Music by VICE

Good Willsmith Members' New Solo Tapes Are a Testament to the Joyous Complexity of Friendship

Longtime buds Mukqs, TALsounds, and MrDougDoug return with three cassettes that highlight their unity and diversity at the same time.

by Colin Joyce
Oct 13 2016, 6:40pm

Photo by Ashley Ayarza

The zoned-in works of the Chicago experimental trio Good Willsmith have always been most compelling for the tension between the creative voices of its three members. Since 2012, longtime pals Max Allison, Natalie Chami, and Doug Kaplan have come together Cerberus-like to wrangle blissful noise clouds, disconcerting static, and jazz-inspired compositional contortions out of a beautiful mess of loop pedals, synthesizers, guitars, and assorted other electronics. But for all the seamless blending between their component parts, there's always a sense that there's multiple voices fighting to the forefront of each piece, a playful sort of one-upmanship that drives their ascendant pieces toward the heavens.

Not coincidentally, each of the bands members has also issued a torrent of solo works in the time that they've been a band, following those distinct voices into their weirdest and wooliest corners. Allison makes disorienting electronic miniatures under the name Mukqs, Chami makes cannibinoid ambient music as TALsounds, and Kaplan aims for absurdism as MrDougDoug, and today all three members are releasing new solo tapes as part of a so-called "family batch" on Hausu Mountain, the label that Kaplan and Allison run together.

The releases are as wonderfully diverse as their projects have been traditionally. Mukqs' Walkthrough is a collection of fuzzy pieces that play like psychedelic memories of video game soundtracks. TALsounds' Lifter + Lighter is a vibrant collection of ambient compositions that veer closer toward pop songs than ever before, but still remain wonderfully dazed. MrDougDoug SOS Forks AI REM is a hallucinogenic technicolor barrage of rapid-fire electronics that were composed of manipulated MIDI files found littered throughout the internet's digital wastelands. There's very little connective tissue between the three, save for a general affinity for the outer zones of electronic music, but that's the beauty of this batch of tapes when you take them as a whole. It's a demonstration of the joyous complexity of creative friendships, that each of them could dive wholeheartedly into such distinctive sounds and still raise their voices in unison whenever Good Willsmith convenes.

The tapes are all out now on Hausu Mountain, but THUMP caught up with Chami, Allison, and Kaplan earlier this week so that they could each pick their favorite songs off of each others new releases and talk about them in detail, an exercise, in part, of highlighting what draws such disparate creators to one another. Listen to Mukqs "Fisherman's Edit," TALsounds "I Am Why," and MrDougDoug's three-part suite of "Potcan St. 342 > Oppositioner 666 > Tetra-Cobalt Keg 502," below, alongside their commentary.

Mukqs, "Fisherman's Edit"

Natalie Chami: Pulsating full spectrum overtone drone, the spacey, minimal kind, not the overbearing body blasting drone, is what introduces Mukqs' final track "Fisherman's Edit." The interlude quickly transforms into sparkly ambient noise. The glittery tape background parts fade in and out. It's shiny, geometrically fluttering everywhere, floating through space in the background, fading in and out, making room for what I imagine as Max's slowed-down Bach-prelude lullaby. [There's] background accompaniment counterpoint then finally the tenor line enters with sharp attacks and full roundedness to its voice. Long releases allow the line to float off into the dreamy waiting room of our 8-bit/HD globe. Max's choice of crisp and warm bubbly voices composed on the Electribe allow the melodic lines to sit perfectly together; they each hold enough tonal contrast to exist independently, yet allow the listener to choose to hear the compound counterpoint as a whole and just let the five lines exist harmoniously.

I'm kind of obsessed with this image of Max playing these peaceful melodies to himself, layering one precisely over the next, thinking of music both horizontally (melodically) and vertically (harmonically) as we would when writing out counterpoint compositions on staff paper. Though I know it comes from a place without any deep classical music theory haunting his mind. Bringing such Bach-like ideas into the experimental world unconsciously rules and I'm fascinated by it. "Fisherman's Edit" is Max's 2016 version of baroque, while holding on to our current idea of retro timbres of the 1990's. We're hitting full cycle music here—it's all connected, we're still living the same music lives. Split image of Max and Bach hovered over a table making their compositional lives our momentary realities.

