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Getting the Story Wright – In conversation with Arctic Flowers’ guitarist Stan Wright

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Arctic Flowers have figured fairly large in my life for a while now. Since beginning this radio show in Portland in 2012 and then cooking up what have become known as the NEXT lists here at SEM, each featuring twenty current post-punk bands that deserve attention (of which AF were inaugural members, before there was any need to use the word ‘NEXT’), I’ve probably seen them live a dozen or more times and have become friends with just about all of them but especially guitarist Stan Wright. Admittedly, that might just be because, at 42 years old, Stan’s almost certainly closer in age to your correspondent than anyone else in the Portland post-punk community I seem to find myself in the company of nearly every week, and thus, I figured, probably has some tales to tell. On top of Stan’s searing and inspired ax duties in perhaps Portland’s most high-profile post-punk/peace punk band, he’s also owner and head magic-maker at Buzz or Howl Studios, where on a day in early September 2015 I sat down with him behind the mixing desk and conducted an in-depth, wide-ranging interview, the type that, long though they may be, provide the best insight into the interviewee. To break it up a bit and provide a bit of audio context, I’ve interspersed a few sound clips along the way.

[interview edited for clarity]

 

SEM: So, let’s begin at the beginning. Where’d you grow up, was anyone in your family musical, did you have siblings that turned you on to music, etc etc?

STAN WRIGHT: I grew up on the East Coast, no one was musical in my family, and I got into different music basically through skateboarding. I got in to skateboarding really early…

SEM: What age we talking about?

SW: Twelve or so. It was really hard where I grew up, I had to mail order until I got old enough to go to shows. Where I grew up was on the border with Virginia so I’d end up going to Norfolk, Richmond, Virginia Beach for shows, maybe Raleigh in North Carolina. And I should explain that a lot of people skateboarding were into music and the music they were into was punk.

SEM: Sure, yeah, of course.

SW: So the older connection I had wasn’t a brother or anything but the older brother of a friend who’d make mix tapes or just tape whole records so we’d dub those, so, y’know, real poor quality dubs of a dub, and often we didn’t even know who the band was or who was on it and I never did find out until years later which I thought was kind of awesome, which does not happen now.

SEM: It’s also kind of the classic scenario.

SW: Yeah. I do know that one of the first tapes, one side was Bad Brains, and the other side was Joy Division. Being a twelve year old at the time, I was familiar with hardcore but hearing the Joy Division really had an impact on me that I didn’t even realize. I was like ‘This is really weird. I don’t even know what this music is,’ because, y’know, it was just totally different, there was all this space, and the effects and everything. And in my 12-year-old mind I thought ‘These guys must be from someplace else’ (laughing) I mean, I didn’t know where, but…

SEM: So, I was just doing some quick math in my head so we must be talking 1985 or so.

SW: Yeah, and I remember getting Black Flag, they were still playing, and, y’know, I would order stuff from SST all the time. Anything I could. And my little local record shop, he would order stuff for me, or I’d do the mail order thing, which was common in the 80’s..

SEM: Sure, no internet…

SW: Also, Thrasher Magazine at that point, the music section was run by Brian Shorter, who also goes by Pushead, and he was an artist and the music section was pretty much all punk and hardcore, and it was called the PusZone, and I would read and study those bands mentioned and try to find those, and also seeing local bands, who weren’t that good – it was more metal than punk.

SEM: Were the skateboard/Thrasher kids pretty much on the fringes where you lived? How were they treated in the community?

SW: Well, yeah, it was very fringe, but also at that time skateboarding was starting to become a huge industry and became commercialized more, but we still got yelled at and the local police would try to take our skateboards and stuff like that. It was weird because it was a small, rural area and not all the skateboarders were into music, so we didn’t get along musically so wouldn’t really hang out together. Plus there were straight-up rednecks where I grew up that would yell things at us, throw things at us. A few times they destroyed our ramps, so, yeah. Small town North Carolina.

SEM: So in a recent facebook thread [a longish thread that flowed from yours truly stating he’d never owned a Queen album] you mentioned that you grew up on punk, so you too never owned a Queen album.

