AIRICK WOODHEAD ON HIS GRAND MUSIC EXPERIMENT
Words and Interview By Laura Studarus.
Airick Woodhead makes dizzyingly layered psych pop as Doldrums. Playing like an illicit meeting between Flaming Lips and Radiohead, his debut album Lesser Evil feels like a porthole to another dimension. Appropriate, since the 23-year-old musician named his project after classic children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth.
But for all his love of otherworldly textures, Woodhead (who used to perform with Grimes) takes a realist’s approach to his work—casting his crazy quilt-style samples and surreal soundscapes not as experimental music, but rather music experiments. In other words? Expect a listening that aims to invite listeners in, rather than simply confuse them.
We joined Woodhead for a conversation about the power of limitations, and how they’ve helped him become the hero of his own story.
Doldrums’ debut full-length Lesser Evil is out February 26 via Arbutus/Souterrain Transmissions/No Pain in Pop.
We live in a world where there’s a new David Bowie album on the way. How crazy is that?
I was watching The Man Who Fell to Earth the other night. [Laughs] It’s a terrible movie. It’s so cheap and the whole thing is falling apart.
Have you always been a Bowie fan?
Yeah. Basically since I saw a Ziggy Stardust live video when I was pretty young. I’ve been pretty fascinated with him. Some of his songs are among the best rock songs ever written.
Can’t argue with that. Do you identify with the idea of alternate identities like Ziggy Stardust in music?
I wouldn’t say I relate to it. I think it’s a thing that’s valid and interesting, but I’d rather be artistically transparent. That’s the idea. I decided a long time ago that I didn’t want to deal with living two lives or something like that. So I try to make sure that there’s never any kind of weird, metaphysical separation between myself as a musician and as a person.
Given that Doldrums is you, did you ever consider writing under your own name?
I think if I had done it under my own name, it would have sounded more like a house producer: Airick Woodhead. It sounds like Jesse Saunders or Derrick May, or something. I think just the style of the name connotes what the style of music is going to be. When you have a name it’s usually a producer, or a DJ, or a folk musician. Being none of those things, I wouldn’t want to be that.
So given that your name dictates your sound, and Doldrums is so connected to The Phantom Tollbooth (which was one of my favorites as a child), is nostalgia a driving factor for you?
You should reread [The Phantom Tollbooth]. It’s fucking awesome! There’s definitely a childlike feeling that renews itself in any creative pursuit that I’m trying to do. I start thinking about images or sounds or aesthetics that I like that remind me of my childhood. I always end up tracing those lines back in time. Also playfulness is so important.
Now that you’re in the position to monetize your music, is that an element you’re able to maintain? A sense of playfulness?
I might. What’s the offer? [Laughs] I haven’t had to work a job in a few years, which is pretty sweet. Basically we would throw small shows at our houses and charge like five bucks a person. That was the way we were able to escape the normal choices that you have. There are very few; You either have to work a job, or try to get a grant to go to school. The third option is to fend for yourself. Figure out something creative to do that works for you. The fourth option is that you were born loaded. Then you never have to worry about anything.
When you’re seventeen years old, and you’re looking at real life coming fast behind you, it’s easy to think to yourself, “Well, I obviously have to go along this path that everyone else seems to do, even though I feel like it’s not for me.” But if you have the balls to really do something that you care about, and you think it will work if you put enough effort into it, then a lot of those kind of people end up being really inspiring. They love what they’re doing, and it shows in the work.
Was there a turning point when you realized that you didn’t want to embrace the status quo? Or was it something you simply knew that you didn’t want?
I think there was a point of stagnation in my life around that time, seventeen, eighteen. I was dealing with what I was going to do with myself. It really came from seeing people in Toronto who I ended up living with, and also the Montreal music community, and seeing how that actually worked, and seeing that it was exactly what I wanted to do and be a part of. And deciding just to— fuck it and move here, and really try to do this thing. That’s why I think Montreal saved my life in a way; otherwise I wouldn’t know what I wanted to do.
