Published Mar 25, 2013Doldrums mastermind Airick Woodhead once remarked that his sample-based, electronic music project is "anti-internet music," but don't quote him on it. "I said that?!" he exclaims, taken aback, sitting in Toronto concert venue the Great Hall. "I don't think so! Maybe. I say a lot of shit," he posits. "Maybe I was defending myself from being called an 'internet band,' because [Doldrums] has nothing to fucking do with that, it's something I do with my life every day."
Of course, nobody doubts that. Though Woodhead's originally from Toronto, his Doldrums project grew from the same rich Montreal soil that spawned Grimes and Braids, among countless other cult favourite indie artists set to travel the same trajectory. His debut album, Lesser Evil, is the product of years of composing music and playing shows, alone, with just a microphone and a suitcase carrying a KAOSS pad and other gear. His eclectic sound is a cut-and-paste composition of aqueous, chopped and screwed 8-bit drones, squelching synth stabs, laser beams, rattling sub-bass and other assorted musical scraps, all topped with classic pop melodies sung in his androgynous tenor.
"I don't really like instruments right now," he says. "I try to keep things percussion-based, but I use samples. Easy, pre-recorded stuff. It's been a long, convoluted road to get to the current setup, but for a while, I was really enchanted by cheating. All the first Doldrums songs, like 'Satellite' and 'Tantrum' are all just me trying to take [from] what I considered the best music. 'Jump Up' is just 'Hey Ya' mixed in with 'The Locomotion.' It's kind of a cheap way to make music. I'm fascinated by that kind of plasticity."
The Doldrums sound was honed in Montreal and Toronto, where he lived with musician friends in jam spaces where he would host sessions. "I've lived in a couple of show-spaces now," he explains. "I get fascinated by little groups of people doing things. Maybe that's why a lot of my friends are musicians and artists. I surround myself with that. I will say that I can attribute any little bit of success I'm getting to having played music with the people I did, focusing on it, and not really caring what anyone but my friends thought of it."
Doldrums began after the breakup of Spiral Beach, a Toronto-based, eclectic pop outfit Woodhead started as a teenager whose former members — his brother Daniel, Maddy Wilde (now of Moon King), and Austra bassist Dorian Wolf — all boast acclaimed new projects. "We'd been a band for seven years, and I was only 18 when we broke up. We all wanted to pursue some vivacious aspects of life that didn't involve touring our asses off for a little while. I was interested in expressing ideas through visual art and video."
He continued to play shows in Toronto before Woodhead was drawn to California. It was there he first performed under the Doldrums moniker: "I was playing punk squats on the West coast, where there's a very established route you can play if you want to do DIY venues. I played Santa Cruz, Sacramento, and stuff. I basically just had a VCR and a vocal mic. I had this tape that I was working on."
Woodhead's performances were a blend of karaoke, performance art and poetry, aided by his tape and a host of repurposed technology, including "a glitched-out iPhone they were turning into an oscillator with some app or something."
After playing a "super sketchy" set at South by Southwest with Grimes in 2011 ("we had nothing prepared"), Woodhead moved to Montreal, where the bands and management at Arbutus Records "became [his] family." He worked quickly, and after releasing the cacophonous first single "She is the Wave" as a seven-inch single for the label in November, turned to Lesser Evil in earnest.
Preparation for the album's release demanded a slight return to conventional songwriting. "As I booked more shows, my music has progressively gotten more band-like. Lesser Evil is farther away from the sampled stuff and more of a song-based album," he explains. That doesn't mean his live shows have stiffened any. "I still want to have that chaotic, special spirit in what I'm doing now, even though I'm going on pretty big tours. That sense of danger is what keeps things exciting for me. Doldrums is all about keeping things exciting and avoiding stagnation, listlessness, and repetition, things that everyone faces that I think makes them fucking depressed."
And keep things exciting, they do: tonight's performance, he remarks, will be "the first time Doldrums is playing as a quartet. This is the first time we're playing together and it's terrifying, because we all live in different cities, and we've had one rehearsal, and it was just now, and it was really short." But, he adds, "that sketchiness — I eat that shit up."
Plus, he's always got his brother, Daniel, to turn to. "He bails me out a lot, when I bite off more than I can chew," Woodhead says. "I hope I do a similar kind of yin-yang thing for him. We grew up writing songs together, and we're still always bouncing ideas off of each other. It's very important to me."
Woodhead is insistent that it was the community he worked in, and the hard work he put into Doldrums, that has garnered him his headlining spot on a bill that includes Braids offshoot Blue Hawaii and Cadence Weapon. Still, he recognizes the visibility that the web affords him and his ilk.
"Now," he asserts, "if you make some really weird, specific kind of music, the five people in the world who might also like that have a chance to find out about it just by typing a search. That's definitely the fundamental way that what we do ends up working beyond a local scene. I think everyone feels better when they're not isolated doing what they're doing."