SW: No. But I will say that my dad, he didn’t play an instrument but he had a huge record collection and at some point he just said ‘Y’know, you can just have all this vinyl’ but anyway I did grow up listening to that stuff, and my favorites were Black Sabbath, there was some Led Zeppelin, there was just a lot of that classic 60’s and 70’s stuff. And all these singles, like all the Beatles 7″s and things like that. I didn’t know what anything was but I listened to a lot of variety.

SEM: How much if any at all do you think any of that contributed to your musical character?

SW: That I don’t know, because that was before…I was too young.

SEM: Well, that stuff seeps in.

SW: Yeah. I do know that he said I was obsessed by the stereo when I was little, which makes sense because now I’m doing this kind of stuff (nods toward the massive mixing desk and the recording space beyond). I would come in the house and the first thing I would do is turn on the stereo, so I guess I’ve kind of always been into music.

SEM: So, grew up in North Carolina. When did you escape?

SW: I escaped..well, I’d escape once I could drive, and I’d stay gone the weekends, but when I was eighteen I moved to Virginia, where I was going to shows a lot.

SEM: Was this to go to school, or..?

SW: Nope, it was..

SEM: …just to go to shows. (laughter)

SW: Yep, just to go to shows. I lived with a friend, we played music, that never went anywhere but yeah, just going to shows, of all kinds, and it was exciting then because everything was kind of a mystery. I will say that that mystery is gone now, I think because of the internet. But that’s me. I can watch a band’s live performance from across the world on YouTube, and I’ve seen some bands’ first show on the internet, which is fine, but there’s no mystique.

 

SEM: Well people lament about this sort of thing all the time. There’s a romanticization of the time when you had to rely on zines or the NME or Sounds or whatever. I mean, for me, in ’78, ’79, the NME was our bible, we’d grab it as soon as it got to the West Coast, and since I was lucky enough to live in Berkeley it got there within a week or two, and so you’d be well aware of what was going on, and there were record stores that were also just as aware, and so perhaps all this feeds into both ends of it for me. On the one hand, in terms of a nostalgic buzz, that’s pretty strong. Just because of what that life was like, there was a community of us that bonded over this and really there’s nothing more romantic than having friends over and saying ‘You’ve gotta hear this!’ and it being this feverish state of mind pretty constantly, especially in those years. But because of where I lived, I didn’t have to find information in some obscure magazine that I could barely find, then write down some address in the back, so the convenience there is now is just an extension of that.

SW: Oh I don’t miss that. I mean, it was fun, and I totally love the accessibility. I mean just this week – I think I sent you a link – it was a demo from this Polish band –

SEM: Yeah, yeah, I played them on the show Friday night [it was this band]

SW: Oh cool. Yeah, a friend in Poland said ‘Hey, check this out, I think you’re gonna like it,’ and I do love that because otherwise it would be like, maybe he’d write a letter and say check this out, or I’d find it somewhere and I’d order it and it may or may not come because getting mail from Europe then was sketchy, from Poland especially.

SEM: Well yeah, it’s always a two-edged sword. I’m at least gratified that the scene exists at all, and though we’ll probably circle back to this given the questions I’ve got but punk scenes have always existed at some level. There’s a subcultural imperative to emulate, again, the sort of romantic notion of punk, to have the haircuts, to have the studded…

SW: The look, yeah.

SEM: And it seems like it’s almost static. And I don’t mean that in a negative. I mean, it’s always there. It’s never going to be like it was in ’76, obviously, but it’s never going to go away. But with the post-punk thing, it did go away, and it does seem to go in waves, and it does seem to be especially resurgent right now and has been for the last five, seven years.

SW: Yeah, I’m noticing that but I feel that, for you, since you’ve been around since pretty much the beginning, you must really be seeing the wave going on. And, though I don’t want to call it a ‘trend,’ it is really popular right now and I feel – see if you agree – that some things are being called post-punk that I think ‘I don’t know if that’s post-punk.’ I mean, there are so many sounds that can go under that label.

SEM: Well, yeah, it’s a fluid definition.

SW: Yeah, it is. I mean, post-punk started during punk.

SEM: Well, right. I’ve often said that Television was post-punk before there was punk.

SW: And, y’know, it’s a label. People want to classify things.

