Mats Gustafsson speaks with ethereal psychedelicist Hush Arbors (a.k.a. Keith Wood).
A Beautiful Place Out In The Country:
An Interview with Hush Arbors
Lines from poems, tidbits of letters, a photograph, a drawing or painting, the colors in the sky at sunset, drives along the parkway, hikes, all things psychedelic in nature, from leaves to the moss covering a tree: these are the elements of one man folk/psych/drone ensemble Hush Arbors, a.k.a. Keith Wood. This young man creates music that accompanies dreams, as it organically flows across the sky when you’re walking to work and creeps up on you when you least expect it to. There’s something equally chilling and spiritual about it, like an imaginary meeting of Blithe Sons and Six Organs of Admittance in an attempt to describe various memories and telling each other previously hidden histories. This is gentle free folk bristling with rare invention and spirit, and the results are well on par with the undisputed masters of the genre. We got in touch with Keith Wood to discuss the beautiful wheels of nature, to find out where he’s coming from and where he might be heading in the future.
Mats Gustafsson: Tell us a bit about your personal background. Where did you grow up?
Keith Wood: I grew up in the small town of Waynesboro, Virginia, situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I lived there until I went away to college, then lived in a few cites around Virginia, I spent a lot of time in Richmond, 94-96 playing music and growing up a bit too quickly. Then spent a summer in Boulder, Colorado and caught the Western Bug. I went back to school for another year and moved to Fall City, Washington, to work a season on an organic farm in the beautiful little Shenandoah Valley, right on the Snoqualmie River. I lived and worked on the farm moved to northern California for a little, then back to Seattle for a few months then to Columbia, Missouri, (where my sister and husband live) went back to school for a while in Columbia, then moved to Asheville, North Carlonia, then back to Columbia, MO for this past summer, and now back in south western Virginia. Travel has been a big influence on my thoughts about everything. Living in Asheville, NC, this past winter, back in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, brought back a lot of things about music that I love the spooky, dark, cloak that hangs over the mountains, I wrapped myself in it and felt like the music that I created this past winter posses the same kind of energy that I felt hiking through the mountains on cold winter days.
MG: What are your earliest musical memories, Keith?
KW: Earliest musical memories, the first one that comes to mind is listening to a 45 of the Lovin’ Spoonful's "Summer in the City" on a plastic-red white and blue, superman portable record player. Remembering that the organ on that song really got me and I remember wearing that record out, but probably actually wearing out the needle on the player. My mother’s 45s and LPs were all that I grew up with until my sister who's 5 years older got into buying her own music. Memories of the Beach Boys, Dylan, Neil Diamond, the Beatles. Then skateboarding started in the 4th grade which turned me onto the Ramones, Black Flag, Dinosuar Jr., Sonic Youth, Firehose. I remember in 5th grade talking my grandparents into buying me a DRI cassette, they wanted to know what the letters stood for, and I found that to be really amusing.
MG: Have you always been interested in the more abstract side of the sound spectrum?
KW: I guess I have, I’ve always liked things that required a little more patience than most music. Besides bands like Sonic Youth, and the Ramones, etc...I fell in the black pit of Slayer, early Metallica, Carcass, and Napalm Death. But at the same time getting into the more psychedelic sounds of the Beatles, Beach Boys and Hendrix. The first song I learned on an acoustic guitar was, "Whiplash" by Metallica. Beside music I’ve always spent a lot of time outdoors listening to the beautiful music of nature. I spent summers south of Boston, Massachusetts for a few years growing up and I would sit for hours every night listening to the waves and wondering what it was like across the great ocean, if I followed the same latitude until I ran into land.
My best friend (Jason Ajemian, from Born Heller) (and his brothers) who I grew up with also had a lot of influence on my connection with sounds. We learned our instruments at the same time and we would have little jam sessions that we recorded onto his 4 track, completely improvised. We found the great sounds of Ornette Coleman, and tons of other great free jazz, I guess I always have been interested in the abstract side of things, poetry, painting and all art.
