Woodsman has been one of the most intriguing and hard-working bands of 2011. The psychedelic quartet released a full-length album back in January (Rare Forms) and an EP (Mystic Places) on October 25. The best part about the band’s music is that you never know what you’re going to get, whether live or on wax. Improvisation is important to the band, allowing them to take a malleable, shape-shifting form that never seems to sound the same twice.
We were fortunate to catch Woodsman at NxNE back in June and they were easily one of my favorite performances the weekend. They’ve toured relentlessly throughout the year, supporting their studio material and introducing new audiences to their unique brand of seamless psychedelic rock that’s focused on experimentation and pushing musical boundaries. The band was kind enough to take some time out of their busy schedules to answer some of my questions that hopefully shed some new light on this talented, mind-bending group of musicians. They talk about their writing styles, origins, influences, and how Mystic Places on vinyl is a different experience than the digital version:
Can you provide some background on Woodsman? How did the band come into existence?
Trevor: Eston and I grew up making music together in various formations. In 2006 or so, I had just moved to Denver from a small mountain town called Frisco and Eston was living in Minneapolis. We started working on this little seven-song EP that was comprised mostly of ambient guitar work, minimal drums and field recordings. Meanwhile, Mark and Dylan were playing together in a two-piece themselves. We finished that EP and called it Woodsman right around that time I met Mark at art/film school and showed them the tunes. A couple months later Eston moved to Denver and the four of us started playing a bit. Then Eston and I booked a show with the intention of playing it as a two-piece but last minute asked Dylan and Mark to join. Since we didn’t really have any material together at the time we were playing 40-minute improv sets pretty much with no breaks in sound.
After a couple months and only about 5 proper shows under our belt, I decided it’d be fun to try and book a tour and see what that world was like. At the time we were running a small DIY space with our painter friend Greg Tait called, “The Imperial Shithole” and were booking bands etc., which made the idea of touring and booking ourselves seem like a real possibility. After we got back from that tour the four of us went up to a cabin in Evergreen, Colorado and recorded live for three days straight. Those sessions would later be broken down into what is now Collages our first record. I sent it out to Mexican Summer and they seemed pretty stoked and agreed to do a limited vinyl release. Up to that point we had made one EP called Humdrum and I guess around that time we decided making more records seemed like something we’d all be doing anyway so we decided to keep going as the four-piece.
Woodsman // In Circles [mp3] from Mystic Places
Having two percussionists is kind of a rarity is the scene. Why did you guys decide to go heavy on the drums?
Dylan: We didn’t start out thinking that we should have two drummers. That’s just the way things worked out. Our band formed by combining two pre-existing drum/guitar duos, Trevor and Eston, and Mark and myself. Our band formed through the four of us getting together to try something new. Two drummers and two guitar players was simply what we had to work with from the beginning and it seemed to work well with the improvisational nature of the music we were playing.
One characteristic of Woodsman is that the band never seems to stay in one place stylistically. With the band’s new EP, Mystic Places, there’s similarities to Rare Forms, but overall it feels much different —more structure to the songs when compared to previous releases. What was the reasoning behind this? Why the change, or to put it more appropriately, the evolution?
Mark: Rare Forms was recorded over a period of time when we felt like going out on a limb to push our comfort zone, try new directions to create some room for experimentation. When we took it out on the road, overtime the songs became more natural. Our new EP, Mystic Places, was created from that experience. We toured a ton, and over those six months or so recorded in segments. It helped us capture that live feeling we had on the road–the chemistry we created over that time. Moving stylistically is something that just happens.
Dylan: Evolution is a necessity for any band. Unless you’re making a conscious effort to stay the same, your sound is going to evolve. I remember thinking before starting this record that we wanted to try to get back to a darker atmosphere that we felt was lacking on Mystic Places but that we had been touching on consistently during our live sets leading up to making the record. There are a lot of ideas floating around in Woodsman; there’s not one person in charge of making the decisions or writing the songs. It’s very much a product of the four of us. That being said, there are a lot of directions we are capable of taking our sound. As far as structuring goes, I guess we have realized that its more challenging to keep songs short and succinct when recording, and that the record flows a little better when this is accomplished. Rather than putting all the improvisational stuff on the record now, we chip away at jams until we glean out an idea that we can turn into a song. However, our live sets still contain a good bit of experimentation.
Woodsman has a strong experimental, improvisational feel that makes it seem difficult to create cohesive songs. Can you describe Woodsman’s writing style? Is it more of a free flow of ideas where you guys jam, see what develops, and then pull from that material? Or are the songs written in a more traditional fashion?
