Good Willsmith: Interview
“Being crammed together in a van for three weeks and thousands of miles this summer cemented our eternal friendship, for sure.”
Oh, to be young. The three energetic twenty-somethings behind Chicago three-piece Good Willsmith are a rowdy, eager bunch. Last year, the drone/ambient/psychedelic band released four solid releases (and more than a share of digital teasers for 2013) and began to carve their place as both label heads (Hausu Mountain) and musicians. Not bad for a band that formed less than a year ago.
All three members — Maxwell Allison, Natalie Chami, and Doug Kaplan — graciously agreed to be interviewed. We talked about the band’s formation and recording philosophies, their own music outside of Good Willsmith, and the excitement that comes with exploring different sounds and ideas collectively.
Can you explain how Good Willsmith formed? Were you friends before deciding to record together or were other cosmic forces at work in the band’s formation?
Maxwell Allison: When Doug and I first wanted to start this project, we put an ad up on craigslist, basically as a joke, listing all these extremely specific prerequisites. ‘You must layer your vocals with a loop pedal while playing other instruments to collide with our wall of noise’ or something, and it listed like Sunn 0)) and Merzbow and Throbbing Gristle as touchstones for what we’re aiming for - overall totally pretentious sounding & far-fetched, but yeah… absolutely true. But we had given up on the ad completely by the time we met Natalie, who happens to be a champion of all the things we said in that ad, plus far more.
Doug Kaplan: Max is my best friend. He showed up at a party at my college house, Xanadu, in the fall of 2008. We quickly bonded over a lot of frothy-mouthed, nerdy record-store-dude talk and started jamming together soon after. These early musical experiments turned into The Earth Is A Man - a project we are still very invested in. After college we moved in together and started home recording. We met Natalie through our good friend Aaron. We told him about a Craigslist listing we had made searching for a female vocalist who could loop her vocals. The first time that we met Natalie, or Spaghetti, we recorded a session in our basement and that became the first Good Willsmith album How to use 33 Passion Keys. Definitely some cosmic forces at play.
Natalie Chami: Joining the band was definitely cosmic. Max, Doug, and I went to Northwestern together; I graduated in 2009, two years before them. However, we didn’t meet until just this past February. I received a text from a mutual friend that said, “Yo dude! Hanging out w a cool friend from nu days, he’s chill loves Bjork and he and his 2 roomies r making pretty sweet ambient drone music. He wants to jam with you haha you guys gotta meet.”
What does your musical past reveal about the direction of Good Willsmith?
MA: I started teaching myself bass when I was 13 and played in bands or home-recording projects in high school that were mostly on the metal spectrum (once with robes). My earliest exposures to free improvisation were Zorn’s game pieces, Ornette Coleman (by way of John Zorn) and basically anything else Zorn I could dig up on Allmusic, Amazon, etc. (my first Merzbow album, “1930,” came out on Tzadik, too).
DK: I’ve been playing guitar since I was 12 years old. When I was younger, I played in a lot of rock bands that were heavily influenced by The Grateful Dead. I got into more experimental music in college through Northwestern’s radio station. The WNUR Rock Show required freshman DJs to attend weekly meetings about the history of experimental music. I was by far the dorkiest student in the class. It was like being granted the key to all of the information I wanted but didn’t know how to find. My senior year, I put together an album under the moniker See Land that is my first drone-/noise-related release. This was a sort of final project for my studies in the Music Technology program at NU, which opened some incredible opportunities, like a course that was all in-class noise improvisations.
NC: [My parents] enrolled me in piano lessons (a teacher wouldn’t take me until I started first grade). Being Canadian born, without public music school education, private group lessons were my entrance into the world of music. My family moved to Northern Virginia when I was 10, and I freaked that I could take music classes in school. I joined band and played clarinet, and by the time I hit middle school, joined choir because my best friend wanted me to. Piano continued to be my main instrument, studying privately simultaneously, following the classical music path through competitions, festivals, and recitals.
