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Feature Thu Mar 29 2007

Arbouretum: A Long Journey from Baltimore to Chicago

The band Arbouretum (yes, spelled like that) hails from Baltimore, MD, and has been out on the road on one of its most extensive tours of the U.S. for many weeks now. By an odd twist of fate, one of the members of Gapers Block: Transmission happened to be in the right place at the right time to see this band form and grow up in Charm City several years ago. Now they're a Thrill Jockey artist, playing Chicago for the third time since the fall, and another staffer can't wait to hear them one more time in one of the intimate venues that Chicago so readily provides. There's something magnetic, amorphous and wonderful about this band that's quite hard to define, but we'll do our best to try.

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Arbouretum (photo by IDM Photography)

In many respects, Baltimore is something of an in-between city. Geographically, it rests on that stretch of land where the red dirt starts to fade and darken. Culturally, it's in many ways more Southern than Northern, somewhat more Allegheny than East Coast. As medium-sized cities go, it's insular, easy-going, and operates on its own come-what-may logic. "The one thing you should know about Baltimore," a friend advised me when I temporarily moved there in 2003, "Is that it's very close-knit and everyone drinks heavily. That's because there are no hardware stores within the city limits, and at the end of the day everyone likes to hang out because they’re exhausted from fixing things with their teeth."

The city also has its own hermetic and uniquely thriving music scene — one deep-seated in regional folk influences, vaguely colored by the far-flung echoes of psychedelic spaciousness, and fueled by a dedicated network of musicians who stay constantly active out of a love for crafting songs and playing live. Much of this activity revolved around the meandering Victorian space of the back-alley (and recently defunct) nightclub Talking Head, or took place at various makeshift venues around town. The scene did have a close-knit quality about it. For participants, paths were constantly crossing, or seldom diverging for more than a few days, and certain focal recordings traded hands and served as common points of reference — Shuggie Otis's Freedom Flight, 'Skip' Spence's Oar, Pearls Before Swine's Balaklava, Brigitte Fontaine's Comme à la Radio, and the proto free-folk guitar work of native sons John Fahey and Robbie Basho. There were a couple of people who were always lucking into neglected troves of ancient and rare 78s, mind-blowing discs of primitive blues, gospel, and "hillbilly" music; and a number of wee-hour, post-gig afterparties involved taking a tour of that "old weird America" via that person's turntable.

Many of the musicians I knew played in at least two bands, all of which seemed to overlap and feed off of each other, sharing members and spawning a cross-pollination of musical ideas. Some of the bands were efforts that certain members seriously focused on, a few were little more than amusing inside jokes among scenesters, and a good many were formed simply for the reward of working and collaborating with like-minded friends and colleagues. Television Hill, Arbouretum, the Translucents, the Walker & Jay Show, Madagascar, Anomoanon, Long Live Death, and numerous others were interconnected to one degree or another. Side- and satellite projects abounded. "No, dude," you might often hear someone say, "That's my other other band." A bit incestuous and fishbowl-ish, maybe? You bet, but amorphously rich and varied, as well. "There are very diverse kinds of sounds happening," Arbouretum's Dave Heumann tells me, "We have a lot of talented people here who are motivated to create."

Like many bands on the Baltimore indie scene, Arbouretum started out under casual auspices, a let's-see-what-happens-when-we-get-together affair. It was largely the instigation of guitarist and frontman Dave Heumann, who had previously played with Will Oldham and was then backing Dave Pajo in Papa M aside from playing in another band, The Translucents. I recall first seeing Arbouretum perform in the basement of a Colonial townhouse apartment not too long after they formed. For the occasion, they didn't have a drummer and were playing as a trio, filling the raw brick-walled space with an expansive din of intertwining fretwork. Their modus was loosely-hinged, exploratory, and slightly noisy in an improvisational manner, yet the music unfolded in a way that revealed a brilliant and contemplative inner cohesion.

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Their sound and identity as a group, as evidenced by their 2004 debut Long Live The Well-Doer, solidified soon enough and quickly settled down into a more structured, conventional indie-rock sound. But whereas the debut sounded fairly contemporary, their recent Rites of Uncovering release on Thrill Jockey finds them furrowing back to earlier, more oblique influences. On the whole, it’s steeped in sound indebted to '70s folk-rock; not just of the standard stripe, but also tinged with the avant/hybrid English variety found in the early works of Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. The album's most compelling moments are when the band drapes everything with strands of a languid Appalachian bluesiness and kick off from the moorings of verse and chorus. Its sometimes shadowy and low-tuned production is fitting enough, given the album's esoteric lyrics — lyrics that suggest a grasping toward liminality and some inchoate other. In the end, it leaves the listener with a sense of questing, of irresolution and openness. "What we're aiming for," Heumann explains, "Walks a bit of a tightrope between 'song-driven' and 'band-driven' music. We aim for a middle ground between the two." They sound like they've assembled the best team for the journey.
-Graham Sanford


I first saw Arbouretum last fall when they played The Hideout, and I was struck immediately by both the uniqueness of their sound and the simultaneous sense of nostalgia it evoked. Influenced by definite blues/Americana roots, their songs also contain their own mythology, as brought forth in lyrics that are so narrative, you'd swear you were getting some new incarnation of Jethro Tull. I'm not saying that in a bad way at all, but instead, it's so strangely intriguing that you want to sit down with the album in vinyl form and poor over the insert for hours just figuring out the story.

