Disclaimer: I have not heard Good Willsmith live, and it’s a shame, because it’s clear recordings do not do them justice. The tracks on “The Honeymoon Workbook” are profoundly visible—painterly even. You’re underwater but somehow beneath a canning factory, and all you can hear of the heavy machinery is muffled pings. Then you are on a desert island, or, even further away, on your own planet. That would make sense as the digital windsshhhhhhhhpppffffsshhhfffppp around you. Someone is twisting the knobs on your space ship and transmissions are intermittently coming through, here a gospel sermon, here a TV commercial, here a phone call… Now you discover an old-school arcade, or what you would imagine the ghostly sounds to be in an arcade that’s all overgrown once the electricity’s gone out and there’s no water anymore and you’re feeling your way around the machines in the pitch dark for a clue, trying to not let the darkness swallow you up.
—Sofia Leiby, Guest Editor of the Week
Good Willsmith processes guitars, synths, found physical media, and voices through multi-track looping hardware and chains of electronics. The trio incorporates elements of ambient, drone, noise, kosmische, minimalist, metal and Indian classical musics into long-form structured improvisations that overflow with volume and texture. Doug, Max, and Natalie live in Chicago.
If you had to explain your music to a stranger, what would you say? We face this problem all the time—it’s not easy. If the person seems relatively zone-oriented, we can normally get away with saying that we play “drone/noise improv with synthesizers” and leave it at that. If we’re explaining it to one of our aunts or an older co-worker or whatever, we go with something like “spacey abstract music, kind of like New Age…like…music you’d hear in a movie,” omitting the fact that our music could very well terrify them. In situations where we know the people asking have no frame of reference at all, like the waitstaff at the Cracker Barrel, Doug tells them that we’re the Black Keys.
How has your music developed within the past year? We’re working at branching out into new sound sources, or refining our old ones—Natalie is using the Korg MS20, Max is using his Electribe synth/drum machine, and Doug is playing more guitar (all in addition to the usual synths and electronics we’ve used since the beginning). We try to mine all of our gear for as many different sounds and textures as we can—so each new addition to our rigs causes major changes in our sound. We’re also working at incorporating more overtly composed sections into our improvised work, or structuring sessions in a way that more directly identifies the band member in the lead capacity and the others in the support capacity. One of our newest pieces, for example, begins and ends with a passage that operates much like a head in jazz, and each of us has a section designated as our solo. Whatever structures we develop while at home always evolve and grow a lot when we’re on tour, playing every night, so we’ll see how these ideas crystallize.
What is your ideal recording/studio situation? We’ve recorded all of our albums live in the basement studio of our home, Randall, in which Doug and Max live. Doug is the engineer and handles all of the mixing. The basement setting is ideal for a few reasons: maximum comfort, no outsiders getting in the way of our improv, a nice homey sound, and full control over all recording parameters. If we had a drummer, we’d have to record elsewhere, but we’re not looking to record at a studio any time soon—though of course there’s something to be said for having an outside perspective on the engineering and post-production side of things.
What kinds of music/what musicians are influencing your work right now? The drone and repetition compositions of legends like Terry Riley, Pandit Pran Nath, Fripp & Eno, and more recently crowned gods like Sunn O))) and Earth still continue to guide our tonal sensibilities and our focus on meditative atmospheres.
Natalie channels the likes of Björk, Sade, and Aaliyah in terms of front-woman confidence/dominance, while tending to orbit in an emotionally rich, bittersweet harmonic territory similar to Aphex Twin’s ambient works. She also has been exploring the incorporation of noise and atypical instrumentation into our sessions a la Xiu Xiu’s damaged pop. Doug has been digging deeper into the Grateful Dead than ever before, and draws inspiration from their eternal reservoir of leads and melodies, along with their interplay as a unit. Max is on a strict Sun Ra regimen at the moment, with enough material out there to pretty much never stop.
We worship The Residents and derive inspiration from them on a daily basis, in terms of both musical unpredictability and general life practices. Lifer noise units like Wolf Eyes and Hair Police set the bar high for the maxed-out potential of unhinged improv vs. cohesive group performance. We’ve always loved the more exploratory strains of jazz, like Miles Davis’s fusion era, Alice Coltrane, the aforementioned Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, and more. The influence of all these artists doesn’t necessarily manifest in the exact tones and instruments we use, but rather in the ideas that shape our sessions and the spirit with which we approach improv.
