Plankton Wat, aka Dewey Mahood (who is also a member of Eternal Tapestry), started life as a home recording project way back in 2001, fragments of his music slowly being released on cassette labels like Digitalis and Sloow. Now signed to Thrill Jockey Mahood has just released his label debut, the experimental and exceptional Spirits. This is a record created as a meditation on the Pacific Northwest Environment, creating sounds and audio emotion to the landscapes Dewey knows so well. Incorporating a host of instruments, including his acoustic guitar, hand drums, harmonium and layered voices, the album is a hypnotic and wholly effective journey that you can lose yourself in for hours. We spoke to Dewey about the creation of Spirits and the inspiration behind it.
Bowlegs: I understand this record is a meditation on the Pacific Northwest environment. Why that particular area, does it have a special significance to you?
Dewey: When I started recording this album I wanted a general concept that would hold the music together. I was coming up on living in Portland for 20 years, so I decided to make the album something of a meditation on the region. There is something very special about the area, all the rain brings such lush scenery and dramatic skies. It can be a very powerful place in a spiritual sense. That’s also where the title of the album comes from. So many times I’ve been camping on Mt. Hood, or at the Oregon coast, and just get this sense of history. Almost feeling the Native Americans and early White settlers before me. With all the diffuse sun light peering through dark clouds and old growth trees a person can feel real insignificant, but also connected to a greater life force outside of oneself.
Bowlegs: Was each song written across areas within the Pacific Northwest? How do you transfer a landscape into musical form. Are these, in some way, emotional responses to the incredible landscape?
Dewey: Well, the entire record was written at my house, but I spent a year thinking about it. I try to take a lot of short trips around the area – not only the mountains and coast, but smaller towns too. When I’m driving or wandering around places I’m always thinking about music. A lot of times I’ll be somewhere and get an idea I want to try once I get home, or hear something that triggers a new idea. For me music is life, everything relates to sound. Maybe I’ll be walking around an old part of a small town and I’ll just hear the twang of a string in my head, then I go home and try to create the sound I imagined. It’s all about feelings, memories of people and places. Sometimes sadness, but more often dreams of the future. I try not to get too wrapped up in negative thinking, nothing good can come out of that. I like to keep the vibe positive as much as possible, but I also have to be honest with myself.
Bowlegs: Do these songs start life on different instruments? How do you start, is about a groove or a certain riff?
Dewey: Every song starts in a different way and I do that on purpose. I don’t like repeating myself, that’s way I do so much improvisational music! I have a bunch of instruments that I’ve collected over the years, and I like to pick something up and play something that matches my mood. It could be anything, a rambling drum, a wall of synth noise, a bow dragged across a banjo string. Anything that connects to how I’m feeling at the moment. Once I’m happy with a sound I’ll put a mic on it and roll tape. Then I listen back and think about what would sound nice going along with the original sound. Sometimes I’ll put a piece together in half an hour, others may take a week. It just depends on how sounds sit together and if a piece communicates something to me.
Bowlegs: How are the perimeters set for a newly composed track – decisions on how many bars until a guitar enters the piece, how long until we fade out etc etc? Are you always considering the listener or is this you losing yourself in the music?
Dewey: When I’m playing I don’t really think about this sort of thing too much. It’s more like Dadaist collage, or Beat literature. It’s about expressing something no matter how vague or obscure, just working it out. I guess the only perimeter is that I like to have a good handful of songs on an album, and shy away from releasing just a few long jams – I’ve got Eternal Tapestry for that! Again it all goes back to what feels right, most of the time just losing myself and trusting my ears. A song like Stream Of Light is a good example of that. First I laid down a bed of synth textures, then overdubbed a second more melodic keyboard, then played some guitar on top. It’s all real simple, but hopefully it communicates something much greater. Something beyond me that everyone can feel. On another piece Portland & Western Cross I definitely tried to compose a solid song that the listener could grab a hold of, but that’s somewhat uncharacteristic for me.
Bowlegs: I feel the album works because of the variation in the landscape – from the percussive and sparse Orange Cloud to the folk-esque Portland & Western Cross. Do you think the track order is more important on instrumental and more experimental records like this?
Dewey: Well, I have to be honest. I spent months on the track order! There were a few other songs that I recorded in this batch, and it was a tough decision on which ones to cut in order to keep the record to around 40 minutes. With music of this nature I think the sequence is hugely important. With no lyrics to guide the listener, it’s all about the musical progression, the audio journey. The album starts gentle, but hints at what’s to come. Then it takes hold with the second song, and hopefully the listener is along for the ride. The opening song is also a warning, if yer not down with it this album isn’t for you! I like to cover a lot of ground with instrumentation, and moods, so it’s real important to have an even flow. Otherwise, it can come across as being schizophrenic and incohesive.
Bowlegs: Why is the drone track called Cape Meares – what is that place like?
