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Balancing The Light With The Dark: An Interview With Robin Washburn Of Seance School

Balancing The Light With The Dark: An Interview With Robin Washburn Of Seance School

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Late last year, Portland multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Robin Washburn released Seance School, a self-titled, dreamy affair under his Seance School moniker. Washburn, who attended the Berklee College of Music, not only wrote every song on the record, he played every note of the music as well. On any album this would be an impressive feat, and it’s an even more impressive one when you consider all the different musical avenues Seance School bobs and weaves its way down over the course of the 11 tracks.

During our interview Washburn referred to admiring “outlier music”, a term that aptly describes much of his own work. The slightly off-kilter (and perhaps slightly unhinged) waltz of many of the songs on Seance School makes for a sound that seems immediately familiar, but in a way that’s hard to put one’s finger on. Songs like “Disobedient Objects” and “Elektrizitat” are filled with a sort of astral dream pop that feels as though the listener is taking a peek into Washburn’s very musical psyche.

A great example of the waking dream state that Washburn concocts is in the swirling majesty of album closer “Carol-Anne”. Sounding both ominous and inviting, the track sends the listener off beautifully, as the album fades away into a gorgeous wall of noise that brings to mind the Poltergeist-referencing album cover. That delicate balance between light and dark is at the heart of Seance School, and is something Washburn and I discussed in our interview, which you can read below.

How personal are the lyrics? Obviously most lyrics are going to be personal for the writer, I’m wondering how much you draw from personal experience, or do you envision characters… or is a mixture of both?

Generally very personal. You filter impressions of the world inwardly and fire it back down onto paper, so even if it’s some sort of made up character, setting, or circumstance- it’s still personal in some way. The subconscious process is the thing, so over a longer period of time, one notion, theme or character will likely bleed into another, and you just let it do that because something about that eclipse feels right. Some of this last album is about death. A lot of important people were passing away around me during that three-year writing period. Some of it is about closely holding people you love that are still here and having imaginary and difficult conversations, and some of it is about looking through different prisms or masks to sympathize with positions in life that might not be your own. A lot of these songs are screwball positive observations against dark backdrops. It’s a flip of say, The Smiths, where you have sad lyrics over joyful sounding music. I love that tension-and-release happening at the same moment, but for me it’s a dark place and joy, love, hope- that’s what’s trying to escape from all of this dark atmosphere.

Tell me about the meaning behind “Disobedient Objects”.

“Disobedient Objects” was an emotional reaction to children getting mortared in what was supposed to be these U.N. safe-zone-protected schools and realizing that too many people were emotionally unable to express anything other than a “that’s just the cost of war, these are Palestinians so they deserve this, or- their people shot rockets off first” or whatever, folks being thoughtless and unfeeling. So there’s anger towards solipsistic, non-empaths in there. My wife was getting bummed out by it also, so it’s kind of a plea to her to keep her head up. In the video I just use random television in general to express the madness and we’re both confronting it. I dunno. It’s a weird, overwhelming time in the world. It all wants to knock the feeling right out of you, so I say focus, and don’t let it. Be it the current Palestinian/Israeli conflict, or all the weird shit about the 2nd Amendment on the very day of The Sandy Hook killings- holy moly. Innocent children were getting killed and hurt. You can’t quantify that as political collateral damage or say “that’s just the way it is”. Fuck that. You have to feel things for what they are to qualify as a human being. I have a five-year-old. She doesn’t know a Democrat from a Republican from a protestant from a catholic. She grasps the basic difference between Skeletor and He-Man, but she doesn’t think Skeletor is all that bad (and he’s not). She just gets love, that’s what she earnestly grasps. This is some of the sorts of things that fuel the writing in Seance School. The tiny voice of love in a sea of darkness.

With writing, it can sometimes be nerve-racking (terrifying) for me to publish pieces I’ve worked my ass off on, because it’s just me out there alone. With a project like Seance School, you’re in the same boat as the whole project is you. Do you experience similar feelings? As nice as the total freedom must be, it has to be taxing on the nerves at times…

There are times when you wake up in the middle of the night during the slog of a long writing/recording cycle and you have no idea what you are doing, saying, or what will come of it. Everything feels alien and detached, and you feel fear for committing to putting something out there. But you just keep going. I like to start things all the time, and I like to eventually finish those things as well, but the process is the whole thing. I do these things because I enjoy the battle of process too much, and it’s only so long before something else steals into my head, disturbs my well-being and I’m trying to knock that thing out as well.

