How nature droners Growing found their flow
Text by Peter Relic
Photography by Eden Batki
Layout by W.T. Nelson
originally published in Arthur No. 22 (May 2006)
If Plato had had the necessary resources back in the day, he would have definitely buffed out his philosopher’s cave with black lights and fog machines. The old Greek dude never got the chance, but in the new millennium, Growing have done it for him, figuratively speaking.
Growing is Joe DeNardo, 26, and Kevin Doria, 27, two gentlemen who met at Evergreen University in Olympia, Washington. DeNardo is originally from the suburbs of Chicago, while Doria grew up in Richard Nixon’s hometown of Yorba Linda, tucked deep inside Southern California’s Orange County. Together they play a slug-paced, ocean-deep drone music without drums or traditionally recognizable melodies that nonetheless projects a palpable pulse and a sense of pro-biotic harmony. Over three albums, and assorted tapes and EPs, Growing have united the foreboding heaviness of doom metal with the reassuring beauty of placid ambience in songs stretching up to 20 minutes in length. The unlikely arranged marriage actually works. Call it life metal, or nature drone.
“We chose the name Growing because it seemed all-encompassing,” Joe DeNardo says, on the cel phone from the duo’s live-in bunker in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “A lot of people didn’t like it at first because they thought it was a reference to marijuana or boners. Not so. It does seem to describe the process of living and dying without being heavy and ominous. Which is nice.”
For their newest album, The Color Wheel, Doria and DeNardo have expanded the Growing sound to encompass even more: now, discord and rhythm join the Edenic shimmerblasts and underlying thrum of their past work. If Growing is an entity, The Color Wheel is the sound of it in adolescence: the bucolic innocence of childhood mostly lost, replaced by awkwardness, dark intimations of mortality and, of course, new joys. Adolescence is beyond volition—it just happens, whether or not you want it to—and Growing’s growth seems to have happened in the same way: the band’s sound has unfolded in ways its makers didn’t contrive or foresee, yet nonetheless accept.
Speaking with DeNardo and Doria is not unlike listening to Growing: it ain’t gonna work if you’re in a hurry, and the less you pry for insight, the more revelations are likely to come. Then again, these guys are don’t confine the big slowdown to their guitarwork. They do everything slowly, including going though college (Doria: “Took me seven years and I’m not even a doctor!”).
“We’re not very conscious guys,” says DeNardo. “Like, we’re not very aware of ourselves. We just kind of…float. We don’t articulate ourselves all that well. We don’t talk to each other much about this stuff; we don’t line everything up like ‘Okay this is the idea: I’m thinking about the French Alps right now, I spent time in the caves, we can make some music like…’
“We don’t do that. It’s just all kind of melts and flows together.”
* * * * *
Growing was birthed in Olympia, Washington. For two years—or maybe three years, no one’s really sure—DeNardo and Doria lived in a house with Joe Preston, a legendary musician with arguably the heaviest resume in guitar history, one that includes work with early Earth, mid-‘90s Melvins, White1/2-era Sunn0))) and now, High On Fire (which features an ex-member of Sleep), as well as his own one-man noise-drone-riff unit, Thrones.
“For the most part it was really just mellow times,” says Kevin Doria. “We played video games, went to Taco Bell…just hung out for the most part. He never practiced, not once. Okay, I think he did once when no one was around, for like 15 minutes. I guess he just didn’t like the way it sounded in the basement.”
DeNardo and Doria didn’t mind the basement sound.
“Before Growing, we had a little tape thing called 1,000 A.D.,” says Doria. “It started out as Joe [DeNardo] and me fucking around in the basement: a lot more riffage, no drums or anything, just guitars and bass, really long tedious parts that went on for hours. We were simultaneously doing this other band called Black Man White Man Dead Man which, when it started was more hardcore stuff: fast, loud. As time went on, it evolved into slower heavier jams. Finally we realized that having two bands comprised of the same members was really stupid, so whatever, let’s just have one band. The writing didn’t dramatically change as far as the songs were concerned, but everything did get slower. I’m not particularly good at playing fast, or playing parts even—that had something to do with us getting slower—but also, we just kind of got bored playing hardcore. We got older. It was natural.”
It’s difficult to measure Preston’s direct influence on how Growing grew—“He’s a pretty secretive dude about how he works,” says Doria; “I learned from Joe Preston how to combine multiple distortion pedals to get specific sounds,” says DeNardo. Whatever the case, Preston’s mere presence meant that he was inevitably something of a resource and an inspiration for a band looking to make an “all-encompassing” sound with limited means.
