Thom Huhtala: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyor of:Music to take drugs to make music to; drone zone folk rock for surfing on the northern lights
File Next To:Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3, Neil Young, Guided by Voices, Grouper, Neutral Milk Hotel

Bad River front man and Tess Parks collaborator, Toronto’s Thom Huhtala writes and records songs the way ketamine hides the secrets of the universe at the bottom of the K-hole. It’s a journey that rewards travelers willing to take the plunge with an expanded consciousness — though possibly accompanied by feelings of extreme disorientation, temporary memory loss and vivid hallucinations.

Q: It seems like there’s a lot of psychedelic music bubbling up from Toronto’s underground these days. And a lot of music that calls itself psychedelic, but really isn’t very psychedelic at all. Why do you think this is? Why psych? Why now? Why here?

I bet it never left. There is still a strong presence of hippie culture in Toronto. Kensington Market has always been full of them: people freakin’ out, that is. This lady just today with no shoes on, told me to “free my mind.” She was completely gone.

I guess we’ve inherited a lot from previous generations, in all aspects of life, both good and bad. So much stuff has already been produced, you kind of just have to sift through it all and pick out the good bits, refurbish it and recycle. As for bands calling themselves psych, I’m not sure. It seems like you’re not allowed to make progressive music anymore unless you use an MPC and a laptop. Creating something someone isn’t going to compare to something from the past is nearly impossible, especially with guitars and especially if you like vintage tones. That being said, personally I don’t think the music I make is necessarily psych; I love guitar solos and delay — so what. Bands like Tame Impala have been bringing psych stuff to the mainstream, so there’s bound to be some fallout or influence from that, I guess.

The whole idea of “prog” or progressive music in 2014 is interesting. I almost feel like it’s gotten to the point where even laptop music has begun to stagnate and ceased to be progressive. The technology is old enough now that everything’s been done with an MPC as much as it has with guitars. Do you think there’ll always be somewhere for humans to take music, or is music, as some people suggest, in a death spiral?

For the good of humanity, I really hope the latter isn’t possible. I know personally speaking, I love music way too much to for that to ever happen to me. It’s like that desert island game, where you choose one record, and it’s all you can listen to. Even if I had listen exclusively to Huey Lewis & the News for years, I think I would still be able to throw it on and enjoy. I think there will always be new music to make, or at least new content to speak about. People will always be involved and ingrained in their struggles. I love music that refers to things like texting and email. I haven’t done it, but I think it’s a funny way to modernize rock music in a subtle way. “I sent my girl a love note” is now “I wrote a kinky text” or something.

A lot of your recordings seem to be rooted in the lo-fi aesthetic. Is this by design or economic necessity?

A little of both maybe, I’ve always wanted my music to be transparent and I have always strived to try and expose the working parts of the recordings. Grain and texture go a long way and do awesome things for certain songs. Studio cuts or long introductions can establish connections to the listener and I believe there is an opportunity for transcendence if you are able to bring the listener into something they really have to pay attention to. A lot of the music I listen to is lo-fi, I always appreciate interesting recordings as opposed to some big studio stuff. It really upsets me when lo-fi bands go hi-fi and it blows — there must be a happy medium. My idea has always revolved around a large body of work. Things relate to each other even from album to album.

In an age where many bands and artists release albums no closer than 18 months apart, you’ve been recording and releasing music prolifically — something like nine albums and EPs between 2012 and 2014. Is it a compulsion for you?

Well yeah, once I start working on something, I definitely find it hard to step away. This is just my natural working pace right now. Honestly, the whole thing is more about the process for me anyways. Once I feel I can convey the idea I am going for with a certain set of songs, I am quick to move on to something else. I am always writing, recording and trying to improve — it is the only way.

You’ve clearly embraced Bandcamp and Soundcloud as platforms for getting your music out there. Do you see these digital platforms as a godsend or a necessary evil? How important is a physical release in 2014?

What’s a physical release?

Hmm. Mythical artifacts future hipsters will tell their grand-kids about? CDs and cassettes and stuff.

We actually have plans to release Button Battery Syndrome — the newest release — on vinyl and cassette, so that will be happening soon and we’re pretty excited and all that. Bandcamp is the perfect tool for a modern musician though, honestly. It is simple, free and the quickest way to set up a store exclusively selling your own brand. Exposure is a different story, but in the old days bands had to fight to establish what we can do now in seconds. People are getting too upset about what is happening to the music industry. There is a complete opposite side of the coin pulsing with chance and uncertainty. It’s very exciting to be an underground musician in these times.

Personally, I don’t get stoned. It’s not my bag. But I do like to listen to music made to get stoned to. Some of your music makes me feel pretty stoned just listening to it. Regardless of actually getting stoned. What are the five best records to get stoned to or to make you feel stoned, sonically?

The Wipers – Is This Real?
Cypress Hill – Black Sunday
Deep Purple – Machine Head
Sonic Youth – A Thousand Leaves
Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden

I was not expecting Talk Talk! But that album totally makes sense. People often think of that era of pop music as being artless and robotic, but there was a lot of weird, trippy music being made under the new wave umbrella. Does any one era of music hold your interest most?

New wave music was very influential to me, and to revisit my point, Spirit of Eden is a very psychedelic album, but people probably wouldn’t associate Talk Talk with the genre. I grew up listening to all of those bands. The pop aesthetic of the ‘80s was kind of lame, but there were some serious underground and punk acts which are often
overlooked. The mundaneness of it all created this weird rebellion. I see it similarly to our scenario, as products of the suburban wastelands of North America. Three or four generations of this stuff can make you crazy, man. The ‘80s completely shaped the music scene we see today, even if we don’t realize it. I don’t think any era holds my attention most — I’ve learned enough of myself by now to realize that my tastes are going to change again, as they have been changing my whole life. I appreciate music from any era as long as it fits my definition of a good song, and that’s it.

So, you’d been recording and playing with a band under the Thom Huhtala name for a while and then changed the band name to Bad River, and now you’re going to be performing solo at Wavelength #606 as Thom Huhtala. Will we hear material more like the jazzy folk rock of the Mercury and Wave albums or the Pink Velvet Floyd Underground fuzz-drone of Bad River’s new Button Battery Syndrome? Or something more akin to your work with Tess Parks?

I haven’t played alone in such a long time. The stuff I want to be performing has grown much greater than just one person so I am going to be doing a lot of soundscaping, hoping to utilize the beautiful back patio space to my advantage. Expect it to be loud and somewhat wave-y.

— Interview by Jakob Rehlinger