I lived in Portland, Oregon for three months at the beginning of 2013, and my world felt totally crazy. I was ending old relationships, meeting new people, adjusting to this very temporary Portland lifestyle that involved living in a house in the woods and writing about meth busts at my day job. It was all really isolating-- get up, go to work, try not to cry on the phone while talking to the Portland police, go home-- so to cheer myself up I would go to Little Axe, a small and selective record store, and look for the Good Willsmith tape that my friends had dropped off when they played there the previous summer.
When I returned to Chicago three months later, I related this story to Good Willsmith member Doug Kaplan, as he held up the last copy of the tape, Is the Food Your Family Eats Slowly, that he had in his possession.
“Hold on,” he said, walking into the next room. When he came back moments later, he handed me the tape. “I’ve discussed it with my associates and we’ve decided to give this to you.” It seemed like it was an important tape to me, he said, and his bandmates Max Allison and Natalie Chami had agreed I should have it.
It is an important tape to me, and Good Willsmith is an important band. I’ve seen Good Willsmith play in basements in Chicago, at bars, on the lakefront at Northwestern University, at the Silent Barn in New York City, with Zomes, Greg Fox, Negativland, Horse Lords, Bitchin’ Bajas. When The Honeymoon Workbook got reviewed on Pitchfork, my younger brother called me and asked if that was the group that had left their gear in our New Jersey basement while they stayed in New York. I have brought them countless bags of Twizzlers and Sour Patch Kids before their shows, heard their sets evolve over the past few years, watched them sketch out plans for future sets, sat off to the side as they were interviewed for a podcast, manned their merch table.
When I emailed the three members of the band if they thought it might be weird if I interviewed them for a story, Kaplan immediately replied and said, “Of course we’re down! It will be just like Almost Famous except way more fun and a lot less sex!!”
So we sat down together-- in a more formal setting than we're used to-- and talked about their first few releases, their LP, The Honeymoon Workbook, their goals. I asked them each to describe the first show they ever played together, and got wildly different results.
“I think we had practiced a bunch before that show,” Allison says. “Well, ‘a bunch’ is relative. I think it was five or six times.”
Chami pauses to ponder the question before answering.
“We had only played together, like, once,” she eventually says. “Maybe twice. That first show was only the second time we had ever played together.”
Kaplan thinks it was maybe three or four times that they played together before their first show in 2012, a show at a mutual friend’s apartment, a show where everyone was on acid and eating gummy bears and DJs were playing techno and Chami was hiding in the host’s bedroom, away from everyone, going through an earth-shattering breakup and not joining her bandmates until they were 20 minutes into their set.
“I don’t remember the end of that night, to be honest,” Chami says. “I have no idea if I got back home, or what happened. I just remember transcending.”
Good Willsmith formed when Kaplan and Allison decided they wanted to focus on a more “zoned out” project than their previous band, The Earth is a Man. They knew that they wanted to work with a woman, even putting out a Craigslist ad (“We’d like our singer to be able to loop herself with pedals in a live, semi-improvised setting”) when they were introduced to Chami through a mutual friend.
Starting out, they all played quietly and politely, feeling out each other’s musical styles. Chami studied vocal performance at Northwestern University and has the most classical training of the three, while Kaplan, who, like Chami, had some formal musical training, stopped when he realized he didn’t want to play jazz. Allison is mostly self-taught.
“Classical was my life forever,” Chami says, “but I always wanted to be singing with noise shimmering behind me.”
Their various backgrounds don’t normally pose issues. “It sometimes creates a moment of small bickering in practice,” Kaplan says, “but it’s never been like, ‘Fuck you, how do you not know how to play a C minor 9?’”
Mixing their training backgrounds and their influential backgrounds works as an advantage to the band, where they’re not all bringing the same styles and influences to the table. A Venn diagram of the band members’ individual musical tastes would look crazily convoluted. Mashing all of their influences and inspirations together, the group collectively (but not necessarily individually) likes Aaliyah, Bill Orcutt, the Grateful Dead, Sunn O))), the Books, the Residents, Notorious B.I.G., Bjork, and Dustin Wong.
“I think there’s one really big touchstone that we use, just among ourselves, and that’s Portishead’s Third,” Allison says. “They make pop songs that manifest as true mindfucks that have really loose structures, interlocking parts that are focused on the atmosphere, the texture.”
That’s something the group wants to focus on in coming months, trying to differentiate between improvised sets, without just putting out straight-up pop music. Portishead’s Third provides an excellent compromise, a middle ground between spiraling off into totally unstructured noisy improv and sugary pop songs. They’ve started to compose more, with each member having a designated space to take the lead, while the others figure out ways to provide accompaniment. More individualized voices, less of a haze, with each member firing on all cylinders, playing and using numerous sound sources and looping and interweaving. They’re at a crossroads of sorts, just having toured the East Coast while trying out a new set, figuring out how to change it up from the set they used for The Honeymoon Workbook. “We’ll see,” is a common response when they talk about the next steps.
“I don’t want it to be a re-ordering of what everyone’s already heard, like, how will our next set be any different than what we’ve been doing?” Chami says of their future sounds. “I’m not sure what the answer is yet.”