“Here’s a guy alone onstage and he’s making a sound I’ve seen 20 people try to make and they can’t quite get there together,” says Doria. “We found out you didn’t need all these things to make music. The nice thing is, Joe Preston would sell stuff—pedals, amps, etc.—and we’d be the first to know about it so we’d buy it. It was always nice to ask him for amp advice. Hey Joe, how’s this sound? ‘Bass-y.’ Beats talking to some jerk at the store about it.”
Of course Preston was more than a source of technical know-how; he was a voice of experience who had worked with some of the musicians whose recordings Doria and DeNardo were drawing on for inspiration.
“Both of us were really into Earth 2 [Earth’s 1993 ‘ambient metal’ masterwork] when we started,” says Doria. “For a long time, that was definitely an influence. It just opened doors. It was an example of music that can happen, that isn’t necessarily in the standard format. You could say the same for Thrones…”
But perhaps Preston’s biggest contribution to Growing was explaining a modus operandi.
“Joe Preston likened early Earth stuff to Tantric Buddhist chanting, of doing their version of it on guitar,” says DeNardo. “I always really liked that, because it wasn’t like he and [Earth mainman] Dylan Carlson thought, ‘We’re gonna try to chant or sing tantrically these prayers.’ Instead they were influenced by those sounds and set out to replicate them in a totally different way. That approach eventually became part of how we proceed to create, I hope.”
“That’s a big part of our concept,” says Doria. “I was working at a restaurant, and on my break I’d go out back where I’d hear the hum of the freeway, and the refrigerator vent vibrating. I liked that enough to where I compositionally copied that by replacing those sounds with sounds on my guitar.”
The result was “Anaheim II,” a bludgeoning drone-throb piece on Growing’s breakthrough second album, The Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light (Kranky, 2004). On previous recordings, Doria and DeNardo had been joined by different third members on instruments (drums, keyboard) other than guitar; perhaps the presence of a third member limited Growing’s sound more than enabled it. Whatever the case, by reducing the membership to two, and the type of musical instrument to one, Growing found its voice. Less became more, to the point that all sounds in Growing’s recordings and public performances are now generated exclusively by guitar.
“It’s not that it’s deliberate, it’s just that it’s more fun,” says Doria. “It’s definitely not a moral thing—‘guitar superiority’—or anything. The fact that it’s a guitar means that it’s not a drum, it’s not a keyboard, it’s not a synthesizer, so it’s going to have its own really unique sound.”
DeNardo: “I’m not a great guitar player by any means but it’s something that I’m comfortable with. I know how to use it. You get to a certain point where you’re familiar with something, you’re comfortable with it, the idea of going onto something else seems like such a task. I don’t want to just grab some percussive setup—that’d be like some sort of an affront to people who are really serious with percussion. I can’t really imagine getting that involved with another instrument right now.”
So, how do they do it? Effects pedals? Masses of alternately tuned guitars?
“Kevin does a lot of alternate tunings,” says DeNardo. “I’m pretty traditional. We may drop the top string to get more density. But I generally don’t experiment with tunings too much. I like building on loops, utilizing delay and distortion and tremolos. The other thing is, I’m left-handed—if I have one guitar that sounds good and works and is not a piece of shit, it’s a miracle. And the resources just aren’t there to have 12 differently tuned guitars.”
The music Growing generates suggests sounds usually originated by other instruments (synthesizers, drums); the music also evokes environmental settings and states of mind. Sometimes, it goes deeper, into sound itself, and deeper still, into sensation-perception itself. This is the mental place-point where synaesthesia—the production of one sensation by a wholly other sensation, like a color being suggested by a certain sound—happens. Growing’s last album borrowed its title from an 1893 essay entitled “A Souvenir of the Color Organ, With Some Suggestions in Regard to the Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light” by one Bainbridge Bishop of New Russia in Essex County, New York, which combined Bishop’s modest philosophical musings on the relationships between “the principal colors of the rainbow” and the “harmonic series of music or sound” with detailed descriptions and schematics of the experimental keyboard organs he built that demonstrated those principles by displaying certain colors when certain notes were played (red for C, yellow-green for F, aquamarine for G, etc.). That Growing titled their new album The Color Wheel seems to show this interest in synaesthesia has not waned.