MrDougDoug, "Potcan St. 342 > Oppositioner 666 > Tetra-Cobalt Keg 502"

Max Allison: Doug plucked the original files that he edited into the songs on SOS Forks AI Rem from a huge archive of old karaoke-style MIDI tunes, but his versions have an insane internal logic and a palette of hellish tones that are all his own. I was around when he was re-tracking and programming a lot of these jams in Logic, so I have a good grip on what the source material for each song is, but I imagine it's tough to figure it out just from the way they sound (though the track names are clues).

With the tempos often above 300 BPM, each track blasts into your face with the compressed mania of a ringtone, and the structure of the original composition speeds by with the intensity of a knotty prog song, turning on a dime through verses and choruses and little bridges that blur into each other seconds apart. His warped programmed voices play out as the shell of a band, more or less, with bass bursts and lead melodies intact, albeit at warp speed, and with drums cranked fast enough to resemble black-metal blastbeats. It is pure Doug music, in that it's cobbled together from so many influences and sources, from different decades and through the filters of different musical processes, yet it is made so more complex and entertaining after he spends some time with it in the bizarro fun-time laboratory of his mind.

I've listened to this album so many times, but for some reason I often come back to "Potcan St. 342" on its own for a single serving. Maybe it's just a thrill to hear RHCP at 342 BPM - Doug's version transforms the generic Peps harmonies into something more interesting and chaotic, with the MIDI Flea bass rocketing all over the place more like a Tony Levin Chapman Stick jam, and each chord progression resolving pleasantly in like 5 seconds. "Oppositioner 666" takes "Stairway to Heaven" and reduces it to a bit-crushed miniature cloud of noise that sounds like it's playing from busted iPhone speaker holes, but you can still follow the original track's structure, kinda—the chromatic intro line, the guitar solo blasted into a quivering noise lead, and the huge drum fills at the end that melt into one like gross mush riff. 666 BPM is twisted. "Tetra-Cobalt Keg 502" anagrams out to "Get Back, Loretta" and the track changes Paul McCartney's lead vocals into some kind of evil babbling noise formant, while the organ line slams on and on. So much for your brain to snack on. WTF, Doug?

TALsounds, "I Am Why"

Doug Kaplan: TALsounds' live process allows listeners to hear her looped constructions unfold in real time. TAL consistently adds more layers to the mix, building her pieces from the ground up. I chose to focus on "I Am Why" because its non-linear nature provides a new innovation in her practice.

When I consider TAL's closest contemporaries, Dustin Wong is the first artist that comes to mind. In the vast majority of Natalie and Dustin's work, we clearly hear the live fabrication of a piece as each element is recorded, repeated, and added upon. The pieces start with relatively few voices and end with many more. Each new voice both compliments and subverts the previous one.

The fundamental static component in "I Am Why" is a highly detailed, glitched-out vocal loop—made using the looper's unpredictable "punch-in" mode. A simple 4/4 pulse is quickly introduced, giving the track the feeling of walking around a future city. One thing that separates this track from her other pieces is that there are no synthesizers. Other than the beat, "I Am Why" is all vocals, making it an outlier in Natalie's catalog.

"I Am Why" eschews Natalie's tendency to present her songs in the (for lack of a better word) Wong-ian, long-exposure style. TAL treats the looper like a mixer more than ever before. New voices are introduced and recorded, but instead of allowing them to sit in the mix repeating permanently, Natalie fades them in and out as she continually adds more vocals into the shifting voice-scape.

The total effect is a track that feels even more ambient than her past work. You might think, "No way bro, this glitchy, beat-y world is so not ambient," but please hear me out. The majority of Natalie's pieces are perpetually moving forward as layers stack upon each other and repeat—a which brings attention to the structure of the piece. Removing the measured, stacking element, "I Am Why" remains in a static zone as elements perpetually enter and leave the mix at unpredictable times and in an unpredictable manner. The listener can no longer reliably anticipate when a new element will be added to the mix, rather latching onto the repetition of the glitched vocals and beat—the focus is re-directed from "what is changing" to "what is the same."