Psych-Rockers Heron Oblivion Chat Before Amoeba SF Performance March 4

Posted by Billy Gil, March 1, 2016 06:14pm | Post a Comment

You may not have heard of Heron Oblivion yet, but that’ll soon change.The psych-rock band recently signed to the venerable Sub Pop label, despite only having publicly played live just a few times prior, and have now toured with stoner-rock troubadour Kurt Vile. Part of that has to do with the band’s pedigree — guitarists Ethan Miller and Noel Von Harmonson played in brain-fryers Comets on Fire, with Von Harmonson also playing in Sic Alps and Six Organs of Admittance and Miller in Howlin’ Rain and Feral Ohms; Charlie Saufley played in the similarly minded Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound; and singer/drummer Meg Baird has played in psych-folk band Espers as well as solo.

The rest has solely to do with the sheer power of their debut, self-titled album. Over seven songs, the bands’ axes clash like fighting wolves, tangling like the brambles and branches that adorn the album cover. Keeping all this Crazy Horse-style madness reined in is a grounded rhythm section and the heart-stopping vocals of Baird. Her voice can simmer low and quavering like a classic British folk singer and then rise to seemingly unattainable heights on songs like the climactic "Your Hollows."

I chatted with the band a bit before their March 4 performance at Amoeba San Francisco.

I’ll start with the obvious and ask how started playing together, since you’ve all been in other bands as well.

Baird: Just as friends — it was especially nice for me since I’d just moved out here and was pretty homesick for music community. We were going to play together as part of Noel and Ethan's Wicked Mace project, but things took on a life of their own once we started finding our way around how we’d play together.?

Is this a full-time band, side project or something in between? Are you planning to work with your other projects at the same time?

Baird: Not full time — there's always so much music to play! We will be busy for sure though. This band is an incredible balance to being out on a stage alone with a guitar. I'm a shy performer, but ensemble playing fixes all of that. I’m so happy to have all the interplay and surprises and collaboration. 

Although you’ve all been in critically acclaimed bands that are well known, the band hadn’t played publicly much before getting signed to Sub Pop, which is rare. How did that come to be?

Miller: Well, we hadn't toured at all, but we’d done a handful of gigs over a year or a year and a half or so in the Bay Area before we finished the album. So we didn't just come out of complete nowhere, at least around the Bay Area. But you're right, from a few local gigs to a debut album on Sub Pop is a nice little jump over a big chasm.

After a year or so of writing and playing, we said, let's put a recording date on the map in four or five months and record this set of songs before we get tired of them or we start throwing some away or our sound starts to mutate. That mutation or even more often disintegration seems inevitable with time in bands, and if you are proud of where you're at musically, it's good to capture a band's character and music before seismic shifts happen, for better or worse. And it gave us something to work toward, since we weren't doing regular rehearsals or regular live gigs. 

So we recorded, and once we were done, we went to a few friends in our inner circle to ask for advice on where to send it. One of the people we asked was our friend (and now our AR guy) at Sub Pop, Dean Whitmore. I think Noel and I were thinking mostly that as a head and someone in the industry that Dean might be able to recommend a small indie label with enough budget to pay back the recording fees to us, or point us in a direction. We also knew that via Dean, it would have at least passed across Sub Pop's desk, too, in case there was the distant possibility of interest from them. We still had a long-distance relationship there with them because of Comets but didn't count on anything happening for this because of it.

Dean loved the record. Before he was able to recommend a small indie or underground label that might be hip for us, he said, “Whoa, hang on, I think we may want this, do you mind if I take it up the ladder and see how everyone feels about it?" Apparently the label unanimously loved the record, and that's it. We made a record, gave it to an old friend, and it connected right off the bat and got those folks excited.

These songs feel like they’re the perfect length because they’re allowed to stretch a bit without wandering too far. How do you decide when to rein it in? Do you allow things to expand further live, or is it pretty much very similar to what you hear on record?