“The Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light is just a really beautiful phrase,” says DeNardo. “It’s a really nice description of what we wish we could get to. The Color Wheel, referencing color and sound… It’s just an interest, an inspiration—it’s nothing scientific, it’s very rudimentary. Everybody has theories about associating certain colors with certain keys. I think a lot of people see those combinations in their minds, but I don’t personally have any physical alteration in my sight when I hear a sound and I don’t think Kevin does either. Well, not when we’re sober, anyways. Maybe something we do with sound will give people some thoughts and ideas. We used to do more visuals at our shows: slides, videos. It’s become a lot harder to do since we’ve moved to New York, the place where everybody’s already done everything, right? If money were no object, there’d be a crazy lightshow that was dynamic and colorful and responded to every note we played. That would be the dream, of course.
“We’re gonna call the next record If Money Were No Object…”
* * * * *
The Color Wheel was recorded last fall over twelve 14-hour days in a studio north of Montreal called The Pines that’s run by Dave Bryant of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Craig Bowen. After last year’s EP His Return (released through their new label home, Megablade), it’s a bit of a surprise to see another entire album with no vocals. DeNardo, who sang on His Return’s “Freedom Towards Death,” says nonchalantly, “It’s just a thing that comes and goes. I very rarely have lyrics that I’m excited about singing, or feel like fit a song that we’re making. They might show up again, they might not, who knows. If it fits, it fits.”
Doria: “We don’t necessarily go with a plan: ‘this is a part, this is how all this is gonna go.’ We just play. A lot of the time I’ll have a part or Joe will have a part and either they will magically go together or the other guy will have some other part that goes with it properly. Live, I always think things could get a little bit louder, which is probably not the best mentality. When we started it was just ‘play as loud as possible.’ Sometimes that’s a detriment. There’s a happy medium in there and I want to find it; it’s always part of the journey, trying to find and stay at that happy medium as long as you possibly can without losing control of your amp.”
DeNardo: “The longer you sustain the sound, the more time the listener has to concentrate and pick up on the sound. You can pare everything down to one note and there’s a lot of subtle harmonic ephemera. ‘Anaheim II,’ which is Kevin’s brainchild, is just a densely layered chord that shifts through the action of going forward and backward. The foundation of the track is one dense chord that’s a sustained note.”
It’s the power of the drone.
“A drone is just one of those sounds that can communicate a lot of subtlety,” says DeNardo. “Drone is one of the older elements in music. Many traditional musics have a drone element—it’s everywhere, if you dig deep enough. I’m not a scientist or a biologist or psychologist, but I think it probably has some really natural closeness or feeling to the womb. It’s always felt really nice and easy and pleasant even to play. And when a show goes really well, I feel really relaxed and more lucid. That’s one of the effects that I hope our music has on people…”
Growing have caused people to lay down and bliss out en masse in nightclubs, at festivals (they played the Mogwai-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties in London, 2003 as well as a packed room at ArthurFest 2005), and on a North American tour last summer with San Francisco Bay Area scorchers Comets On Fire. But the live situations they seem most excited about take place in the unconventional spaces that rarely hear the sound of amplified guitar.
“We’ve always wanted to avoid playing only in clubs,” Doria says. “We’ve played in churches, and we played at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. At MOCA we set up our amps outdoors, in a quadraphonic sound environment, with the sound of the fountain right there too. It was a really laid-back atmosphere, people could sit down, plus it was free, so we got all kinds of people who were downtown and weird patrons of the museum who decided to show up for no reason. A success.”
Some of Growing’s music was actually conceived for specific temporal-geographic locations. “Epochal Reminiscence,” from The Soul of Light is an 18-minute fugue that moves from the static to the ecstatic as its sonic undertow envelops the listener. The piece is something Growing originally recorded for a “home show” in Olympia.
“A home show is were we design each room in the house to have a different sound environment,” says DeNardo. “People come over, they’re invited to partake and stay overnight. Anyone can do it. It’s a really pleasant way to hang out with friends. That piece was the soundscape in my bedroom, where it was playing on a prerecorded tape, and then there were a couple guitars and amps set up, and people were allowed to pick them up and play along. All the effects were in a box that they couldn’t reach. They just had access to a guitar and a volume pedal.”
This effort to involve the listener on experiential terms has its precedents; perhaps the most relevant recent example is the Dream House, an ongoing environmental installation designed by minimalist composer La Monte Young and his wife, visual designer Marian Zazeela that involves slowly changing sound, shapes and color. DeNardo has visited the Dream House twice.