MG: Were there any particular things, growing up in Virginia, that influenced you? Do you feel this environment had any impact on the music you're creating today?
KW: I’ve always felt that the mountains held regenerative powers and being cradled by these powers for years was very influential. Foraging for safarass roots, and exploring mountains and valleys as a kid made a big impact on me. Hearing stories of how my great grandfather would pick up just about any instrument and create music for barn dance and gatherings always fascinated me, so when I got older and picked up an instrument I felt (and feel) like I was carrying on that tradition. I think the atmosphere of creating music for the love of music, and the outsider mountain tradition is a big influence on my music. I’ve always felt that there has always been a great wealth of folk music happening at all times, whether it’s someone playing traditional folk tunes, or creating their own. There has always been pockets of like-minded people creating music that reflects their environment and way of life. The mountains and the forests are very dear to me, they hold all the peace and comfort that I could ever ask for and I hold a great respect for all its life.
MG: Traveling and seeing new places seems to be very important to you. What is it that makes it exciting? How would you say this influences your music?
KW: Traveling is one thing that keeps me going and seeing and meeting new and old friends again is very important. One thing that I love the most about it is the process; sitting for hours upon hours in the car and watching the landscape slowly evolve in to something completely different. In all the travels I’ve had, I’ve met some truly amazing people and they have shaped me into the way that I am today. New places add new perspectives and seeing a place and absorbing its energy and carrying that with me is very inspiring. It’s like reading a fantastic book of poems or seeing a painting, the inspiration lies everywhere; it’s accepting and transferring the positive out into the rest of the world that is the most important thing. A lot of the time when I’m creating music I place myself back to a very specific place and try to recreate t he feeling of the place along with the emotions that I still carry with me of that place. Or I remember a certain lime of a poem, say a line by Neruda, or Paz, or Dillard, these are the things that shape the frame of mind that I’m in when I sit down and record. The leaves falling, a float around the lake, the clouds, the air, everything.
MG: We have repetitiously come back to the importance of nature and seeing different places. Do you have a favorite vista that you often return to?
KW: One of the places that I have enjoyed the most in all my travels around the US is Glacier National Park in Montana. I was lucky enough to spend a little bit over a week there a few years ago. That has to be one of my favorite places. Back when I’m on the East Coast I really just enjoy spending time on and around the Blue Ridge parkway, here in Virginia and in North Carolina. There are so many different trails leading to mountaintops, to waterfalls, to deep hollows it’s a very special and mystical place.
MG: In a previous e-mail correspondence that we had you mentioned that you’re fascinated by the Nordic darkness. What is it that makes it fascinating?
KW: I’ve always had a fascination with your part of the world. Some of my favorite poets/writers are from the north. I really got into Tomas Tranströmer, Rolf Jacobsen and Gunnar Ekelöf and the images that these writers use are really inspiring to me, and I feel like the landscape and the darkness really appeals to me. I would really like to come and spend a winter sometime soon, and hopefully tour around Sweden and Finland some day.
MG: We’ve partly touched this question before but what would you say influences the music of Hush Arbors?
KW: Lines from poems, tidbits of letters, a photograph, a drawing or painting, the colors in the sky at sunset, drives along the parkway, hikes, all things psychedelic in nature, from leaves to the moss covering a tree. My musical taste take me to all different places also, some of my recent favorites include, The Sky Green Leopards, Six Organs’ For Octavio Paz, Beautiful Speck Triumph, The Ivytree and I’m really loving the sounds coming out of the Davenport scene.
MG: What made you go from being a listener to playing yourself? Was there any specific goal early on?
KW: I don’t really feel like making music was really a conscious decision. Sure I picked up a guitar and said I want to do this, but from there on, it’s felt very natural. The environment that I learned to play in was very supportive and free, we all just wanted to have fun and create. I was really big into writing, I studied poetry in college and wrote constantly, but now the love of poetry has been transferred into the love of song writing/creating music, which I feel are really one in the same. I don’t really feel like I had any specific goal, creating music was enjoyable, and a very different and positive way of communication between people.