MA: Since 2008, Doug and I have played in a band called The Earth Is A Man, which is basically post-rock, if only because it’s instrumental and uses guitars, bass, and drums. Our new material is getting heavier and more effected, for sure, so some of Good Willsmith is probably bleeding over.
DK: We focus on balancing technicality with melody within more traditional rock - while throwing in some math, prog, drone and psychedelia.
NC: I started playing in bands in high school, asking for gear from 9th grade on. I began recording on some digital portable 8-track with my high school indie band, played organ and vocals in a folk band, eventually got into the midi/digital world and finally started collecting synths, mics, pedals, and toys. I decided to go to Northwestern for music education and vocal performance, but sadly found it very difficult to find other students that were interested in collaborating outside of the classical world. That’s when I began looping as a solo musician, giving myself the space to meditate on sound, and creating choral like ambiance/noise. I feared that this may never be poppy enough for regular “band” musicians to collaborate with me, but this is when I finally started to really love what I was creating.
I’ve played in Chicago with Brian Griffith (otherwise known as Grey Ghost) in a duo called l’éternèbre, and put out a release through Plustapes. After his recent departure to LA, outside of Good Willsmith, I continue solo collaborations as TAL with improvisers Nicholas Davis, who goes by Passerby, saxophonist Anthony Bruno, and most recently Steffi Neuhuber from Austria on contrabass recorder.
DK: After school, we moved to the city and I got a job at Thrill Jockey packing orders. We started home-recording at our old house, Tiger Mountain Studios. We spent all of last year recording The Big Ship’s upcoming album, a bunch of Good Willsmith and collaboration with Tim Heidecker. Even though I am a young dude, I feel as if I am a committed lifer, as my boss puts it, to the music industry. I can’t imagine doing anything else other than performing, recording or releasing music.
How did the collaboration with Tim Heidecker come about?
MA: Via the magic of Twitter (as so many things do?). Tim tweeted about finding a home studio in Chicago to record a track he had in mind while he was in town for a few days. I tweeted back at him saying he could use our studio space (our former home) and after a little research on his part, he agreed. He came by the next day and we built the track from the ground-up based on a demo of a Bob Dylan cover he recorded in Logic. Doug produced, Tim sang lead, we all sang background vocals and played our respective instruments. He ended up being there for something like 10 hours, working and chilling out and he even came back for a party we had that night. He’s one of our favorite human beings ever, so the whole thing was pretty surreal. It’s definitely amazing to consider him a friend of ours now. The track we recorded with him ended up on his first LP, Titanic and Other Songs.
We came across a copy of Hanson Records’ Songs of Indian Snake Charmer Volume 2 cassette last summer and it had a deep impact on all of our zones. This led us deeper into raga music, which has had a major influence on recent Good Willsmith sessions.
What individual talents do you bring to the rest of the band and how do you think it informs the music?
MA: All three of us have the same four-track looping station - the EHX2880, an incredible piece of hardware - but I think we each exploit it to different ends in performance. I focus most of the time on sustaining long bass tones and developing a layered drone in increments across time - so I guess I’m bringing some degree of patience and attention to detail to the mix.
DK: I focus on creating and manipulating textural loops processed through a massive chain of effects pedals. I use a baritone electric telecaster, small and toy-like synth elements, and a four-oscillator noise box with a telephone dial that we affectionately refer to as the “merzphone,” and I recently acquired two raga boxes that simulate tamboura drones and tambla beats.
NC: I really love noise and experimental sounds, but I find that I still seem to hold onto melody and harmony more than anything, bringing somewhat of a song structure to our improvisational compositions. I don’t stand alone in creating the song form to our textures, drone, and noise - there is a huge aspect of listening and reacting between all of us that influences each melody or harmonic progression I sing or play on synths. I think of the constant drone and noise we create as the beginning of a meditation, and then I sometimes add the chant that goes along with it. The reaction cycle continues between all of us: guitar mimicking voice, voice mimicking guitar, noise mimicking noise, and all the counterparts in between the musical conversation, kind of like a call-and-response or fugue with a subject and countersubject, etc.
