Christopher Willits swings between ambient bliss and grating discord
Listening to the warm analogs, e-bowed guitar, and post-jazz swing that manifest on "Medium Blue" off Surf Boundaries (Ghostly International) — one of two new albums by Christopher Willits — you might assume that the instrumentation was performed by an ensemble of helping hands rather than simply the Bay Area electronic musician. And you'd be half right. The 28-year-old Kansas City, Mo., native executes many of the album's compelling melodies and fizzling, ambient textures on guitar, laptop, and synths — aided at times by compañeros including Adam Theis, Brad Laner, and notably, R&B-pop vocalist Latrice Barnett on the calming orchestrations of stringed instruments and horns.
"My name's on the record, but tons of collective energy came into making it happen," explains Willits at a Mission District bar. "I outsourced some things to the brilliant friends around me."
Their impact is evident: the CD shifts dynamically from the usual guitar-run-through-a-laptop drone and fuzz of Willits's live sets. He says that he hopes to someday put together a band to perform a release like Surf Boundaries on tour. That plan isn't a surprise, considering Willits's determination to always have a full plate.
The Mills College graduate's musical career has quickly taken flight since his move to the Bay in 2000. It's amazing that Willits even has time for solo endeavors between playing with Flössin — his side project with Hella's Zach Hill featuring guest noisemaking from Kid606, the Advantage's Carson McWhirter, and Matmos — and ongoing collaborations with avant-garde musicians such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, and former Tool bassist Paul d'Amour. When not on tour, Willits spends his time at the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco, where he began teaching digital audio workshops five years ago. With John Phillips, he also founded Overlap.org, an online community that aims to give exposure to electronic and experimental artists through blog feeds, podcasts, and live music events.
Much of Willits's work as a solo artist and a collaborator is documented on labels such as Taylor Deupree's 12K and Sub Rosa, but his recent alliance with the Midwestern electronic imprint Ghostly International may prove the most promising. "I really like Ghostly, because they're more into artist development rather than boxing in artists' sounds and constraining them from branching off," Willits says.
Likewise, his latest offerings are all over the sonic map. The art alone for Surf Boundaries illustrates its ethereal mood: soft hues delicately wash images of animals scattered around a portrait of Willits. The music within strikes a wonderful symphonic balance between electronic composition and live instrumentation as Willits and his collaborators frolic with a blend of jubilant French pop, glitchy guitar, and shimmering psychedelia.
Along with Surf Boundaries' cozy, sleepy appeal comes Willits's shrill wake-up call with guitarist Brad Laner (Medicine, Electric Company) — the North Valley Subconscious Orchestra. The space pop–oriented unit gives the Creation Records class of ’91 competition with white-noise guitar treatments and alt-rock rhythms.
The duo met through mutual friend Kid606, and for Willits the collaboration was a dream come true.
"Laner is one of my guitar heroes," he says, adding that when he first listened to his old Medicine cassette in high school, he mistook Laner's nails-on-chalkboard approach to guitar playing for a stereo malfunction.
"I realized that the way he's making that sound is that he's running all his guitar effects into a shitty four-track and then cranking the preamps up on it, so it's getting this full ..." — Willits makes a fast, circular motion with his arms — "whish!"
Released in August as Ghostly's first full-length available exclusively via download, NVSO's The Right Kind of Nothing highlights Laner's signature guitar bluster and Willits's ability to dabble subtly in an aggregation of soundscapes. What results is a continuous squall of beaming shoegaze discord that feels like sunshine bursting into a dark room — only to be broken by heavy kraut rock tempos and Swervedriver guitars.
Though Surf Boundaries and The Right Kind of Nothing radically differ in sound and structure, both discs showcase Willits's ambition to crack the electronic mold and move toward a contemporary vein of experimental rock.
"All I'm trying to do is feel out my own energy and relationship to my creative process," Willits explains. "I could have never envisioned the albums sounding the way they do. I love being surprised by my own creativity." SFBG
With Daedelus, Caural, and Thavius Beck
Fri/20, 9 p.m.
Bar of Contemporary Art
414 Jessie, SF