THE FIRST TIME Misty Mary and Michael Yun played music together, they wrote "You're Not Really Here," the meditative, impressionistic hymn that closes WL's debut album, Hold, and also serves as the album's advance single. Mary's vocal on the finished track was recorded at that very first rehearsal, which took place after Mary had been riding her bike around St. Johns in the cold rain for an hour and a half, unable to find Yun's house. "You're Not Really Here" exudes that sense of warmth from coming in from a dark, cold night, and it's an ideal introduction to WL, since it's essentially the song that introduced the band to itself. (You can pronounce their name "well" or "double you ell"; the band doesn't mind either way.)
The 10 tracks on their album—self-released digitally and on cassette—are markedly diverse, from the languid, airy "Chance" to the fuzz-coated "Sugar Pill" and the clanging, rhythmic "Point of Focus." The trio's lineup solidified with the addition of Stevie Sparks, who also drums with Iron and Wine and Daniel Lanois; he joined the band after moving to Portland from LA. Sparks' driving, forceful, and in many cases danceable drum work adds a revving engine to the feather-soft dreamscapes and chainsaw-buzz walls of sound that earned WL the early, if inadequate, tag of "shoegaze."
"I think we always kind of struggled with that label, because we never set out to do that," says Mary. "When we got together, the first instinctual thing was that we wanted to write rock 'n' roll songs—and that's just what it ended up sounding like."
"Misty's singing is very pure and soft," adds Yun, "and in fronting a loud band I think automatically people associate it with shoegaze-y kind of stuff. The first 7-inch we put out is pretty close—you listen back to it and 'Impermanent' comes across in that style for sure. When we were arranging it we were trying to sound like the Velvet Underground or something, but it ended up sounding a little more [My Bloody Valentine]. That association is not something we shy away from, necessarily, but it's just not an intentional thing."
Hold is an easy record to get lost in, alternating between moments of darkness and light, and supplementing its vivid songwriting with an expansive sense of space. It's an impressive augmentation of the band's powerful live sound, which has already earned them significant local notice and acclaim. While Mary's vocals are the focal point, they often act as the calm eye at the center of the band's tempest of sound, with lyrics subject to the listener's interpretation. (Hold's lyrics are, helpfully, spelled out on the cassette's striking artwork.)
"In every aspect of our songs, everyone's really highly involved. We all kind of reach into each other's hearts a little bit," Mary says. "Lyrically, the album has a lot of different writing styles, and I think it reflects whatever we were feeling at the time. They're not conscious; they happened very organically. I do think that the feeling of all the lyrics fits together. The themes are pretty consistent."
WL is already at work on another record, a collection of material based on their live-soundtrack contribution to Holocene's Fin de Cinema screening of René Laloux's Light Years (AKA Gandahar) from October of last year. They've even started writing a third album.
"Almost every rehearsal, we'll write a new thing," Yun says. "For me, that's the whole reason for playing music. That's my favorite part of it—generating new ideas. That's what makes it a vital thing for me, and for all of us. It's the newness, the exploration and inventing. It's all about the writing. And our writing process is very much: Let's play music together and influence each other and see what comes out, and record it on a voice memo or a little tape deck or whatever it is. We'll play it a few times through, and Misty comes up with some stuff, and bang."
He and Mary laugh at this slight oversimplification. "But that's been our process," he adds, "and I've never played with other musicians where we could just do that. It's one of those mysterious things, a personality balance or something."