WOOM expertly blends the avant-garde with indie-pop on its new album, Muu’s Way. WOOM’s music is definitely experimental, and their style not exactly conventional rock and roll as we know it. The way the members utilize different sounds, from percussive effects to recording actual noises emanating from frogs, proves that. Yet what holds this angular music together is a strong sense of melody, demonstrating that music this experimental can also be catchy, engaging and thoughtful.
WOOM is Sara Magenheimer and Eben Portnoy, formerly of Brooklyn but now based on the West Coast. Before starting WOOM, the two were in a band called Flying and then later Fertile Crescent. Despite being relatively new on the scene, WOOM is already building up some serious indie rock cred. David Chiu recently caught up with the duo.
How was your recent European tour. How was the experience playing at the Northside Festival?
Sara Magenheimer: The EU tour was completely mind-blowing. People were incredibly warm and receptive, especially since it was our first time over there as WOOM. The biggest surprise was the emotionality of the audience. There was a lot of dancing, as well as some crying.
Eben Portnoy: The Northside shows were fun too. We had the chance to play with the Fiery Furnaces for the first time, and we love their music. The next night at Shea Stadium was like being in an insanely hot steam room with beer vapor instead of steam. Way more fun than it sounds! It’s nice to sweat.
How did WOOM start?
SM: We have been collaborating for 6 years, in various capacities, but I think WOOM began after we toured the US with Deerhoof as Fertile Crescent. We had moved out of Brooklyn before the tour, and then retreated into the Massachusetts woods in the winter. The ground was covered in ice and it was very silent. We completely reworked our music and wrote a lot, too.
EP: We never would have met had I not contracted a rare illness, which forced me to come home from Mexico a month early. Don’t worry, I’m better now! I don’t want to bore you with the details, but let’s just say the stars aligned.
How is WOOM similar/different from your previous bands?
EP: Flying was a band Sara and I were in with Eliot Krimsky and sometimes Mike Johnson, who both play as Glass Ghost now. Fertile Crescent toured shortly after Flying broke up, and WOOM evolved out of that. In Flying there were a lot of different musical visions happening in the same place, which was awesome in it’s own way, but also very challenging. Fertile Crescent was almost like a garage rock band, very stripped down and primal, guitar, drums, and voice. WOOM feels more focused, and more of a complete expression for us. Our process is more intense and personal, but the finished product is more extroverted than ever before. We’re more concerned with what we’re communicating and how.
SM: I agree with all of that.
Can each of you explain a little bit about yourselves: how you got into music, your musical influences growing up, and if you knew you wanted to become musicians early on in your lives?
SM: I started making music while I was working on a series of sculptures. I wanted songs to be emanating quietly from the sculpture so I tricked myself into recording a bunch of songs with only voice, very naked and exposed. It was a conscious choice to do something that made me feel very vulnerable. Growing up, music was a big part of my life. My mom was into modern dance and we did lots of interpretive dancing around the house. I was lucky to be exposed to Kraftwerk records at a very impressionable age.
EP: I’ve been playing music since I was 13. When I was a kid I was fascinated by an old Panasonic tape recorder my parents had and I recorded my little brother’s screams into it. In high school I played in bands and messed around with four-tracks. My favorite records as a small child were by Cat Stevens, Bob Marley, and Laurie Anderson.
Tell me about the recording process behind Muu’s Way. How long did it take, and where did you record it?
EP: We recorded most of the album during a house-sit in the woods of Eastern Massachusetts, in the winter/spring of 2009. We had space to set-up and leave all our equipment and we recorded into a laptop. Then we moved to Oakland and recorded the song “Salt” in Annie Lewandowski’s (of Powerdove) room on her piano. We mixed at Butchy Fuego’s studio in Los Angeles during the wildfires of last August.
SM: There was a clear feeling of a departure when we started recording…departure from our life in Brooklyn, from our previous habits, even from the songs that we’d been playing on the tour we’d just completed. It was slow starting out because we were probably a little overwhelmed by the vast abyss that comes with starting over, but once we got going it was very freeing. We worked really collaboratively and generated a ton of material. We still haven’t even listened to all of it.
To me, your sound is a combination of being angular, minimalist and ornate. Yet, whether the tracks are brash or quiet, the one thing that stands out is the sense of melody. How would you describe your style of music and was it a type of sound that you were striving at from the beginning?