SEM: For me, well, I’m a sucker for that sound, that lead bass sound that defines so much of what we call post-punk, that even when I know that it’s flagrantly derivative, I still love it. I played a track the other night on the show by a Polish band named Szezlong, which means ‘chaise lounge’ in Polish, and there was a sense of adventurousness to it, which is the component of post-punk that could keep it alive in a much healthier context, it becomes more interesting. Hence bands like the Pop Group and countless others, by incorporating funk, and Jamaican rhythms-

SW: Yeah, dub and reggae.

SEM: I hesitated saying the word ‘reggae’ for some reason (laughs)

SW: Well, there was a recent interview or write up with Killing Joke where Youth was told by a producer or someone ‘Y’know, you’re a dub bass player’ and he thought about it and said ‘Y’know what, I am,’ and basically what he does in the band is play dub basslines. And then there’s a whole record of dub remixes of Killing Joke songs…”

SEM: Oh, huh, I’ve not heard that. But, so, in terms of the definition of the form goes, it’s impossibly broad. But in a weird way it reminds of a famous quote from this committee during the early Reagan years that was investigating pornography and Ed Meese said “I may not know what pornography is but I know it when I see it” and it’s the same for me with post-punk. I may not be able to define it but I know it when I hear it. But the weird thing about the wave for me is that I missed a couple of them. I missed Lowlife. I missed a little wavelet in the late 80’s.

SW: I feel like, maybe it’s not a trend but people have always been playing in bands that might get called post-punk but didn’t draw a lot of attention. I mean, you sound the way you sound, and people are going to classify you, for you. They have to call you something, they have to cite influences, that’s just the way people think. And it seems for some people, it’s already turning them off. Y’know when something gets too popular and everyone’s doing a particular sound…I mean, for some bands it’s really what they want to do, that’s really their sound, but then you have others that are just going to emulate that but the people that come through, they’re either really original or it’s just good songwriting.

SEM: Well again, for me, even if it’s something I know is clearly derivative, if it’s strong, and just overall has a strong voice, it’s going to win me over.

SW: And there’s only so many ways to arrange chords and sound, y’know, and something’s going to sound like something else.

SEM: Right. The human brain is reflexively prone to making connections, so it’s going to hear something and it’s going to search for that thing.

SW: It is, yeah. We like to recognize patterns.

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SEM: So, going back to you…when did you move to Austin, and why?

SW: Well, before that, from Virginia I moved to Memphis, and I met a lot of friends that I’m still friends with and they moved here but we had a hardcore band there called Death Threat – most of them are in a band called Tragedy now, from here – then from there I went to New York, went to school to learn about recording, played music there…

SEM: How long did you do that?

SW: I was in New York from the end of ’99 until 2003, and then in 2003 I moved to Austin. I added all that in because of the transition for me. I was playing hardcore though I always listened to everything, and I started playing with some friends from Brooklyn and I was still playing hardcore but we started a side project called Surrender that was pretty much post-punk. I switched to bass, my friend Sarah sang, and I think that laid the groundwork that set me on the path that I’m on now. Playing those different sounds really excited me. When I moved to Austin I was already writing tons of stuff on guitar that was really different than what I’d done before.

SEM: What pulled you to Austin?

SW: Well, I already had friends there, was pretty much done with New York, and my then-girlfriend Reiko, who I’m married to now, was doing her graduate work in Houston, at Rice. That way we were really close to each other but she was really busy and Austin was the right choice for me so far as friends and music were concerned.

SEM: And not quite as crazy as it was before, I would think.

SW: No, it was not, it’s changed a lot.

SEM: So everywhere you seem to go, it’s gets crazy and then you leave (laughter)

SW: Well hopefully I’ll stay here, though it is getting crazy here. But I started a band called Signal Lost there, which was a little more aggressive than what I do now but some songs were just totally post-punk.

SEM: Yeah, the link you sent me, it would be difficult to hear that and not think ‘Oh yeah, there’s a similarity there.’ What happened to Signal Lost?

SW: We toured a lot. Toured the States, toured Europe. We put out two full lengths, some singles, but eventually it just kind of died out, y’know? People went off to do other things. It wasn’t abrupt. Then in 2007 I got married and we were trying to figure out where to go and and decided ‘Let’s move to the West Coast.’ Once again I had a lot of friends and we were trying to decide where, it was either here [Portland] or the Bay Area.