It’s interesting how when you try to look back at the different paths your life could have taken, you can’t even begin to conceptualize what that might look like.
Yeah. [Laughs] It would have been working at McDonalds.
When it comes to seeking out members of your backing band or collaborators, do you find it more helpful to look for like-minded musicians, or musicians who are your polar opposite?
I usually want someone who I can communicate with, and who speaks the same language. Like any other relationship, you have to have chemistry with somebody. But I also want them to be able to bring their own thing to the table. That is intriguing to me, much more than being a sturdy session musician or something.
When your previous band Spiral Beach broke up, was there a worry that you might not get this opportunity again?
I don’t think I wanted that opportunity again at the time. I wasn’t really into being in a rock band, and life in a band. I’m happy that what I’m doing now feels totally insane. I still get to do whatever I want all the time. It’s very liberating to not have to rehearse. [Laughs] Just to be able to use ideas more and experiment a lot. A year or two years ago, Doldrums was just this collage project that I was doing. But since we have been touring a lot, I guess it has become more of a band. That’s just the culture; I’m not going to knock it, obviously.
Is there a guiding concept to Lesser Evils? I’ve heard mixed reports.
Yes, there is. I have this sci-fi plot in my head. Pitchfork interviewed me for an hour and didn’t record the interview. They got everything wrong. Now I have to go around clearing that up. I think any album, if you analyze it enough, has themes and ideas present as well as being music that was just enjoyable to make. The song “Lesser Evils” itself probably sums up the themes of the album the most, which is general feelings of alienation and anxiety expressed through different stories. I’m the protagonist—because it’s my songs—I sing about things that have happened to me, of things that I imagine. I try to sound cool.
If you can’t cast yourself as the protagonist on your own album, where can you?
Do you tend to air on the side of science or science fiction?
I think if I wasn’t doing music, I’d be really interested in eugenics. I’d want to be experimenting with hacking genes and creating new life forms, and synthetic printing, and all these weird, exciting things. But I’d probably want to do it in a creative way, and make some fucked up life form.
I like the term speculative fiction, because the realistic results are all hypothetical. I think that’s kind of what I do in my music too. I have this idea, and it’s a question: Does this actually work? It could be something specific, like “What if I run iTunes through this broken sampler? Can I make music with that?” It’s a question, and then you answer your question with the results. It’s just like a scientific experiment. It could be something broader and more conceptual, like, “Can I make music with only one sound for a month? What happens then?” These are real experiments; as opposed to the umbrella term “experimental music”, which I find more applies to any music that’s weird.
What parameters did you put on Lesser Evils?
There’s always parameters, yeah. That’s how I work. With this album, I wanted to make it all completely myself. I wanted to tour, but I didn’t have a booking agent or car at the time. So I had to tour with a backpack of stuff. I have to be able to tour on anything, a Greyhound bus, hitchhiking, whatever. That was pretty exciting. Now I have a car and a van and stuff, so it’s all back to normal.
I also wanted to narrow the scope of the things that I sampled. My other work was sampled from anything. I was running all the sounds into a Kaoss Pad. I found that it was too all over the place and there wasn’t enough of a signature in it. For this record, I was like, “I’m going to use my voice and these two records, and I’m going to make more of my own sounds, and I’m going to use the same snare drum on every song.”
It seems like sometimes if you have a studio full of toys you can give yourself too many options.
Yeah, I don’t have a studio. I still travel really light, and I do everything digitally.
Would you be tempted to broaden your sonic palette if a label dropped resources in your lap?
Resources are just another tool. Just like a snare drum is a tool. I’d use the resources as much as a could, in limiting ways. I’d still do what I’m doing; I’d just do it better.
I sometimes think that any expression that ends up as an art form in some medium starts as a really pure sensation. You have the idea of making a painting, and then deciding what the painting is going to be, and then painting the painting, and then how you’re going to show the painting or whatever. All those ideas are diluting the original pure feeling. But that’s what limitations are; they’re a means for actually getting something out of you.
Want more from the Canadian music scene? Check out MTV Iggy’s special report, here.