Music

Doldrums on the Psychological Choice to Make Art, Not Money

Music

Doldrums on the Psychological Choice to Make Art, Not Money

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If listening to Airick Woodhead’s bizarre brand of blippy, tribal chaos-pop elicits images of some mind-bending underground art-rave, that’s because the 23-year-old, Montreal-based bohemian immersed himself in that exact scene when he began producing Lesser Evil, his debut album under the name Doldrums. After ambling through Europe in his late teens, Woodhead moved to Toronto, where he hooked up with a DIY community of visual artists and noise musicians who survived off the grid and hosted concerts at their warehouse living spaces to pay rent. He’d perform two or three times a week at the jam-packed parties, where hundreds of attendees danced until the sun came up. “It’s a huge psychological decision to say, Okay, I’m not going to school, I’m not going to get a job, I’m just going to ask questions and explore and experiment with lifestyle,” he says, adding that he hasn’t worked for “the Man” in five years. After forming the now defunct band Spiral Beach with his brother, Woodhead broke out on his own and eventually toured with Grimes (a close friend) and Purity Ring. He describes his sound as a “reductionist collage” of all the music he loves—psychedelic, pop, electro, and techno—with a focus on momentum. “I do a lot of songs about getting the fuck out, about that feeling of escapism I’ve experienced,” says Woodhead, who, for now at least, has settled into a more traditional living arrangement in Montreal. “I’m so done with having people piss on my fucking rug.”

Where does the name Doldrums come from?
When I was a teenager and really wanted to do something with my life that felt important to me, I reread The Phantom Tollbooth, which was my favorite kid’s book. It was this really psychedelic journey, and in the Doldrums part, they get stuck in this place where nothing ever happens. I was like, That’s a nice name for my projectwhich at the time was just drums and singing and completely cathartic, free jamming and busking on the streets of Toronto. I then moved to Montreal about two or three years ago and found a bunch of friends supporting each other, which I just basically infiltrated. They’re my best friends now.

How long have you been performing?
I’ve been doing shows since I was 14 years old. My dad is a multi-instrumentalist and producer. I grew up with a lot of music around me.

Tell me about these DIY venues you play at and the underground music scene in Toronto and Montreal.
The venue Silent Barn was very formative in the North American DIY scene. Throughout the 2000s, Silent Barn kind of codified an underground music scene in Brooklyn. I know people in Toronto definitely saw that as inspiration for starting their own venues in warehouses and getting bands that were more experimental and allowing them to play there. The shows are really crazy and go all night. But they’re illegal too, so they’re always getting shut down. Every season there’s a new venue, but that’s exciting. It’s always shifting. The shows have become more obscure. The back birthday room of a Venezuelan restaurant is where my favorite shows happen right now.

You’ve also lived in spaces where you hosted performances. What was that experience like?
The first venue I moved into in Toronto was called The House of Everlasting Super Joy. That was mostly visual artists who just need to subsidize their art-making lives by working jobs or throwing shows in their houses. So you just get a big inspiring place and make good art and have a good time with your friends, and then you throw a show and have a bar. It’s pretty simple. I really loved living there. When it kind of fell apart I was like, “Toronto’s done. I’ve gotta get out of here.” At the same time, I was spending more and more time in Montreal. Basically it’s a micro-economy—that’s the essence of why people do it. For some people it’s a socialite thing, but that’s not anything I hope to be involved in. I just want to support good music and good art.

So for you it’s an economic decision as well as a community.
It’s a huge psychological decision to say, “I’m not gonna go to school, I’m not gonna get a job, I’m just gonna ask questions and explore and experiment with lifestyle.” I haven’t had a job in five years. I’m broke off my ass. But right now, for example, at my apartment there’s a monthly cult gathering called The Church of the Uncluttered Mind. It starts at midnight, and it’s like a séance with candles and stuff, but it feels really, really special. People read poetry or read from this weird bible, and there’s this ceremony and everyone just feels really warm, especially because it’s so goddamn cold in this city. Part of it is just acknowledging that community is important. It’s important to eat lots of food and drink good drinks with friends and have a good life and not get caught in the fucking grind.