 

SEM: I think at this point it would be hard not to say that you made the right decision.

SW: Oh I made the right decision, yeah.

SEM: You’ve made a lot of progress since you got here.

SW: I feel like it, yeah. As soon as I got here I started playing music with a friend. That didn’t work out but I had a ton of ideas and started jamming with Mike, who was [Arctic Flowers] original drummer, my friend Lee came in to play bass – I’d known her forever, since Memphis.

SEM: Oh really?

SW: Yeah, she’s from Memphis. And we played and wrote music for about a year before we found a singer. We had a ton of songs written.

SEM: So who was doing the singing?

SW: No one. [surprise expressed] Well, we liked the music and we thought ‘We have to wait for the right person.’ It would take the right person for the band, for that sound. And we saw Alex [Carroccio] – I knew Alex but not very well – and we saw her do an Avengers cover band on Halloween.

SEM: That’s perfect.

SW: And we thought ‘Wow, she’s got a great voice’ and asked her if she wanted to come check out our songs and she came in and sat in on a practice and that was pretty much it, she started writing and singing. We practiced for quite a while before we played a show, probably another six months or so.

 

SEM: So I began the show [Songs From Under the Floorboard] in 2012 unaware of the burgeoning scene around the world let alone in the Pacific Northwest and specifically Portland. And it was completely thanks to a Google search for ‘new post-punk bands’ that brought up Oliver Sheppard’s article in Souciant that mentioned these thirteen bands and something like five of them were from Portland and I was fucking shocked [laughter]. Because, y’know, even though because of the age I am I’m not connected to the underground like maybe I was at one time but regardless I thought I’d have some idea but the reason I wasn’t aware of them was because I was relying on basically overground media.

SW: Well I’ll say that I play music, record bands, and I still don’t know everything that’s going on in Portland. I mean, there are so many layers and so many bands. There must be literally a hundred bands, of every style of music here. There’s probably a great band out there that we’d both love that we haven’t heard yet that live in Portland.

SEM: That’s what I’m hoping for. So anyway [because of that article] I called and talked with Keith [drummer for the Estranged- ed.] before even knowing him, and I dunno we talked for 20 minutes or so and then I started going in there and really that article and that phone call, that realization, is what opened the door to the point that 75% of the show is now new bands [from around the world]. It could be 100% if I didn’t reserve a block for older stuff.

SW: And I think that’s important to do that, to mix in the older bands. Every time you do that I hear something I haven’t heard before.

SEM: But anyway the point is, it seems that in 2012 I plugged in to a scene that had been going on for a while, but that’s what I don’t know exactly. What was it like when you got here?

SW: It was a little different. There was still Satyricon [legendary punk dive in Old Town that was on it’s very last legs at that point – ed.] and I’d say the scene was on the verge of new things. There were a lot more house shows then and I hope that comes back because they were really fun, and I don’t think everything needs to be at a bar. It becomes a bar culture. I love it when there are shows at warehouses and places like that. Arctic Flowers’ second or third show was at a warehouse that was an art gallery that’s gone now called Worksound. It was with White Lung and New Sensei and it was all ages. There was actually art up – I like those two worlds mixing – but it wasn’t just ‘a bar’ where you go there, you drink, you watch a band, you go home. Maybe [at the gallery] you’re getting other aspects of art, I dunno. Maybe not everyone, but..house shows, as well, you get a different feel.

SEM: Well it’s certainly more intimate.

SW: Yeah, it is. But musically [back then], I felt like things were changing, though I dunno, I’m limited in what I can see just like anyone is. I was here early enough to see Bellicose Minds’ first show, and they were great.

SEM: What year was that, do you remember?

SW: I dunno, exactly, but maybe 2009? And the Estranged, they were already playing. And Deathcharge is a band that started out more hardcore-

SEM: They have more of a hardcore sound anyway.

SW: Yeah but their last couple of records have had more a Christian Death sort of sound. I mean I don’t want to pigeonhole them but you do hear more post-punk in their sound. Also Vivid Sekt, which Alex is the singer in, they were also playing when I got here.