EP: More than any other project, we approached WOOM with a clear direction. We knew we wanted to make positive music, and we wanted it to be danceable. Although the results were not always upbeat, and “danceability” is a subjective thing, I think having that direction really helped us focus on making the music we wanted to make. Song, melody, beat, vocals and lyrics are really important to us, but so are interesting, fucked-up sounds. We like to allow accidents to happen, too; it makes things more interesting. Also, we’re not really a “wall of sound” band. We like to use negative space.
SM: Yes, I totally agree. WOOM was sort of a challenge to ourselves to make some music that we wanted to hear and play every night. There’s something about being alone in the wintry woods that makes you yearn for summer…for a hot dance party…this record is probably not everyone’s idea of a hot dance party by any means, but when we play live we tend to expend a lot of energy moving around and that feels good. Seems like the right thing to be doing. We want to share some good energy with a bunch of people.
What is “Quetzalcoatl’s Ship” about?
SM: Quetzalcoatl was an Aztec god that was often depicted looking like a feathery snake. He was linked to stories of human creation, but now people associate him with certain post-apocalyptic theories…2012 is rumored to be his return…
EP: “Quetzalcoatl’s Ship” recounts a dream-event with many levels of meaning. On one level it’s about catastrophe and death, on another it’s humankind’s return to the ocean, on another it’s getting drunk on too much water. I think behind it all is this idea of the land and the sea as diametric but complimentary forces coming together, like male and female. We’re caught in between and we can’t see the big picture; we’re battered back and forth, confused and being turned around and around.
“Under Muu” is so lovely—it’s very sublime and jazzy.
SM: Thank you. That song was a really great opportunity to collaborate with some friends who we really respect.
EP: The past couple years have been totally hectic and crazy for us, and this song was like a plea for peace. At first we sang the melody but I always imagined it played by our friend Robert Stillman (Robert Stillman’s Horses), who recorded the sax parts in England. Then we asked our friend John Dieterich (Deerhoof, Gorge Trio) to record whatever he wanted on it – the samples and extra guitar, which created this great dark undercurrent.
What’s that sound on “Foggy Dew.” It sounds like seagulls in the background.
EP: It’s spring peepers, frogs that hold their mating choruses on wet spring nights. We recorded them in a bog a few miles from the place we tracked the album. Up close they’re absolutely ear-splitting!
SM: I recorded that song a capella and then we added the peepers later. Seemed to fit the space of the song well.
Do one of you write the lyrics and the other the music, or is it a shared working collaboration? Where do you draw the inspiration for the lyrics: personal experience, imagination or both?
SM: Our process is truly very collaborative. It might be more difficult that way, but for us it really works well. Some bands have one person who writes the songs, but to me what’s exciting about being in a band is sharing the creative aspect with another person. We’re always challenging each other to make things better, too. When I write lyrics it’s sort of like collage. I’m always keeping notebooks of words…fragments…things overheard…ideas. When it comes time to record I don’t always use everything, but sometimes those are very helpful starting places. Then other times some unconscious voice comes out when I open my mouth and surprises me.
EP: We pass things back and forth all the time. While some songs are almost all me or almost all Sara, we’re both constantly editing and inspiring each other. For me lyrics come from accessing some state of partial consciousness, and sometimes a dream or an intense experience are the keys to that. From there I refine things and reinvent them, all along the way keeping track of some inner obscure logic that I trust without totally understanding it. In general it’s really important to me to try to be open to everything I see, hear, and experience as a source for learning or inspiration.
How do you play live? It seems that there are so many parts played on the record. How does it translate?
SM: It’s just the two of us. The songs are totally different than on the album. Rearranged. We play songs that aren’t on the record, too. We make an effort to make each show a response to what’s happening in the venue, psychically, emotionally, spatially… In that way each show can vary a lot.
What has been the most memorable experience for WOOM whether it’s a gig, an experience on the road, songwriting, etc.
SM: We’ve been playing together for 6 years and have had a lot of amazing experiences. This tour was full of transcendent moments. There’s an amazing little festival called Musica Nelle Valle in San Martino Spino, a small town in Italy. We played there, in an old circular barn that was used to walk horses, but had been restored. The crowd was unbelievably engaged with the music. We ended up having such a great show that the festival organizers asked us to play again the next day. They also had Lambrusco on tap!
EP: Making this record is etched in my memory, going from being isolated in the cold woods during months of tracking to mixing in 100+ degrees in LA in a studio full of wildfire smoke…These songs have been through a lot.
WOOM: Quetzalcoatl’s Ship