Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Interview with Doug, Max, and Natalie from Good Willsmith

The Cover of their Upcoming LP
Good Willsmith is a deep zone. It’s the collaboration of three young music enthusiasts (Max Allison, Doug Kaplan, and Natalie Chami) who went to Northwestern and decided to play music together, albeit after they had graduated. They make experimental music that hovers in the realm of ambient, drone, and noise. It’s also breathtakingly beautiful. GWS successfully weaves guitars, synthesizers, voice, and more through loops and effects. No set is the same as the next, though similar overall structures or ideas may be present. GWS has put out several releases, some of which are on Doug and Max's label Hausu Mountain. In addition, they have a full-length LP coming up in about a month, which is distributed through THRILL JOCKEY

Hausu Mountain prominently features an homage to Obayashi's classic flick in its logo. The label puts out a lot of releases and I have yet to run across one that is lacking. I recently did an interview with their label's D/A/D who put out an excellent cassette called The Construct, which got press from the likes of NPR. These dudes have not slowed down though, as they recently put out Lockbox and Sugarm cassettes.

Natalie helps run a music-putter-outer of her own called Screaming Claws, which gives resources for experimental and improvisational musicians to put out music. Each week, a new session appears, which ends up being a fully realized piece of music.

This is a pretty in-depth interview because there's a lot going on with these three. It's been really rewarding working with these folks and seeing them at shows. I got to meet Doug and Max at a Ryley Walker/Circuit Des Yeux/Mark Trecka show and I met Natalie at one of her TALSounds shows. From a personal standpoint, these three are great folks too, which goes an awful long way with me, and I can't wait to see what they do next.


I've never posted so many links at once.

Jordan: Who is Good Willsmith? When did you guys start making music? Have there been any lineup changes?

GWS: Max and Doug met Natalie through a mutual friend in 2012. Though all three of us went to Northwestern, Max and Doug didn't know Natalie while we were at school. We started recording music together in February 2012. Our first session featured our dear bud Aeron Small (who also plays with us in The Big Ship, and solo as Ron Tubman) on guitar. We find that we generally have enough happening at any moment as a three-piece - but we're definitely plotting some collab ideas for the future.

J: First off. How did you think of that name? It's brilliant!

GWS: It just came to us randomly one night and we ran with it. We try to stay lighthearted and not take ourselves seriously. The name serves as a kind of ego deflater and bullshit detector, and it sticks in people's heads pretty well. It means nothing.

J: Do any artists in particular influence or inspire Good Willsmith?

GWS: Doug and Max are inspired by the many styles and eras of music they obsess over as listeners: the contemporary "noise" underground, 20th century electronic music, the holy triumvirate of Earth / Sunn O))) / Boris, minimalism, black metal, Brian Eno, Khyal, Dhrupad, Carnatic music, kraut and kosmiche, infinite etc. These traditions provide inspiration on the level of tone, structure, atmosphere, live performance strategies, but we try to channel these ideas into something more personal and idiosyncratic when we play together. We focus on dynamics, the development of the session, listening to each other, and responding empathetically, instead of dwelling on the supposed origin or heritage of our sounds. As a live performer and "lead vocalist," Natalie identifies deeply with Alice Coltrane, Björk, Terry Riley, Sade, Aaliyah, and the work of Portishead, Broadcast, and Blonde Redhead.

J: How often do you get to perform? What is the role of a live show for you guys? Do you plan out your set or do you improvise?

GWS: We play together as much as we can. Before a tour, we'll start planning a set by discussing ideas we've had, drawing out simple graphical scores that illustrate relative dynamics and instrumentation across the session, sometimes making lists of elements or tones we want to incorporate into a certain passage of the set. We never really write out set material in terms of melodies, progressions, harmonic decisions, looping decisions - all of this emerges in the moment during improvisation. But the conditions of each part of the session are loosely planned. When we have a structure kind of locked into place, we can workshop it over the next series of live performances - this is especially effective before a tour or a specific local gig we're preparing for. Then, when we've presented it live as much as we want to, we record the session as the "studio version" - which is still fully live and improvised, but happens to have all of our amps mic-ed. Doug mixes the resulting session, and that stands as a proper album release.

