INTERVIEW: Ben Traughber of Dream Eye Color Wheel on the soul of a band, home recording, & Street Sharks!

Perhaps the most excellent cipher as a music writer is trying to figure out how to describe or compare a band. For some bands, that’s no problem, which I mean here with no pretense; we’re not the cool kid police here. But I couldn’t tell you what Dream Eye Color Wheel is about other than just flying their freak flag as high and far as they want and following their music wherever it goes. There are freak folk elements here mixed in with ambient and drone qualities. Speaking to Benjamin Traughber, I walked away knowing that on top of that, that they (or at least he) has a good sense of humor. You can listen to them below and check them out tomorrow for the release of False Omega out on Gubbey Records with Parallel Colors at Kaiju. We caught up with Traughber to ask about the soul of a band, home recording, and joining Nickelback!

Never Nervous: What’re y’all about? How did the band start? Who did the starting? Was there any formal discussion as to what it might sound like and why?

Benjamin Traughber: Well, I guess it originally started with me writing songs and making layered recordings of them at home. Making those recordings was a way for me to explore automatic writing and composition. Always written and recorded on the fly in a single sitting, there was never really a stylistic aim or goal, other than to practice openness and listening. Later, friends expressed interest in helping to recreate those songs live, and it evolved from there.

NN: For that matter, is it ever a good idea to prescribe what you want a band to sound like, or is it better to just figure it out on the fly? I’m really interested in the soul of a band here.

BT: It is something I have been interested in, too. My band experience was pretty sporadic before this, but as I am interested in writing about the overlapping and intersecting symbolism of people’s lives, it makes sense as something to explore in a group setting. Musically, the approach was envisioned as improvising to an agreed-upon established foundation, like dancing freely around a loose structure, staying open to spontaneous moments, but it was unpredictable. The results would erupt beautifully or implode dramatically, but I always found it fascinating.

Sadly, though, the band formation of that time, the first solid incarnation, drifted apart. The record we were working on fizzled. I felt responsible, and it left me in a reflective place, making sense of what happened. So I organized my thoughts around it, salvaging the song ideas I had, and I recorded a new album the same way as before, layering spur-of-the-moment song ideas and compositions, but this time, I had various friends come and play, too. Now, there is a new formation of people playing with me to recreate this new album live, and the vibe is really positive. As a seven piece, it has been a challenge to arrange, but it has transformed into something that feels solid and powerful.

NN: How would you describe your newest work to someone unfamiliar with what you do? What are the best reactions you’ve gotten from family or friends when you’ve exposed them to your jams?

“Other than having a family, I’ve never put so much work into a long-term project in my life, so it is rewarding to see it make people smile.”

BT: It seems to have gotten a positive response from people. Other than having a family, I’ve never put so much work into a long-term project in my life, so it is rewarding to see it make people smile. I wanted to make something that would pique listeners’ curiosity, take them through worlds of scenes and moods, and build an atmosphere around them. It is definitely an album that is made to be listened to all the way through, and from what people have told me, it has a flow to it. I think that is really important, so that was a good compliment.

Although it is cryptic, it tells a story. I’m very much inspired by Dadaist and Surrealist literature, doo wop, classic ballads, unconventional folk music, beat poetry, absurdist philosophy, jazz noir, minimalist composers, field recordings, marching bands, experimental processes, and found footage compilations. To me, this album has elements of all those things without really being any of those things.

NN: The recordings sound lo-fi, which personally I find charming. Was that an intentional aesthetic or an economic decision? How did you record for that matter?

BT: The lo-fi aspect was partially circumstantial, partially aesthetic preference. I’ve always loved lo-fi homemade records. To me, they have a voyeuristic quality, which is kind of smoothed over and polished away in a professional studio setting. Listening to a homemade record is like peeking through a sonic key-hole into someone’s life.

About how I did it, my setup is always changing, but I recorded this on a Tascam DP-24, a Tascam DP-008, and a Realistic TR-3000. There was a lot of transferring from digital to tape, tape to digital, playing with tape speed, and working out interesting textures in the process. The only mics I used were a modded SM-57 and an overhead church-choir-style condenser mic.

Also, working that way allowed me to work much longer on it than if I were paying for studio time. There are at least 200 hours of home-studio time put into this. That would equate to thousands of dollars of professional studio time, which is nowhere near what I invested in my recording stuff. If I were writing a novel, for example, I’d much rather write all day any time I want on an old typewriter at home than pay hourly for limited use of some top-of-the-line word processor. It felt like a win/win.

NN: Is there any one sonic medium that you prefer over others? What makes a tape more or less inviting than a CD(R) or a digital only release?

