For Emmet Martin and Skyler Pia, the beauty of their drone music project Water Shrews lies in its impermanence. Their long-form improvisational jams lurch to life and then dwindle to an end, never to be revisited again. An occasional third member—Morgan O’Sullivan of the local band Boreen—comes and goes, depending on the circumstances of the gig or the recording session. When he does join the fun, the band’s name changes, from Water Shrews to Water Shrew Trio.
Even the band’s origin grew unexpectedly out of another project, as if it always existed and rose to the surface when the time was right.
“I first just invited Skyler to join my more traditional song-based project, World Record Winner, because I had this vision where I didn’t really want the songs to have an ending. So we would improvise in between,” said Martin, who also runs the local cassette label Bud Tapes.
“We were both really into a lot of droning improv music, so we were bonding over it, and that kind of stuff started to become the bulk of our practices,” they continued. “Eventually, we were like, ‘What would happen if we just did the things that we’re enjoying the most?’”
That inspiration came from a variety of places: Freewheeling experimental rock bands like Sunburned Hand of the Man and Portland’s own Jackie-O Motherfucker. Acoustic drone conjurers such as Pelt and Matthew J. Rolin (who will headline Water Shrew Trio’s tape-release show on Friday). Undulating electronic and ambient acts like Emeralds and Stars of the Lid. And free jazz!
“Albert Ayler’s album Love Cry just completely shattered my brain open when I heard it, and I didn’t want to listen to anything else,” Martin said. “I wanted to listen to only the freakiest shit possible after that.”
By late 2021, it was clear to both Martin and Pia that the improvised music between World Record Winner songs was its own thing that needed its own name, and Water Shrews was born. The duo recorded every jam, which made it easy to put together two 25-minute supercuts of compelling live performances and rehearsal tapes for their debut release, which came out at the end of 2022 on Seattle-based label Drongo Tapes.
“We have found a lot from just allowing one tone to hang out for a long time,” said Pia, proprietor of Portland-based label Oranj Discs. “That first album is kind of a mosaic of the first year of the project.”
On Friday night at 13th Moon Gravity Well, Martin, Pia, and O’Sullivan will celebrate the project’s first true studio album, recorded as (and titled) Water Shrew Trio. Captured in one evening last December, the tape features two 21-minute drones that showcase the group’s instinct for layering different sounds into a cohesive whole, penchant for gentle, snail’s-paced crescendos, and ability to settle into innately organic rhythms. On both sides, Water Shrew Trio’s wandering explorations are long and patient, unpredictable yet comforting, psychedelically crunchy and delightfully freaky.
The end goal, of course, is not perfection or even completion, said Pia, but the journey itself, the paths that are illuminated along the way, and the personal growth that happens as part of the process.
“Improvised music is a big, amorphous thing that can range from silly and aimless to, you know, transcendental. You really do lose a lot of the control that you might otherwise be inclined to put into the music you’re making,” she said.
“I think that’s what a lot of people find freeing about this kind of stuff, because there’s really no room to be overly precious about it, and even if you throw something at the wall that feels like it’s not working in the moment, it’s a fun challenge to try to figure it out,” Pia continued. “A lot of times, a mistake will lead us into this really bizarre territory that we weren't expecting, or we’ll accidentally play a wrong note and it’s actually kind of sick! And it’s like, ‘Let’s just lean into that and follow it all the way to its natural conclusion.”
Water Shrew Trio plays an album release show at 13th Moon Gravity Well, 4513 41st, Fri, Nov 3, 7 pm, FREE, donations encouraged for touring act. w/ Matthew J. Rolin and Broken Crow