THE MUSIC of AU captures the spark of creation, that moment of inspiration when everything clicks into place, when an idea that didn't exist before comes into being for the very first time. I'll wager it's nearly impossible—unless you are a callous monster of a person—to see the Portland band perform without experiencing some shiver of that ecstatic moment of invention. AU's music, on paper, is a genre-less hodgepodge that embraces a baffling amount of styles, but in practice it's eloquent, unique, and bursting with unfathomable energy.
This kind of magic has to be carefully plotted, though, and AU—whose current lineup consists of Luke Wyland and drummer Dana Valatka, plus a handful of guests whenever logistics allow—spent many months concocting their excellent new album, Both Lights (which comes out in April on the Hometapes label, although copies will be available a full month before its release at AU's record release show this Saturday, March 3). It was particularly arduous for Wyland, AU's singer, keyboardist, lap steel guitarist, and chief songwriter.
"It was confusing," says Wyland. "There were some songs that were done quickly, but then there were others that were just motherfuckers." This effort, however, isn't evident on the record, which bears little strain of being overworked while also being the recorded document that comes closest to AU's nimble, blissful live shows. "I may have over-thought this album to a degree, but in the end, it came out pretty naturally," he says.
Wyland started AU as a solo project in 2005, and by the time of 2008's Verbs, AU had swelled into a larger ensemble, often with many guest musicians onboard. But the rigors of touring necessitated a streamlined lineup of Wyland and Valatka. "It's a different band, essentially," Valatka says. "I used to play in metal bands and listened to the harsher side of things, which brought a different element."
Verbs and its follow-up EP, Versions, took AU to Europe for three separate tours. "It was really fucking exciting," Wyland says. "There were all these things that I had dreamed of doing, and then I was doing them. But at the end, there was the need for us to process all that."
Following some recuperation time, Wyland and Valatka began recording Both Lights in a tiny space that Wyland built inside of Valatka's garage. "Once the spaces we were hoping for fell through," Wyland says, "I ended up building the space in the back of his garage. It was totally makeshift, not heated, and the door itself was a giant piece of Styrofoam that you'd have to slide, and squeeze yourself in. There were no windows, and it was just big enough for Dana's drum kit and my gear. It was cozy! But it was also in a garage with motorcycles that leaked oil. I remember the first time I had Nick Sweet over, who plays trombone on the album—he's having to do all this deep breathing, and after a while he was like, 'I need to take a break. It's, like, really fume-y in here.' And I was like, 'What do you mean, man? I have no idea what you're talking about!'
"I was in there sometimes 10 hours a day back to back, and without creating a mythology around it, I think it added to the sense of, 'What's going on here? What am I actually trying to do now?'" Wyland continues.
Valatka's drum tracks were all finished early on, but Wyland spent many months arranging and rearranging parts, bringing in guest musicians, and honing the compositions. Meanwhile, with his parts done, Valatka offered support as Wyland came over each day to work. "I'd be like, 'Do you need some tea or something? Let me know if you need anything!'" says Valatka. "I was pretty much just there to be like, 'Let me know if you need me.'"
Wyland laughs, and adds, "It sort of became a private hell, to a degree." The album, of course, grew into itself, and while Wyland doesn't consider his lyrics to be driven by their meaning as much as the sound of the words themselves, Both Lights gradually developed its own theme. "This is super vague, but it's about finding meaning in connection, either in a relationship with others or with yourself," Wyland says. "I know that's incredibly broad, but almost every song is about that to some degree. Even the title, Both Lights, is in reference to that idea of being in the world and seeking meaning in whatever you're doing. In my mind, there are two lights: One that is emitted and one that is reflected."