Thao and The Get Down Stay Down plays Wonder Ballroom on March 25. Read our interview with Thao Nguyen about her personal and daring new album.
So many up-and-coming bands dream of that moment when some indie oligarch plucks them from relative obscurity and places them on a platform to bask in the limelight. The thinking goes: Sometimes you just need the right person to vouch for your music and all your dreams of being a still-broke but properly recognized musician will be realized. Before you know it, you’ll be playing on late night talk shows and supporting big names on national tours. Hey, it’s rare, but it happens, right?
This scenario more or less came to fruition for freaky psych-proggers Morning Teleportation. In the late aughts, they made a name for themselves with explosive live performances and a kind of folksy mathematical psychedelia to which you can dance. However you classify what they were doing, it caught the eye of Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, and he signed them to his newly minted label Glacial Pace Recordings. Brock even offered to produce their first album, Expanding Anyway, which ended up being a high-energy onslaught of psychedelic rock meets banjo meets synthesizer meets erratic song structure. It’s a pretty wild ride that garnered the band some attention in the music press and even a spot performing on Letterman.
Six years have passed since Morning Teleportation’s raucous debut, and the band has been slowly and quietly honing their sound. On their forthcoming sophomore release, Salivating for Symbiosis, the band has filed down some of their intentionally rough edges and arrived at something a little more focused and mature. Many of the songs on the first record were dominated by frenzied instrumentation with schizophrenic shifts in mood, rhythm and genre that ultimately provided more variance within each song than there was in the record as a whole. While maintaining a similar sense of playful experimentation with style and structure, the new record has a more measured approach to orchestration, achieving a textured polyphony that still provides room for dominant melodies to breathe. Vocalist Tiger Merritt also dials down the Caleb Followill-esque bravado he had on the first record, landing on a calmer, more melodic approach that sounds a little less forced. Overall, Salivating for Symbiosis has a more polished and restrained sound that, while perhaps carrying less euphoric energy than Expanding Anyway, is more thoughtful, dynamic and pop-friendly.
Though the band lived in Portland for about four years, they now reside back in Kentucky and Tennessee. I chatted with Merritt and keyboardist Travis Goodwin about their new record, the perils of being a touring band and their on-again-off-again relationship with Portland. It was a particularly drizzly and drab day in Puddletown when I called, so hearing about the beautiful weather in the South made me just a little bit jealous.
Eleven: Besides being on Glacial Pace, you guys had a history in Portland, right?
Travis Goodwin: Yeah, we lived in Portland for about four-and-a-half years. Now I live in Nashville, and Tiger lives in Franklin, Kentucky. I miss playing Portland. It’s one of my favorite cities to play in the lower 48. We haven’t done it in almost five years.
11: Well, you’ve gotta get back up here!
TG: Yeah, I know, I’m ready! I love Portland. It’s been one of those cities that really helped me grow up. When I moved out there I was probably 20; it was really enlightening. I loved it. I do like having the four seasons we’ve got here though. Like I said, I love Portland, but today it’s 80 degrees without a cloud in the sky, and it’s been like that on and off for the past two weeks.
11: So you’ve got some Portland roots. Is that how you hooked up with Glacial Pace and Isaac Brock?
Tiger Merritt: We went up to Lollapalooza and met Isaac briefly through a mutual friend. Then a bit later we went to go see a Modest Mouse show in Nashville. After the show I was just walking around with a guitar or a banjo on the street. He said hello and we all ended up hopping in a taxi van and hung out that night. Our buddy [bassist] Paul Wilkerson had moved to Portland, and we were talking about starting the band. I flew out to Portland for a month or so to hang out with Paul and start writing songs. Then we all moved to Austin, Texas. Paul and I drove from Portland down the coast and Travis and Tres [Coker] came from Bowling Green and we lived in Texas for a few months and cut demos. We toured out of Texas to play Bowling Green, Nashville and Cincinnati. We had a show in Cincinnati the same night as a Modest Mouse show and Isaac came out to see the set.
TG: After that show in Cincinnati he told us he’d produce and put out our record.
TM: Yeah, so we moved back to Bowling Green and made plans to drive out to Portland, move there, and cut the record. I don’t know if Isaac expected us to show up, but we did.
11: How did that feel? Were you guys Modest Mouse fans?
TM: Oh definitely. I mean it was crazy for sure; I had always loved listening to them. If I could tell myself back when I was younger where we are now, I probably would have been pretty surprised.
11: What was the scene you came out of in Bowling Green like?
TM: It was pretty great when we were playing there. There were always really cool house shows going on in Bowling Green. There were a lot of fun times, good community, cool people.
TG: It was really interesting. There were a lot of cool bands that came up together when we were starting. In one night you’d have all these bands playing house parties; it was super fun. We also toured a lot with Cage The Elephant. They’re awesome.
11: Do you guys still play DIY shows these days?
TG: Yeah… sometimes, it depends. About five months ago we played a pretty cool DIY show. It was a lot of fun.
11: Tell me more about your experience living in Portland. What did you do for fun? What were you favorite venues?
TM: Living in Portland was great! We found a house to rent in the Southeast and had some house shows. The first venue show we played out there was with Mimicking Birds and Oh Captain, My Captain at Holocene. We would play Doug Fir, Mississippi Studios, Rontoms and open for bands at Crystal Ballroom. We were into having everyone over to jam, riding bikes, skateboarding, mushroom pickin’, BBQ’n, going to the rivers and relaxing.
