Destruction and Space: An Interview with Heron Oblivion
The heavy psych supergroup (that's half of Comets on Fire, Espers' Meg Baird and guitar wizard Charlie Saufley) makes a beautiful noise, with plenty of space for reflection and experiment.
"We want the guitarists to destroy everything at certain moments. To really get tangled up until they explode," says Ethan Miller, himself a pretty good guitarist but also as the bass player in Heron Oblivion, describing the loud crazy side of his new band.
"The other technique is being really comfortable with moments where you are exposed, where you go from loud to quiet, being able to plow through that steadiness and feeling comfortable when the volume drops out," Meg Baird adds, reflecting on the serene, still, gorgeous intervals that coexist equally on the band's first album, with its frenzied overloads.
Heron Oblivion balances two polar opposites that have defined psychedelia, offsetting stomach-roiling volumes of guitar-driven ecstasy with the beautiful simplicity of folk-derived melody. It does this not as most bands do, with a loud song, then a soft one, but right inside of songs, with dynamic swings that knock you off balance and leave you gasping and clutching whatever's solid and in reach.
Baird and Miller have known each other since just after the millennium, when Baird's band Espers and Miller's band Comets on Fire crossed paths at the Boston Terrastock in 2002. "It seemed like we and Comets and were part of one big exciting thing that was happening," says Baird. "The music felt like it was part of something even larger because of all the different projects and because of how good it all was. There was also the slight exoticism of Comets being a West Coast band, and I was on the East Coast."
When Comets played Philadelphia, they hung out with Espers. When Espers hit Arthur Festival, they spent time with Comets on Fire. "We'd be listening to records, getting beers, having the same general interests as friends, and then the artistic outputs would be completely different," says Miller. "There's something special when artists and friends are highly drawn towards each other as a group by unified interest and yet produce entirely different things. Not regurgitation but re-evaluation of those things in their own music. That's always kind of exciting."
By the 2010's, Comets on Fire was on hiatus and Miller was focusing on Howling Rain. Baird and Sauffley were working on a solo album. And Miller and fellow ex-Comet Noel Harmonson had a regular jam session with rotating guests called Wicked Mace. When Baird and Sauffley turned up in San Francisco, Miller immediately invited them in. "And right off the bat, you know, we were like, are we really going to do four guitars for this jam session?" says Miller.
We pause to consider how obliterating a four-guitar Heron Oblivion might have been.
But no, Miller and Baird switched to bass and drums, respectively. Baird had been playing drums anyway, with punk-noise group Watery Love, but neither she nor Miller considered themselves especially proficient. "We're not super schooled technical players on those instruments, so we play through instinct and will power and through our ideas, not through crazy chops," says Miller. "It brings a certain swagger."
"It's fun to feel more exposed on an instrument," says Baird. "I may not feel like an expert on guitar but I've kind of worked my thing out that I can do. On drums, I feel sort of clumsy and unschooled. I'm just putting my out there in a way that's really freeing."
"It's a triumph of amateurism," Miller puts in.
"You're kind of in a constant discovery mode," Baird adds. "'Oh wow, that's what bass sounds like.' I've been hearing this forever, and now I'm trying to make it."
Did we I mention that she's also singing? "It's not that hard," Baird insists, though not all that convincingly. "It probably would be harder if I played more sophisticated drum parts."
"Meg will tell you a lot of things aren't that hard and they're a lot harder than they seem," Miller interjects. "You shouldn't necessarily trust her when she says, oh it's not that hard to play the guitar like that or it's not hard to sing and play drums at the same time when the entire wall of amps are screaming feedback. Don't worry about it. It's pretty easy." He laughs darkly. "Don't try it at home. It's kind of dangerous."
A Space in the Tangle
Listen to Heron Oblivion and you notice two things. First, and most obviously, an unholy racket of guitar, a sound so dense and deafening that you can hardly stand in its wake. But also, and equally critical, a limpid serenity where the sound breaks to leave room for Baird's clear, clean vocals. Either element would be admirable on its own. Together, they make Heron Oblivion's first album one of 2016's best.