MA: At this point I’m also coming up with ways to incorporate other media into our work and create some interplay with other texts through cassette manipulation.
How do you tackle recording? Do you work with rough sketches one of you brings to the others; does it begin organically/from improvisation, both, neither….?
DK: I am responsible for recording and mixing the Good Willsmith material. All of the recordings, thus far, have been pretty much improvised, but with an understanding of how we want to ebb and flow.
MA: All the recordings we’ve made so far are uninterrupted sessions of improvisation with limited discussion beforehand, if any.
NC: Maybe we’ve discussed a key and form to some degree: ‘let’s have four peaks or songs in this session’ or ‘after one minute add the next loop, magnifying the texture every minute thereafter.’
MA: We’ve reached a point where we can give each other freedom to experiment live and we play enough together to focus on honing ideas within a broader structure. But we’re starting to evolve out of this paradigm now with more deliberate structuring, more dialing-in tones instead of exploring to find them.
How do you balance your influences with your own muse(s)? Is there a desire to separate Good Willsmith from not only your individual ideas, but those from like-minded peers and artists you admire?
NC: I grew up listening to rap and hip-hop and eventually got into rock and electronic music, while always listening and studying classical music. I don’t listen to nearly as much drone as Max and Doug. They’ve definitely introduced me to a lot of similar-minded musicians.
MA: From being around each other so much, a lot of our tastes have homogenized, especially when it comes to styles of music Good Willsmith directly incorporates.
DK: We came across a copy of Hanson Records’ Songs of Indian Snake Charmer Volume 2 cassette last summer and it had a deep impact on all of our zones. This led us deeper into raga music, which has had a major influence on recent Good Willsmith sessions.
MA: We say things to each other between sessions like ‘aim for that Tim Hecker drift’. And we use phrases like Pran-ing, after Pandit Pran Nath, or Merz-ing to denote exactly what you’d imagine. I think it’s more of a process of discovering and grasping at enough disparate strands to come out with something novel even if (or especially if) the outcome contains enough sonic markers of drone and noise to pigeonhole it into those genres.
NC: I think that when I create music it’s more of an organic process and I don’t necessarily think I want to sound like anyone in particular. However, I don’t intentionally draw boundaries between what I listen to and what I create.
As a medium, the cassette seems to be integral to the band, both as an instrument/sound but as a final product - what is it about cassette that excites you? How are you using it differently than others?
DK: As young record label execs (laughs) Max and I don’t necessarily have the funds to put out a bunch of LPs. We need a cheap way to be able to curate our material and cassettes with download codes are the perfect to get our music out physically.
MA: I think that we differ enough from many of our contemporaries and major influences [in] that our cassette fixation stems in part from a desire to tangibly engage with that community. In this sense, we use tapes on the final product end in a willfully similar way to how others have used it.
NC: I started getting back into cassettes when Chicago tape label Plustapes did a release for l’éternèbre. I’m stoked that in the digital age of music we can still work on album art and have a copy of music that has not only a physical purpose, but also an aesthetic audible purpose.
DK: We obsess over the cassettes that our contemporaries release. I don’t know if we are doing anything brand new with our Hausu Mountain cassette releases, we just want to engage with our peers that are doing similar things that we think are dope. The goal is to release as many cassettes as possible, and to keep an eye out for interesting material from a wide array of psychedelic-oriented, fringe-y scenes and subgenres.
NC: It’s cool that we’re also almost forced to listen to full albums again, especially in an age of skipping through shuffle on an iPod. I think its rad that Max is using cassettes as an instrument, and even better that Hausu Mountain is putting out tapes. Keep bringing them back!
