Arts & Entertainment Editor
Sonically-shifting Portland indie rock project Aan’s newest album, “Dada Distractions,” defies definition within indie rock’s myriad of distinctions, creating floaty ear candy with elements of dream pop, post-punk, indie folk, etc., etc. Their influences from radio rock mainstays like Radiohead and Foo Fighters shine through almost as clearly as their deviations from them.
In their roughly seven-year history, the group’s most consistent, and, until recently, only component has been lead singer and guitarist George Lonell Bud Wilson Jr. In anticipation of their FUNZONE performance this Sunday, I sat down for a phone conversation with Wilson about his history as a musician, Aan’s shifting musical direction, and the ramifications of watching fucked up movies without seeing the trailer first.
Are you originally from Portland?
“No, I moved to Idaho when I was 15, and I lived in Idaho until 2005. Then I moved to Portland. I’ve kind of been all over the west coast for a number of years. I’ve been in Portland now for 11 years, so it’s certainly home and I know the city pretty well.”
What made you decide to settle in Portland?
“Music. It was either going to be Portland or Seattle, and Seattle was a little bigger than I wanted to jump into, and bands at the time in Portland were like … there was in this band called the Joggers at the time, and a band called 31 Knots, which were really big influences of mine, you know, back in 2004. They made some of my favorite records, so it just kind of made sense to submerge myself in a community that was a lot smaller than Seattle, and kind of had a different vibe.
“Of course [the music scene] has changed so much over the last 10 years, and morphed in so many different ways, from kind of heavy rock and weird electronic music into that bubbling folk rock thing that happened for a little while. And now I think it’s sort of finding itself again.”
About how young were you when you started playing an instrument?
“I was like 10. I started playing saxophone in the school band, because I didn’t have any string instruments I could play in the orchestral department, so they just stuck me with the saxophone. I played that through junior high, and then in 7th grade I got a bass guitar and started playing with friends and started a little band. From there, I don’t even remember when I started playing guitar, but I guess I’ve been playing now for nearly 20 years.”
How did your playing evolve into a career?
“I think that’s pure aspiration. I just love to play, I love being onstage. It is a career, in the sense that the purpose of everything I do on the side is to make sure that I can play music, but it still doesn’t generate enough income for me to live solely from that.
“I love performing and I love writing music, and it’s the language that I’m most apt to communicate with people. Like I can’t always articulate with more than one person at a time, but with music I feel like I can convey emotion much better, and in a way that feels very real to me.”
What are some of your major musical influences?
“Well, I’ll tell you how it kind of worked out for me. I went to college [at the University of Idaho], I got an internship at the radio station [KUOI 89.3]. I’m from Idaho, so definitely, the standard Northwest indie rock stuff like Modest Mouse, and Built to Spill, and then some kind of more punk stuff.
“But I started working at this radio station, it was just like this explosion of new music, and it just kind of opened up my whole world, because there was so much cool shit coming through. So I discovered things like Unwound, and Sleater-Kinney, [which was] kind of more, at the time for me, pretty edgy.
“On an actual, constant influence-level, probably bands like Deerhunter, I think is one of those bands that continues to put out music that I listen to and am like, “Shit, I wish I’d thought of that.” Modern music, like Here We Go Magic. Those are pretty straightforward influences.
“Then some old blues stuff has been creeping in a lot.”
Who are some blues artists you’ve been listening to?
“Right now, man, I’m just really into Skip James, this old blues guy from like the ‘20s. It’s really haunting, soulful stuff. Like you can actually feel the hurt in the music.
“I’ve been listening to that, I’ve been listening to Son House, Abner Jay, which is [from] a little later. But I really listen to all sorts of stuff, like I’m always tuning in and just trying to find the next thing that surprises me.”
What kind of radio show did you have in Idaho when you were a DJ?
“Just like a generic rock and hip-hop, two-hour radio show, whatever I felt like playing. It was a lot of like Blonde Redhead, Enon, and Tarental. And sometimes, like, Black Dice and stuff like that, but I kinda like more things with a melody.”
Some of your guitars and keyboards on “Forever Underfoot” kind of sound like steel drums. Was that intentional?
“Yeah, that’s an effect that I have. It’s called a whammy pedal, which is a pitch shifting pedal, and I have that. It has a pretty unique tone, and the way my signal changes on my pedalboard is really percussive, because I have a preamp that’s driving the signal. So it hits that pedal, and then there’s a reverb tail. The reverb on the pedal is engaged as well, so it’s kind of creating this swirling … yeah, it is kind of like a percussive steel drum.
“And then I’m able to [use] that effect to kind of modulate the pitch, where it does that ‘whing-woo-loo-loo,’ that swooping sound. That’s the trick on the pedal.”
Your new album moves in a more proggy and dream pop-oriented direction than your past releases. What would you say caused those changes in your sound?
