On September 9th 2020, California was on fire. The annual fire season was hitting its peak and in a year which had already proved to be like no other, the impact was devastating for the West Coast State. Dewey Mahood, the musician behind Plankton Wat, watched on from his recording studio in Portland, Oregon, where he was busy putting together his new album Future Times.
“The West Coast literally went up in flames! Wild fires were raging all throughout California, and then a massive forest fire took off very close to SE Portland where I live. The sky went dark with smoke and ash, you could not go outside, we had the worst air quality on the planet”, Dewey reflects, before recalling other events of the year, “That apocalyptic feeling from back in March was back, ten times worse! That’s when I wrote the final song of the album ‘The Burning World’, which after all the music was finished I realized it had to be the opening song. Just set the mood with the bleakest song haha”
In a year which has seen not just the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also the rampant destruction of the wildfires you can forgive Dewey for having a rather dark sense of humour. After all, when you are stuck at home unable to get on with life as it was, then you need to find escape through both humour, and creative avenues. Those creative avenues are to be heard on Future Times, an album brimming with apocalyptic visions, but also offering hope along the way.
“It was quite the year, and probably a lot of these issues are staying with us. Fortunately we’ve had a big change in leadership in this country which hopefully leads to some positive changes, but it’s going to take time. Personally I’ve been doing well, I made an album in all my down time last year, so that was great. I’ve just been trying to get outside as much as possible, skateboarding, and going on hikes, and stuff like that” Dewey explains, and its this life as usual approach which helped in making what is now termed a lockdown record.
“Funny enough the initial recording was the same as I have always done with Plankton Wat albums, I go in my basement studio, put my headphones on and start improvising and making noise on a cassette 4 track. I’ve been doing this since the 1990’s, just getting lost in making sound. I recorded all the basic parts of the nine songs this way, laying down guitar, keyboard, and bass by myself usually late at night when my family goes to bed. This has kind of been a ritual for me ever since my daughter was born 18 years ago! For the past decade my good buddy Dustin Dybvig has cleaned up my recordings with his ProTools rig, and added overdubs here and there. In the past we always did this together at his house, but for this album I had to email him the songs, and we discussed ideas over the phone. He used a light touch on this one playing synth on a few songs, and he asked his wife Ash Dybvig to play flute on Modern Ruins.”
On listening to the album the first thing that strikes you is the excellent production. So what was the next step from cassette to finished product? “The real big difference on this album from all my previous ones is I wanted to get the engineer/producer Victor Nash involved. He has this beautiful music studio called Destination Universe just a couple miles down the road from my house, and my band Galaxy Research recorded an album called Kaldi there a couple years ago”, Dewey explains, before elaborating further, “I’d been wanting to work with Victor again ever since, he’s so easy to work with and captures amazing sounds really quickly. My kind of guy! Lucky for me Victor seemed really into the music, he told me he would work on it in his free time and get back to me when he was finished. He also asked me if he could try out a few trumpet overdubs. At first I thought he was joking, but he plays so perfectly well I could not imagine this album without the French horn and trumpet. It gives it this defiant, marching into battle, ready for whatever comes next feel. Anyway, a few weeks went by and I get an email from Victor, and he said ‘put on a face mask, and come hear some mixes’. I went over to his studio, and he played me the songs with everyone’s overdubs, and I was like ‘well, that’s it!!’ It all sounded so full and lush I didn’t want to do anything more to it”.
The nine songs on this album are all of a piece and flow beautifully together. It’s perhaps the first time that a Plankton Wat album has sounded so “urgent” although familiar themes continue to resonate across the tracks, of which more later. A couple of tracks in particular stand out as moments of anger at the state of the country. Both ‘Dark Cities‘, and ‘Defund The Police‘ take their cue from the events surrounding the death of George Floyd. Reflecting on what had been an album created during the pandemic, Dewey explains further, “At this point Covid was still the big news story, everything in Portland was closed, there were no cars on the road, everyone was hiding out in their homes, and it really was feeling like the end of civilization. I was imagining the album as this Road Warrior end of the world sort of thing, but then George Floyd was murdered and the whole Black Lives Matter movement came to life big time here in Portland. All of the sudden my wife and I were in the middle of these huge protests with up to 10,000 other people after seeing almost no one for a couple months.”
