I swelter on the steps of the Mayan Palace under a sweaty Chicago sun and wait to meet the duo who blew my mind (and messed up my hair) the night before with their banging set at the Dark Room. Luke Wyland and Dana Valatka soon arrive with smiles, hugs and apologies for being late (a rough night is apparently responsible), and we head inside to seat ourselves in the tiny restaurant, chatting of this, that and the other in anticipation of mouthwatering Mayan cuisine.
Lip-smacking Mayan delicacies never arrive (instead three plates of pseudo-Mexican quasi-tolerable food appear in front of us), but the effortless flow of my conversation with Portland-based experimental duo Au takes on a life of its own as we swap stories of our travels, and my perception of the creators of feverishly intense, yet finely nuanced compositions begins to take shape.
A creative endeavor begun by Wyland while completing his degree at the Massachusetts College of Art, Au was originally a solo project that gradually expanded with contributions from Wyland’s circle of friends. Pea of the Sea, a collection of thirteen songs recorded by Wyland as a solo project, was soon followed by Au’s self-titled debut on Aagoo Records, and a sophomore effort a year later with the release of Verbs in June 2008.
Clear blue-eyed and sharp-witted, Wyland explains that he intentionally leaves his music open to interpretation from one performance to the next. “I don’t write songs to be played the same way each time,” Wyland tells me, explaining that improvisation is a vital part of Au’s live shows. On a given night there may be anywhere from two to more than a dozen musicians on stage performing as Au, using an assortment of instruments to reinvent the songs before the audience. Having been classically trained on piano, Wyland is a multi-instrumentalist who often incorporates the accordion, banjo, and full human choruses into a live show. Each show has new elements and is at times highly improvisational in nature.
I wonder whether improvisation comes naturally to all musicians. “I think it’s a personality trait to some degree,” Wyland answers. “Some musicians feel comfortable going with the flow and letting the song develop, while others prefer to follow the recorded version more closely.” Drummer Dana Valatka adds that “In composed music, it is possible to make something more powerful because everyone playing the music knows exactly where this intensity is supposed to come, where this hit will be, and therefore you do it together and maximize the power of it.”
Quieter and the more reserved of the two, Valatka’s nose sports pink-rimmed sunglasses and his head hoists a brown ninja-style hair bun. “I'm really into changing what is recorded for live performance, and I like it when the audience doesn't know what to expect. When the players know where something is supposed to hit, it makes for more powerful shifts in sound and energy, which is even better when it takes the spectator by surprise,” he tells me. I point out that certain people think that if live music sounds different from the recording then the band must not be good at performing live. “Well, that could be true,” Valatka calmly points out and swallows another nauseating mouthful of our sorry excuse for lunch.
Describing the sound of an experimental folk band without resorting to labeling them a ‘tamer version of Animal Collective’ is a bold venture these days, fit for the most audacious of writers. Wyland agrees that the constant comparisons to Animal Collective, although flattering, fail to characterize the subtleties of their music. Having garnered comparisons to musical legends and contemporaries alike, Au mirrors the complex structures of Steve Reich, with warmer (less academic) melodies than Nico Muhly, rhythms not as twisted as Animal Collective (fuck it – I had to say it), way more banjo than Brian Eno, and sparkling with a spirit of liveliness not found in Benoit Pouilard’s beautifully bleak soundscapes.
Letting my imagination run wild while listening to Verbs, I picture it as the work of a musical genius who chased his love of classical and contemporary music to big city sophistication, but never forgot his roots as a country boy, picking banjos and pounding drums at rowdy campfires in the woods. Lazy summer porches, carnivals, merry go rounds, and pink cotton candy – a myriad of images rise and fall with each subtle sound. Verbs is the perfect soundtrack to a grainy silent film montage of children dashing barefoot through farm fields, freckled teenagers chewing straw by burbling brooks, and grass-sprawled lovers gazing up at cloudy afternoons.
I ask whether it bothers them that fewer people are willing to pay for music, instead choosing to download or stream albums without shelling out money in return. “No, I don’t mind it, because it actually promotes people going out to live shows again,” Wyland notes. “And that’s what music has been for thousands of years.”
Having attended Au’s performance at the Dark Room the night before, I applaud their display of musicianship. “You exchanged a smile in the middle of your set and it was obvious that you were very happy with the creative flow between the two of you. You were very in sync with each other,” I tell them. Valatka bursts my idealistic bubble and we all laugh: “Well, we could’ve been smiling because we noticed that one of us f-cked up!”
Although vocalist Becky Dawson (from Saw Whet and Ah Holly Fam'ly) collaborated with Wyland during the recording of Verbs, only Wyland and Valatka make up the current Au touring band. They are the nicest chaps one could ever hope to meet. (No monetary compensation is to be received for this write up, so no motivation besides honest journalism is a factor behind the generous helping of compliments I’ve served up for the boys.) During the few hours that our mouths spend chewing sordidly awful food, our tablespace is filled with hilarity and cheerful banter which provides ample opportunity for me to notice that they have the healthiest white teeth I’ve seen in a while. With open minds, big hearts, and a willingness to work (with the occasional swig of whiskey to shake things up), Au are looming large on the horizon, with tour dates opening for Deerhoof as well as The Dodos scheduled throughout the fall.
Masterfully weaving classical, contemporary, and psych-folk elements into wistful melodies and earthy rhythms, Au’s collaborations with friends within the thriving Portland community have unleashed a collection of haunting and serenely beautiful songs. They have been referred to as “the future of American music’ and are a welcome success from a flourishing DIY culture.