Interview: A Minor Forest
The unsung heroes of ‘90s math rock revisit the Northwest.Posted by Charlie Zaillian
As commonplace as 1990s rock reunions have become, few could’ve predicted A Minor Forest’s.
The Northern Californians, performing live Saturday at Barboza in Seattle, weren’t especially well-known at their peak. Even ardent fans of ‘90s Midwest math rock, like Don Caballero and June of 44, might’ve missed them due to geographic distance from that scene’s Chicago-Louisville axis — or simply because they didn’t last all that long, releasing a pair of Thrill Jockey records and a handful of singles between ‘92 and ‘98.
If comeback tours are about the money, there wouldn’t appear to be that much in it for guitarist-vocalist Erik Hoversten, bass player John Benson and drummer Andee Connors. Whereas Slint — a group to whom AMF is often compared — recently headlined The Showbox, a venue more than five times Barboza’s size, tickets for the early-Saturday show are still available at press time.
But neither is the reunion out of desperation or a lack of new ideas, since all three have kept busy.
After A Minor Forest disbanded, the classically-trained Hoversten formed the micro-orchestra Threnody Ensemble. In 2006, he returned to his native San Diego, joining popular indie rockers Pinback as second guitar player.
His bandmates, meanwhile, stayed active in the Bay Area underground, Connors running Aquarius in San Francisco’s Mission District — one of the nation’s last, best independent record stores — and Benson booking shows at the same Oakland house where AMF used to practice.
In the mid-2000s, the bassist even converted a disused city bus into a mobile venue, putting on shows for a variety of experimental groups — including his own, Evil Wikkid Warrior, a noise project with his then-preteen daughter Quinnolyn Benson-Yates, now 19 — until the police shut it down.
Ultimately, the main reason AMF’s re-emergence comes as a surprise because their style was so complex and downright weird it’s a wonder they can still pull it off. Both 1996’s Flemish Altruism and ‘98’s Inindependence LPs remain uneasy listening — sparse harmonics and mumbled intonations going head-to-head with screeching cacophony in baffling time signatures. Few bands before or since have balanced precision and disorder with such aplomb.
As reunions go, AMF’s doesn’t overstate their own importance so much as remind us they existed — and footage that’s surfaced so far proves the trio’s math rock mind-meld has lost none of its physicality or nuance.
For those already familiar, Saturday’s gig is a no-brainer — and anyone with even a passing interest in music of this ilk would be remiss to skip it.
Conferencing via telephone just before embarking on a Northwest weekender — besides Seattle, they’re at The Shakedown in Bellingham Friday and The Doug Fir in Portland Sunday — Hoversten and Benson shed further light on the group’s past and future.
Why did A Minor Forest initially break up in 1998?
ERIK HOVERSTEN: We were always pushing in different musical directions, and that’s what made our music kind of weird and interesting. But obviously when you have three people with different visions and sensibilities, there’s a lot of negotiation and compromise. I’d also say — and any band can tell you — touring can be the hardest thing. When we started out, we didn’t have a lot of financial backing — we did everything pretty grassroots — so by the time we had a couple albums and several tours under our belts, we were burned out, interpersonally.
Where did this music come together? A house? A jam space? During the day? At night?
JOHN BENSON: We rehearsed, recorded demos and played parties in the living room of The Purple House in Oakland, where I still live. At the time it was a punk house, and had been since the early ‘80s. Erik and I also lived in the UC Berkeley student co-ops while [studying] there.
Is Andee a trained musician as well, or is he self-taught?
EH: I’d say he’s self-taught, but he’s a more voracious consumer of music than almost anyone.
When asked back then, what kind of music did you say AMF played? Do you give the same answer now?
JB: Everybody uses the “math rock” moniker, but I’m terrible at math. I’m really bad. (laughs)
EH: Almost all bands, when they’re young and impressionable, start off trying to copy things… not verbatim, just emulating what they find inspirational. But if they do it long enough, if they’re lucky, they develop their own voice… sometimes accidentally, or even based on incompetence. We genre-hopped for quite a bit… then, eventually, through trial and error, put our different interests together.
Was there a moment in AMF’s career — a song, or album — that felt like a turning point?
JB: “So Jesus Was at the Last Supper…” [off Flemish Altruism] was a true organic collaboration. We’d always start practice with improvising for a long time, recording onto a shitty tape recorder and lifting parts from that. That said, the [odd-numbered] songs with cello on [Flemish] were composed already and arranged in practice… and those, I think, really captured our sound.
On Flemish, was the decision to alternate soft and loud tracks premeditated, or something you came up with post-production?
