Odd times and ambient groove
Interview by 5-Track
The musician Andrew Woods lives in Seattle, where he has worked with his brother Adrian Woods (Torgo3000 home-made drums, electronics and loops) in the unusual duo 'neon brown' and in the prog-buttrock-fission trio 'HEenD.' Andrew's groups have always brought the art of audience interaction to a rare conceptual level. His recent bands have presented the audience with marker-boards containing original mad-libs to complete, from which the evening's lyrics are derived, or graphs featuring axes of funky/thirsty or loud/pink on which the audience is invited to draw lines, circles, elephants, or what-have-you, all of which will then be interpreted musically.
For many years, initially with Adrian and then by himself, Andrew oversaw "Neon Brown Presents," a twice-monthly night of improvised music at Mr Spot's Chai House in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. These shows featured an endlessly rotating cast of astonishing talent both unknown and slightly known. Persistent use of home-made instruments, from many-stringed guitar things to unusual percussives, kept the groups from ever sounding run-of-the-mill. Nearly every show was recorded and many of them can be found in various places around the Internet. The series only came to an end when the venue closed its doors.
Currently, Andrew creates solo recordings in his home and on the bus and also leads the Woodland Experimental Groove Orchestra, a difficult-to-categorize improvising performance unit ("all-improv dance-band") that features many Chai House alumni and whose exploits may be tracked at http://ffrreeeellaabb.blogspot.com.
Last and perhaps most important, Andrew's personal energy is among the warmest and most loving I have ever encountered in another musician, perhaps in another human being.
PSF: What's a "hEEnd"?
AW: We never did quite figure it out... but over the years we came up with a whole lot of theories! HeeNd is the name of the jazz-buttrock fission trio that I played with from roughly 1994-2000, and was the group that saw the beginnings of many of the ideas that I'm working with today. The fact that these types of unconventional ideas seemed to arise daily one after the other in a magical parade of creativity – and that the list of serious contributors extended well beyond the three core members – gives the whole period a bit of a mystical flavor for us in retrospect.
In spite of (and certainly partly because of) my mind-bending first year at Evergreen College in Olympia, WA, I had taken the '92-93 year off from school and moved up to Seattle to live with my great friend Terry Parks to take one more shot at seriously trying to break an original band. This was a 3-piece prog thing that gradually became my first serious improv group. I delivered bakery items to coffee houses from 3:45AM 'til around 11AM each morning, sleeping in two short shifts in the basement and rehearsing in the other part of the basement each evening before crashing out for a couple of hours and then starting the whole thing over at about 3:15AM. On weekends, I would go visit my then-girlfriend (now... well, girlfriend still I guess, but as of this spring we've been together for 20 years and have an incredible 16-month old baby girl) down at Evergreen and try to live on her schedule, going to bed at around 3AM and trying to sleep in one shift. By the end of the year, I was so sleep deprived that I would regularly turn down even the most exciting travel offers if they required waking up before 10AM or so.
Also by the end of the year, I had officially given up on trying to "make it big" (at least in the way I had been thinking about it, which probably included videos and stadium shows somehow, the idea now seemed clearly comical), and had decided to head back to school. It was clear that Terry and I would continue to make time to improvise together, but that we wouldn't be playing with our drummer from the prog-group.
During this same summer, my brother Adrian moved back from theater school (voluntarily dropping out of the directing program at Carnegie Mellon in order to create a different focus for his last 2 years of college-theater at Evergreen State College). Adrian and I had always been very close but we had done very little music together. Like me, he had recently discovered Phish and the other jam-bands, but he had also found loads of interesting jazz: '70's-era Herbie Hancock, Steve Coleman, etc.. Like me he had a basic classical music background, but at the time he wasn't playing, just listening and listening and listening.
Everything was pretty loose that summer. We had some amazing two-piece jams in my dad's basement, with Adrian playing bass and me on guitar, both plugged directly into a cassette deck and an old stereo. All improv, all the time!
At the end of the summer, we rented a house together in Olympia and started school at Evergreen. For his birthday, I built Adrian a drum-kit on a folding rack of 2x4's, with laminated plywood drums, bottles full of rice, Pringles cans, cake-pan-cymbals, a cardboard-box for a kick-drum and a two-octave xylophone of copper-pipe. Did I mention that we had decided that Adrian was going to learn to play drums? Terry, who was still working in Seattle, started traveling down to play with us no less than twice a week for at least 4 hours at a stretch. We played in the living room, easily able to maintain a comfortable listening volume with the weak-projection of the percussion-kit. We couldn't stop writing songs, but we were almost deliberately trying to prevent it from turning into something that people would recognize as a band. We never had shows or albums in mind in the beginning.
People would later joke that in those days Adrian only had one drum-fill, but all that listening he'd been doing was definitely paying off. With no chops to show-off he had nothing to prove, so he just played completely responsively right from the start. Always 100% appropriate it seemed, even with his limited palette. And he could lead as well, right from the beginning, frequently moving the sound somewhere new at just the right time. Within 3 or 4 years, his kit had evolved and he could improvise in any time-signature you could name, but he was still the best-listening drummer I'd ever played with.