Did you continue to perform out of your living space once you moved to Montreal?
I only lived in a venue for a month because I’d been doing it so much in Toronto that I was like, “I’m so done having people piss on my fucking rug.” I lived in this place called the Torn Curtain, which was super-inspiring. I’m still really close with the people that lived there. They play in my live band, and they’re all amazing noise musicians.

You’ve said your new album, Lesser Evil, deals with the loss of the individual. Can you elaborate on that?
There’s one song on the album called “Lost in Everyone,” which is basically saying I’ve done so many things because I thought I was supposed to do them that I don’t even know who I am anymore. All my objectives are just other people’s objectives that I’ve inferred from them. I think that’s a fairly common sentiment these days. Because of interconnectivity, you’re always aware of what everyone else likes.

How do you fight against that?
I have Facebook now, but I used to be a complete hermit: no phone, no Facebook. And I was really happy.

What is your songwriting process like?
I started making music with my brother. We liked a lot of punk and pop and were just like, “How do you do that?” I felt I had to do something different, and what I’m doing now is this kind of reductionist collage thing where I start by sourcing out a lot of materials—just music files from iTunes. I love old world music, psychedelic world music, techno, cool stuff that just excites my ears. I put that music through my gear and chop it around and mangle it for a while until something else comes out. Then I go back and write words over that and sing something over top. Then I take that to the live band and try to recreate it, which is definitely a strange process because it’s not built for that at all.

What’s your favorite sample on Lesser Evil?
This burst that starts the album. That sound is built from this oscillator that’s just broken and I looped it. I just really like the sound of it. I made my first tape collage when I was 14, and I’m really attracted to the kind of human, painful sounds technology makes when it’s abused.

Is there a sample you’ve used in your music that pop lovers might appreciate?
Yes, on the B-side of the “Egypt” single on the song “Jump Up.” I was like, “I’m making sample music. What are the best songs ever? I’ll just sample those.” The best songs ever are “The Loco-Motion” and “Hey Ya!” I just mixed them together and made a song.

It’s been written that your music reflects a post-internet age.
I might have invented that phrase. I don’t know. Maybe I heard it from Claire [Boucher, aka Grimes]. I think what it means is that there are now kids who grew up on the net. I’m 23. I was the last kid to get Facebook, so I know what it was like before and I worry about the kids now who are living their lives 100% in this other dimension. It’s not even your fantasy. It’s this consensual, consumer, total FBI fucking fantasy. I’m not an optimist.

Do you expect a backlash eventually or will we get more and more sucked in?
In a real democracy, any citizen should have the right to ignore or not be a part of whatever else is going on. By cutting myself off from normal systems previously, I had a pretty good life. Before that I was feeling pretty alienated by everything. They don’t really give you many options—like where you’re supposed to be or what you’re supposed to do.

Who’s “they”?
The Man, to use a hilariously dated term. Basically you have to get a job or go to school or get married. At least that’s the general feeling.

Lesser Evil contains elements that remind me of Grimes’ Visions. Both albums feel like something you can either play in the background or focus on intently. Was that a conscious decision?
She’s a huge influence on me. I probably didn’t consider what I was doing to be at all accessible before I saw what she was doing. I feel very empowered to not compromise my art these days. I’ve always listened to music for airports and textural music and ambient music. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things to come out of the 21st century—seductive, calming music to fill a space and make you feel good. I’m definitely more attracted to sounds like that, but I still always write pop songs. In my head they’re still pop songs. If you listen hard or smoke some weed or something, you might like it. I hope people get the record. It’s got a narrative to it.

And what’s the narrative?
I write a lot of songs when I feel like there’s this movement to my life. The song “Golden Calf” is basically about me leaving Toronto and searching for my hopes and dreams. I travelled to Europe before I settled in Montreal. Then, at the end of the day, it’s about my realizing it didn’t matter where I was. It’s not about something external. You just have to look for it in your own life. There are a lot of songs about getting the fuck out of there on this album. I guess I’ve always felt this feeling of escapism.