J: What else is in your future for Good Willsmith?

GWS: We're releasing a tape in the near future on Baked Tapes, the label run by our bud / legendary zonelord Jesse DeRosa (of Grasshopper and Hex Breaker Quintet) - it's called Aquarium Guru Shares the Secret Tactic, and it documents a set that we workshopped over a lot of local gigs and a residency at a gallery called HCL in Chicago (late 2012 - early 2013). On March 25, we're excited to be releasing our first LP with the amazing Mexican label Umor Rex - who produce truly beautiful physical items, and have always showcased music we love. The album is called The Honeymoon Workbook - and it represents material we workshopped over our 2013 summer tour, on the west coast with Black Hat and on the east coast with Date Palms.

J (To Doug & Max): What's Hausu Mountain? What kinds of acts or recordings do you like to release through the label?

Doug & Max: We've been running Hausu Mountain for the last two years. From the beginning, our plan was to release our own music and the music of contemporaries we love. We have no limitations on genre or style, but we release music that we find to be engaging and forward-thinking, by our standards. Other than our personal projects (Good Willsmith, The Big Ship), we work with friends like Moth Cock, Black Hat, D/A/D, Lockbox, and Sugarm. An early project for us was to get together a batch of solo improv sessions for our Mugen Series of split tapes: the first batch had the three of us in Good Willsmith, the dudes from Grasshopper, Natalie's bandmate Brian Griffith (Greyghost), and the aforementioned Ron Tubman and Sugarm.

J (To Doug & Max): What have been some of the most successful releases that you guys have had?

D & M: Recently, the D/A/D release "The Construct" - made by our best bud and bandmate Zach Robinson - has surpassed all expectations. We sold out of our first cassette edition in less than a month - and saw some great exposure for Zach's music.

J (To Doug & Max): How was the Hausu Mountain showcase at the Empty Bottle?

D & M: A great success. It was incredible to put together such a healthy bill of zoners from near and far. We loved having Moth Cock and Sugarm in town from the great East. Mind Over Mirrors, Bitchin Bajas, Quicksails, and Sam Prekop represented experimental Chicago at its deepest, and we were so pumped to get everyone together.

J (To Doug & Max): What's coming up for Hausu Mountain?

D & M: We're expanding in 2014 to release a lot of music we consider to be groundbreaking and exciting - like an LP by Grasshopper, a Form A Log / Moth Cock LP split, and a full-length from Eartheater (Alex Drewchin from Guardian Alien). We're issuing another batch of Mugen tapes - with performers like Plankton Wat, Head Boggle, Quicksails, the members of Moth Cock and Telecult Powers, Rob Frye (of Bitchin Bajas and CAVE), and Quidditas (Philly-based drum / noise wizard Raleigh Booze). We're stoked about our upcoming tape release with Mondo Lava - a project from Arcata, CA that we're truly obsessed with - and dub/rhymthic modular synth guru William Selman. Also, always more Moth Cock.

J (To Natalie) : What's your project TalSounds? How did that start?

Natalie: TALsounds came to be my solo project after Brian Griffith, my collaborator in ambient duo l'éternèbre, moved to LA in Sept 2011. We had a residency going on, and I really loved what we were doing. I immediately panicked when I realized he was really not going to be in Chicago anymore and started asking other improvisational musicians to play with me. Although it was super fun working with some of my favorite musicians, nothing was very consistent. Instead of changing group names on bills every time I played, I decided on a solo moniker, and perform under that name in collaboration with other artists too to keep things more consistent.

J (To Natalie): What kind of equipment do you use for your music?

N: My primary sound sources are my voice and analog synthesizers (Roland Juno-60 and Korg Lambda). I process my live input through some effects pedals, and loop sounds with an EHX 2880 4-track loop pedal. I also use a few small noisemakers and contact-mic based instruments, along with a dedicated oscillator called the Grendel Drone Commander (made by Eric Archer).

