Arbouretum Interview by Willow Colios
Arbouretum are touring the UK and Ireland this week on the back of their new LP ‘Coming out of the Fog’. Louder Than War met up with David, Matthew, Brian and Corey at the tail end of last year and we talked about the new record, their home city of Baltimore and the weird and diverse bands and subcultures it has produced.
Louder Than War: The new record, ‘Coming out of The Fog’ is coming out in January, are you taking a different approach on this one. Is it the same band lineup?
David: It’s the 3rd proper release we’ve done together. It’s a slightly different approach ‘cos we’ve worked with different people recording it but it’s the same Arbouretum, same guys, same basic types of song.
LTW: I know that specific works of literature or writing have played a part in influencing the lyrical themes in the past, is there anything that’s been in the mix this time?
David: No. We dodged that bullet this time around. There are certain things that are referenced here and there but not as any kind of overarching themes.
LTW: You’re over here on an explosive week here in the UK, we are having fireworks on a nightly basis, do you have this back home?
Corey: I guess on the 4th July and New Years but not today.
David: We have an impending electoral shitstorm, fresh on the heels of a massive super storm of the literal variety.
LTW: But no-one ever tried to blow up The Whitehouse?
Brian: Well didn’t you guys tried to burn it down a long time ago? (Laughter)
LTW: Well, someone tried to blow Parliament up so we have to celebrate that with fireworks – seemingly for about a week. But you are quite into Halloween in a big way in America. Were you back home for that?
David: Oh yeah we all dressed up, well, 75% of the band dressed up for Halloween.
LTW: And what costumes did you have?
David: I was Bob Ross the television painter.
Brian: He won an award, he won third place at Rocket to Venus. What did you win, a $25 gift card? (Dave says $20) Whatever, you did good, you looked just like him.
LTW: So Matthew, Brian, did you match Dave for costumes?
Mathew: I was sort of a reluctant cult leader with a couple of followers, some women who were my subjects. I wore all black and had medallions and rings and long black hair.
Brian: I was Cheech and Chong’s dealer. I had a good time.
LTW: But no awards?
Brian: No I was kind of working at the bar so if I won an award it would have been conflict of interest. But I did witness Dave’s award winning talent.
Matthew: Did he slip you a 20 under the table?
Brian: No, Sir…He did paint a few portraits and I do say there was many valleys, and little walkways…
Matthew: You probably don’t know Bob Ross, do you?
LTW: I’m not familiar with his work.
Matthew: He was a painter and he had a television show on public television in the states which is really lo-fi, everyone had public access TV and it was this guy who just sort of painted these landscapes that were really kind of kitschy, well they’re kitschy now. He would teach you how to paint on the programme and he had a very calming, soothing voice and he would just walk you through it. And he’d say “Oh I think a little tree should go here, and oh lets put a dash of sunlight on the leaves, and happy clouds. he loved happy clouds.
LTW: Tell me about Baltimore. Are you all native? You all grew up there?
David: Pretty much yeah, the general surrounding areas, we all group up not too far from the city.
LTW: And was there a scene there when you were growing up?
David: I wasn’t aware of it until I was in high school. I mean you cant go to those kind of shows when you’re a kid anyway. But when you’re in high school you can go to certain shows like in halls, (Brian) You probably went to a lot of shows like that.
Brian: We went to a lot of shows at fire halls and veterans halls and Baldwin Hall, Davidsonville Hall, like little recreation centres and they’d be all ages shows and then they stemmed to bringing people into the city when you start getting older to see shows in bars and stuff but there was always a lot of a DIY aspect, holding at a house party or at a hall.
LTW: What kind of bands were around, what kind of time period are we talking?
Brian: For me I turn 40 on the 15 November so in like early 90’s, late 80’s so I saw Lungfish, Moss Icon, a lot of Dischord bands and a lot of bands from Annapolis. I grew up near Annapolis suburbs so a lot of shows we’d go to DC to see and DC bands would come over to MAryland. There was also a lot of our friends starting out in bands would play these little local halls like the Pee Tanks or Blank.
LTW: So a lot of Punk and Hardcore bands?
Matthew: Is it fair to say the scene in Baltimore is a lot bigger now. I feel like it is but you were going to shows a lot earlier than I was.
Brian: It is now but a lot of those bands that started in that area, eventually all those kids moved up to the city and eventually lived in the city.
Matthew: Maybe now it’s just there are more famous bands coming out of Baltimore. I just feel like in the last 5 years Baltimore’s like, kind of blown up.
David: When we were all starting playing in bands in the area there was always 1 place, like in the 90’s for bands to play, for Underground bands. You’d have more places for different kind of bands but in terms of the underground scene it was like, there was always one place and then that would get shut down for some reason and then they would open another place up. And it would happen usually about every 6 months or so. You had to find you know “where’s the place to play shows in Baltimore now?”. But now and for the past few years there’s always been like 4 or 5 places that have shows and so it’s a matter of well which one do you wanna go to cos theres plenty of them and 1 for like each area of the city. Regular sort of clubs then a lot of warehouses have come up and even a lot of travelling bands.
You have bands that are fairly big now, intentionally seeking out DIY kind of places and that’s kind of a new phenomenon. Like that band Grimes or the artists chick named Grimes played. I don’t know her music but she’s pretty big and she could have played at a big corporate place but she chose to play at a DIY spot, a warehouse space where people live. She chose to do that…
Brian: Fugazi, I started seeing them and they would play for free every year outside, I saw them play the Washington Monument for free, they would do a show every year at this college outside, Nation of Ulysses, Make Up, Lungfish a huge band that we love. I saw them when I was a like y’know a teenager, Jawbox when they were starting out. Again it’s a lot of DC Bands. DC have lost, they were really big for me in the 90’s, like early 90’s and late 90’s but they don’t really have that anymore. I don’t think there’s anybody at this table who knows of a band in DC that you would go and see.
