Octopus Project: Austin’s “Best Avant Garde/Experimental Band”
Written and Edited by: Shannon Williams
By popular vote in the the Austin Chronicle’s annual Austin Music Awards, Octopus Project, has been named “Best Avant Garde/Experimental Band” for the 2013-2014 season. The band dates back to 1999, and is composed of Josh Lambert, Yvonne Lambert, Toto Miranda, and Ryan Figg. The group’s experimental style is highlighted by their use of not just guitars drums and synth, but also the “theremin.”
I got to speak with percussionist Toto Miranda, long time Austinite and long time member of Octopus Project before their sets at SXSW.
Octopus Project’s most recent release, “Fever Forms” builds on their digital pop sound. “Fever Forms” can be a jolting yet dance-able experience, as the group maneuvers key change and advanced time signatures with more of a pop sensibility. Fever Forms is the band’s fifth studio album. “Hexadecagon,” which was released in 2010, landed their sound in an overture of synths and guitars turned baroque. “Hexadecagon” was a big, interesting sound no doubt.
However the group’s latest lands them back into the psyche-pop classroom that won them their first major audiences. This may be because it was recalculated following the band’s tour with the then, unreleased tracks from “Fever Forms.”
“We had a tour planned for when the record was supposed to come out the first time, and then the record didn’t come out but we still had a tour so we went out and played the songs and I think in the process of playing the songs in front of people during those shows I think we figured out a lot of areas we wanted to expand on in the recording. We usually write kind of in the recording process so we haven’t necessarily played the songs all together live at a show before they go down on the record and I think being able to do that for this material definitely helped. ”
So, Fever Forms was calculated in a different way.
The album kicks off with Whitby, a bright bouncy pop song and unlike most of the group’s songs even has lyrics. Like the lyrics by vocalist, Yvonne’s Lambert state on the track “it’s like the air is trying to hold its breath” this song is dreamy in a fresh way. Whitby’s music video is a stop motion animation of small triangles, hexagons and more shapes that move about a field.
“It’s a stop motion animation video that we made out of cut paper that we used a, I think the term is a plotter, it’s a computer controlled cutting machine to cut out the successive shapes of an animation like a triangle shrinking.”
“I usually want our music to sound colorful, which is kind of abstract, but it means something to me.”
It’s colorful, it’s light, and it seems to mirror the patterns visually of what Octopus Project does musically.
“I think about our music in terms of patterns a lot. Like units and repetition. That’s something I also usually respond to in visual art. I think that’s a pretty strong correlation.”
Strength demonstrated in the single “Whitby” can be found in the group’s consistent ability to create atmospheric music appropriate for the nerdy, glasses wearing Austinights that frequent the group’s fairly infrequent shows.
I asked Miranda about a track that really stood out to me. It seemed consistent in the group’s throwback of sounds, and their use of an object largely retired from the world of music. The band is known for playing the Theremin, an electronic instrument which dates back to the 1920s and is played without the musician touching the instrument.
Spooky, I know. Or maybe it’s closer to nerd-cool.
One track on Fever Forms, “Unspooled,” plays along the same line of throwback. In “Unspooled,” Octopus Project throws back farther into nostalgia into what was a musical composition on a music box.
“It’s like a novelties company and they make a music box that comes with paper strips and a punch so that you can punch your own songs to the music box.”
With Octopus Project’s pop sensibility, but unconventional methods, I had to steer the conversation to Miranda’s thoughts on current pop.
“I guess I would hope that things take a turn for the diverse. I feel like maybe, I guess everything goes through cycles. I think 10 years ago pop music seemed pretty weird to me. I think it’s kind of swung back around to be a lot more monolithic where everybody is kind of got the same synth sound, the same bass drop. There is a sound that big names a lot of genres are using, like pop and dance and even country songs are all starting to sound the same. It would be cool if things took a turn for the weird.”
And here’s Miranda’s theory for the homogeneity seen in the current tripped out dub influenced… everything.
“It’s I would guess, is the natural outgrowth of, you know the internet makes everything available to everybody and genre lines are not what they used to be, which is a good thing. I think the flip side of that is that things kind of get mashed together in what becomes kind of a colorless lump.”
A colorless lump. If that’s where mainstream music is headed, it’s certainly obvious why Octopus Project has a loyal following.