EH: We recorded with Steve [Albini] before we had anyone to put those recordings out. All we could afford was a couple days in the studio, so we just did the material we had available at that moment. Once we hooked up with Thrill Jockey, we realized we didn’t want an album that only showed the loud dimension of the band — there were nuances that weren’t being represented in those five songs — so we went back for another session with Bob [Weston]. The ordering was arbitrary, but it’s not rocket science to just go quiet-loud-quiet-loud.
Did you consider your music to be more on the same wavelength as what was coming out of the Midwest at the time than back home? Was the response there noticeably warmer?
EH: Absolutely. In the Bay Area, nobody understood what we were doing. We had a home away from home in Chicago, with Thrill Jockey and the people who booked our tours and recorded us.
Did AMF ever consider relocating there?
JB: Back in the day, yeah.
EH: After AMF ended, I actually ended up living in Chicago for a little while, working for a public radio program. I’ve lived all over since I left the Bay Area, but came back to San Diego to start playing with Pinback.
Erik, how far back do you go with the members of that band?
EH: It’s all the same era. The bass player, Zach [Smith]… he and I went to high school together, along with a bunch of others who turned out to be significant San Diego music people.
What was the name of the school?
EH: Torrey Pines. If you visited, you’d never think it’d be a hotbed of creativity. But if you’re a musician and you live in a town with 2,000 people in it, you get to know each other.
John, where are you from?
JB: I spent my childhood in the suburbs of Chicago and Cleveland, came out to California at the end of my teens to go to Berkeley, and stayed.
Just how different was the Bay Area music community AMF came up in from the one you’ve come back to?
JB: It’s totally different. There’s a shocking lack of places to play. Real estate is at a premium. It’s impossible to find places to even rehearse.
EH: It’d be really tough to be starting from scratch right now.
Compared to a lot of other reunions by bands from your same time period, AMF’s seems more hands-on, smaller in scale. Is this accurate?
JB: Yeah, the ethos is similar. It’s comfortable for me.
EH: We always did it ourselves to some extent, so we’re doing our best to do that still.
What was going through your heads during the first moments of the first show back last November? Did it feel natural from the get-go, or were there any second thoughts?
JB: I did have second thoughts when I realized how difficult it was going to be to re-learn all these impossible songs. The very, very first dry run was a bit frightening. But there was a point, with the muscle memory and unspoken cues — the drummer raising a hand, or the guitar player leaning forward — where it became like “Oh yeah, I’m 27 years old… that’s right.”
Do you think you can still write in this style? Have you tried?
JB: We’d love to, but the way we write is very time-consuming. It takes us months to get a song even partially sketched out.
EH: I’ve been thinking that what we need to do is go away together to an island, or summer camp.
A songwriting retreat.
EH: Exactly. Somewhere we can just focus for a window of time. But that has a different set of challenges. Everybody has to get the time off work… it’s a whole other thing. We’ll see.
Do you consider AMF’s music songs? Pieces? Compositions? Is there a difference?
EH: For me, some of them are straight-up pop songs, and some are something else. It might sound hoity-toity to call them compositions, but working in larger forms is something I definitely have a lot of interest in outside of AMF. I think John is in the same boat.
JB: For sure. There’s one song that I’m proud of that we didn’t relearn, “The Smell of Hot” [off Inindependence]. We’d worked really hard to try and make a guitar and a bass sound like a gamelan orchestra, and it came out sounding pretty original and weird. I love that type of songwriting… attempting something ambitious, then coming up with something else completely.
Playing in a mostly-instrumental band, do you see song titles as ways to let the listener in on what you’re like as people?
EH: The music, because it was, at times, very dramatic — sonically, and emotionally — it often got lost that the song titles were just inside jokes that we’d have from being together in a van for eight weeks. For example, Inindependence… we once drove through a town called Independence, [Virginia] and there was a prison there. We found that terribly ironic, and made note of it. Originally, the album title was going to be There’s a Prison in Independence, but that sounded too political… so we figured we’d make it a bit more oblique.
John, do you still play music with your daughter?
JB: (laughs) Actually, we’re hiking up a hillside in Berkeley to film a music video right now. I’m in a costume, and she’s got a tripod, and we’ve been trying to set up scenes the entire time I’ve been talking to you. I love the creative part of the relationship that we have because whenever we have time together, we usually do some kind of goofy project that involves a lot of kind of off-the-cuff creativity. I really value that.
EH: We played a lot at this place called The Velvet Elvis… a really awesome all-ages theater space right in the heart of downtown. We were good friends with Meg Watjen, who ran it. I actually just randomly found a flyer from another show we played in Seattle, at Isaac [Brock] from Modest Mouse’s house. Modest Mouse opened for us. Mindblowing, when you think about it. When you’re a kid just randomly going around, you never know what the future holds.