Isolation shattered, further inspiration was to come. “It felt incredibly empowering, like everyone who was paying attention and caring about human life were all coming together to demand change. I wrote and recorded Dark Cities, Teenage Daydream, and Defund the Police after coming home from big protests in our city’s downtown area. I was feeling equal amounts of anger and hopefulness which I hope shines through the album. Musically they are fairly simple songs but filled with a ton of complex emotions, I wanted to keep it all pretty raw”. This rawness can be heard across those tracks like a gigantic scar. In true Plankton Wat syle though, this scarring can only lead to hope, and in a year which has proved to be nothing short of depressing and worrying, you have to admire Dewey’s unending sense of optimism.
“Well, I got heavy into Bad Brains as a kid and took the whole PMA thing very seriously! haha. All my favourite music growing up like Jimi Hendrix or The Clash have a lot of optimism so I guess that carried over into my playing style pretty naturally. I think the one thing most of us can agree on is life can be very hard, there’s a lot of struggling and conflict out in the world, so I want to counter that with some sense of hope”. Thinking on that, Dewey explains, “I don’t really do it consciously, I think it’s just my personality and my approach to life. I went through a deep Existentialist phase as a kid, and I kind of realized it’s all in the mind. We can choose to follow the darkness, or make an effort to be more positive. It’s not always that easy, but I’ve kind of always seen that as my place on this Earth, to make other people feel a bit more at peace.”
And with this peace comes a oneness with nature? “Nature is everything! Without it we wouldn’t be here listening to psychedelic rock, haha. Yeah, the forests and Pacific coast have been my constant inspiration for as long as I can remember. When I was a baby my parents moved from the San Franscico bay area to this tiny mountain town called Paradise in Northern California. Just behind my childhood home was this massive canyon and I’d ride my BMX bike down there looking for things to jump over. It was completely wild, and no one around anywhere. I think this set me on my path at a very early age”. It’s a routine that has stuck with him as he has grown older too, “Whenever I get the chance I’m out wandering in some woods, or sitting at the beach staring at the waves. The natural environment helps me think clearly, and makes me feel more alive. I’m not a big fan of giant concrete boxes and traffic”
That peaceful nature is heard most keenly on final track ‘Wild Mountain’ which acts as a balm after the intensity that has gone before. Future Times is one of those albums which immerses you in it’s sound-scape, and provides much needed escape, but within that is a keen sense of the world around you too. As a reviewer you are often asked to make up your own ideas of what a track might mean, but for an album that has been so influenced by events of the year, it seemed best to just let Dewey explain each track, as you listen along…
“Ok, some of this I already said, but the album begins with ‘The Burning World’. It came directly from experiencing one of the worst forest fires so close to Portland. My wife and I actually had to come up with a best plan for escaping our neighborhood, it was that real. I also liked the concept in the broader sense of everything burning, the political extremism, the social division, the health pandemic, just the overall panic and dread of 2020.”
“The second song ‘Nightfall’ I’d been eager to record for a while because it’s been a constant part of my live set, and has several parts to it. It’s one of the most fully developed pieces of music I play. It was originally a mellow acoustic guitar piece, then an ambient sort of jam. Now I see it almost as Prog Rock or Doom Folk or something. Basically it’s really fun to play, and the audience seems to enjoy it live so it’s kind of my theme song at this point. The big surprise was Victor’s French horn melody, it freaked me out when I first heard it, but it makes the song so much better!”
“’Modern Ruins’ is another song I wrote about ten years ago. Dustin and I used to play a grunge version of it in a band we briefly did called Spectrum Control. It’s also a fully realized song of many parts so I thought it would be a nice 1, 2 punch with ‘Nightfall’. Put the two old rock songs back to back. I originally called it Pompeii after the ruined ancient city, but after Portland become completely shutdown and boarded up from Covid and then all the protests, the title ‘Modern Ruins’ came to me. It’s like we are living through modern civilization turning into ruins. It’s truly a fascinating time to be alive.”
“Side 1 is wrapped up by the song ‘Dark Cities’. I feel like this song is almost a second half to ‘Modern Ruins’, like the cities are destroyed and it’s just very dark and still now, almost like being in the woods. That’s why the song ends with the sound of wind produced by my wah wah pedal! haha. I had attended this Hip-Hop protest night in downtown Portland with rappers, and I started thinking I wanted something with a beat on the record. Originally the concept was only melodic instruments, no drums, but I decided to work in a 1980’s Casio beat. It’s a sound I never get tired of, such a total classic at this point in time. I was also listening to the first couple Iron Maiden records a ton last summer and wanted to play a bit of that dueling guitar sort of thing. It all came together as a nice cathartic midpoint for the album. I see side 1 as the conflict, and side 2 as some hint at resolve.”
