A few years ago, college friends and musical collaborators Maxwell Allison and Doug Kaplan got bored and decided to start a band. Or, well, another band. The Chicago residents had spent a few years making mathy instrumentals in the rock band the Earth Is a Man, but they decided they needed to do something with a little less shape and structure. They'd played bass and guitar in bands for years, and it had become time for something different. So they receded into abstraction.
A Craigslist ad seeking a singer who could loop his or her own voice and play synthesizers failed to pan out—"The only person who responded was like, 'I play Tori Amos covers,'" Kaplan remembers. But then they met Natalie Chami, a classically trained singer and fellow zoner who also records as TALsounds, through a friend. The connection was instant. After improvising together a handful of times across a handful of loopers, synths, and more obscure noisemakers, they started playing shows, then released their first collection of cosmic recordings, Is the Food Your Family Eats Slowly, on Kaplan and Allison's own Hausu Mountain label.
The beginnings of the band may seem haphazard, but even from the band's infancy, there's been a glorious harmony to their three instrumental voices that allows their improvisation to be nearly invisible. These aren't long, drifting depictions of space, but purposeful journeys, every synthesizer note utilized for its kinetic potential, every bass drone imbued with gravity and force. This is interstellar travel from the driver's seat, not just a lazy peek into a viewmaster.
And Good Willsmith has only gotten better with time. Nearly four years after those intial emissions, the trio is poised to release Things Our Bodies Used to Have; with it's dizzying vocal loops and Grateful Dead-gone-sci-fi guitar exercises, their most intimately plotted and deliriously propulsive release to date. On a recent Skype call, they talk about it in the same exploratory terms they've used to describe past recordings, referring to its jazz-indebted origins and their increasing understanding of "ebb and flow." Mostly, though, you get the sense that Things Our Bodies Used to Have exists because of closeness which which the three of them operate as a unit. It's basic chemistry: put the right three elements together and they react—and on the other side is something beautiful. Read below for a discussion of their music's strange magnetism and an exclusive stream of Things Our Bodies Used to Have in advance of its release on February 19th via Umor Rex.
THUMP: You're all heavily involved in other musical projects. What makes something improvisational and ambient like Good Willsmith so vital for you?
Natalie Chami: Obviously in my solo music, I'm creating every layer or every texture, so it's it's hard to feel energized. It's just my one reaction, versus [working with Doug and Max].
Doug Kaplan: There's a lot more of listening to each other—what we're playing and the dynamic and the level of texture. We enter into locked states where we have this symbiosis in the tones. I've never gotten into [that] with other people.
Chami: Sometimes I listen to recordings and I don't know who's who, which I love.
Maxwell Allison: I would add, I really like having to compromise with each another and make our ideas work together. When I'm making solo music, I go on the most insane ideas, and just do wild shit that only I would find entertaining. Good Willsmith is more of a democracy.
The band started as an idea to do something less structured. When did you know that it was really going to work?
Allison: The first show we played.
Kaplan: Yeah, pretty much initially. Well, maybe it's a different answer for Natalie.
Chami: I think it's different. I don't remember practicing a lot [before the first show]. I remember one practice, really. With Aaron, and that's it.
Allison: We recorded that, right? So the aforementioned dude Aaron who initially introduced us to each other—his house was the location of the first show. It was a party at his house. He hosts these really amazing all-night parties that vary from more techno-oriented nights to more instrumental stuff, so we were a part of this bill with our friends.
Kaplan: It was a party until like 8 in the morning.
Allison: We set up all our stuff in the corner of the living room, and it was all our synths and all our tables and then...Natalie was going through a rough patch.
Chami: I was crying in a room, and they started playing without me, actually. I was like, "I don't know if I can do this." Then I ran out and eventually started playing with them. Then I was like, "Oh, these are my buds for sure." I was going through a tough time and we connected; it was fun.
Allison: I feel like at the end of our first tour, we knew we would fit together.
Chami: I remember thinking it was a big deal—that I want to do this my whole life.
Allison: This was in July 2012. So we went on tour four months after we started. And that's when we definitely became like a family, the band fam.
So wait, you released your very first practice?
Allison: We put it on the internet like total noobs. Like, "Check it out, guys!"
Kaplan: And then our first tape, Is the Food Your Family Eats Slowly—that was maybe the seventh or eighth time we ever played together. That was released because we were going on tour.
Chami: We needed merch!
Kaplan: I should probably take those down. We wanted to have something to show people immediately. Like, "This is the crazy stuff you can bring to your house" Maybe. It's hard to think about what my intentions were several years ago.
All of your material has been improvised so far. What's the appeal of that?
Kaplan: At the beginning, we did it more, there was way less structure than there is now. We're definitely not a free improv band. There are portions where we can play whatever we want, but for these last three albums, every single passage has been mapped out to some degree. And we practice the transitions together before we bring them out on the road.
Allison: The levels of mapping are very different between tracks. There could be a track where we actually talk about playing new material—playing new chords, or putting a melody together—but for the most part, we'll talk about what instrument is going to appear in that section, or what texture or vibe will be there.
Can you imagine ever working on something not improvisational?
Allison: We're now working on material that has very much more rehearsed vibe, I would say.
Kaplan: We like things that are loose. We want to be able to play the same pieces and have them come out in very different ways. That's what keeps it exciting for me. Trying to repeat things in exact ways is...
Chami: Very hard.
Kaplan: It's against your emotions, in a way. If you can have [a piece] feel the way that you feel on a given day, that's a lot more powerful than if you're trying to make it be the exact way [you felt] when you wrote it.
Chami: All classical music is rehearsed and done a million times. But it's annoying—for me and I'm sure for you guys—to have to be in character for the piece, versus reacting to the sound environment and your emotions. That's why I like improv.
What did you want to do with Things Our Bodies Used to Have that you'd never done before?
Chami: The soloing.
Allison: We approached it in a very loose fashion after [using] a jazz structure for the A-side—having a head and then solo passages. Obviously, we needed to manifest it in a very different form from a Coltrane piece or something, but we wanted to at least test this idea of soloing voices. It's like one person bleeding through in a certain segment, and then having each segment compiled into a flipbook of different people and different vibes.
Kaplan: We also wanted to have more drastic changes, especially on the A-side: going from a little ballad to total skronky hell to psychedelia. We wanted to be less fluid in the way that the music unfolds.
By the time a record comes out, have you already exhausted all the improvisational possibilities of a piece?
Allison: No, we haven't exhausted the possibilities. But maybe we get tired of it. [Laughs]
Kaplan: We definitely get sick of it, but last week we practiced and we played a piece from the forthcoming album for the first time in maybe a year. And it was totally different.
Allison: And very fun.