MG: You mention that you previously were really into writing. Do you see your songs as stories or is it purely music? The reason I am asking is since I often feel that your music (also the instrumental tracks) tells a story.
KW: There is a story behind all of them. I normally don’t start with a specific theme or idea. I usually have little scraps of paper that I have written things down on that I find, or a letter that my girlfriend has written to me or I find a line of a poem or a story that sparks an idea for a sound or a song. Recently I have been coming up with chords or a picking part and playing that part over and over until a picture comes into frame and most of the lyrics are spontaneous compositions based around that picture or feeling I receive from what I’m playing on guitar. When I record I normally record the main guitar and the vocals at the same time and many times the lyrics are thought up as the tape is rolling, and I have to rewind the tape and write down the lyrics after. It’s the same with the instrumental tracks, the mood or spirit of the music has created a mental image for me and I try to relate that to sound. Like the track “Wooded Reel” on the new CD, I had a clear image of creating a song that a “reel” could be danced to around a campfire with sweaters and scarves tied tightly around friends and loved ones.
MG: What do you want people to experience from your music?
KW: I really just want to transfer over to the listener the meditative energy that I feel when I create music. Recording has become a sort of ritual to me, focusing intently and putting all of my energy into one thing, one distinct moment/snapshot of time, is what I strive for. I feel at peace when I make music, it fills me with energy and spirit. It’s like a beautiful walk on an autumn day, when the air is crisp and deep breaths are taken and I see the world around me and feel my size, and relation to the world around me.
MG: Tell me about your debut album? How did it come about? What was the response like?
KW: The self-titled disc came out of a period of being in a new city, being surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains once again after many years away. Music for me was coming into a more prolific stage, I felt strong and focused on the sounds that I was creating and was feeling full of the spirits around me. I only ma de 35-45 or so copies and sent them to friends, sold a few, and mailed off quite a few to people who were kind enough to listen. At that time I also put out the 3” CD-R If There Be Spirits, Let Them Come, which I also sent away and gave away, I think only 6 or 7 copies of that were made. A friend of mine offered to build a web site for me for free and host it on his server space and I took him up on the offer. From the website I have been receiving mails from people asking for CDs from listening to the MP3s that are up on the site, which I’m overjoyed and very thankful for their interest.
MG: Does each release have a different unifying idea, or goal behind it? If so, what would you say makes Since We Have Fallen (Digitalis) so special?
KW: The only real unifying theme that the releases have had is the time when they were recorded. I lean toward periods of great inspiration and creativity, then to a period of less focus. So the CD’s come in spurts or certain breaths of time. For me it’s been really inspiring that people are showing interest in the sounds that I create. This has helped push me to a more consistent creative output. The process of writing and recording songs, then creating the art work, then sending it off and waiting for it to be pressed and finished has really closed the gap on those periods of inactivity. Also I have been moving around a lot in the past year and that also helps to keep things new and the inspiration levels up. I think that Since We Have Fallen came out of a very special time, there were a lot of changes occurring in my life and energy was fluctuating all around me. I feel that it’s special because I was able to record with one of my favorite musicians and best friends, Jeremy Freeze on “Spell against Demons”.
MG: How did you get in touch with Brad Rose of Digitalis? From afar it really seems like you’re on the same wavelength. Describe how your “partnership” works.
KW: I posted a message on the “routes for war and travel” list that said I had some new recordings that were available and that I would gladly send them to anyone who was interested. Brad sent me a mail asking about my music and if I would send him the CD-Rs, and in the meantime he went to the website that had just been put up and listened to the MP3s and he really enjoyed them. So I sent him the discs and it all started there. When he mailed me I believe he had only done 10 or so releases on Foxglove and it took me a couple of months to get him some new material. Brad has been fantastic, he supports me whole-heartedly and I really thank him for that, he’s been able to give my sounds the push that wouldn’t have come if it weren’t for him. I feel that we are on the same wavelength. We are very close in age and we share very similar tastes in music and I feel that we both are very positive and loving individuals. We swap CDs, recordings and stories, he’ll ask me if I want to put out something that I’ve sent him, like the split or the Family LSD and we’ll work it out from there. I’m trying to talk him into coming to the East Coast and do a tour with me next year, we’ll see. Right now we’re working on a mail collaboration which I’m really excited about. I received an email from a friend a little while ago that said that the universe balances all things out and I feel that this is all part of that balancing.