“This brings us to Side 2 and ‘Teenage Daydream’. I wanted another song with an upbeat tempo to follow ‘Dark Cities’, kind of keep the energy level going strong. This song I wrote with my daughter Harper in mind, and it’s for her and her generation. I mean can you imagine being a teenager living through all this? It’s all so heavy and stressful. It’s about the youth retaining the ability to dream of a better world, and hopefully realize some of that change. It’s a song of escape, hope, and joy. Musically I had some early Brian Eno in mind, that easy going, playful way of putting sounds together.”
“’Sanctuary’ is a slow blues, something I love to do as a guitarist but also kind of feel funny about doing publicly. I’ve always tried to go in a more post-punk, or psychedelic, or experimental direction, but if you play guitar, blues is so much of the language. I’m a huge Peter Green Fleetwood Mac fan, and I wanted to play something slightly invoking that feel. That deep soulful sadness that is almost otherworldly. It was so much of 2020, the intensity of events was like being in another world. It being me I did this in a very abstract way, piecing together tiny fragments of guitar through multitracking. I would only let myself play for a second or two, stop the tape, then play a bit more. It gives the piece a super organic weird morphing sort of development. Once Dustin heard the song he added the organ part which holds all the little abstract guitar bits together incredibly well. After the record was finished Peter Green passed away which really hit me.”
“As I said earlier ‘Future Times’ was the starting point, and it’s the heart of the album. It’s an expression of not knowing what is coming next. There is tension and uncertainty, definitely some paranoia, but also a determination to confront whatever is ahead of us. In hindsight I guess the idea is if we can get through all this, we can get through anything. That whole if it doesn’t kill us we get stronger kind of thing. I wasn’t planning on making a record at this point, I was literally escaping reality by playing music. Pink Floyd is one of my all time favourite bands and I love playing a Roger Waters style minimal funky bass which was the first thing recorded for this album!”
“’Defund The Police’ is a common slogan throughout the Black Lives Matter protests of the past year, and I see this song as a statement of peaceful protest. It’s a simple trio of sounds coming together as one, Dustin and myself playing synths and Victor on French horn. It has this sombre going up against all odds feel. I believe in non-violence so the song is very peaceful too. It definitely has a Brian Eno vibe to the music which I’m super into. In terms of the politics I 100% believe a lot of our tax dollars are thrown away at the police and the military. These are organizations that come in after problems already exist. If we hope to survive as a civil society we need to address the causes of our problems, and start funding organizations dedicated to uplifting people, creating better living conditions, and opportunities for all. This isn’t and shouldn’t be the work of our police departments.”
“The album ends with ‘Wind Mountain’. It’s basically an ancient folk song, maybe the oldest of all folk music, C to F, back and forth. I enjoy playing this type of music as I feel it connects to ancient generations from long ago. It’s music as dirt, water, and sunlight. I did use a very off kilter warped delay to modernize it a little, that sound makes me think of some old bullfrog just watching the world go by. ‘Wind Mountain’ is a real place not far from my house on the Washington state side of the Columbia River gorge. My wife and I hiked up to the vista point on a beautiful clear sunny day just as Covid was hitting hard. We sat there studying the fantastic view of mountains, forests, and the massive river that flows between all that. Legend has it local Native American tribes used the mountain for spiritual quests and to find their true selves which feels like the perfect way to close the album. It was Victor’s idea to end the album with the sound of trumpets echoing off the mountain top, and I thought that was pretty cool.”
There have been few moments of light over the last year so it is inspiring to see that from a world where everything seemed to stop, pockets of creativity have been popping up. Future Times may not reach the heady heights of fame as some other lockdown albums, but as a record of the times it is one of the most exhilarating. It also offers that glint of hope which is something we all need at the moment. Rarely a moment goes by when the album doesn’t throw in something new to the mix, although at its heart it is the simplicity of the tracks which draws you in. Future Times really is a triumph of an album made in extraordinary circumstances. There may now be a vaccine for Covid, but for those looking for a vaccine for the soul then look no further than here.