Speaking of you being Seance School, talk for a moment what the project is trying to convey, what Seance School means to you. It’s mantra, if you will. 

There is this European projecting machine in the 18th century called the phantasmagoria, which was a spinning, illuminated projector designed to cast images of ghosts and skeletons and goblins at the walls. I think that’s what Seance School is. It’s me throwing shadows of skeletons against the walls, whimsically. That moody vs. colorful vibe is in everything and anything I do, be it music or film. All of the music videos I’ve directed for other bands or for myself have that mix of feelings (Check out Washburn’s Vimeo page here – Ed.). Is it scary, funny, or kind of both? That’s mostly it. Cause that’s honestly what life feels like. Life doesn’t feel heroic or bitchin’ or beautiful or constantly tragic. To me the world feels both kind of dark and also kind of silly-hilarious. Sometimes it’s peaceful, sweet and still. As far as the music- I consider Seance School to be “outlier rock”. People are either going to see something in it or they aren’t. I like and really respect writers like Chad Clark, Marc Bolan, Caroline Polachek, Tom Vek, Nick Zammuto, Julia Holter, and Eric Avery. You cannot easily identify where any of that music is coming from. I’ve always looked up to the writers in the periphery who twist the ear and do the enigmatic, challenging thing, but are not so obscure that they can’t break your heart or pull folks in.


As a followup: what are some themes on Seance School? Lyrically and musically. With so much going on musically on the record, I’d love to hear how things evolved. What I mean is, did certain songs begin as one thing and then grow into another, or did you have a concrete vision going in and stick to that?

As far as how things arrive and evolve, I wouldn’t say that things are super concrete, but I often do have a line or two, or some imagery or concepts that arrive early, sparking some far-reaching theme and other semi-related ideas that will just sort of glom around and hover there. For this last record, the 1982 film, Poltergeist (I wish I had known that there was going to be a reboot because I would have probably steered clear) became an important cornerstone for some of the imagery and feelings. I had watched it a lot growing up, but it wasn’t until I dissected the screenplay that I began to really admire its poetics. It’s a gorgeously written film. I connected deeply to that feeling of wanting to protect your child against the dark forces of the universe. Sometimes that’s just like, trying to navigate traffic safely as a pedestrian, while walking your daughter to the park. Things become really fragile, and you want to protect constantly. That film became my way of expressing those feelings in lyrical and musical form and it’s all over the record. Static television for a number of reasons as well. There’s this thing about static TV being ongoing visual proof of the Big Bang, and you can just turn on your television to a static channel (I still don’t own an HD TV) and watch the Big Bang radiation working itself out, right in your living room. Real entertainment.

Are there other players on the record? It’s all you, right? That’s very impressive.

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Just myself. All the instruments- drums, guitars, keys and vocals and engineering, mixing. The last record was mastered by Brad Boatright, who mostly masters metal groups, like High on Fire and Wolves in the Throne Room. That sort of thing. He was really nice and pleasant to work with and enthusiastic and gave me some oomph and gnarl that I was wanting in the finish. The next record or two will be different, and I’ll be playing everything on those also, as that material is already recorded. It’s more fierce, uptempo, crazy, hooky, spooky, pretty, challenging. It sounds like disco-funeral-lovesongs sorta mashed with punky dance numbers. Different than the mid-tempo stuff on the self-titled and more in line with music I grew up with and want to freak out with and play live. Just working through it all now and getting closer. Punching it out.

What are you plans for playing live?

There is a band and we are rehearsing now. There is a bit of rebirth and rethinking involved, because everyone is super talented and their ideas and opinions matter to me. It’s pretty exciting to hear these songs come to life and to stand in the middle of it in a room and not just chisel away at a sonic object in my headphones late at night for months, trying to get to the core of it. Chiseling away at something different in this new context. Hopefully Seance School will be live by late spring, we’ll see. If I’m feeling motivated to dive into it maybe there will be synched visual media in addition to the band, because I think it would be fun and appropriate to play with that. Then again, perhaps I’ll just toss a bunch of old Goodwill TV sets onstage and set them all to static. Who knows…

To hear more and purchase Seance School, head over to the band’s bandcamp page.

Photos – Cody Thomas

Words – Donovan Farley