SEM: So the scene was actually fairly healthy when you got here.

SW: Yeah, and right around then Moral Hex began, then Funeral Parade, neither of which are together anymore, some of their members moved away, and-

SEM: How about the Red Dons?

SW: Yes, they played but not long after that they all moved to different cities, and actually the first record at my old studio was doing their LP five years ago.

[What follows is a discussion that centers around where the original Buzz or Howl Studios was located – SE 20th & Morrison – that touches, albeit implicitly, on the rampant economic change that has was beginning to take hold and has by now swept over Portland without mercy, resulting in exorbitant rents and low vacancy rates. That corner housed not only Buzz or Howl but also the original Black Water Records, which morphed pretty quickly into an under-the-radar performance and rehearsal space. But the aspect of all this that’s the hardest to take for your correspondent – and he’s known of this for a while now – is that he lived about seven blocks from there at the time, which, besides causing great personal consternation and regret, also emphasizes how underground that whole scene was and why it had escaped my attention for those three+ years]

 

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SEM: So speaking of Buzz or Howl, you mentioned earlier about the stereo when you were little, and I kind of had the same thing once I figured out what it was about, but I didn’t end up doing this [gesturing to the mixing desk and studio through the glass]. Was it always the plan? I mean, you went to school for this..

SW: I did, but I don’t think you need to go to school to do it, necessarily. If you have a desire to do it you should just start recording people, y’know, friends, for free, get experience, do some experimenting. And nowadays you can read up on the internet, and you have access to so many things you didn’t have back then. But I ended up doing it because I reached a point in my life where I didn’t want to do some of the same jobs I’d been doing forever. I was, y’know, touring a lot and just working whatever job I could and I thought ‘OK, I love music’ so I looked around at some different schools and ended up going to the Institute for Audio Research in Manhattan.

SEM: Well it’s cool because there was a lot of that back then. I mean, I looked into it in my late teens or something, there were always ads in the back of Rolling Stone or what-have-you, and I think a lot of people did it but I don’t know that a lot of them ended up following through.

SW: No, I know. I know a lot of people who have gone to school for recording that didn’t end up doing anything with it. A few people I know that went to school with me did it for a while then got out of it. It is really tough. Especially nowadays the whole industry has changed, since the early 2000’s or so.

SEM: First off, tough how or why, and second changed how or why?

SW: It’s tough financially, and it’s changed from there being budgets for recording to basically no budget, and also with digital recording coming in it changed everything in terms of accessibility for people, which I love that but it did take away from the entire industry.

SEM: Well yeah, right. People recording in their bedrooms rather than going into a studio.

SW: And everything in between. You’ll get people recording at home and then giving me the mix and we mix it here. Or they record part of it here, part of it at home, then I mix it or they record it all here then take it home and they mix it. I mean you can upload your music and send it to anyone in the world to record or mix for you. There aren’t any limits anymore. Which is exciting, but, y’know, it changes-

SEM: Well yeah, that shift has kind of expressed itself all across the spectrum. Democratization of the process, quote unquote, has had some great advantages but has also inflicted some damage.

SW: Yes, exactly.

[Your correspondent then goes into a slightly lengthy and discursive set-up for the next question that involves seeing XTC for the second and last time in 1980 and hearing Andy say, at a particularly – ahem – ecstatic moment between stage and audience, his voice hoarse but excited, “This is great! You should do it, anyone can do this!” or some variation thereof, and me thinking ‘Yeah, but, we’re not all Andy Partridge,’ then relating that sentiment of Andy’s to the idea that anyone can produce a record these days]

 

SEM: In terms of what we were talking about before, there are of course an almost infinite variety of tools and apps at one’s disposal that people can use to record themselves but I don’t know – and perhaps I’m being naïve and somewhat nostalgist here – that one’s able to emulate the feel of a sound that’s produced in a room like this.

SW: I definitely feel that way. You can all kinds of effects, including to ‘create space,’ but my main thing is that anyone can add those effects but what you’re paying for is people’s experience when you go record at a studio. Not only the gear and the room is a part of it but that experience as well. I mean, a lot of it is just problem-solving. Yeah, years of experience, more than anything I learned in school, dealing with bands day in and day out for, in my case, fifteen years now.

