Jason Lakis is proving to be his own best bandmate. The former frontperson of Bay Area country-slowcore outfit the Red Thread, which split this summer after three stellar LPs, has lately reemerged as Mist and Mast a solo act, though you wouldn't guess it. Mist's eponymous debut, which Lakis released on his Oakland Petting Zoo label, finds the artist playing every part and sounding sneakily like some well-rehearsed group. On "Green Eyes," say, a sweet spell of country-tinged and harmony-heavy college rock, the so-called group might be the young REM with the vocalist seeming to shy away from the mic. How like the young Michael Stipe.
Being your own full band is becoming ever easier, thanks to increasingly sophisticated home-recording options, but that doesn't make it any less weird. So when I met recently with the bespectacled, enthusiastic songwriter over Kronenbourgs at Whiskey Thieves in the Tenderloin, these were some of the first things I asked: Is it strange making music by yourself after all that time in bands? Do you even know how to play all the instruments?
"I'm not great.... I could just barely get by," Lakis said, speaking of his virtuosity, not his emotions, and reminding me that he used to drum with the late-'90s Bay Area brooders Half Film. "And I'm a big fan of the lo-fi stuff and, like, old Kinks stuff. They were great. I hate when I hear bands that just play so perfectly." He admitted that it may be a "cop-out" to prefer imperfection as an aesthetic when your skill level doesn't allow much else. But Lakis seems to come by that taste honestly, and he's put it to valid use on the record. The Kinks comment struck me because on Mist and Mast I'd heard occasional wisps of an even more affably imprecise '60s British pop act: Syd Barrettera Pink Floyd. Though the album has little of Barrett's essential psychedelia, Mist's acoustic chords tend toward early Britpop's shambling, lullabylike quality. Certainly, Lakis was excited by the notion. "I'm a huge Floyd fan!" he exulted.
On Mist that '60s brand of slight sloppiness, whether by necessity or intent, makes an intriguing match with the more modern fumbling of Lakis's native slowcore. Textured, plunky guitars were a Red Thread centerpiece, and they remain prominent in the solo work. The album shows its devotion to the theme by opening with a casually dueling pair. And yet, absent the band, the guitars don't fix on any standard indie arrangement. They're as likely to be married to ELO-style organ ("Campfire Went Out") as rollicking folk-rock rhythms ("Eyes Adjust to the Dark").
All of this interdependence stems from a new songwriting style, which Lakis described as a gathering of discrete pieces. "It was the first group of songs where I kind of felt when I was writing like I could hear all the parts," he told me. These arrangements were originally intended for a band, but given that Lakis was conceiving all tracks in advance, the collaborative process that fueled earlier Red Thread work seemed doomed. "I'm not [someone] who can easily tell people, 'Hey, can you play this?'" the songwriter confessed. The seemingly casual recording he'd been doing in his Oakland home "I would have my door shut, and my dog would be going grink, grink, grink at the door, and I'd have to put foamcore and a blanket up against the door, and it would get superhot in there" suddenly became the main event.
Writing and recording piecemeal over an extended period of time and without the keel of a band and a studio can make for a messy album. And Mist and Mast is, at minimum, eclectic. The obvious outlier, "New Water," would surely have seen its programmed beats cut by another label. Lakis was fully aware of this.