“It’s right where Sixth Avenue hits Church Street in Manhattan,” he says. “Basically the Dream House is an installation with a giant chord of slowly moving notes. The incredible thing about it is that you can be in one spot, and move your ear ever so slightly and the whole sound that’s swimming around your head changes. You perceive different frequencies depending on the slightest change in where your ears are positioned. You can move a centimeter and all of a sudden you’re hearing a whole different range of what’s going on. But when you first walk into it, you think it’s just a loud mega-noise going on. Then you feel it change. You actually play the room by moving around in it. It’s extraordinary, beyond anything we’re doing. It’s pretty much a pure experience without having to analyze it all, and in fact, the second time I went, I fell asleep for a while. I woke up to La Monte and Marian were giving a friend of theirs a tour of the Dream House, and I was like, [dreamily], ‘Whoa, La Monte Young’s hanging out!’ It was really funny.”
Impressed, DeNardo purchased The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath: An Homage, a recording of 1981 model Pandit Pran Nath style paired tamburas played by Young and Zazeela in the tuning “Jora Sa 120 Hz, Pa 90 Hz, Kuraj Sa 60 Hz (B[downward arrow symbol] pitch)” that fellow minimalist composer (and Pandit Pran Nath disciple) Terry Riley calls “an invaluable artifact, destined to become a cherished classic, valued or years to come by those able to appreciate the subtle vibratory qualities of this High Art.” The La Monte Young-Marian Zazeela trip can get pretty heady.
Says DeNardo, “That philosophy is totally exciting and inspiring to me, although it’s not something that I’m conscious of as we’re making music. When they start getting into integer modal relationships then I’m like Oh that’s cool but I can’t really follow it, and in a way, I don’t want to… We obviously feel an affinity towards the drones that appear in so many musics from around the world, listen to as much as we can. We would never try and actually play an actual [traditional] instrument. We’re just trying to expose ourselves to it, to everything possible. You go to see the more academic concerts where it’s some university professor or digital sound students… some of the things that we’ve tried, they’re working on the same kind of stuff.”
“I’m into the Dream House idea of having something that’s there for a long time,” says Doria. “You don’t necessarily have to attend at a specific time; it could be going on for a while, you can come to it and chill out. But, you know, playing anywhere that’s somewhat exotic would be nice. Outdoors, something woodsy…”
DeNardo: “The Pacific Ocean is my favorite body of water. Mornings that I’ve spent in Los Angeles on the coast have been particularly pleasant. The sky’s always amazing. Even in Olympia we’d go out to the coast past Aberdeen. All you need is a cloud break in Washington and you get a really good rainbow.”
Doria: “We’ve never played the desert but that would be nice. Maybe Burning Man…?”
DeNardo: “A cavern would be good. Caves in general are just interesting sonically. We could play in a large cave where things are going to echo and move, and people can be traveling through it and at different points hear it differently… Caves have always been a real interest of mine. I’ve only been to one cave, in the upstate New York area when I was real young, for some school thing. I just remember being really amazed with how vast it was. It was gigantic. I picked up this old National Geographic, it had an article about this six-month stay that this scientist did in a Texas cave. Mostly it was an experiment on your sleep and awake cycle, what happens to it if you get no sunlight or direct human contact. Pretty quickly he lost all track of time. There’d be times when he was only awake for six hours but he thought he’d been awake for 20. He kept a pretty extensive diary and they printed excerpts from it. He was totally going crazy—even contemplating suicide at one point—from lack of sunlight and lack of contact with people. Which I feel a little affinity towards, living in a room without any natural sunlight.”
DeNardo chuckles, but you gotta wonder about these guys: obvious nature lovers who’ve ended up in a windowless basement in New York City. On the bright side, maybe it could function as a fallout shelter?
Doria: “If there’s any kind of mass destruction I hope I’m taken out right away. If a giant asteroid hits the earth, I hope it falls on my head and obliterates me right away, instead of having to think of how a giant asteroid hit the earth 15 minutes ago and a wave of energy is churning towards me is going to wipe me out.”
That’s assuming we’re still around when the next asteroid strikes. Between global climate change and our child President’s itchy nuclear finger, the human race may be on its way out…
DeNardo: “I give it a couple more thousand years if we can figure out how to deal with energy in an efficient way. Hopefully our brains will evolve, like a new species will come out of us. Considering we’ve been around for 8,000 years it’s awfully saddening to think we’ve done the most damage in the past few hundred.”
“Nothing like this ever disappears,” says Doria, “and there’s always going to be those rogue factions who are hiding underground. Hopefully they’ll mutate and change what our idea of humanity is, but it could change dramatically much sooner. Growing, are we a rogue faction? Maybe.”
DeNardo: “The best thing about the earth is it’ll keep on truckin’.”