SEM: Right. You can’t get experience over the internet, or download it as an app.

SW: No, no, plus you get to a point where you’re not surprised by anything, you’re problem-solving and part of it also is psychology, you’re working with people as a kind of service industry.

SEM: Well and musicians have a – this is a pretty general statement, obviously – have a particular mindset. Artists in general but musicians particularly, because of the craft, what they have to know, tend to develop an internal language that’s peculiar to that set of artists.

SW: And I would like to add as well that I think you can make a good record in just about any circumstance. I’ve heard great records from people’s houses and I’ve heard great records from the biggest studios in the world, and I think that you can do it anywhere and I think that’s awesome, because I didn’t have access to that when I was a kid and neither did a lot of people. I mean, you had a 4-tracks, that’s what I learned on, a 4-track cassette, a little all-in-one recorder, and some people had 8-tracks and that was about the limit of it. So I didn’t know really anything going into recording.

SEM: That would seem fairly daunting.

SW: Yeah, but the people I worked with at the school and everything, it was pretty cool. And then I started interning at different studios in New York, so that helped a lot.

SEM: What studios?

SW: The studio I worked at a lot was called Coyote, in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, which at the time was way different to what it is today. When they moved into that space – I guess it was the ’80’s – they were told no one would ever go to Williamsburg to record, that they were crazy.

SEM: That’s as crazy as having a club in Hoboken.

SW: Yeah, right. But I loved it. Coyote was great. I worked there for years, assisting and learning a lot. And I was lucky they did rock bands because, y’know, I could’ve been doing things I didn’t like, and musically I liked a lot of the bands and I learned a lot.

SEM: Could have been a jazz studio.

SW: Yeah, right. I would’ve gotten the experience, but-

SEM: Who knows what that would’ve done to your style [laughter]

SW: And they’re gone now because of that area changing so much. They were there for over twenty years but eventually the landlord said ‘Hey, I can get more money..’

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SEM: So hey, since the recorder wasn’t on when we talked about it, let’s talk about the remix 12″ that’s coming out. Is is from Weaver?

SW: No. The first three songs are songs we recorded in 2009 for our first release. And one song on that is still a favorite of ours – “Technicolor Haze” -and it’s definitely more dancey – I dunno, I don’t know how to describe it – but when we were thinking of re-releasing those songs I said I’d like to do a remix, I felt like giving it out to different people and seeing what they did with it.

SEM: Just with “Technicolor Haze.”

SW: Yeah, so, we re-recorded the song – because didn’t have the tracks anymore because it was so long ago – re-recorded it and just slowly started sending it out to different friends and talked with different people about how they knew that did remixes, would they want to do it, and we got some really exciting results, from all across the spectrum and really from all across the world. From dub, to, I dunno, one is kind of hip-hop, it’s all over the place. There are nine different mixes, plus the original version, and then the two other songs from our first 7″. It’ll be a 12″ on Deranged.

SEM: So we were talking about this before I hit record and one of the remixes is from the guy in Rubella Ballet.

SW: Yeah, Sid [Attion – ed.]. We’re big fans of the band, and I found out he did remixes and I thought ‘Wow that’d be awesome’ so I wrote to him and he was really gracious and he really liked the song and he was the first one to do a remix.

[discussion ensues regarding when it’s due out, which of course is impossible to pinpoint given the state of pressing plants these days, which leads to the possibility of it being pressed in the Portland area’s newest shining addition to that club, Cascade Record Pressing in Milwaukie – my now-home town, as it happens – and how many local bands and labels are now using that facility exclusively]

 

 

SEM: Winding down, what’s ahead for Arctic Flowers?

SW: We’re writing new material, one of the songs will be on a split 7″ with Infinite Void from Australia. We have their track, ours is almost done. But other than that just writing towards a new LP, which will be when I can’t say because we’re still writing, it’ll be a while, and yeah, we’re playing shows but otherwise we don’t have any plans right now.

And, after some talk about the potential for Arctic Flowers tours of Europe and Australia and the difficulties of getting all four members freed up enough to make such a prospect possible, we’re out.