MA: I process the playback of tapes I make and tapes I find at thrift stores with loops and effects, giving me a sort of lead voice that I can curate before each session and let rise above the droning low end. I embrace the restriction of recording onto tape as opposed to, say, feeding in sounds from a laptop because it requires some effort on my part to create a physical artifact, one with a warm hiss and that beefed-up, mildly distorted low-end.
How did Is The Food Your Family Eats Slowly come together? Was it the product of many practices and live performances or the result of trying to do something different?
NC: There really wasn’t any planning with this album. We try to record all of our practice sessions, and this just happened to be a result of one of the first times we played together.
MA: We recorded Is The Food Your Family Eats Slowly on a Saturday afternoon during a long practice for one of our first gigs - an event called Sonic Celluloid, put on by WNUR at Northwestern, that lets bands provide a live soundtrack to classic experimental films. The album is entirely improvised, but it’s made up of the building blocks we had been refining at that point in time.
I think it’s more of a process of discovering and grasping at enough disparate strands to come out with something novel even if (or especially if) the outcome contains enough sonic markers of drone and noise to pigeonhole it into those genres.
DK: When we were getting ready to put out our first tape, the session stood out above others. It documents our band in our earliest phase.
How does 14 Years of Desperate Research expand upon ITFYFES?
NC: Is The Food Your Family Eats Slowly…I think we were still getting to know each other musically and personally. There’s a lot more space and room where you can hear us listening, waiting, and responding.
DK: ITFYFES is a more chilled out release and is also a longer improv, whereas 14 Years is noisy, terrifying and slightly more streamlined.
MA: 14 Years is more, say, full-on claustrophobic hell. Doug and I were channeling blackened noise acts like Sutekh Hexen in that session, and Natalie had been developing some vocal melodies and lyrics on her own that ended up here in some form or another.
DK: 14 Years of Desperate Research is our most brutal release to date. We recorded the two sides on one afternoon a few days before we left for our summer tour.
NC: What ended up on this album sounds similar to what we went on tour with - setting timers and what-not to have some variables and boundaries on our improvisation. We entered these recording sessions as ‘less polite’ and just went for the shred, making this album way heavier and darker.
MA: What you hear on 14 Years is probably the closest to what we sounded like on the road. The B-side is also our most overtly structured piece of music to date: Natalie takes the lead, while Doug and I, with timers running, kept each of our four loop tracks recording for one minute straight before cycling to the next one - so every sound we make stays in the mix for the entire session.
Has the band’s dynamic changed as you’ve continued to grow together and individually as musicians?
MA:: I think we’ve gotten better at pow-wow-ing before we play to draw out a map of the session and single out certain techniques or instruments we want to use at certain points. We’re more in control of our gear, and more deliberate about dynamics. In personal terms, the three of us fall deeper in love with each other every day. We’re either together or in contact pretty much always, and try to hang out or play as much as we can. Being crammed together in a van for three weeks and thousands of miles this summer cemented our eternal friendship, for sure.
NC: We’ve only gotten closer as time has gone by, both with our friendship and musicality. Good Willsmith is my newest musical project; however, I treat my other projects and art collective Screaming Claws with equal importance and enthusiasm.
MA: I think we do a good job of compartmentalizing our different projects but some degree of sonic bleed-over definitely goes down. I think we’ve come to enjoy the physicality, volume, and improvised nature of GWS sets so much that those elements have become a kind of standard that creeps into our other projects more and more.
DK: We continue to incorporate more and more gear into our setups. We have also started writing graphical scores to follow during our performances. The improvisation is still very free, we mostly just structure out levels of intensity, or complexity of loops, across an axis of time. There is a lot more vocalizing from all of us.
What’s next for GWS?
MA: Doug and I just moved into a new home and we finally have access to all our gear and recording equipment - and records! - again, so we’re planning on hunkering down and making some new music of our own, too–solo and as a duo. We just finished a fall season of shows at an amazing gallery / art space called High Concept Laboratories, and we’re planning on stay involved with them as long as we can.