With their debut album Up For Air set to release next month, we talked with the pop-infused electro-rock duo Tree Machines for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. During our discussion, we talk about the band’s move from Kansas to Los Angeles, the inspirations behind their visually stunning music videos, and how Radiohead and Alt-J heavily influenced the electronic elements of their exciting and engaging sound.
NoiseTrade: Before recording Up For Air, you guys made a substantial move from Lawrence, KS to Los Angeles, CA. What sparked the geographical change and has there been any culture shock or crazy new things to get used to for you guys?
Doug Wooldridge: When we got to LA, it was amazing how many “transplants” there were. It seems like most of the folks we meet out here have made the move, like us, from some small town in the heart of the Midwest. I think we all came out here for the same reason; we were looking for that culture shock or change of scenery. The occasional shock to the system is necessary from time to time.
The reason for us coming out here was pretty simple. Our previous band broke up while working on the album that would become our first EP which we worked closely with Mike Giffin to transform the music into Tree Machines.
The craziest thing coming into a city like this is the amount of people packed in and the amount of cultures colliding from proximity. LA is filled with all the outcasts, dreamers, and artists that all want the same shot at staking a claim out here on the coast and striking some gold.
Patrick Aubry: Without getting too much into the past, Doug and I were in a band together called Sobriquet together. It’s actually how we met Mike – he mixed and mastered the last album that would come out from that band. But Sobriquet imploded pretty spectacularly, and so Doug and I picked up the pieces of what would become our eponymous debut album Tree Machines.
After the album came out, we realized that we no longer had the ties binding us to Kansas. It just kind of seemed natural to come join Mike out here in Los Angeles, especially if we had the opportunity to create something really unique.
There wasn’t much in the way of culture shock when we came out here. There were a lot of freaks and geeks (ourselves included) in a lot of the cities that we visited playing music. Granted, everything out here has that extra bit of LA panache that makes people stand out more. The thing that I still haven’t gotten used to is the scenery. Mountains and beachfront are such welcome sights when compared to the infinite green fields and highways where you could fall asleep at the wheel for 20 minutes and not run off the road.
Mike Giffin: I moved out to LA about six and a half years ago to work in the music business. I had lived in New York, Atlanta, New Orleans and a few other major cities before, so I embraced and welcomed everything LA had to offer immediately. A mutual friend from back in Kansas had connected me with Doug and Pat’s previous original band to mix and produce their last EP, so I went back to Kansas for a few months to work with them in a studio. I thought that they had great potential. Through a series of turns and events, that band parted ways and I was asked to play drums with them. I gladly said yes and encouraged them to move out to LA to get something new going and now here we are years later making music together in the band and playing shows all around.
NT: Between the two of you in the band and having a third creative voice in producer Mike Giffin, can you describe the band’s songwriting process behind your multi-layered, adventurous songs, both lyrically and instrumentally?
Wooldridge: Coming out of the last EP, Pat, Mike, and I were down to dive into some directions we’d never tried before musically. We tossed everything we could at the chopping block. I think what creates our multi-layered approach is that we have three solid songwriters. Whenever one of us brings something in to the studio, we can always count on the other two coming in to add a new flavor to the pot. When we sat down and decided to go ahead as the three of us, we knew we wanted to experiment with whatever style or groove sank in during the writing process.
A lot of this album was written with the idea that we were gonna have to figure out how to play it once the song was finished, but we refused to let that hold us back from what the song needed compositionally.
Aubry: Doug and I have written so many songs together at this point that we’ve gotten a good feel for what’s coming next in a song. He knows what certain notes mean.
This album was a completely different experience for us because we wrote several of these songs without knowing how we would play them live. There are a few songs that came about more traditionally, with me behind a guitar and Mike playing drums and Doug singing improvised nothings. We were at full volume and pure organic creation. Those moments where you make eye contact in the middle of a riff and know exactly where everything is going.
But a lot of these songs were ideas that we all came in with personally. I brought the bones of what would become “Like a Drum.” Mike had an almost complete idea with the song “Up for Air.” Doug has had “Under the Weight” in his pocket for years now. We decided that we wouldn’t decide on a sound, but rather, we would let the music define it. We threw so many different style variations at Doug, and he just kept coming out with vocals that gave me goosebumps. There wasn’t a whole lot that he couldn’t handle sonically, so we just picked through the 30 songs that we compiled, and went with the ones that we liked the most. It was a really freeing experience to not be bound to a preconceived notion of what was the “right” music to make and instead constantly search for new takes on our muse.
Giffin: We all brought in song ideas that we had all cooked up, sometimes each on our own, sometimes together and sometimes we jammed in the studio and came up with ideas. We then would build on top of the original ideas and flush things out further in post and in the DAW. On this album we really wanted Doug’s vocals to shine forward and for any of the keys and tempos of the songs to be fitting for his vocal range. That was really important to us. We really all pitched in and we all played and recorded as “multi-instrumentalists”. Doug did all of the singing, no one else’s voice is on the record, but every other instrument was touched and recorded by all of us somewhere on this record.