"[Noel and Charlie] really are good into getting into a tangle and giving each space," says Baird. "And that's great for [a] vocalist. I have a lot of fun being able to play off of them. They're also natural arrangers, with a great natural sense of melody and variation where it's needed. That's a lot of what I'm playing off or picking up from them when we're playing together."
"I also love the tangle. It was something I really encouraged when we started going from free jams to songwriting," says Miller. "I didn't want to forget that sound from when we were improvising when those guys were clashing and tangled up and just taking up the entire room."
The craziness, though, comes with profound, attentive listening. It's not just volume for volume's sake. And while the guitars may dominate, they never forget that there are other elements in Heron Oblivion songs. "I think the trick or approach that helps to make that work is that everybody is good and supportive and mindful of what everybody else has to do, throughout the whole song," says Baird. "I feel supported by the whole band in a way that those dynamics are going to work."
"There are a few songs where Meg sings through a lot of guitar feedback and the vocals are sort of buried," says Miller. "But for the most part we don't want to do that ... where we're just burying this very important element. We know we have a loud bombastic element that can work almost anywhere, but let's make sure we showcase the vocals. If you take care of that stuff, you're almost home."
From Jam to Song
Heron Oblivion worked out the basics of its songs through improvisation, then shaped them further in the studio. "Listening back to some practice recordings, like 'Dear Hollows' or 'Rama' or 'Beneath Fields', you can hear us jamming on a verse riff structure for five or eight minutes and then going off into improv and jamming for 20 minutes at the back end," says Miller. "The next week, we'd jam it again, and add to it, a little verse, a bridge, a chord progression. And then once there was enough there, Meg would start singing from behind the drums. That's when we know we're cooking with something. "
Miller adds that Baird got involved at a much earlier stage than many singers, earlier even than he himself does when working on Howling Rain material. "The classic thing is that it's the very last day in the studio and the singer is finally writing the vocals. You only hear what the song is when they go through the last few hours of this massive recording session," he says. "You don't know if you've got something until the end. You've got a cool song with cool parts but it might be nothing.
"I'll get obsessed with a song and the riffs and belabor it, but there's something very magical about hearing Meg's singing on it in the practice space. And you're like, 'Man, that happened right then,' and it's pretty much done. That's just magic."
Writing by Misheard Lyrics
Baird's lyrics aren't improvised, but she has an unusual process for composing them. "When I write melodies I sound them out with fake works, like a glossalia. They're sounds, not real words," she says. "Sometimes words can come out from the sounds I'm making, the vowel and consonant sounds I'd like to hear. So there is an abstract method there that can seem pretty improvised. But I do have to write them out ahead of time to execute them. I can't just improvise verses and choruses."
"But if you were to hear a practice tape or an early version, what Meg is improvising then to get a feel, usually the cadence and the vowels and consonants and the beat of the singing is very highly developed even in that first improv session," Miller adds. "Don't you think Meg, when you go back, it's not altered that much?"
"Not that much," Baird agrees. "I kind of write by misheard lyrics style. What does it sound like I'm saying? That's how a lot of the anchors to the lyrics come. Misheard lyrics."
Despite the improvisatory process, Baird says that her lyrics weave in common threads and images. "It's not super concrete, but I did try to have an overall picture that made sense and would at least be a guiding principal that worked with the music and with the chords," she explains. "I didn't want to be singing anything too personal. I wanted it to sound like us, not Meg Baird."
Count Off and Play
Heron Oblivion has been playing live shows all spring and has an East Coast tour that launched in late May. In breaks between shows, the band's four members have already started working on new material. But unlike some bands, who have to think carefully about how to present recorded material in a live setting, Heron Oblivion finds little difference between studio and stage.
"Everything you hear on the record is the sound of the record is four people playing those songs live in the room," says Miller. "That was a very raw live record that came off sounding in the best way like some of those raw 1970s Crazy Horse records that don't sound underdeveloped but it's definitely something that can be played on stage. We don't have to think about it. We just count off and play."