11: Sounds perfectly Portland! What ultimately led you all to move back to the South?
TM: After being in Portland for a few years I think our drummer wanted to move back to Kentucky to be near family, and it seemed like a good time to switch things up for a minute. I do remember loading up the moving truck on a sunny day and wondering, “Why am I moving again?”
11: You guys really balance extremes well in your music. There are a lot of intense dynamic shifts in everything from instrumentation to rhythm to mood and genre influences. What’s it like when you sit down to write a song? What’s your process like?
TM: It’s just whatever happens naturally. It’s not really the same for each song. Some stuff gets started out on a guitar riff or vocal melody; other stuff we all start writing off a drum beat or whatever. Sometimes a song will start out as an electronic song and it ends up being more of a rock song. Lyric-wise sometimes it’s off the cuff; sometimes I sit down and write it. Sometimes we’ll all jam to come up with ideas; other times someone comes in with an something. It’s a blend of a lot of different approaches.
TG: Yeah and songs tend to evolve and change over time.
TM: I don’t really just sit down and write the lyrics right off the bat. I kinda let them cruise along as I’m traveling and they pick up different verses or whatever.
11: What’s recording like for you? Do you come to the studio with finished songs usually, or do you do some of the writing while you’re there?
TM: Yeah definitely. We’d write stuff, then tour with it, then get some basic tracking done in the studio and start incorporating modular synthesizers and a whole variety of stuff. Working with Jeremy Sherrer on the [new] record was awesome – he was the producer. He’s Portland through and through. He and I both were basically living at Ice Cream Party Studio on and off, working every day on the record. He put in extra time afterward too – he’s amazing. It was really fun collaborating with him and having access to all the equipment to grow and write and take our stuff to a different place.
11: So, are you guys going on tour to promote this thing?
TG: Yeah, the album comes out April 28, and in May we have a support tour with Modest Mouse on the West Coast and the Midwest. We’ve submitted for a bunch of other tours for the rest of the year too. We’re just waiting to find out from our agent what we’re doing.
11: Do you guys prefer to tour supporting bigger acts or going out on your own?
TM: I like both. There’s a different atmosphere at larger shows than at smaller venues and both are cool for different reasons. I do like hearing those guys every night though.
TG: One of the cool things about smaller shows is we can kind of extend the set a little. It’s fun; there’s more freedom. There have been some shows that have lasted two or three hours.
TM: Yeah, we’ve got a lot of material that never got released. I actually like to think of this one as our third record. We basically recorded another album after the first one but never put it out. We kind of skipped the sophomore slump and went straight to the third one.
11: When you do tour are you partying a lot or are you more business oriented?
TM: It’s business and party always.
TG: It’s party business! I guess it depends on the week though and what we’ve got going on.
11: Well, you must have some good stories then. Let’s hear one.
TM: One of the most fun and stressful tours we’ve done was in an old RV named Hagatha. Our friend Casey had a lead on this RV that a relative owned sitting in a cow pasture out in Utah. The plan was to fly out to Utah, get this RV running and take it on tour. We stayed out there a few days working on Hagatha with cattle coming up to the engine and doors while we were trying to fix it up. We get it running and started going east. In some of the first mountains we hit it starts breaking down and we have to get it running again on the side of the road. I think that happened a few more times on the way to Kentucky. We get the thing back and started getting it ready for tour — fixing the wiring, cleaning it, and making sure there were no more black widows. Gotta make a house a home. We start the tour with Desert Noises and it seems to be running pretty good. Then, after playing Pittsburgh we get in some heavy traffic and the engine starts to overheat so we start going down the side of the road and people start to get surly. It was an odd kind of bumper cars thing and people were pretty much pushing each other’s cars out of the way, stopping at nothing. We had to make it 50 more miles to get within the tow radius of a wrecker. We finally were able to get towed to the festival with the RV bouncing around like crazy on the tow truck. We thought the cabinets were going to fall off. Somehow with a mixture of our buddy’s mechanical knowledge and exotic mood modifiers the engine was taken apart and put back together. Shortly thereafter we parted ways with Hagatha.
11: What would you say is new or different for you guys musically with Salivating for Symbiosis?
TG: I think me and Tiger were able to be a lot more hands-on with the sound, and we were able to spend a lot more time working on the record. Our bass player and drummer were out there for the first 10 days. Then I stayed for another 10 weeks or so. Tiger stayed out for a lot longer, like about a year. We were living and traveling between Portland and the Bowling Green and Nashville areas.
TM: Jeremy really elevated the songs so much. Some of my favorite songs weren’t completely finished when we brought them in, and they completely evolved into a new thing. Isaac dropped in a few times, but he mostly let us go on our own with Jeremy for this one.
11: What kind of stuff were you thinking about when you wrote these songs? What kinds of themes were you exploring?
TM: Sometimes I feel like the themes change from one line to the next, you know? I just focus in on an event and I’ll think about it over a period of a few months. One line will be from the past; one line will be from the present. I don’t necessarily know what a song is about sometimes as a whole, but as I sing them over time they evolve and I start to look at them differently, and the lines start to mean new things to me. I tend to focus on all kinds of things like personal events, or stuff out in the world, or things the group of us have experienced like travel or losing friends. It’s a mixture of moments that have happened over the years.