When I listen to Herbcraft I feel like I'm listening to one of those Sublime Frequencies releases from another era -- Far-East Psych, 1966-1969. Herbcraft started off as the bedroom project of Matt Lajoie, who now leads a full ensemble. Herbcraft is signed to Woodsist, the great Brooklyn psych label of Jeremy Earl, of the band Woods. They visit Pittsburgh Friday in support of their new LP, Wot Oz.
Lajoie answered some questions for us in anticipation of the show:
Pittsburgh Music Report: Your songs have so many layers and textures. How do you begin to go about crafting such soundscapes? What do you usually lay down first?
Matt Lajoie: The first two records were recorded solo, and usually started with a guitar riff as track one and the base of the song. Everything would be built off of that. But the two most recent records (The Astral Body Electric in 2013 and Wot Oz) were recorded with full bands, and mostly tracked live with minimal overdubs. "Au's Nation" was a little different, starting with a bass and Wurlitzer improvisation that we put a couple overdubs on, and "Push Thru the Veil" is the only track with mostly overdubs in the final mix. But in general we prefer to have the final mix be as "live" as possible.
PMR: Did you approach the recording of this new album any differently than previous recordings?
ML: There's always been a big focus on improvisation in the recording process, but this one is definitely the most extreme example. There really wasn't any rehearsal at all, and we scrambled to set up mics as soon as a jam felt like it was something we wanted to remember. They were almost more like rehearsal tapes that we planned on re-recording for an album later on, but once we listened back to the tapes we knew that that was exactly how we wanted our record to sound - capturing the freshness of that moment. The record begins with 14 minutes of the first time the three of us ever played together, and once we heard how it turned out we knew we had our method for recording this album. I had really gotten into stuff like the raw Velvet Underground bootlegs, Les Rallizes Denudes, and live Grateful Dead audience tapes, and those were kind of a guide to how i was hoping this record would sound.
PMR: Besides lending a cachet, what are the benefits of being signed to Woodsist?
ML: Jeremy's been a huge supporter in terms of trusting our instincts and letting us go for it without any intrusion whatsoever. The freedom he gives us to do whatever feels right is huge.
PMR: Tell us about some of your labelmates we should check out.
ML: I was drawn to Woodsist early on with those Raccoo-oo-oon, Woods, Sun Araw, Moon Duo, White Fence, and Blues Control records. MV & EE did a couple excellent LPs with Woodsist around the time Herbcraft started up, and that was a huge attractor to the label for me. The first two Herbcraft records were actually on the sister-label Hello Sunshine, and I can highly recommend all the other LPs in that series (Jovontaes, Polyps, Ryan Garbes). Jeremy's a real curator, and though there's not a specific "Woodsist sound", his vision for the label stretches across microgenres and ties it all together subtly.
PMR: What's the ideal set and setting in which to listen to Herbcraft?
ML: More and more I think a live set is what I'd like people to experience first. But for the recordings, I don't think you get the full vibe unless it's on vinyl and listened to all in one sitting. Turn the lights low, spark some incense if you've got it, and get comfy.
PMR: Tell us about Maine. What's the scene like in Portland?
ML: It's very small and because of that everyone is pretty supportive of one another. If anything cool is happening in town, everyone knows about it instantly. There aren't too many touring bands that come as far north as Maine, and few Maine bands tour outside of New England, so most shows are by and for locals. There really isn't much worry about fitting into "a scene" here, and most shows have a combo of bands that stretch pretty far beyond a genre bracket.
ML: Except for the basic repeating riff, that one's completely improvised. The song was originally in a different key, and it kind of fell flat the first time we tried it. But within a few seconds of playing it in a new key, the groove clicked and we immediately hit "record", so the version on the LP is the first time we ever played it through. It was also intended to be much shorter--three or four minutes--but we wound up riding it out until the tape ran out! I like the idea of something being circular but also constantly moving forward, and I think "Bread" is the best example of that. It keeps returning to the beginning, and we explore a new path forward each time through the cycle. Actually, we once played an entire 30-minute set of just variations on "Bread"! The possibilities are endless.
Tickets to the show are just $6. Opening is The Garment District, project of Jennifer Baron, formerly of New York's The Ladybug Transistor (Merge Records). The Garment District are also celebrating their new album, Luminous Toxin, which was released on Kendra Steiner Editions. Also performing is Sagas, aka Pittsburgh singer/wongwriter Matt McDowell
-- Brian Conway