By this time, Terry and I had been playing together for at least 5 years and had a deep friendship that was built on many things, not least of them a strange synergy in theatrical improv. Terry and I would sometimes use exaggeration and spontaneous role-playing to acknowledge and work through (or sometimes around) little interpersonal conflicts without ignoring them. Basically, a playful way of bringing small but sometimes difficult issues to the surface and making them fun rather than threatening. Purely as entertainment, interacting as ridiculous assumed characters, but also often diving into the harder interpersonal stuff in exaggerated or comical ways that made getting to the truth constantly approachable. I guess it could sound like artful avoidance, but it was so unusually functional, and we were always willing to drop back to sincere dialogue when the need arose. All this was before we were consciously interested in improv, but suddenly it all became extremely relevant to what we were doing in the band. Our particular brand of creative synergy was possibly the original recognizable core of the group's energy. But Adrian's personality, as well as his more formal/experimental theater background, quickly became key as well.
But even when it was purely for entertainment/exploration, the improv process itself revealed various other kinds of truths as well. It wasn't that we would come to any specific realization that you might put into words. In this case, "getting to the truth" was more of a "seeing the ultimate in the particulars" sort of a thing. We'd be concept-or-music-jamming (or both) and we'd just hit upon various strong creative currents where a lot of material would spill out effortlessly and it could seem like we were both leading and following very intently at the same time. I'm sure you've gotten to that place in a great jam (usually after at least an hour of jamming) where the group locks in (or maybe opens-up?) to something collective and it suddenly seems... My usual way of describing it after the fact is that it feels like it's impossible to make any mistakes. It's a really strong and uncanny feeling for me whenever it happens. Later, you might say the choices were brilliant, but in a way it feels like there were no choices required. There's an amazing sense of simultaneous connection and freedom. We were lucky enough to have that happen to some degree or other pretty regularly with hEEnD, but there are two particular times that are coming to mind right now.
The first time was actually during one of those early hazy jams with the prog-trio. During a break in the insanity, Terry and I locked eyes and just started channeling an interesting current (played out on bass and guitar). It probably took less than a minute to completely run its course. We happened to have been video-taping at the time, and were so shocked when we went back to the tape that we decided to transcribe about 30 seconds of it note-for-note. It became the linear intro for the tune "That's How I Want To Be Called." Now I'm thinking of so many other examples, but the other one I was referring to was during one of our very last HEEnd shows, after we had already added our friend Colin on guitar. It was our closing number. Actually, I think we were playing "That's How I Want To Be Called"!! And after the complex composition part, the tune always opened up into a high-energy free-jam (for whatever reason, we found that we regularly had success jamming from two sources: building up from complete silence, or diving off of the sharp bluff of a mind-clearingly difficult composition). It was maybe a 2 minute jam from there to the end of the night, but it was absolutely stuffed with abrupt simultaneous transitions, rising energy hand-offs, and improbably intricate counterpoint. I think the recording ended up on 'Jam of the Week Compilation 2'.
We wrote a few relatively simple, but very weird songs as spring-boards for improvisation. We learned a couple of the most open-ended tunes from the previous prog trio, but then quickly began replacing them with even more complicated, even more unconventionally structured pieces. Within these structures, we would embed intentionally open-ended spaces of various types. After a few months, we began inviting people over (inevitably, somebody would pass around a pipe) playing them our "songs" and just screwing around. Serious screwing around mind you... cosmically, it seemed! I was studying 'Science of Mind' and 'Philosophy' in and out of school. We improvised lyrics, at times joyfully courting philosophical collapse, at others simply riding some ridiculous wave of self-referential comedy.
'Science of Mind,' by the way, was a core-program (a bundle of integrated studies) at The Evergreen State College. At that time, it included cognitive science (another hazy term referring to studies of the processes of human cognition), statistics (to aid in the framing and understanding of experiments), neuroscience, and 'philosophy of mind' and probably a few other things I'm forgetting. In retrospect, I think I was studying all of this mostly because I disagreed with much of the field's assumptions and conclusions. In a nutshell, though I might not have articulated it this way at the time, I disagreed with the assumption that matter is primary and consciousness is some sort of accidental and meaningless cruft that bubbles up from it when processes get to a certain complexity. I was gradually building my own specific take on a model with experience/sensations/awareness/consciousness as both the substance and function of the universe (something that is now being seriously considered in various forms by more and more scientists), but was consistently getting dragged back into various forms of dualism and/or materialism by many of the tools with which I was working. Eventually, after a lot of work and a fair amount of suffering (this was existential stuff to me), I had a pretty huge breakthrough -- which is probably way too much to go into here -- and switched abruptly to studying the technologies and arts of animation and music.
PSF: So nice to hear you mention "serious, cosmic screwing around"! So many people don't seem to understand that intuitively.
