Perfectly Imperfect; An interview with Protovulcan

Chicago trio Protovulcan are an experimental and mysterious band with a “perfectly imperfect sound” according to Ladytron’s Reuben Wu. Comprised of vocalist/keyboardist Will MacLean, drummer Deric Criss, and guitarist Nick Ammerman, the band recorded their third album, Life is Twigs with hometown legend Steve Albini. Additionally, Protovulcan have a new EP in the works, videos to go with it, and plenty more to come in the near future.

Ghettoblaster recently caught up with the band to discuss Life Is Twigs, which the band self-releases on January 25. They also gave us the pleasure of premiering their video for “Snake Legend,” which you can enjoy below.

When did you first begin writing the material for Life Is Twigs?

Will: Some of the parts, like the intros to “E is for Urgent” and “The Force Remains the Same,” go back to college days, when I thought I was studying music. But most of it came together in the rehearsals for Life is Twigs. I think we pulled it all together in seven or so rehearsals – we really wanted to have it down tight, so we could record the whole thing in a day.

Deric: I sort of feel like Will showed up for our first practice with like three albums in his head.  If Will hadn’t brought his second child into this world after we started, we’d probably have five records at this point.  Twigs began the moment after we finished the second one, Psychic Pinball.   We were at a stage where we were writing and recording a lot faster than we were putting these out.  We’re catching up in terms of releases now I think.  Maybe we’ll only record one more in 2019

What was it like recording with Steve Albini?

Will: I am a big fan of Shellac and Big Black – it was a thrill. Steve is very approachable, funny, and knows a ton about tons of things, especially sound. When setting up the drums, he flamethrowered the drum heads with a blow torch, and said something like “It gets dents out, they sound great – and makes them last longer. It’s an old roadie trick – but they douse them in lighter fluid.” We could only afford a day, but we had a whole album – so we recorded straight to a two-track mix, and Steve mixed it on-the-fly.

Deric: We did our first two records with Andy Slater, who is awesome and those records sound great.  This time, I really wanted to use “the drum room” at Electrical because that’s where I can sound like The Jesus Lizard.  Steve has an option where he records stereo direct to tape and the only way to record a full band that way is to do it live.  So we bashed out Life is Twigs live to two track.  Steve Albini in his element made this the easiest recording experience I’ve ever had in any studio.  There isn’t much the man hasn’t done or seen in terms of recording there.  He’s funny as hell.  We talked about cricket.

Nick: I was pretty nervous about it ahead of time, since almost everything else I’ve ever recorded was done by me or my friends in basements or practice spaces on half-broken gear. Fortunately, since we were trying to accomplish a lot in a short period, I didn’t end up having much time to feel nervous during the actual recording. We recorded live to tape, which meant that we couldn’t do overdubs or adjust the mix or sound of the instruments once it was recorded. I found this very freeing, since we could focus on playing the songs and trust the engineer to get the sound right. I’m really happy with the results. It turns out having actual expertise and decent equipment does make a difference.

You three all have extensive backgrounds of your own. Is there one songwriter in the band? Or do all three contribute to the music?

Will: Sometimes, I come in with finished songs, like “Waking Up Dinosaurs,” or parts, like the intro for “E is for Urgent.” But, most is written in spur-of-the-moment jams. And developed as needed.

Deric: We all contribute our parts.  Will provides the songwriting backbone to all of our songs.  I told him before Nick started playing with us “I can’t believe you’re doing this whole band with your damn hands,” since even the vocals go through his hands with the vocoder.  Nick on Twigs brought us more hands.

Nick: The songwriting process for Life is Twigs was pretty different for my past experiences. In basically all my old bands, someone would bring in a song that was mostly written and everyone else would come up with their parts around that structure and melody. Protovulcan songs come out of jamming until we have parts we’re all happy with, and while some of them snap together pretty quickly, others take a while to emerge from the murk and take form. I’m not a very patient person, so I’ve had to figure out how to trust that we’ll eventually get to a place where it feels like the jams have become actual songs, but listening to Life is Twigs makes me feel good about our process.