“I think that really has to do with working with band to craft the songs before we went into a studio. So we time to kind of ‘audition ideas,’ where the last record was just me. So I didn’t think so much about baroque guitar harmonies, as much as I did about the whole melody of the song. When I got players, during the whole recording session, who were really talented, we were able to think about, ‘Well, what should we do here?’
“And we were also listening to proggy stuff too. Listening to like, Aphrodite’s Child, this, like, Greek prog. We listened to that, and Yes, and just kind of tried to have fun. Because this record was recorded live, I was thinking about how are [the songs] going to translate when we play it live, and [prog songs] are just so much more fun when, y’know, you’re playing for a room full of people. It’s kind of fun to just step out and do some dueling leads, or just really interpret melodies in a different way.”
Looking at the album artwork on your Bandcamp, I kind of saw a thematic change from more sunny, positive-leaning artwork to kind of scary imagery that was more focused on death. It almost looked like there was a shift from optimism to pessimism in some of your album art and songs as well. Was there a reason for this shift?
“Yeah, I don’t really think about that stuff so much, the album art just sort of comes with the music, but you know, as I get older, more things continue to happen that are negative. Or at least big challenges. Like over the last two years I’ve had a really strong dose of reality that kind of shifted my sunny positivity a little bit too … just being more aware that bad things happen.
“It might inform the album art and the tones of the music, but ultimately I think, just like any other day when any of those other releases came out, I’m still trying to stay positive and trying to find that balance between beauty and … I like a little bit of ugly, because that tempers the song with texture. Finding that balance is something that’s been a part of this project from the beginning.”
If I may ask, what do you think caused that shift to a greater awareness, the strong dose of reality you were talking about?
“Oh, well I can tell you straight up. Two of my best friends died. One of them died of cancer and another one died of exposure. He was having mental issues. He had basically gone schizophrenic, and we lost track of him and he was out in the cold in Colorado, and his story is pretty sad, and I never really knew his full story until he passed.
“That [was] two instances, and another was [that] my ex-partner and I of six years separated pretty abruptly, that I lived with, and basically, we weren’t married, but we were about as close as you can be without being married. And then, to top the whole thing off my dad passed away in September, like you know, with no notice at all. So, those are about as big as doses that you can get without meeting your own end.
“Trying to keep it in perspective, there’s gotta be a balance in the universe, and hopefully I didn’t just pay all that goodness which wasn’t paid before all these deaths, and then a backside from positivity will come out, which I’m confident it will. But still, it sucks [laughs].”
Have you been enjoying any films lately, anything you think is really cool?
“Oh yeah, I went and saw “Moonlight” a couple weeks ago. That was certainly one of the best and most challenging movies I’ve seen in a long time. I try not to watch trailers before I see a film, so I went and saw “Moonlight,” and was pretty blown away by that. I saw, of course, “Arrival.” Beautiful and excellent. I like a lot of kind of sci-fi stuff, so, that movie was so well done.
“What was the other one? I saw another movie recently. Some movie about tickling [laughs]. It was called “Ticklish” or something, and it was about this person that was blackmailing these kids that would go and get tickled. It was a documentary, of like competitive tickling, but it was actually just like a fetish porn site that the kids didn’t really know they were a part of, and when they tried to get out of it they’d get blackmailed for thousands of dollars. And the person who blackmailed them basically ruined their lives.
“That was another movie I didn’t watch the trailer for. In the theater, halfway through, I was just like squeamish, because it’s so bleak.”
I’ve definitely had moments like that before when I haven’t exactly known what I’m in for before I see a movie, or I’ve just read about it, and it turns out to be way darker than I thought it’d be.
“Yeah. Oh yeah. And it’s kind of fun when that happens. So, I’ll say a story. One time, I was living in the Czech Republic, in Prague, studying abroad, and my girlfriend at the time and I had broken up. She was living in Spain, but she came to visit anyway, and we were on again off again, like either really fighting or just like intensely passionate, and we decided to go to a movie.
“We went to the theater and she wanted to see some movie with Eddie Murphy, and I was like, “Oh, but there’s this other movie here that I really want to see.” It was called “21 Grams,” with Benicio del Toro, which was the bleakest movie — ever.
“And I made her go watch this movie with me, and I didn’t really talk to her after that, she flew home the next day, and she thought that I did it on purpose, just as a malicious trick to make her watch this terribly sad movie. Like a kid getting hit by cars, and drug overdoses and stuff.
“No fun at all, but I had no idea what it was about. I just read the reviews and heard it was good.”
Aan is performing at FUNZONE, located at 226 S Milpas St., Santa Barbara, Calif., alongside Waterslice, The Flying Garbage, and The Greens of Montenegro this Sunday, January 29th at 8pm.