J (To Natalie):You studied Music at Northwestern. Has that impacted or influenced any of your music?

Studying classical music at Northwestern has definitely impacted the music I write/play. I studied Classical Voice/Opera and Choral Music Education. The program, like most music conservatories, requires theory, aural skills, etc. I also have studied classical piano since I was 3. I’ve always been so immersed in classical training that I couldn’t help but think about notation and theory every time I listened to any kind of music. There was no off switch. I still don’t think I have an off switch, but it’s the reason I love performing improvised/experimental/ambient music so much. The theory tools are all in my hardwiring now, but it allows me to just let go and react to sound again (within these genres). It’s the closest I can get to the off switch, and just enjoy it freely again. Don’t get me wrong, I still practice, study and teach classical music every day, but it’s in the l’eternebre, TALsounds, and GWS sets when I get into that meditative state of music.

J (To Natalie): You also help with Screaming Claws, kind of an artistic network. Tell me a little bit about that. What is Screaming Claws? How did you get involved? What do you do for Screaming Claws?

N: I started Screaming Claws with Brian Griffith. We wanted to create a network or collective for like-minded artists with similar aesthetics. Our main goals are to connect people (for shows, collaborations, networking) and also to motivate each other to really continue creating beautiful tunes! Since Brian’s move, we’ve spread our outreach from Chicago, to LA, and now to Vienna, with our later founder, Steffi Neuhuber. We do weekly digital releases by one of us or one of our friends, and put together “Delayed Improvs” where we send over an improvised track and pass it around until we have about 3-4 people involved. We also get people to play together in real life, too (Living Room Sessions held on the same day in LA/Chi/Vienna or just by telling each other about friends in respective towns that they should meet, etc).

J (To Natalie): What's coming up in the future of Natalie Chami?

N: Besides all of the GWS happenings, I have solo shows in Chicago at least monthly, and a split coming out this spring on Cosmic Winnetou (atay ilgun, alper yildirim & TALsounds, steffi neuhuber - split (cw19)). I’m also planning another tour/recording session in Europe this summer. I also plan to release another solo album in the fall on Hausu Mountain. Other than that, recording and mixing/sifting through a lot of older recordings and collaborations from this past year and figuring out what to do with them.  And just getting better at my thaang (learn the ms 20, maybe getting better at incorporate beats, figuring out a way to record my live looping in a way i can mix in post-production for better quality recordings). Finding more artists to release on Screaming Claws.

J: What all have you been listening to lately?

Max: Container, Lil Ugly Mane, The Residents (always), John Zorn (always), new albums by White Suns, Bohren & Der Club of Gore, Sunn/Ulver, The Body, Horseback, Actress, Jerry Paper, tapes on Orange Milk and Tranquility Tapes, everything on PAN, DJ Screw, Young Thug, Beyoncé, video game soundtracks (Mother series, Final Fantasy), much more.

Doug: I've been slowly digging through this magical box of Phish cassettes from 89-98. Guardian Alien - Spiritual Emergency and Greg Fox - Mitral Transmissions have been getting constant play. I got some weirder Residents tapes - Assorted Secrets and Cube-E - that have gotten me to dig deeper in the catalog. Safety is the Cootie Wootie.

Natalie: Lil Ugly Mane… Augustus Pablo. Nothing new really… Hella and Deftones haha, American Football, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle.  I dont know, I recently updated my iPod with all of my old jams. It’s kinda embarrassing. Just heard Co La’s album Moody Coup. So good. Need to get into that some more. Also that new Jerry Paper ish. My friends' new releases. Everything Hausu is putting out cause it rules.

J: Are there any shows in particular that you are excited for?

GWS: Good Willsmith is performing on March 28th as part of Andre Foisy’s METAL YOGA series. More details TBA. We’re also performing on a bill with Crowhurst and The Auditor on April 22nd at Club Rectum. TALsounds plays solo on a bill with The-Drum at Schubas on March 11th.

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