AW: Yeah, it seems like there are at least a few pockets of people up here in the city that really get that! Though, I think it gets even better (if harder to find) as you get further away from the larger metropolitan areas where people are so over-stimulated. Maybe it's not so much "getting it" in this case, but just having some energy left to "do it." Olympia was great for HEEnd, though maybe that's the College environment to some extent. But Anacortes (another small town up near the islands in northwestern Washington) was fantastic for 'neon brown'! And I couldn't help noticing that our most interactive stops on our West Coast tour were all in smaller towns. It was like the people in the cities expected to sit back and be entertained (and they were often very appreciative), but in the smaller towns, people still knew they were responsible for their own entertainment, which ultimately opens the possibility of discovering serious, cosmic screwing around!
I eventually played some recordings for my friend Scott, and he started coming to some of our "rehearsals," sometimes with a couple of other guys that I knew from school. It was more fun if we involved them, so we would have them give us directions as we wrote our songs. Or we would turn half of the rehearsal into a musical game-show where the Devil would force us to complete musical challenges (described as physical challenges) in order to advance to the next level. We started hosting musical-themed house-parties right there at our rehearsal house, and then later at summer picnics, at our friend Braxton's place. An extended family of collaborators of various closenesses to the group (theater people, music people, old friends from high-school, friends of friends from Evergreen) would arrive and begin adding their own spice to the stew.
For at least the first couple of these shows, we still didn't have a real band name. We had named the events themselves first: "Juggler's Challenge," selected by one of our key conspirators as an homage to the flying Karamazov brothers. The Karamazov brothers are a juggling troupe who did a regular bit where they would juggle any three objects brought by the audience. That was the sort of thing that we aspired to. We saw much of what we did as concept-juggling, in a music format. How many constraints/dimensions-of-input could you integrate at once before they all just came tumbling down. To our great amazement and glee, we quickly found that the greater the risk, the bigger the payoff, even when the pins all came tumbling down. As with other improv-theater, we followed the one rule of saying yes to everything.
We developed a small set of show-wrappers. For instance, battle-of-the-bands shows, where the audience would tell us band names and member-backgrounds for various imaginary 3-piece bands, which we would then have to impersonate as we improvised their hit song. Or a restaurant-themed show where the audience ordered songs from a menu which framed our entire set of songs and concepts for the evening as if they were dishes. Substitution-options were presented for most entrees. But generally, these were all just ways of trying to get more input from the listeners. Shows might include anything from "do one about brushing your teeth!" to friendly arguments between a guy who was tripping and a guy who was eating an entire raw onion about whether we should be intentionally trying to make more "mistakes." We had mad-lib songs, where we could do tight 3-part harmonies that incorporated the audience-provided words. At about a third of our performances, we would make a big show of "firing" Terry, bringing up a random person from the audience to play bass for about 5 minutes while he watched forlornly from just outside the window. We wrote a short instrumental of just enough building complexity that it was difficult to think about anything else by the time you were playing the last passages. When the final note would drop, we would point to a person in the audience – we would pick someone from the audience at the beginning of the song and ask them to think of a question while we played – and they would ask us a question which we would immediately try to answer with a vocal jam. We even adapted the Karamazovs' idea and wrote a tune with an improvised center-piece that required us to play whatever 3 objects the audience gave us.
Anyway, the band name happened at one of the early house shows. Unrelated to anything else we had planned, somebody had brought a pile of "The End" bumper stickers (promo for the popular Seattle radio station "The End"- they'd probably grabbed them from a local record store). People were cutting them up and recombining them in various ways. At some point, between songs, somebody held a nearly complete one up, with just the "T" hacked off and said, "you guys should call yourselves 'he End'"- I think I said "what about HEENd?," and it just stuck. We spent way too much time explaining our name to people after shows, but we always had easily available marketing materials. And once you'd seen a 'heEnd' sticker, every 'The End' sticker or poster you saw became a hEEnd sticker slightly deformed by an extra letter. It was like a benevolent virus! The random capitalization – which we took to trying to change each time we'd write it – came from the seemingly random capitalization of that original sticker.
Over time, we began to play at the school, small bars in downtown Olympia, and even in Seattle, where we found a new audience as the supporting band for poetry-slams at the Pioneer Square Juice & Java. About a year later, we were booked to co-MC and judge a poetry contest, which we nearly ruined by using a rating system that included high scores like "absolute zero" (clearly we had an uneasy relationship with the notion of judging poetry). Recordings of the band were all from live shows or rehearsals.
Later we moved to Seattle, started playing most of our shows at The Queen Anne Coffee House, recorded a full-length "studio" CD, played at North by Northwest in Portland (1998), and South by Southwest (1999), organized an amazing week-long tour down to San Francisco and back (where Adrian legendarily parallel parked a giant SUV with a trailer on it in the only two neighboring spots that we found in rush-hour traffic), and even added a 4th member briefly before disbanding abruptly in the summer of 2000.
I think Terry was already anticipating going back to school and perhaps was starting to feel like the whole thing was getting too serious for him, while Adrian and I had really caught the touring bug during that West-coast run and were eager to play out of town more regularly. Regardless, I think it's safe to say that it's an experience that we all look back on with incredible fondness.
See Part II of the Andrew Woods interview
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