NT: Your music video for “Weights and Stones” is so visually arresting, both in Sonic’s dance performance and in the contrasting city/nature scenery. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind the song and the video?
Wooldridge: We got the original inspiration for the “Weights and Stones” video from the Flume & Chet Faker “Drop the Game” video. I really loved the idea of using movement and dance as the only visual representations of the song. I’m so glad we were able to get Sonic on board for this because the whole track is about the woman walking out and away from the shit relationship and tired lifestyle she’s stuck in. Sonic was able to capture every bit of that with the confidence and fierce vibe we were looking for to match the power and emotion behind the song.
NT: You also shot a music video for “Waiting on the Sun” that is equally stunning in its visual landscapes and its brilliant mixture of day/night imagery. Where was the video shot and how do the enchanting visuals connect with the song’s lyrics and message?
Wooldridge: We shot the “Waiting on the Sun” video’s nighttime shots at the Paradise Motel off Sunset Boulevard. We had met up about an hour earlier at a bar down the road to discuss the project and after a few drinks headed to the motel. Somehow we got lucky enough that when we got there, two patrons walked out of their room and left the door open. So our director Maal Washington, who did both “Weights and Stones” and “Waiting on the Sun” pulled us into the room and we got the shots we needed. We were positive that at any second the management for the hotel was gonna come in and kick us out. All the island shots were taken on Anacapa Island. The song is about how completely different one’s take on the world can be when you’re in the depths of night as opposed to coming out in the midday sun. We chose those two drastically different places to highlight the extremes.
NT: Finally, you guys have mentioned Alt-J, Glass Animals, and Radiohead (specifically their King of Limbs album) as major influences on the electronic side of your sound. What specific songs or instrumental components stick out to you from those bands and if you could cover a song from each one, which song would it be?
Wooldridge: Alt-J holds a special spot in my heart. My wife, Emily, and I had our first dance at our wedding to “Taro” off An Awesome Wave. What I love about Alt-J is that they use whatever instrument or sound they need to build the composition of a track spanning from organic sounds like strings and percussive hits to electronic drums and synth bass. So if we covered a song from Alt-J, I might have to push for “Taro.”
Radiohead has always been an influence for the band. What I love about King of Limbs is how those songs wrap you up tightly in a warm blanket of textures. All of which are unsettling. I think my song to cover off that album would be “Lotus Flower.” As a listener, you’re always running to catch up with the song when what you should be doing is letting the song take over and enjoy the ride.
Aubry: All three of those groups have these incredibly intricate textures that they use to craft their aural spectrums. “Tessellate” is definitely my favorite Alt-J song. The disjointed rhythm throughout the song and the reversed guitars to end the chorus are just awesome. It’s such a subdued sound throughout that when the vocals start to stack up with harmonies, you can’t help but feel like you’re there listening to it live. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you’ve never listened to that song through high quality headphones. It always makes me feel serene to listen to it. Such an auditory pleasure.
Glass Animals’ “Gooey” has one of the coolest synth lines I’ve ever heard. It marries with the vocals in a way that just feels divine. Like they were just written for each other. Then the drums come in and the song completes its metamorphosis into a song that feels right to listen to in any scenario. But I still don’t know how the fuck you can get away with a line like “peanut butter vibes” (I say knowing full well we have a song called “Fucking Off Today”). If I had to pick a song for us to cover, it would definitely be “Season 2 Episode 3.” That song is the catchiest thing I’ve heard in a long time.
Radiohead has always inspired me. “Feral” is a particularly interesting example of what I loved about King of Limbs. The percussion feels looped, but it still breathes. That weird garbled guitar sound that provides the first melody in the song is such a unique noise. I’ve never heard that before in my life. That’s what I’ve always loved about Radiohead: they always seem to be able to come out with a new take on sound. But it’s never in a kitschy way, it always feels appropriate. That’s what I wanted to make sure that we hit on this new album — any new noises were going to have a reason to be there. I think it’s pretty clear that “Always Losing” off of Up for Air took a ton of influence from King of Limbs.
Giffin: Glass Animals – I listened to them for a lot of their synth work and “wet” bubbling sounds that emanate from their sonic landscapes. Radiohead – I really enjoy the eclectic sound of this album as a whole and the non-conventional drum patterns and out of time beat loops, as well as the loud, lush sounds that seem like they will burst or explode at any moment out of the speakers. I also drew a lot from M83 for some of our songs specifically, as well as Phantogram for their hip-hop style, dirty and gritty sampling choices and their incredible vocals. Black Moth Super Rainbow was also another inspiration for me for some of these songs, for their dirty, grimy lo-fi sounds as well as their vocoded vocals and effects.