Dave Heumann, leader of the best doom-folk band in the world, talks to Ian Maleney about passion, professionalism and playing music that works outside your scene.
Baltimore, MD, is hope to a lot of bands, from Dan Deacon’s hyperactive dayglo fuzz to Beach House’s dream pop, but none of them sound quite like Arbouretum, a band that could no doubt lay claim to being the best doom-folk band in the world right now. Dave Heumann has led the group through various line-up changes since 2002 and they’ve spent the past decade mixing the heft of classic Sabbath and the scope of 70s psychedelia with a deep appreciation for American folk music tradition. On their latest album, Coming Out Of The Fog, the group have retreated from the cosmic fringe jams explored on earlier albums and refined every element to create their most detailed and rich collection to date. Goddamn heavy and even more beautiful, Coming Out Of The Fog is a friendly behemoth.
Why did you decide to make Coming Out Of The Fog? What were the ideas and impulses that were swilling around in your mind as you began to make it and how did they develop through the process? The first song was the title track itself. I was waking up and had this melody in my head, along with the words, “coming out of the fog“. I had a girlfriend over at the time that I didn’t want to wake, so I went into the bathroom with my acoustic and recorded it on my phone. My friend Walker, who went on to co-produce the record, helped out later with the arrangement. The rest of it happened over time, in bits and pieces. ‘The Long Night‘ and ‘World Split Open‘ both started as small ideas that grew and grew, and ‘The Promise‘ just started with a little bit of melody and then was put together collectively at band practice. Then there was a point in time where we were booked to record in two weeks but didn’t have a full album’s worth of material, and everyone was pretty stressed out about it. So we pushed the whole thing back a month, and during that time there was an evening where I had all this creative energy and I came up with 6 or 7 song ideas that I recorded onto my phone. ‘Renouncer‘ and ‘All at Once, the Turning Weather‘ came out of that night’s ideas.
How do you think you, as people and artists, changed in making the album? What did you learn from it that you didn’t know before? I think the whole process encouraged us all to be more open-minded than we perhaps were coming into it. For my part, I had to allow myself to let go more than I had on previous albums, though that was by design. We had invited Walker Teret to co-produce, to be a “band coach”, if you will, and for me that meant placing a lot of trust in his ideas and insights. I didn’t really get fired up in the same way that I got when we made The Gathering, where Matt Boynton and I would spend hours working on synthesizer tones and I would get this amphetamine-like high from that part of the process, but then, maybe it doesn’t need to feel that way to have it end up being good.
One aspect of it that I felt was really helpful was that by giving up a certain amount of control and placing it in the hands of Walker and also Steve Wright, I felt a lot less pressure to be specific with communicating ideas for parts to the other band members. This was definitely helpful in having the whole endeavor feel like a team effort, and just generally I’d rather not tell anyone what I think they should be doing unless it feels really urgent to do so. I think we all learned a lot about how to best work together over the course of making this record. A lot of it had to do with breaking out of our personal comfort zones and patterns of interaction, which can happen if you have the right people guiding the process.
How did the recording process differ with Coming Out…? I read that it was recorded to tape? Did that medium influence the way you approached it? Yes, well the pre-production part basically involved us making recordings at rehearsal and then sending them over to Steve. He had heard our other records and had a general idea of where we were coming from aesthetically, but didn’t know us all that well, except for Matt [Pierce], whom he’d worked with before in other projects. So this allowed him to get ideas regarding how he wanted to mic things, what kinds of effects to use on the vocals, etc., before we even set up in the studio. I’d like to clarify that the music was initially recorded digitally in Pro Tools, but once we had a mix together, Steve set up a tape reel and bounced the entire thing onto it and then recorded the output from that. It’s a hard thing to pin down the change in sound quality, but it was a striking difference in terms of how much more inviting the sound was, and how much perceived depth was gained by doing this.