This band truly draws you in to their music. With subtle side journeys of flowing guitar riffs available in every song, you can expect to be privy to a very intimate show when they take the stage. They're not a noodly hippie band, but you can tell that some of the same traditional American rock and blues sounds have hit them hard during their formative years, and the members all enjoy handing off the steering wheel of the song to one another and seeing what will happen. On stage, they are serious and focused in their demeanor, and that side, too, is reflected in their album Rites of Uncovering. But they also bring a sense of play to the stage that's refreshing, as they're not willing to just let the track play out as planned, but instead take a stab at improving it through collaboration. That, in my opinion, is always worth the price of admission.
-Anne Holub

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Dave Heumann (photo by IDM Photography.)

I had some questions for Arbouretum's lead singer Dave Heumann which he was kind enough to answer while the band was hurtling to Chicago for their show tonight at the Empty Bottle.

Anne Holub: How did you go about writing they lyrics for these songs, which seem to be so complex and steeped in their own narrative? Was it a long process that you took on yourself, or was it collaborative?

Dave Heumann: I wrote all of the lyrics on this record by myself, except for "Mohammed's Hex and Bounty", a 50-50 collaboration with Rob Wilson, and "Pale Rider Blues", which was an 80-20 collaboration with Rob where I provided the 80%. In many cases, the ideas for the lyrics brewed for quite some time as the musical aspects of the songs were worked on, and what ended up being the final drafts came together in the hours or even minutes leading up to the song's first public performance. It would have been less stressful if this weren't the case, but I can't really argue with the results of it. All's well that ends well, I suppose.

AH: How much band collaboration did this album entail? The songs are definitely filled with seemingly distinct moments of improvisation — but did that come out in the recording session, or was that how they were written, and continues to be performed? Do you feel that these songs change over time as you're getting more time with them in front of the audience?

DH: The parts that sound like improvisations invariably are. Songs with extended instrumental sections, like "Pale Rider Blues", will be understandably be quite different from night to night, but what is surprising are the changes that happen in the shorter and more concise songs. Some of these changes are "on purpose", like if we do extended intros or stretch out a certain section; other times they happen with about being planned or talked about. They do also tend to change a bit over time as well.

AH: The album is mostly a very quiet, intimate exchange with the listener, with the exception of the section of "The Rise" where it really blows out. Was that a distinct choice? How do you think that part affects a listener hearing the album for the first time?

DH: That part in "The Rise" is there because we thought it would be a cool thing to do with that song. It was from a 2004 session we did with Paul Oldham, which was before we had much of an idea of any kind of album concept. At that point we were just recording some songs because we had them and they were still fresh. Doing open-ended noise sections like the one in that song is something we've found to be immensely
fulfilling live.

AH: What's on the tour iPod right now?

DH: We have two that travel with us. Some of what we listened to last time includes Davey Graham playing with Shirley Collins, Company, Earthless, Hamza El-Din, the Jesus Lizard, Sandy Bull, Sandy Denny, Capitan Beefheart, Henry Thomas, Entrance's "Prayer of Death", Marc Ribot, Ornette Coleman, King Crimson, Merle Haggard, The Pupils, The Psychic Paramount, and a Psychic Paramount cover band called Psychic Tantamount. Longmont Potion Castle is also frequently played. It's all prank phone calls and is absolutely hilarious.

AH: You describe the songs at trying to get past the "veil" between audience and music/band/performance. Do you feel that happens better live or can it happen just as easily with one person listening to the song by themselves.

DH: It can probably happen either way, though the character of the experience will be much different from one to the other. I'd encourage people to try both and see what happens.

AH: The album was recorded over a good deal of time, and with some serious attention paid to the production. Do you try to recreate that live or do you let the songs change on their own? What's surprised you about how the songs are evolving (or staying the same) on this tour?

DH: We don't try very much to re-create album versions live. It seems like that would be a less honest approach than what we generally do, which is to let the situation that we're in and the people that surround us influence the character of the music of any given night. Arbouretum is at it's best when we are open and receptive. If there's a kind of intensity in the air, that will be reflected in the music. If we are tired, then there's no pretending otherwise.

AH: Why "Arbouretum" not "Arboretum"?

DH: The added "u" seems to connote something, though I've never been quite able to put my finger on it. It's something that seems to exist independently of a sense of "britishness", despite that quality being evoked. According to Wikipedia, "arbouretum" is a misspelling even in British English, but I've read elsewhere that it is an acceptable variant of the more common spelling.

AH: Looking forward to doing anything in particular on this tour?

DH: Other than Austin, Arbouretum has never played west of the Mississippi. Despite the fact that it ought to be just plain fun to play music on the west coast, I think it will be interesting to see how the different locales affect the character of the music, or even if that kind of thing can be independently understood to have any influence at all.

Arbouretum plays tonight, March 29th at the Empty Bottle with David Karsten Daniels and Shortstack starting the night off at 9:30pm. Tickets are $8.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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About Transmission

Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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Editor: Sarah Brooks, sarah@gapersblock.com
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