Von Harmonson: Haha, yes, they were intended to be the perfect lengths! We certainly try to allow the songs to stretch out, but we keep them on a long leash. We can let them wander off a bit live, but we tend to think that the songs’ length have been more or less determined by this point.  We’ve arranged the tunes to say whatever we think they need to say, so sometimes that runs about four minutes, or in the case of “Rama,” that ended up being about 10.  I’m sure we had longer and shorter arrangements for everything at some point in the writing process. Does this song need another chorus? No. Does this song need another solo section? Yes! Etc.

When we first started jamming, every song was 20-30 minutes long. But after a while, we got the idea to do a record, and if we didn’t whittle them down it would’ve only been two songs!

Are things tracked live in the studio and then added to/subtracted from or built piece by piece?

Von Harmonson: Everything was tracked live in a small room, except for the vocals and one or two guitar overdubs. It went fast; we did a handful of takes of each song and chose the best and most dynamic performances. We were working on borrowed time and money, so we thought best to try to represent the live feel of the songs that we were familiar with from the practice space and the handful of shows that we’d played. Although potentially nerve-wracking, it's really the only way to capture the energy.  

How did Kurt Vile fans respond to your music? Were they largely on board with what you do, or was there a sense that they weren’t as familiar with a kind of expansive psych-rock experience?

Saufley: Kurt’s audience was really cool! And a pretty significant portion of them seemed stoked about what they were hearing. At the time of the shows in October, I don’t think there was much Heron Oblivion music out there to hear — apart from a few short YouTube clips from gigs. So folks had to be up for a surprise.  The audience reactions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, in particular, were very encouraging. I can still picture a few fairly rabid reactions in the first few rows at the Fillmore, which made an already transcendent experience extra-special.

I wasn’t all that surprised that Kurt’s fans were as open minded as they were. I’ve seen a lot of KV shows over the years, and there’s always been a core that gets blissed out and really engaged when he plays any of his more expansive, meditative pieces — which are my favorites. That segment of his fans seem to be up for exploring both the characters he conjures in his lyrics and those slowly unfolding cyclical mantra-jams he does so well. So I’m not at all surprised they related to our kind of folk-rock, even if it's more rambunctious on the surface.

Folk-rock is probably as good a name as any for what we do, what Kurt does and what Cass McCombs does — who was also on that October West Coast tour.  We’re all extrapolating from that folk core. And even though our record will probably appeal to many listeners because it’s unhinged and loudly visceral in places, all those songs could still be communicated pretty effectively — and emotively — with the four of us as a little acoustic campfire ensemble. There are some very evocative bits of imagery and stories in the songs — and some very pretty, often melancholy melodies to hang on to as well.

Can you give us a list of your top 5 favorite records (collectively or individually)?

Baird: Heron Oblivion influencer records:

Fleetwood Mac - Then Play On

Galaxie 500 - On Fire

Bardo Pond - Dilate

Ghost Ghost

Booker T & the MG's - Green Onions





Von Harmonson: Five records that help make this record:

Steeleye Span - Hark! The Village Wait

The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers

The Fall - Hex: Enduction Hour

Popol Vuh - Nosferatu

The Dead C - Harsh 70’s Reality





Saufley: Five Records That Influenced Heron Oblivion:

White Heaven - Out

Trad, Gras och Stenar - Mors Mors

The Dream Syndicate - The Dream Syndicate EP

Jacobites - Robespierre’s Velvet Basement

Quicksilver Messenger Service - Just For Love





Miller: Five records records records records records on a HO cocktail party napkin:

This Heat - This Heat

Royal Trux - Cats and Dogs

Shizuka - Heaven’s Persona

Throbbing GristleSecond Annual Report

Bunalim - Bunalim





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Interviews (31), Amoeba Sf (80), Kurt Vile (15), Folk Rock (3), Psych Rock (4), Heron Oblivion (2), In-stores (7), Meg Baird (3), Sub Pop (18), Espers (6), Comets On Fire (5), Six Organs Of Admittance (7), Howlin Rain (5), Sic Alps (7)