Dewey: Cape Meares is a magical little spot on the Oregon coast. The front cover photo of Spirits is taken there. The crazy rocky beach is to the north, and a great state park to the south with a weird little lighthouse, forested hiking trails, and an amazing ancient Sitka spruce tree shaped like an octopus. Local legend tells of a Native American canoe getting stuck in the tree forcing the limbs out in such a bizarre way. How could a person not be inspired by such a place! Plus, it’s almost always shrouded in a deep fog making it even more mysterious and supernatural feeling. With that song I was trying to express the feeling of being there, on the edge of the west coast looking out into the nothingness where the ocean meets the clouds.
Bowlegs: Tell us about the closer Stream of Light – the title and instrumentation certainly feels like a new dawn?
Dewey: Oh man, funny story with that one. As I was saying before it started as an improvisation on synth. I was just messing around, trying to get some new sounds happening. It didn’t take shape right away like most of my tunes do. I got bored with it, but the textures led me to some of the other songs like Evening Sky and Vista. As I worked on the album I would go back to it from time to time, but it never felt complete. I finally finished the album and sent it off to be manufactured. A few days later I listened to my leftovers, and I said to myself “why isn’t this on the record!” So I wrote Thrill Jockey and asked if I could squeeze one more song on the album. That’s why it isn’t on the LP version. In hindsight I’d probably make it the opening track, but this way it feels a little more special. A really powerful song that almost didn’t make the cut!
Bowlegs: How did you get involved with Thrill Jockey – it seems like a good home for an artist like yourself?
Dewey: All I can say is pure good luck! I’d been working with a lot of great smaller labels and happy to be doing so. Me and my friends in Eternal Tapestry always joked about working with a bigger label, but were honestly very stoked to be working with Not Not Fun. Out of the blue Thrill Jockey contacted us and we’ve been working with them ever since. I’ve been a fan of the label since the first Tortoise record, but never imagined I’d have anything to do with them so it was kind of a shock at first, now they seem like part of the family. The timing was just right I guess as the label has taken a serious turn towards heavy psych and guitar based music. It’s really cool to be in the company of so many friends and wonderful musicians who I truly dig.
Bowlegs: How do these songs convert to a live experience? Do you play alone?
Dewey: Live Plankton Wat is just me with an electric guitar. For awhile I was using a keyboard, and hand drums and a drum machine and stuff, but I’ve really stripped the live show down. Now it’s all about playing the guitar. I’m working on adding vocals to the mix, but I’m not a fan of my voice so it’s slow going. I’m trying to get to the core of the music, the pure emotion, and not worry about trying to recreate a recording. I’ve really separated what I do in the studio from what I do on stage. I see it as two different artforms, one is a document, the other a performance. But that said, I try to have reocurring themes. Like I’ve blended Fabric Of Life with Portland & Western Cross to form a looser but more epic live piece. This way I don’t feel like I’m simply replaying something, but rather creating something new every time while still touching on known themes.
Bowlegs: Who has influenced the way you write and record over the years? And what might your next project be?
Dewey: Ha! That’s a tough question as I’ve been totally obsessive about music since I was a young kid. As far back as I can remember I’ve listened to and thought about music almost constantly. I first started picking my mom’s nylon string guitar when I was probably around 10. I had no idea what I was doing, just enjoying the sound of the strings vibrating. My first instrument was the bass and I just wanted to play loud and fast like Black Flag. Then I had the good fortune of having a serious music theory teacher in high school. He taught us stuff about using pedalpoint, as in raga or drone music, and made us write 12-tone pieces for the school band to play in the manner of early 20th century composers. Pretty far out stuff for a small town in Northern California. As a result I’ve been totally out of step with my peers, but I feel like people are starting to get into it. Currently I’m writing music for a new LP which is scheduled to come out this fall on the German label Sound Of Cobra. It’s gonna be a lot more folky fingerpicking type stuff, with some blasted Japanese style guitar noise. After that I want to start work on another album for Thrill Jockey which will hopefully come out next year. I’m planning a song cycle about the early settlers in California, focusing on the gold rush days.
Bowlegs: Finally tell us a few records you have been listening to in 2012?
Dewey: Well, I just read this awesome bio on the Grateful Dead called Living With The Dead so I’ve been revisiting live bootlegs from the late 60′s. I love the long form instrumental pieces were they bridge folk tunes with electronic composition, and the music just takes on a life of it’s own! As far as current stuff goes my good friends and fellow Portlanders Matt and Jackie McDowell have been hugely influential. Both in their solo music and together as Sun Cycles. We’ve spent a lot of time jamming and talking about music, trying to find a way to push traditional American folk music into the future by applying experimental approaches to make new sounds. Jon and Evan from Barn Owl are always an inspiration as there just aren’t that many people doing something new and exciting with the guitar these days. Steve Gunn is another big one, such a fantastic fingerpicker. That guy is like lightening on the strings!