You probably get asked about your literary influences in every interview you do but I wanted to ask whether you think it is important to create music as part of a wider artistic idea? Like, it seems the world of popular music (alternative as it may be) is increasingly cut off from literature, visual art and the wider sense of art in general. It has its own rules and reference points. Does engaging with the literature you use help to re-situate your music within a broader set of cultural influences and ideas? Do you think this is something lacking in modern music, of any kind? I don’t think it’s important to have the music reflect wider artistic ideas necessarily, though sometimes it should engage the listener on levels other than what is overt and right in front of their ears, if that makes sense. This can happen in a lot of different ways, and for me it’s sometimes helped the lyrics specifically to have outside reference points that come from a book or a concept. This is mainly just a way of getting creative juices flowing, by having an external starting point.
What I’m not so interested in is music that only references other music, stuff that can only be recognized as being “good” if you’re familiar with this band or that other band that had came out 5, 20, or 40 years ago, and follows a clear linear progression based on, or in reaction to, those ideas. You can tell pretty easily if this is the case by playing in front of people who don’t have these reference points. This past summer we played this show that was coordinated by the Baltimore City government, and it was in a weird part of downtown at a time of day that didn’t make sense for a lot of our friends to come because it was just so outside of the usual gig situation. Well there were 4 or 5 very homeless-looking people that just happened to be in the area, and they were right up front dancing the whole time, along with some not at all homeless-looking people that probably worked in the nearby offices or something, who also were people we would never really meet ordinarily. That’s when you know you’re doing something right, when you can take the music outside the normal scene that has a shared understanding of a specific cultural niche, and play it for people who are unaware of any of that. Some more conceptual bands wouldn’t have stood a chance in that situation.
Kind of related to the above, how do you think your music engages with real life? By which I mean, how do you think it becomes about more than aesthetics and becomes something that people take with them from day to day? What kind of emotional experience do you imagine people having or entering into while listening to your music? What is its ideal situation? All I can go by personally is how a given song will engage with my own life. They all need to do that. I can never commit to an idea until it’s been living inside my head for a while – while I’m driving, when I’m thinking of someone that occupies a position of importance to me, or even while thinking about how I’m going to pay a bill or something as mundane as that. I figure if a song won’t hold up enough to be my soundtrack for a while, it won’t ever work as anyone else’s. So I need to sort of trust that a song will translate to other people in similar ways as it does for me. I may be a bit off-center, but I trust that I’m not so weird that listeners aren’t going to find any common ground with my ideas.
Really when you break everything down, writing music is about encoding emotional language in a way that can be unpacked and experienced by someone else, and it’s such an involved, mysterious process that it’s nothing short of being magical. Like why does one melody make us feel euphoric and another very similar one come off like it’s trying too hard, causing us to quickly lose interest? What is this essence inside of an idea, that we can feel but never quite put our finger on?
How does your music change or develop in a live environment? Are there aspects of live performance that are particularly important to you and is what you aim for on stage different now than it was when you started? The songs evolve over time for sure. A lot of times we’re still basically learning them when we record them, and over time they will suggest within themselves other ways that they can be played. This is especially the case with songs that we still play that were recorded a couple albums back. Nothing that we still play from Rites of Uncovering, for example, has the same arrangement as it did back then. The songs just sort of mutate more and more the further they get from their birthplace. In some ways that’s so that we can keep it interesting for ourselves, but in doing so we need to make sure it’s still engaging for everyone else.
When Arbouretum first started touring back in 2005 or so, we’d do these little things to keep ourselves entertained – we’d do something where every song on a given night would end with an intentional sour note, or hitting a chord a half step south of the real last chord of the song, just for laughs. Those kinds of antics were lot of fun at the time, but after a while it became apparent that that approach really wasn’t going to cut it in terms of being genuinely expressive and giving people an experience that had a lot of depth to it. It’s become more and more important to really connect to the audience by reaching out more. Ultimately this could be considered a sense of professionalism. This has nothing to do with being “tight” and not making mistakes, it has to do with believing in our music and trying to best share the feeling we have for it with the people who are there to hear us. They can tell when it’s real and when it’s not, and they’re there for the same reasons we are, just watching from a different vantage point.
Arbouretum play DeBarra’s in Clonakilty on Saturday 23rd February, Whelan’s on Sunday 24th and the Crane Lane Theatre in Cork on Monday 25th.