LTW: For people in the UK their experience of Baltimore is basically The Wire, the desolation, the mean streets, burnt out cops with nowhere to go. How true to life in Baltimore is The Wire?
David: It’s very true for people who live in those areas which are easily avoidable and don’t really have any direct bearing on our individual lives.
Corey:That’s not necessarily true. I mean, crime still happens in my neighbourhood. I feel that it has some impact on everyones lives in some respect.
Matthew: I look both ways every time i look out of my door, and I live in a nice neighbourhood too.
There’s always this ominous sort of feeling that something could happen in my opinion. People from Baltimore whether we think about or acknowledge it , we’re not on edge but y’know watching. It’s like a minefield, your sort of know where to go, what to do, when you can do it , when you can’t y’know.
Brian: I mean Corey has a house like up the end of his block where we all know that there’s something going on. They have kind of scouts kinda like you see in the Wire that just sit out there but they actually kinda help Corey in a way.
Corey: Yeah, they like protect my block. We don’t say anything and they won’t do anything and they help us out y’know.No-one ever messes with my block ‘cos I’m friendly with these guys. So it’s good in that respect.
The band are clearly great friends who spark off each other and enjoy the scene and city that they’ve come from. A scene which has it’s fair share of colourful characters such as The Baltimore Rowdy Crew.
David: There’s a group of people called the Baltimore rowdy crew and they’re a bunch of guys from a little North West of the city that would get together and they would do the most extreme things possible. It started out in peoples houses but then it moved to a club where they had booked the night.
LTW: So they actually booked the venue?
David: They actually played the venue.
LTW: Did they have instruments?
These people have set up this thing – The DC scene had become institutionalised as a thing. I don’t know if this was formed in direct opposition to that but they would just show up and create mayhem. So this one night at the Ottobar, what did they do? Before I got there they had camo shirts and tighty whities and they destroyed a toilet?
Corey: Yeah I believe it was the same night. They formed all the couches in the venue into a Teepee and they were chanting around it people were like, ‘what the hell are they doing’ and then they ran out and out of somewhere got a toilet and smashed it with a sledgehammer.
LTW: So not the toilet in the venue?
Corey: No, they were considerate enough to bring their own toilet. (Laughs)
And when I got there a little bit later the place smelt like raw meat , and someone was like “Oh yeah they’d been throwing raw meat around earlier”. And by then they were totally naked and they were shredding up newspaper, newspaper was all over the floor and broken bits of toilet. And then they tucked themselves in under some of the refuse and newspaper and said goodnight to one another. And you could tell this goodnight thing was something they’d worked out to a certain extent. That really to me, alongside the Vortex and another band Invert that used to play in a van. Invert.
Corey: This band Invert. They would just pull up to a really packed show in between bands when everyone was smoking and open up the back doors and just play for a few minutes and slam the doors shut and leave.
One time they kidnapped Weasel Walter too. To live and shave in LA was playing and Weasel Walter was playing, he was on acid and (Invert) just came into the Ottobar and kidnapped him and threw him in the back of a truck and drove away. He apparently was freaking out. Then they brought him back a few minutes later.
I did hear one story about the Baltimore Rowdy Collective, it wasn’t like at a show. One of them went to a lecture at UMBC which is like a big college outside Baltimore. This person didn’t go to the college but it was such a big lecture, no-one was being ID’d so this person went in and sat there pretending to be a student and just sat there taking notes for like an hour and half and when everyone was totally silent and tired he just stood up and tore off his shirt and yelled “I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE”. And just ran out. (Band Laughs)
David: And there’s this guy Ben who Corey played in a band with for a while who now is like this awesome Cabbie in San Francisco, but he started this thing where people would go to another college, Goucher college, and have these rotating dance parties where the people in the dorms didn’t know they were having them. They would go through the doors into different dorm rooms with like a boombox and start dancing you know. And people might be sleeping, studying, whatever but they didn’t actually go there. They would trespass on University property and go from room to room and do this shit.
Anyway to kind of draw it around in a long big circle. That kind of shit is what makes Baltimore so great. Because early on it was like so wide open, you could do any number of extreme things, you know as long as you had the right thinking behind it. In our formative years that was the kind of thing that was really inspiring. That was special to Baltimore as far as we knew.
Corey: You could do anything you wanted.
Brian: Drunk talk shows at the Ottobar, all kinds of creative stuff would happen at these bars that we hung out at.
LTW: How does a drunk talk show work?
Brian: One, you have to be drunk. The host was definitely drunk. And every time the guests would come up they would have to have a couple of shots on stage while talking…They had a desk, they had chairs, everything was acted out. There was a guy called Goliath and he got John Walters out to watch a show.
David: Some of this stuff was a continuation of what John Waters was all about back in like ‘72, like extreme behaviour. Not antisocial extreme behaviour it was creative and funny.
Brian: Community, getting everybody on the laugh and have a good time.
Arbouretum’s new album coming out of The Fog is out now on Thrill Jockey. They played Corsica Studios last night (21st Feb) then go to Ireland followed by Winchester, The Railway Inn Tue. 26th February.
23rd Clonakilty, Ireland, De Barra’s
24th Dublin, Ireland, Whelans
25th Cork, Ireland Crane Lane Theatre
26th Winchester, England The Railway
Words by Willow Colios. More writing by Willow on Louder Than War can be found here.