It was my first time seeing Portland's AU live Saturday night, and I had some important questions I hoped the show would answer. First of all, how does one pronounce AU? Aww? Awe? Oww? Gold? More importantly, how would the band recreate its sound live? I had theories, but as AU began its set at the Independent with its most recent album's first (and most prominent song) “Epic,” those quickly proved false. There were no guitars.
Drum kit, choir bells, Kord keyboard, Roland sampler, clarinet, glockenspiel, what I believe to be a shekere, and quite a few effects and looping pedal – but no strings at all, which I felt particularly embarrassing, having previewed the show by mentioning that very song and its nonexistent yet “impossibly high rising GY!BE guitars.” This is partly due to my listening abilities,* but also an indication of the current musical landscape, which let’s be honest, can be fairly confusing.
Going relatively blind into a Washed Out show a while back, I remember being surprised to find a full band rather than a guy with a laptop and some other tools. Flying Lotus on another occasion was the reverse experience. The infusion of electronic music and digital production tools across genres has led to a seemingly endless palette, where minimalists can create maximal sounds and vice versa.
With AU, some things were as expected, particularly the base created by drummer Dana Valatka, who plays with a grind that recalls Zach Hill and a exploding control that’s more Buddy Rich. Valatka had a few tricks – playing handbells, for instance, at one point from the back of the room in the merch booth – but is generally rooted in the band’s most traditional role.
On the other extreme was Holland Andrews. On the occasion of her birthday, Andrews alternated between singing and playing the clarinet, a shekere, and at one point, a small handheld glockenspiel. The wide range of sounds she was able to produce was multiplied by the use of a looping pedal. These tools suddenly seemed to be everywhere a few years back, particularly in indie rock, giving individual musicians like Owen Pallett, Merrill Garbus, and Dustin Wong the ability to create a live sound larger than one person. I thought I’d grown tired of their use, but Andrews used it to good effect.
Performing a solo, Bjork-esque song “about going crazy” from her side project, Like a Villain, the singer created a schizophrenic wall of voices that was one of the night’s best moments, after which bandleader Luke Wyland remarked in slight awe, “She’s only 24.”
There’s more to be said about Wyland, the band’s genial center, but it’s largely beyond me at this point. Moving back and forth between solemn intensity and ecstatic excitement, much of the band’s sound – from the orchestral movements on “Crazy Idol” to electronic plotting of “OJ”– is seemingly due to him, behind the Kord, sampler, and whatever else he had up there.
It still left me with questions and reaching for genres, but he did clear one thing up: the name of the band is pronounced similar to a stranger trying to get your attention.
*As a child I'd spent summers at an education camp, where we were only allowed to listen to music (besides the work songs) in guided, “close listening” sessions, tasked with identifying the individual sources of the composition, and understanding both the material conditions/labor that went into each sound. It was a major reason for my escape.