Mark: This EP especially uses many different writing styles. We often record long sections and mine for gems, but I think that was one song on Mystic Places. Sometimes it’s a melody written first, sometimes it comes last and sometimes we have to write in a practical sense, like write a song in your bedroom and e-mail it, or we only have this many microphones so record it like this. Everyone writes their own part and the song often forms by whose idea is played first. I’m not sure of any of us have ever even thought to entertain the verse chorus verse style.
The band lists experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage as a major influence. Being unfamiliar with his work, what characteristics from his films make their way into Woodsman’s music?
Mark: Brakhage was a visionary. He pushed boundaries of perception. Every time I experience his work I think what would these pictures sound like. He experimented with film in a way that broke the language and expectation of the art form. His process, and ideas inspire the feeling of a hidden world or a world beyond what can be seen. I’ve always felt like that world can be heard as well. Sound can lure you to an unknown place. Brakhage had a much better knack for explaining these concepts:
“Imagine an eye unruled by man made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life by an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green?” – Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision
Woodsman // Specdrum [mp3] from Mystic Places
One thing I love about your live shows, based on what I saw at NxNE, is that the songs are strung together seamlessly so there’s really never a break in the set. How would you describe your live performances? How have the Mystic Places songs been fitting into this structure?
Dylan: We figured out a long time ago that the most interesting moments in our set happen between songs when we try to figure out how to transition from one song to the next. These are the areas that allow us to be the most creative. To have a musical discussion, if you will. It’s also about keeping the energy level up and holding the audience’s attention. Breaks between songs give people the chance to lose focus, start talking, go take a piss, get a beer etc. Our sets are meant to contain a continuity. It’s the same with a good movie or record, you have to experience it in its entirety to get the full effect.
Trevor: When laying out the structure for this record it was a conscious exercise in dissecting those in between moments and laying them down in a recording. From the way we approached building each song at a time and especially the way the record was mastered. If you listen to the digital version it might seem a little weird because all the songs were faded in and out of each other so that on vinyl there would be no breaks. Digitally it just sounds like abrupt stops between tracks but in our minds the record was designed to be heard on a turntable anyway.
Where’s a lot of your inspiration coming from these days? Besides being heavily influenced by a filmmaker, are there any musicians, or other artists outside of the music world, that move you guys to write?
Trevor: We’re always sharing ideas we’ve taken in from other artists. Because we’ve been traveling so much we all have been afforded more time to read and I think that ideas from authors like Philip K Dick, Alan Watts, Terrence McKenna and other outsider thinkers have always influenced the mood in our music. We’ve also recently relocated to New York City, so I think for future compositions that’s going to play a large part in what comes next.
Mark: We each have our favorites in terms of music, but we’ve always had common ground with kraut rock. Also jammed a lot of Sonic Boom’s material on our last tour and got to see Spectrum live. Seeing so much live music is a huge inspiration, but we take a lot of inspiration from the places we’ve been and the experiences we’ve had on the road. Seeing the whole country numerous times in a year you tend to learn a lot from people you would otherwise never run into. I have heard sounds I didn’t know existed. I personally have a hard time making a distinction of what influences end up in our music.
Dylan: We have always been largely influenced by landscape; our surroundings tend to have an impact on the sounds we make. This idea is how the name Woodsman came about. Living in and around the mountains in Colorado, we spent a lot of time in nature, and even recorded our first record in a cabin in the mountains. As of recently, we are all residing in Brooklyn, so it will be interesting to see what effect living in a city has on what we play.
2011 has been a big year for Woodsman with the release of Rare Forms and now the Mystic Places EP. What were the big highlights from the year? Any lessons learned from the recording and touring that you’d like to take in to 2012?
Mark: Psych Fest was a great time. And seeing Swans live will change a man. In terms of lessons learned: Don’t tour with a cracked muffler leaking carbon monoxide. It slowly poisons you.
Dylan: We toured more this year than any previous year, which we love to do. It’s always a highlight seeing new places for the first time, including Toronto for NxNe. All of the festivals we did this year were amazing including SxSw, the Austin Psych Fest, Hopscotch in Raleigh, NC, and Boomslang in Lexington, Ky. Touring is always a learning experience, in so many ways its difficult to articulate, but we are excited to keep doing it and hopefully take it to farther away places.
Trevor: The carbon monoxide thing is real, for sure. I think that being on the road is beneficial in so many ways, not just musically. I guess the biggest thing is to never feel satisfied and constantly keep moving forward.