For Lisa Schonberg, the process of composing music often starts with her body still and her ears open.
“I’m just, like, really into listening,” Schonberg says over the phone, days removed from a trip to Brazil where she recorded the sound of ants, among other animals (she has a background in ecology and entomology).
“I’ll go somewhere and then just sit and listen,” she says. “So I might go on a hike, and then every few minutes sit somewhere for a while and make field recordings at the same time that I’m listening and jotting down ideas... I have a lot of field recordings of the movement of a pencil, as well.”
Locally, at least, Schonberg is probably best known as one of two drummers (along with Heather Treadway) in the Portland big-beat punk band Explode into Colors, who were active (and beloved) in the late 2000s and reunited for a couple of shows last year. But this week she’s celebrating a debut with another long-running musical endeavor, Secret Drum Band.
Dynamics came out earlier this month on XRAY Records, but the origins of Secret Drum Band stretch back to 2006, when Schonberg put together a four-piece percussion ensemble for Ladyfest in Olympia. The band’s activity has ebbed and flowed (depending on material and available personnel), but solidified when Schonberg wrote a handful of songs based on recordings she’d made of rare bee habitat in Hawaii in 2013. Three songs from that project appear on the new album.
“That’s when I said, ‘Let’s try and be a band,’” Schonberg says. “An art band. A weird band. An experimental band. But let’s get this thing going regularly.”
Dynamics is aptly named. Across eight tracks, Secret Drum Band builds a wall of rhythmic sound that’s sometimes dense, but just as often delicate. Schonberg and her fellow composers, Treadway and Allan Wilson (formerly of !!!), use the varying timbres of different percussion instruments to establish a meditative groove. Each song is filled out with strands of altered noise: affected vocals, noisy synths, and howling guitars, plus field recordings and samples of birds, wind, and electricity.
Some songs, like the transportive “DaDaDa,” grew out of typical basement jams, according to Schonberg. (She and Treadwell have “crazy percussive chemistry,” she says.) Others—a slice of drum-driven disco called “Big Metal,” for example—bear the clear mark of Wilson, whose work in !!! was decidedly dance-y. And when Secret Drum Band gets real weird, as on the groaning “Pepeiao Cabin,” that’s usually an outgrowth of Schonberg’s adventurous musical spirit.
“Secret Drum Band, for me, is my means to exercise my own composition skills,” she says, “but it’s also been a really cool mix of writing with Heather and Allan. This album is kind of like the marriage of those two things.”
That’s musically speaking, of course. For Schonberg, though, music has always been closely associated with place, the sounds of place, and the larger issues that affect us all.
“Some people listen to bands from this country or that country, or this era or that era for inspiration, and I just decided at some point, ‘Let me see if I can combine all my interests... and engage people in environmental issues that are related to the work I’m doing,’” she says. “As someone who spent so many years in school tackling climate change, habitat loss, and all this stuff, it feels really good to use what I’m best at to try spread the message and awareness of these issues.”