MG: Guitar and voice are obviously important component in your music. What other sound sources do you primarily work with? Any instruments you’d like to add for upcoming releases?
KW: I record a lot outdoors, with windows open, and in different places. The only other instrument that I use consistently is a four-string lap dulcimer, which I normally bow with a cello bow and I recently acquired a five-string banjo and I sometimes have a keyboard here and there. I’m always on the lookout for a harmonium, and I would be really stoked if I had a drum set again. I normally only work with four tracks so the instruments I have are filling the spaces quite well.
MG: You have to this day released two excellent full-length albums and another one is coming out on Digitalis Industries any day now. What would you say is the unifying link between these three records? Any obvious differences that you would like to point out?
KW: I feel that the albums are filled with hope. I feel so much love for the world around me and I try to convey that through the songs. But also with that love and seeing comes a great deal of sadness which I feel is a very necessary experience. Creating a balance between the ecstatic joys and the downtrodden lows is a very fine line that I hope I have been able to reach and will continue to strive for.
MG: Your new album is called Under Bent Limb Trees. Where does the title come from? It strikes me as slightly more folky and traditionally structured (I realize that I use that term loosely here) than the predecessor. Do you agree?
KW: The title comes from part of a poem that my girlfriend wrote and I really liked the image that it creates in my mind and I also feel like it is a very fitting title, for the images that these songs create. She has been and continues to be a great inspiration. A lot of my song titles have her mark on them and she sometime helps me when I’m having trouble writing lyrics. It definitely has a more folk feel to it. Although I tend to place it along side of the kind of folk music that Pelt creates, utilizing the drone and having a bit of a cosmic/psychedelic side. Also these recordings give the listener a better picture of what to expect of me in a live setting.
MG: How often do you play live? What can someone expect from a Hush Arbors live show?
KW: This summer I was lucky enough to play out a few times in Columbia, MO. And it was very nice to receive an immediate reaction from the listeners. You can expect to see me and a guitar. I used to play live with my friend Jeremy, but now that we live far apart I’ve continued on solo and I haven’t really tried or sought out others to play with at the moment but I have a lot of fun playing solo and it allows me to change things up and focus on the vocals a bit more.
MG: I'm going to throw out a few words that come to mind while listening to your music and feel free to comment:
Folk of the hollow, deep dark rue hollow. Solid ground with feet to walk. Home.
Pulse of the stars, groan of the planets, crickets, cicadas.
Like the heartbeat, mother of all spirits, energy, ecstatic dance.
Pulsating spirit that flows through all living things, slowing down to see all things as they are. A leaf.
Hosting energy that has been hiding under logs and rocks, letting the movement be movement. Freedom.
MG: What is the future of the Hush Arbors?
KW: I feel like now is a fantastic time with lots of possibilities and forward momentum. The new album will be released by mid-November. The split that Brad and I did is out there, my self-titled album will be re-released by Digitalis Industries in the early part of next year. Also the three-inch that I did with my friend Jeremy will be re-released on the Foxglove series and also some recording from a band that I was in called Family LSD, will be out on Foxglove soon. I’m currently working on a mail collaboration with Brad and I’m really excited about it, so you can probably expect a disc by the “Golden Oaks” soon. Hopefully if everything works out I will be setting up a tour to the North East in the spring, but besides that I will probably be doing shows on and off in and around the mid-Atlantic area. I’m constantly recording so who knows when the next CD will be finished.
MG: Any words of wisdom you’d like to add?
KW: Take walks with loved ones, enjoy and respect to world around you. Play music with friends, love and let yourself be loved. Slow down and notice things, the world is filled with so much beauty.
By Mats Gustafsson