Will, you’ve been in a band (Variety Lights) with David Baker and own equipment that once belonged to Grasshopper. How big of a Mercury Rev are you?

Will: I was a bit obsessed with Boces and Yerself is Steam – I’ve still never heard anything quite as epic and sprawling and messy and beautiful. When the chance came up to write and record with David Baker, I jumped – he is one of my favorite artists. When the chance came up to buy Grasshopper’s delay pedal from those first two albums, I jumped – I collect gear. I never saw Mercury Rev back then, so I scrounged around for some footage – and finally found someone with a DVD of VHS of the Phoenix Festival show – we made a trade, and I posted it on Youtube, so others could see. A bit of a fan, definitely.

Who do you consider your biggest inspirations? Is it different for each member?

Will: When Deric and I started playing again, we wanted this to be our Iggy and the Stooges. Technically, the Moog bass is a cross between The Doors and Black Sabbath, the feedback Wurlitzer is Th’ Faith Healers, the vocoder is Daft Punk and Kraftwerk. I love all those bands. And I forever love Stereolab and Tortoise.

My kids are a bigger inspiration, now. My then two-year old son once took some wheels off a toy car, held them to his face and said, “Dad! I’m making eyes!” Which was funny, and became the song “Making Eyes.”

Deric: I want to be Charles Hayward, Kiyohiko Senba, RZA, and John Bonham.

Nick: I think we definitely all have pretty different inspirations and musical backgrounds. On the guitar, I’m influenced by Duane Denison of the Jesus Lizard, Andy Cohen of Silkworm/Bottomless Pit, Annie Clark of St. Vincent, Neil Hagerty of Royal Trux, and Ron Asheton and James Williamson of the Stooges, among others.

What current artists are you listening to these days? Any Chicago artists that we should be aware of?

Nick: From Chicago, I’m into sewingneedle, Melkbelly, Desert Liminal, Imelda Marcos, and Cave/Bitchin’ Bajas. I have great taste.

Will: Oscillator Bug: Insanely catchy synth pop, and Zaid Maxwell somehow makes his human voice sound like a detuned synth.

Velcro Lewis Group: Andy Slater (alias Velcro), who recorded Psychic Pinball and Stakes is Low, put together the most stunning live psychedelic ensemble I’ve seen. Hawk is as stylistically diverse a singer as his five-octave range – rock, soul, balladeer.

Spiral Galaxy: Plastic Crimewave (a.k.a. Steven Krakow), who did the cool blacklight-poster-style artwork for Psychic Pinball, also plays a sweet-as-honey, droney psych with Sarah Gosset on flute, and sometimes Hands of Hydra on sitar. Very lovely!

Ladytron: I’m enjoying the tracks they keep dropping for their new album. Synthesist Reuben Wu is a brilliant visual artist, and he let us use one his pix for the cover of Life is Twigs. I’m really happy about that.

Les Strychnine: Guitarist Nick writes these great power-pop songs in a punk-jazz vein. And drummer Karissa Talanian owns and runs this wonderful psych label, Eye Vybe.

Dark Fog: Some of the most mind-crushing psych rock out there. Ray took my place in Variety Lights, and he’s a phenomenal guitarist.

Spectralina: Dan Bitney has a band with his wife, Selina Tripp. She improvises these beautiful projected animations while he plays drums, synths – and it really grooves!

Diagonal: Their new album, Tomorrow, is some really brilliant hazy shoegazey, that really quite rocks.

What’s next in the world of Protovulcan?

Will: We’ve got another video coming out, as well as the split EP and two full LPs later in the year. And a release show on Jan 10 at The Emporium Wicker Park, with Velcro Lewis Groups and Spiral Galaxy. I’m excited about that, because our LP Psychic Pinball is all about pinball – and The Emporium is the local pinball/arcade palace. Perfect! It’s here:

Deric: I have this fantasy that we make our Dark Side of the Moon next, but the new material seems to be getting greasier and sleazier.  Too early to say.

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