continuously since.

In a related question, why do you feel you are drawn to music as a form of expression, as opposed to say painting or filmmaking?  What to you makes music worth pursuing?

Music is just the thing that moves me the most, it’s the universal language!  I’m a big fan of art in general, and I draw inspiration from all mediums – I love photography, film, drawing, literature – but sound is what hits the farthest corners of my being.  I’ve messed around with a variety of art making methods, but there is something truly unique about sound, and producing your own sounds, that appeals to me more than anything else.  It’s probably my childhood, going to outdoor hippie shows and basement punk gigs where everyone is completely immersed in the band, that made me realize at an early age that nothing can compare to the energy and beauty of music.  I feel that it is the ultimate form of expression and communication, expressing something beyond words but something most everyone feels at some point or another.

Could you tell us what you’re working on now, and what we can expect in terms of releases of yours in the future?

Currently I’m working on a Plankton Wat album for Thrill Jockey.  They’ve been incredibly supportive this past year, and I consider myself extremely lucky to be working with such wonderful people.  It’s primarily an electric guitar album with backgrounds filled out with percussion and keyboards.  A couple acoustic numbers round things out.  I’m trying to balance my impulse to try every last idea with a more thematic approach.  Definitely going for a bit more of a soundtrack style vibe, still plenty abstract but a little less schizophrenic.  The music is inspired by the Pacific Northwest environment, the mountains and coastline, the weather, sky and clouds, and my closest friends.  It should be coming out this spring.  Beyond that, I’ve been doing some Edibles recordings with Dusty Dybvig and John Rau for some kind of release, and I’m sure there will be some new ET jams in 2012.

What is the process of writing and recording a release like for you?

Well since a huge chunk of the music I have out there is improvised, the process typically is record as often as possible, take a lot of time listening back, editing, adding parts, starting over, finding old tapes, reworking, remixing, etc.  It could easily fill all my time, but then I start feeling insane so it’s good I have things like a family and a job!  In bands I like to work out some ideas, either by jamming or just talking, and then roll tape and go for it.  Keep it real spontaneous and live.  Solo recording is a whole other thing for me, and changes with every piece.  Sometimes I’ll pick up my acoustic guitar and play for a couple minutes, then listen back and be like “cool, that sounds real nice.”  More often I’ll labor over stuff though.  Maybe sketch out an idea with guitar or whatever instrument grabs my attention at the moment, and then slowly build a track by adding and subtracting overdubs.  This can go on for hours and sometimes days.  There’s always a point though where the piece feels good or I just move on to the next thing.

How do you know when a piece is complete?

It’s really just a feeling, if I’m happy with the way something sounds then I’m done with it, and if not I’ll keep working on it.  I record on a 4-track so I can’t get too crazy with overdubbing.  Limitations are a very good thing when you are spending countless hours sitting by yourself in a basement!

Where would you like to see your work go in the future?

Well, it’s already gone farther than I ever imagined.  After doing this stuff for years I figured no one would ever care, so I’m extremely happy to have so much going on now.  Eternal Tapestry went to Europe for the first time this fall, and I’d love to go back and do more traveling.  There’s no money in experimental music, so travel is the biggest reward.  Just seeing a bit of the world and meeting other freaks into sounds outside of the pop realm.  A bigger dream would be to do music for film.  I’ve always thought film scores are the ultimate way of presenting abstract music to the general population.

If there were no obstacles, what kind of musical project would you work on?  Does the idea of larger arrangements or more complicated recording methods appeal to you?

If time and money were no factor, I’d probably do a band like Amon Duul II.  Just find the weirdest, but most rad musicians who would want to live out in the woods somewhere and play all day long.  Do long form pieces that go from Taj Mahal Travellers-style drone, to Black Sabbath riffs, into some Trout Mask Replica jagged breakdowns.  Then get the acoustics out for some mellow folk jams and build that up into some African desert blues thing.  Then get the sax players going for some spiritual jazz rave up!

Do you enjoy making music in Portland?  What do you feel are the amenities of making music there?

Ha!  Funny question.  I don’t know if I really “enjoy” making music in Portland.  It’s certainly a good place to do it in terms of practicality – rents are affordable compared to other cities I’d like to live in, I can practice and record at my house, it’s fairly acceptable to be a weirdo here.  The downside is everyone is a musician, nothing is special, everyone is busy working at their projects, there’s no real audience, everyone is broke, there’s some serious depression running through the town for a good portion of the year.  It’s kind of a downer place, but that’s also what keeps us creative.  My favorite thing about Portland is all the natural beauty just outside the city, and when the sun does come out its pure magic.

What has most interested you in the arts recently?   Has there been much new music that has interested you?

Oh man, there is so much interesting stuff going on.  I find it hard just to keep up with all my friends’ bands, not to speak of the art world at large.  In terms of non-music stuff, I recently watched The Tree of Life which blew me away.  Just the visuals alone did it for me, and that Terrence Malick can get such an uncommercial film made and into the theaters is pretty incredible.  I’ve seen some really cool photos by Suzy Poling recently, trippy geysers and land formations and just naturally surreal stuff which is inspiring.  Also, an old friend of mine, Erik Stotik, has a show of his paintings going on in Portland.  He’s been one of my favorite visual artists for years.  Really dark and bizarre imagery done in an incredibly detailed way.  Very unhip stuff, but really good!  As far as music is concerned, I’m mostly into what friends are doing.  Matt McDowell aka Sagas is a big favorite.  Matt loves to experiment with instrumentation and genre which I find refreshing.  Also, Hammer of Hathor which is a married couple who do some of the most beautifully fucked-up music being made today.  It’s like Sun Ra covering Confusion Is Sex! I’ve also been into Expo 70 lately.  I got to do a show with Justin a while back, and I was impressed at how focused and dense his music is.  Been listening to a lot of Steve Gunn too.  Definitely one of my favorite current guitar dudes.  The world is flooded with synth dudes right now, but I have been really digging Pulse Emitter and M. Geddes Gengras lately.  They both put a very personal touch on a sound that can be totally generic.  And I can’t forget Dusty Dybvig and Papi Fimbres, for me the two most inspiring musicians in Portland.  Dusty and I collaborate often, and he’s playing in Horse Feathers these days as well as doing some really fun west coast hip hop in New Pioneers.  Papi is this incredibly high energy drummer and flute player who does a one man band called Paper/Upper/Cuts, kind of a cross between electronic dance music, traditional Latin American music, and free jazz.  One of a kind freak out stuff, and definitely something to check out.