Can you share one of the best or worst reactions you have gotten as a result of your music? We played a show in Arcata, CA in summer 2012, deep within what they call the Emerald Triangle in Humboldt County. The night ranks among some of our haziest, most bizarre evenings on tour ever. We played in a garage/barn behind a house venue called Mex N Wow, with some actual chickens in attendance, plus many cats, and one of our buds we made there told us he fell into an overwhelming reverie flashback during our set. He saw a vivid scene from his own childhood, in which he met another boy on the beach and they built a sandcastle together. He described it as a post-lingual event, where they were communicating with gestures and “raw emotions,” or falling into long silences—because the other boy only spoke Spanish, and he only spoke English. He said that he had entirely forgotten about that day. So, yeah: unearthing buried memories of primal childhood events, definitely a great reaction.
Any upcoming shows or tours we should know about? We’re currently on an east coast tour with one of our best friends, Mike Sugarman, who performs music under the name Sugarm. We’re linking up on bills with tons of friends’ projects, and some musicians we love but haven’t spent much time with in person. Here are the remaining dates:
8-4: Richmond, VA @ The Shop
8-5: Asheville, NC – @ Venue TBA
8-6: Washington, DC @ Union Arts DC w/ Insect Factory, Radiator Greys
8-7: Baltimore, MD @ The Bank
8-10: Millstone, WV @ Voice of the Valley Festival w/ too many incredible acts to list
Are there any music scenes in other cities that you’re excited about? We’re continually blown away by the underground noise/experimental music coming out of Ohio – especially Cleveland, Oberlin, Kent, and Dayton. Aaron Dilloway and his Hanson Records set the template for how an independent label and underground musicians in general should operate, and everything he puts out melts our minds. We’re obsessed with Kent, OH’s deepest zoners: the noise/improv duo Moth Cock. They’ve become good buds, and we’ve released some of their music on our own label—but every set we see them play continues to confound and amaze us. We love Orange Milk Records, run by Keith Rankin and Seth Graham, based out of Dayton (and sometimes Brooklyn)—each tape or LP they release raises the bar in terms of album art and kaleidoscopic, experimental electronic music. Additional shouts out to: John Elliott (as of recently an Ohio ex-pat), Witchbeam, Watchword, Tiger Village, Jeremy Bible, Rubber City Noise, so many more.
Some of our closest buds, especially Natalie’s collaborators past and present, live in LA , and have established a deep underground scene with collectives like The Current Sea and Screaming Claws’ Prism Pipe, spearheaded by Brian Griffith (AKA Greyghost) and Sarah Zucker (AKA Zara Ruckus). LA is crammed with incredible musicians that we’ve worked and made friends with, like Derek Rogers and Kevin Greenspon, who continue to set amazing examples of underground collaboration with their expanding catalogs and labels.
Thanks to Mike Sugarman’s presence in Brooklyn, and our
occasional visits to New York on tour, we’ve come to love so many BK-based acts, all of which vary vastly in aesthetics while sharing
a focus on mind-altering zones: Grasshopper, Jerry Paper,
Mr. Matthews, Guardian Alien, Eartheater, Andy Boay (and Tonstartssbandht), to name a few. In terms of the safety of our physical bodies and lily-white innocent souls, we tend to dread actually going to New York, but once we’re inside a venue with any of the many acts we love, or hanging out with close friends before/after the show, it might as well be heaven. Infinite shouts out to Clifford Morrissey, aka C-Monster, for holding it down always.
What do you do when you’re not working on music? Max: I work at Northwestern University as a research assistant to professors of art history, spanish, religious studies, and anthropology. I run Hausu Mountain with Doug, study japanese, read, hang out with my girlfriend / buds.
Doug: Work at Thrill Jockey, run Hausu Mountain with Max, spend time with my family, think about Dr. Ron’s abs, laugh with Max!
Natalie: I teach choir, music technology, integrated arts, and voice at Chicago High School for the Arts. I jump rope, garden, look at my cat Squid, read tarot, and eat out…a lot, and enjoy silence, purposefully not listening to music since I’m surrounded by it constantly.
If you had one wish what would it be? Max: To speak Japanese well enough to live in Japan some day.
Doug: To jam with Jerry and Trey and then eat pizza!!
Natalie: That’s not how wishes work.
What are you currently watching on Netflix/what’s on your Netflix queue? Max: Lots of anime. I just finished FMA: Brotherhood and Kill La Kill (both excellent). Also anything by Wong Kar Wai, bizarre documentaries, heavy Latin American drama.
Doug: I recently finished Star Trek: TNG and am starting to branch out into the other Star Trek realms. Also: tons of horror movies, always.
Natalie: I don’t have Netflix and know very little about TV, but I’m excited to stream the new Sailor Moon!