BT: I think I am a sucker for nostalgia, and tapes take me back to being five years old and making recorded short skits on my boombox, buying Mellow Gold on cassette at a yard sale, and rooting to the bottom of a box of Cheerios for a prize tape of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rapping original songs. It was a huge part of my childhood. Recently, I found out that my dad used to follow me around with a cassette Dictaphone and record me talking as a toddler. That might have something to do with it.

I think all mediums are important, though. Any tape, CD, vinyl record, phonograph cylinder, whatever, even the most seemingly unimportant or uninteresting thing, is a future artifact and is potentially significant to someone.

NN: How do you compose? Is it collaborative or does one person lead the show?

BT: It is both, I think. Sometimes I’ll begin with chord progressions that sound interesting to me and then start rooting out melodies. Sometimes I’ll start with a phrase of words and build from that; other times I’ve dreamed of music and tried to recreate it. Other times words are used to try and describe images or sequences from dreams I’ve had.

Either way, once there is a foundation established, I’ll sit down with other musicians and explain the feeling or texture that I’m going for, rather than spell out certain notes, leaving it open to their own interpretation or impression. It is interesting how individual personalities and mannerisms translate through spontaneous musical interpretation. Almost like a Rorschach. In that way, I am fortunate to be able to collaborate with such talented and like-minded friends.

NN: When is a song done? Can it morph in the moment? Can it evolve over time? Or does it need to remain static to the recordings?

BT: It is hard to know when it is done, to know when to walk away and say, “It’s finished!” Mainly it is hard because it is the nature of the thing to evolve and get more rich and interesting. Of course, there are times when pushing it too far ruins it, and it becomes ugly or overly busy. It’s hard to give an exact rule, it is more of a feeling or intuition, and it is definitely an ability that I’m still developing.

NN: What constitutes a good live show and why? Can you give us any examples of great sets or bad shows?

“I enjoy situations that subvert my expectations.”

BT: Personally, I enjoy situations that subvert my expectations. The element of surprise is so refreshing, whether it’s a band, or going to a movie, or seeing a play, or a comedian. Going to the store. Anything. A good, solid, performance will always be good, no doubt. But a moment that startles you, that breaks the norm, can be so captivating, that it adds an element of magic. So, maybe what makes a good show relies more on the perspective of the people seeing it and what their expectations are.

The other day I found a bird on the ground who seemed injured. She let me pick her up, and she rode in the car with me back to my house. She sat calmly in my hand the entire ride, and as soon as I pulled in the driveway and opened the door, she flew away. It was so strange and unexpected that I was enchanted for weeks. If a show could capture that level of mystery and wonder, it’d be better than anything I’ve ever done or seen.

NN: If you could “make it” would you want to put in the work? Would you want to tour and see the world or are you homebody?

BT: It depends on what the work is. If the work means continuing to write, record, and perform albums and songs, then great! Sign me up. I’ll work 8 days a week.

NN: Relative to that, but is there any point in your life were you would be willing to compromise your art on any level for money? To be clear, there was a time that I hated my (previous) day job so much that I would’ve quit to join Nickelback had I been asked.

BT: Well, I am lucky in that I have a day job that is pretty good, but it’s hard to say. It depends on what the compromise is. Joining Nickelback is near the top of my list of things to do before I die, though. It’s not number 1, but it’s close.

“Joining Nickelback is near the top of my list of things to do before I die.”

NN: Which band in the area is your arch enemies and why? Don’t pretend you can dodge this question. You have to call one band out for a cage match where you try and out music the other.

BT: Truth be told, my personality happens to match my zodiac, and I’m a pretty tumultuous Gemini. Thus, I am my own arch nemesis. Clone me and lock my clone in solitary confinement for a month, and tell cloned me that original me locked him in there. Setup the cage fight. I’d pay to see that.

NN: Have you ever wished you were a Street Shark?

BT: I had to look these guys up, as they were just a couple years after my prime cartoon watching time, but given the choices, I’d go with Moby Lick, as he was eventually able to break free from Paradigm’s mind control. Now I’m wondering what would be a better super power, utter freedom from mind control or mind control itself. Are they mutually exclusive?

NN: What non-musical things get you riled lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth reporting on?

The last book I finished was Bluebeard, and it’s pretty inspiring for anyone who wants to take a long time to make or do something despite all previous failure. I also recently reread Animal Farm, and it is amazing how it continues to be relevant to our political state. Certain similarities are uncanny. Being and Nothingness has been breaking my brain in good way. One paragraph at a time. Also, watching movies from my childhood with my kids is like getting to be a kid all over again. We watched The Witches the other day, and it was a straight-up time machine. We also made a werewolf movie that is pretty damn good. They amaze me on a daily basis.

NN: What are your top three desert island discs and why?

BT: I see now that it says desert, but I read it as dessert, probably because I am hungry. So, I’ll take: