Portland indie rockers, AU, take a page from Willy Wonka on latest effort
Luke Wyland says there is an "eerie similarity" between how he looked as a child and Peter Ostrum's depiction of Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
"Yeah," Wyland says, reflecting on the parallels between his formative years and the 1971 Gene Wilder classic. "I definitely grew up immersed in imagination."
In fact, it is still very common for the lead singer and songwriter of Portland bliss-rockers AU (pronounced "ay-you") to get lost in his thoughts and daydreams. "It certainly has carried over into my adult life," he says of his bond with that fortunate young lad who found the last golden ticket.
You can hear the connection in Wyland's tunes. For example, there's the two-track suite of "The Veil" and "Solid Gold," which take the listener from side A to side B of AU's latest LP, Both Lights.
"The Veil" begins much as Charlie's journey down the chocolate river did: a slow piano melody gently lilts from side to side, as reverb-soaked chords swell and evaporate in the background. But as the track slowly fades away, tension mounts, the tones fall out of harmony, creating a throbbing, foreboding discord.
"Solid Gold," the album's single, follows—a carnival of bells, shakers, whistles, bouncing horns, and feverish percussion, which breaks down into a calamitous, frantic, and somewhat disorienting psychedelic noise-scape.
Over the course of these two songs—the album's fifth and sixth tracks—listeners are reminded of the words exchanged between our unlikely hero and his grandfather in that kaleidoscopic tunnel:
Charlie: "This is kind of strange!"
Grandpa Joe: "Yeah! Strange, Charlie! But it's fun!
"How bizarre those scenes are," Wyland says of the movie. "They kind of make you feel good, but they kind of make you feel weird as well."
Both Lights is filled to the brim with sounds that conjure similar feelings. An attempt to visualize the music is likely to leave the mind's eye overwhelmed by color, shape and mechanical, cuckoo-clock-like movement.
Wyland grew up listening to and playing "really nerdy, old stuff"—classical and orchestral music. He was drawn to lush arrangements, bursting with multiple instruments and voices working in unison or even against one another. He played Grateful Dead covers and free jazz before he started making music under the AU moniker. To put it succinctly, he has eclectic taste.
"I always drew, I always painted, I always made things," says Wyland, who studied mixed media in art school. He explains that he often thinks about individual notes as moving parts on a spectacular mechanism. "I love that visual sense of music," he says. "Where it's all splayed out—moving parts."
Using this vocabulary, it is best to picture the new record as a giant, whirring, steam punk confection—something sweetly sadistic cooked up by the mad scientist Wonka in a machine replete with percolators, glowing electrical tubes, and myriad dials and switches.
The album is scheduled for release on April 2, but Santa Cruzans need not wait until then to hear Wyland's magical-mystery cherry meringue pie. AU plays The Crepe Place on Thursday, March 8.
Wyland takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to songwriting—cramming his tunes with layer upon layer of sound. "There is almost this need to fill the song up to where it's overflowing," he explains.
Those who have followed AU since its self-titled debut in 2007, will hear that Both Lights is no different in this sense. And yet, it is Wyland's most coherent vision to date. While 2008's Verbs sometimes felt loose and unhinged, Both Lights moves with a clearer purpose.
This must be due in part to Wyland's maturation as an artist. He says he feels more confident about his songwriting than he ever has before. And it couldn't have hurt that he took his time writing the record. After touring extensively behind Verbs, he says he "almost felt constipated with all these new ideas." So, he took a "long exhale," as his publicist put it in a recent press release.
In the past, Wyland says, he would write and record entire albums over the span of a month or two. But with Both Lights—a title that refers to light that is emitted and light that is reflected—he looked inward and at the world around him. Instead of sitting down with the purpose of writing a song, he waited for inspiration to strike.
The result is a collection of songs that are, as he puts it, "a topography of my emotional self" over a three-year span. It is a documentary examination, from beginning to end, of everything that was going on in his life at the time, "both turbulently and in good ways."
"It certainly look longer than I wanted it to," he muses. “It took that amount of time to see these new ideas through to a point that I felt satisfied with them."
As a performer, Wyland says, he feels more comfortable singing now than he ever has before, and Both Lights demonstrates this, with fewer instrumentals and his vocals taking more of a center stage than on previous records.
When asked about his band's name, the talkative Wyland begins to measure his words more carefully. At first he deflects the question: "I have a horrible time naming anything." But the truth is, "there is a certain amount of mystique I want to maintain."
I tell him that the group's name reminds me of the words "aural" and "aurora borealis"—both of which mesh well with AU's colorful, expansive sound.
His band's name means something to him, but he likes that it can mean many things to many people. "The more I travel the more meanings it has," he says. In Norwegian, he says, it can be translated to "ouch," and in Latvian it means "pride" or "honor."
It is a similar philosophy that drives him to make songs so chock-full of sound, even though he has been advised to simplify things on more than one occasion.
"Each time you hear the song, you can hear something different," he says. Just as all the golden ticket winners took different paths through the same chocolate factory, each time you listen to one of AU's songs, you can focus on a different instrument than you did the time before, and "it can lead you on a different path through the song."
AU plays at 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 8 at The Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $8/adv, $10/door. For more information, call 429-6994. Photos: Seppi Ramos
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