Dave Heumann, the guitarist and singer for Arbouretum, walks into the Remington coffee shop where our interview was supposed to start about an hour ago. He orders an iced tea and then puts on his shades, looking a little frazzled. This behavior, along with Heumann's penchant for lengthy guitar solos, may seem like typical rock-star stuff, but Heumann is anything but a typical rock star.
While talking about the local band's latest album, Coming out of the Fog, which came out in January and will be feted at a release party at Golden West Café this Friday, Feb. 8, Heumann lights up when expounding on his bandmates' contributions. I ask about Matthew Pierce, who has been playing keys with the band since before the recording of 2011's The Gathering; Pierce offers a new texture to the band's sound, sometimes making it sound as if someone dropped a broken Nintendo in their midst.
"When you hear his bitcrushed noise, it's actually just [the keyboard] going through an amp that's distorted," Heumann says. "He's got a bass amp that he put together out of parts. It crunches up really nice. He even does some spacey stuff with the Fender Rhodes. He'll go out through an amp and he'll tweak the delay pedal so he gets all kinds of crazy swells and swishy stuff happening, but then he'll have also the iPad synth to get more far-out noisy stuff, which is cool, and it's harder for a guitar to do that kind of stuff."
Almost immediately after forming, about 10 years ago, Arbouretum's fuzzed-out rock and thoughtful lyrics attracted a dedicated audience. But for most of the years since the band has been in flux. Before there was Pierce and his swishy stuff, there were other collaborators. The first Arbouretum album, Long Live the Well-Doer, was more of a studio creation without a core band. The album caught the ear of Thrill Jockey's Bettina Richards, and the label has released all four subsequent Arbouretum full-lengths. The second effort, Rites of Uncovering, was made much the same way. But on the third album, Song of the Pearl, Heumann* brought in a regular band and started making shorter, punchier songs.
Just when Arbouretum seemed to settle into being a steady four-piece (singer/guitar, guitar, bass, drums), drummer Daniel Franz left to play with Beach House. Heumann used the occasion to reinvent the band, bringing in drummer Brian Carey and Pierce for The Gathering. (The one constant has been bassist Corey Allender, who has been with the band for about seven years.) The reconstituted band moved away from the two-guitar attack and returned to the longer song lengths of the second album. This has been something of a pattern for the band: let loose and indulge a little, then reign it in for the next release.
Coming out of the Fog benefits from the continuity of personnel. After all, this is the first time two Arbouretum albums feature the same lineup. "The band has sounded different over the years with different people," Heumann acknowledges. "This is our second one with the same personnel, but I think that we've kinda grown into our personality a little bit more in this lineup than we had in the previous album."
But don't mistake continuity for playing it safe. "Some of the stuff that gets successful can be some of the artistically weirdest stuff and some stuff that plays it safe and is bland never goes anywhere," Heumann says. "You just kinda have to make the best stuff you can and then hope people like it. You can drive yourself crazy trying to make music people will like."
Lyrically, Heumann and collaborator Rob Wilson have eschewed a grand theme, like The Gathering's focus on Carl Jung's The Red Book. However, Heumann is still fascinated by mysticism and consuming experiences. "[Coming out of the Fog] kinda purposefully didn't have a theme," he says. "I thought it would be cool to make every song more direct about experiences, even if they weren't necessarily my own experiences."
The song "Renouncer" is based on The Afterlives of the Saints by Colin Dickey. The lyrics concern an ascetic who decided to live his life on a pillar in the desert. "I thought it was interesting thing-why would you choose to experience life that way? It's a really extreme way to live; in this case this guy, he did live a majority of his life on that pillar, which is kind of insane and fascinating," Heumann says. I ask him if he is a spiritual person and Heumann shoots back, "Yeah, but I'm not going to go standing on any pillars."
Arbouretum celebrates the release of its new album Feb. 8 at Golden West Cafe.
* City Paper initially misidentified Heumann as Pierce in this sentence. We regret the error.