In our hype-happy age, it’s almost impossible to participate in a cultural event without some knowledge of what you’re in for.
Movies and TV shows have their trailers, musicians have a Bandcamp page set up before they set one foot on a stage. All the better to make a judgment call on whether to spend your time or money. That’s what made the first live appearance by Dreamboat – a collaboration between Ilyas Ahmed and Golden Retriever’s Jonathan Sielaff and Matt Carlson – such a welcome surprise. Until that show at the Old Church in Portland in 2012, no one knew that they were working on anything together – except Liz Harris, aka Grouper, who invited them to share the bill with her and Mirrorring cohort Jesy Fortino, aka Tiny Vipers. There was no Dreamboat album being promoted, nor any music available online to introduce what was coming. You just had to place your trust in their hands.
Still, there was a sense of inevitability surrounding this joint effort. Ahmed, Sielaff, and Carlson are good friends who live in close proximity to one another in Portland, and often wind up at the same events. When I met up with them recently to talk about the self-titled Dreamboat album being released on MIE Music this month, they raved about a performance by Japanese composer Yoshi Wada and his son Tashi which all three had attended the night before. Golden Retriever and Ahmed have also wound up playing many of the same shows over the years, and the Dreamboat collaboration was first conceived at one such performance, a showcase for Bay Area label Root Strata at a tiny downtown bar, Valentine’s.
“A crucial part of our arrangements for Dreamboat was figuring out where not to play”Jonathan Sielaff
It makes sense that bookers would want to bring them together. Ahmed, a New Jersey native, started releasing his spectral solo material in 2005. His first recordings, like the limited edition CD-R releases Between Two Skies and Naqi, were influenced by the psychedelic rock of ‘60s San Francisco and the ‘70s Canterbury scene in England that spawned bands like Soft Machine. Over the years his music has become by turns more obscure or more clear, with Ahmed hiding his vocal melodies behind layers of ambient drone or pushing them right to the fore.
Golden Retriever, meanwhile, have been honing a singular sound that melds the gentle wanderings of Carlson’s modular synthesizers with Sielaff’s often-processed bass clarinet since around 2008. At the time, both were playing with arch-pop group Parenthetical Girls, and they bonded over an interest in more experimental music. While they do impressive work guesting on other artists’ albums and in live performance (Carlson has also released a series of placid and dissonant solo recordings), their combined efforts create a strange alchemical reaction which has fueled their slowly blossoming compositions, like the spacious and fragmented ‘Superposition’ (from 2014’s Seer) and the Eno-esque ‘Modal Cloud’ found on their debut CD-R.
Squeezing Ahmed into their already dense mix could have proved volatile, upending the balance that Sielaff and Carlson maintained, but from the start of the Dreamboat performance it was apparent just how much care they were taking. They played with restraint, letting empty space flow through their melodies; if you weren’t looking closely, it wasn’t apparent which instrument was playing at any given time. That feeling is only amplified on Dreamboat. Though it starts out with some clear delineations, with Ahmed’s slowly picked guitar line against Carlson’s countermelody, by the end of the nearly 15-minute-long first side the sounds are blending together intoxicatingly. On the flip side the process is reversed, with feedback, drone, and Ahmed’s processed vocals pulling apart to reveal each thread. As freeform as it sometimes sounds, there’s a precision to the four songs.
“We spent a lot of time playing parts over and over again,” says Ahmed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a band. You forget that you just play a part again and again while people figure out what to do. I had to shift my processes, working out how this is going to transition into this, and then doing it over and over.”
The recording also maintained the feeling of openness that they brought to their live performances. “Ilyas could have played the whole time and Matt and I could have noodled,” says Sielaff. “That’s a really easy thing for us to do – to stack these layers and make these really dense recordings. A crucial part of our arrangements for this was stripping it away and figuring out where not to play. Eliminating the stuff that wasn’t essential, so that it felt natural and loose but also just right for us.”
Carlson agrees. “We all come from a background in improvised music, and a really important idea that tradition is to listen, to always have your ears wide open and feel comfortable taking a step back and asking the question, ‘What does this piece need right now? Does it need me?’”
Successive listens also reveal a melancholy mood underneath the album’s warm beauty. Even without homing in on the lyrics, it’s obvious that the songs were created with a dark cloud hanging over them. As you magnify them, you start hearing phrases like, “I’ll see you where the sun meets the night,” or something simple like “let it go,” suggesting a loss weighing on the shoulders of Dreamboat’s lyricist.
Ahmed explains that the songs were inspired by the deaths (from “unnatural causes,” as he puts it) of two old friends. “I listened to it again recently and went, ‘Eeesh, this is really direct’,” he says of the album, which was recorded nearly three years ago. “It seemed appropriate at the time. I don’t know if it does now. I think part of art like this is like how I equate tattoos as a mile-marker of existence. All music is like that, very specifically lyric writing. People don’t die then, right? Or they don’t disappear. So if you’re singing it, you’re sort of paying tribute.”
If that feeling of remembrance is weighing on Ahmed, it could be because the three men were set to rehearse together for the first time in over two years right after our interview, as they prepared for a local album release party. The trio are mostly looking forward to re-learning their old songs, and more than likely will start writing some new ones.
“With this project, ‘band’ is less of the word than ‘collaboration’,” says Sielaff. “That allows us flexibility to say, ‘Let’s do this thing if something comes up and we want to make it happen.’ Then we can collaborate again when it’s necessary. It’s not like a side band or anything. It’s this thing we do together as musicians.”
Dreamboat is out on MIE Music now