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Interview: Joel P. West of The Tree Ring

November 4, 2010 - 2:36 pm

The Tree Ring has been busy lately. The folksy quartet—Joel P. West, Kelly Bennett, Douglas Welcome and Darla Hawn—recently holed up in a cabin in Idyllwild for a week to record their new album. They hauled a bunch of recording equipment up there, worked with engineer Chris Hobson and payed for it using online funding platform Kickstarter. West, the band’s vocalist / guitarist, then spent a week in Iceland mixing the album, which he expects will be released in February 2011. In this e-mail interview, conducted in time for The Tree Ring’s performance tonight at Sushi Performance & Visual Art, West talks about Idyllwild’s idyllic surroundings, The Tree Ring’s evolution, and more.

Tell me about Idyllwild. How was it up there?

We loved it, Idyllwild is really beautiful and it feels very far from San Diego. There’s very little going on up there and everything in town closes at 8 or so and it was really nice to adapt to that pace for a week and spend time immersed in the music.

Why did you decide to go up there to record the album?

It was important to get everyone out of town and away from other commitments and we loved the idea of all staying and working on a project somewhere surrounded by nature—the surroundings in a recording environment really do play a big role in how it turns out. Most of the songs on this record are written from time spent just sitting and watching the earth do its thing so the idea of working business hours at a studio with no windows somewhere in the city didn’t seem like a good fit.

How did the recording process work? Did you record it all as a live band or do multi-tracking or what?

We recorded all the tracks individually but put microphones all over the cabin and tried to track it as organically as possible. Each take was done separately but the whole band was in the room with headphones on and very involved at each step.

Did you already have the songs written or did you do any songwriting while recording?

Most of the songs were written when we arrived but there were two songs that we brought only a basic structure for and then developed them there. A lot of the record has very calculated arrangements so we tried to balance that aspect with some ideas that we came up with together on the spot.

I watched a short video of the recording process and it looks like a pretty laid-back, woodsy environment. Was it a change of environment for the band or are you all used to the country?

As a band we romanticize the greenery, quiet, and active seasons of the mountains because most of us grew up in those sorts of places. We talk about getting out of town all the time and it felt very natural to get some dedicated time together somewhere so beautiful and slow-paced.

What can we expect from the new record?

Songs that are built as compositions rather than written alone and later supported by a band. We were trying to borrow some ideas from chamber music and string quartets where one person’s part might sound odd by itself, but all of the parts together create beautiful textures and melodies.

How is it different from your solo material?

This record was written with a goal that all of the songs would be pretty lame if played without the band, and that the parts would be written not just for the instrumentation of the band, but for the unique voices of each person in the band. I think the songs are a natural progression from my work before the band but overall we are trying to stretch the possibilities of what the four of us can compose in a room together.

I hear that the record is being mixed in Iceland. Can you tell me more about that?

I went out to Iceland a couple weeks ago to work with a man named Biggi who runs the Sundlaugin studio a little north of Reykjavik. We had made a shortlist of mix engineers we liked and he was at the top of it. I went to Iceland a few years ago and have been itching to get back so when he wrote back saying that he was interested in the project we jumped on it. He works in a very natural way and makes a lot of records with similar instrumentation so it was a very smooth process. I stayed in a little room by the studio, which is in a beautiful little community that’s at the very edge of the Reykjavik area before it becomes a wide-open volcanic landscape for miles and miles.

You funded recording the album using Kickstarter. How did that work out?

It worked out really well – we decided to use the site to gather more funds for the recording we wanted to make but it ended up being a great communication between us and those following our music. We got to share details about how recording works and the specific songs we were working on and at the same time felt very encouraged and empowered to make the project. It’s hard not to go through phases of questioning what you are doing or why you are doing it at all when working on an ambitious creative project but we felt like people were excited and rooting us on every step of the way and I really think it played into the quality of what we made.

Why did you recently drop Joel P. West from the band’s name?

Primarily because we want to communicate that what we are currently playing requires all of us to show up; it’s often hard to tell what you are going to get when you see a person’s name on the bill. The Tree Ring was assembled to play songs from the Joel P West records live, but when we started playing we realized there was something special about the ensemble of personalities and musicianship. We all like the songs from Dust Jacket way more as they’ve been adapted to be played live and at some point we realized that if we wrote songs specifically for the four of us it could be really interesting.

Does that mean the band is more of a collaborative effort now?

Absolutely. Many of the songs on this new project went in way different directions than they were written and we work very openly together. Each person knows their instrument and abilities best, so we’ve tried to develop a process where everyone is trusted to sway the parts and performances to what they hear for each song.

I liked your dog park video of “Dreams Where I Am Sleeping.” How did you get that idea?

We used to practice at a house a block away from the dog park and have always thought it was a funny place. At the time we had been talking with our friend Brad Kester about an idea he had to shoot a video with a bubblemaker he had made and Destin Daniel Cretton wanted to do a video with us playing songs for some of our neighbors, so we just decided to invite some friends out to the park on a Saturday and brought the cameras and bubblemaker. It was a pretty amazing time with friends and neighbors and I’m glad that Destin and Brad are good enough with film to be able to capture the feeling of the day.

Did you just go out and record it or tell the people you were doing it ahead of time?

Nobody at the park knew we were coming and we were a little nervous that people might be concerned about the loud drums around their dogs but everyone loved it and we had a little group of neighbors who stayed to make bubbles and listen to us play for a couple of hours.

The Tree Ring kicks off Sezio’s “Four Day Weekend” festival tonight at Sushi Performance & Visual Art. For more information, click here. Joel P. West also performs solo at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido on Nov. 12 in conjunction with an installation by artist Wes Bruce. More info here.

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