WHEN I FIRST started working at the Mercury last year I spent a good part of my hours talking psychedelic music with Josh Blanchard, who—at the time—was our accounting clerk. The man knew his shit, so much so that I decided to do our last Music Issue on psychedelic music. This was partially because I like psychedelia, but also because I knew I had an expert I could trust, someone who'd been in the trenches, knew all the big generals, and could lob a grenade with the best of 'em. Couple months into the job, Josh came by my work space and handed me a copy of his band's new record, The Mind is a Bird in the Hand, and the shit blew me away. Now, much as I loved the album, the fact that Josh worked in our office made me wary of doing a big gushing feature on his band. While the Mercury doesn't have to play by the same journalistic rules as most publications, a conflict of interest is still a conflict of interest, and the farthest I went were shortish (but still loving) show previews in our Up and Coming section. This always miffed me a little. His band, Plants, deserved a feature. They were hard working, played out all the time, and the fact that I couldn't give them the love their songs warranted was a big-time bummer.
Fast-forward a couple months and Josh isn't a staffer anymore.
So, fuckin' a, folks, here's your big, gushing feature.
The thing that really gets me about Plants, the reason you see them in this space rather than one of the other amazing bands playing this week, is that as a psychedelic band Josh and band-mates Molly Griffith and Jesse Stevens walk the walk. In a post-Devendra/Newsom/Six Organs music scene, everybody from coffee-shop folkies to relatively vanilla indierock bands to Fred Savage's little sister (true) are tagging a "psyche" or a "psychedelic" onto their band's bio, no matter how un-trippy their music sounds. I'm sure once the next big, hip sound comes around they'll get all red in the face denying they ever called themselves "psychedelic," but for now, a shit-ton of bands are using it to their advantage. Plants, then, is as psyche folk as psyche folk gets. They are undeniably psychedelic, maddeningly psychedelic, full of all sorts of sonic tricks and swirls that make their sound—both live and on record—a major headfuck. Like a not-so-mystical little sister to Donovan's great Sunshine Superman record, The Mind is a Bird in the Hand brims over with quavering, baroque arrangements, tremulous medieval sounds, and a slow-building aesthetic as gentle as a summer breeze through long grass. It's a natural, earthy sound, spacey like Pink Floyd, and layered like Godspeed.
The Audio Dregs-released CD is full of dark, humming drones, soft cello, and vocals that enter the arrangements like Marc Bolan were he born a river eel, bending, twisting. They touch down like a dragonfly above acoustic guitars and piano, before lifting off and buzzing out of sight.
Whether done consciously or not, there's a lot of old and new music referenced here, echoes of John Fahey's backwoodsy guitar, brooding moments like great old jazz, a little "Norwegian Wood," some Marissa Nadler, some Joan Baez, occasional Tangerine Dream freakiness, even some Drag City-style post-indierock noise.
A good album can carry a band a long way, and it's worked—verily so—with Plants. Think of any decent touring psyche band that's come through town recently and chances are Plants opened for them. (Akron/Family? Check. Ariel Pink? Yep.) It seems a psychedelic show in Portland is incomplete without Plants throwing down the folky trip-scapes.
Talk to anybody about psychedelic music in Portland and Josh Blanchard's name will invariably come up. He's been doing this for as long as most people can remember, way before Pitchfork and the BBC began riding the "New Weird America" (or whatever you wanna call it) hype train. He also hosts the monthly Church of Psychedelia series at Holocene, though he's not one of those careerist dickheads who uses a theme night to pimp his own band. More so, he does the night to expose Portland to the best in weird, trippy sounds, from pop to noise to leftfield-as-fuck electronic. (This month's Church of Psyche show, held last weekend, featured Tres Gone, Ghosting, New Dark Age, DJ Mordechai, and Penguin Jetpack.)
Psychedelic music at its worst can be hokey, silly, and hackneyed, and at its best it is pure and sublime and otherworldly. Plants runs, decidedly, with the latter camp.
This show is the band's tour kick-off gig and likeminded heads Alan Singley and Pants Machine, Aiden Coughlan, and Brigg Fair hold opening spots.
MERCURY: Josh, everybody I've talked to says you've been down with psychedelic music forever. How did you originally get into it?
BLANCHARD: As long as I can remember, I've always had a soft spot for more unusual sounds in music: theremins, sitars, synthesizers, whatever. My father took me to traditional Indian music concerts as a child and it opened up my horizons about what music could be. Everything didn't have to be verse/chorus/verse or be instantly gratifying. Music could drone on in one key indefinitely until you couldn't help but lose yourself in the sound. When I first started playing music as a way of life, I split my time playing in pop bands and doing noise performances. Psychedelic music, at least in the way I understand it, ended up being a perfect middle ground where I could bring in ideas from both ends of the spectrum and kind of fuse them together.
When did your music first become what we now know of as Plants?
BLANCHARD: Molly and I started playing music together around two years ago, and that's when we started using the name "Plants," which she came up with and I loved for its simplicity. I was originally wanting to call it "Golden Ocean" but she (and other friends) pointed out that it has kind of a... uh... urine vibe, so we scratched that idea. The first material we worked on together was very sparse guitar, piano, and cello pieces, teetering between folk and neoclassical. I was very inspired by modern minimalist folks like Harold Budd and Mark Hollis around then so we were always pushing to "play less and let the spaces between be most of the music" or something along those lines. Though it was purposely soft music, it was also shaped by the environment we worked in. We were living and playing in a small apartment with a whacked-out downstairs neighbor, so we had to play as quietly as humanly possible to avoid her banging on the ceiling with a broom handle. We wrote all of The Mind is a Bird in the Hand in the first few months of playing together.
What does The Mind is a Bird in the Hand mean?
GRIFFITH: It comes from a movie, Dementia 13, where a woman is freaking out and her analyst tells her to picture her mind as a small bird in her hand—when the hand is calm, so is the bird, and thus the mind. It really struck me as a good visualization technique, but then it took on more meaning.
Would you say your music has a calming effect?
BLANCHARD: Our music definitely has a calming effect, at least for me. Honestly, both Molly and I can be high-strung and neurotic a lot of the time, so the sounds and the process of what we do has become particularly therapeutic to us. A lot of people have told us that they put on our record when they need to unwind or be reflective, which I think is ideal. A surprising amount of unrelated people have told us that their cats seem to enjoy our music, which I think is very cool. Our cats always sleep at our feet when we practice at home, so maybe we're subconsciously playing in cat-friendly frequencies.