When Robert Lowe unveiled his one-man improv band, Lichens, at the Empty Bottle last August, Kranky Records co-owner Bruce Adams wasn't expecting to find his next signing. But soon after Lowe started playing, fingerpicking acoustic guitar and layering eerie wordless wails with a sampler pedal, he was hooked. "I was standing there with Tom and Christina Carter from Charalambides watching Rob, and it's one of those sort of moments where you look at each other and go, 'Did you just see what I saw?'" Adams says. "I was completely knocked out."
To Adams's ears, Lowe's expansive vocals and precise playing echoed the work of modern avant-folk acts like Charalambides and Fursaxa, but he was also drawing on styles pioneered by a previous generation: the otherworldly incantations of Meredith Monk and Demetrio Stratos, the meditative compositions of the late Stuart Dempster, the "deep listening" explorations of Pauline Oliveros, and the complex harmonic work of David Hyke. "He's taking two strange musics and putting them together and finding the commonality in both of them," Adams says. "There's combustion when the two are put together."
Adams brought his label partner, Joel Leoschke, to a Lowe gig a few weeks later. They soon hashed out a deal to release Lichens' debut album, The Psychic Nature of Being, which came out last month. The album is a huge departure from Lowe's work as a bassist in the 90 Day Men. But since the band went on hiatus in March, Lowe's eagerly embraced the opportunity to work on a host of new projects--he serves as an occasional studio hand in TV on the Radio and has as many as five new albums in the works.
Lowe, who grew up in Kansas City, joined the 90 Day Men in 1996, shortly before they moved from Saint Louis to Chicago. During the next decade the group would morph from a dark postpunk combo into an ambitious indie-prog outfit. But following a European tour in the spring of 2004 to support their most recent album, Panda Park, they decided to slow down. "We'd been touring perpetually, and it got to the point where we really wanted to stop and reassess things," Lowe says. "So we just decided to go on an indefinite hiatus. It gave me the opportunity to really start working on ideas I had in my head for quite a while."
Lowe had long thought about playing some kind of minimalist live improv music--he sold CD-Rs of his home recordings at 90 Day Men shows and finished the first track for Lichens' debut in early 2004--but he wasn't able to find the time to finish the record until this past March. Recording at Soma Electronic Music Studios and the now defunct Humboldt Park arts space Camp Gay, Lowe brought in a variety of instruments--including acoustic and electric guitar, fife, and bells--and experimented with different mike setups to capture his ethereal vocalization.
"I think people generally misunderstand the term improvisation," Lowe says. "Some people think, 'Oh, I'll just bang on a pot, that's improvising.' But it's not that simple. It's a much more cohesive process--there's a skeletal framework for everything I did on the record. That being said, the whole idea of happy accidents is something I'm really keen on. That's the whole impetus for what I'm doing. It's taking a very simple idea and watching it evolve in front of you."
The three songs on The Psychic Nature of Being--"Kirlian Auras," "Shoreline Scoring," and the 20-minute "You Are Excrement, You Can Turn Yourself Into Gold"--are rooted in drone, psych, and ambient music, but there are flickers of Morricone twang, Fahey-style fingerpicking, and Far Eastern folk. "I've been listening to a fair amount of heavier music, metal and hardcore, which is kinda funny considering where I'm at right now," he says. "But I always listen to 20th-century classical, free jazz, folk, soul, and psych. I listen to all sorts of shit. And maybe that's why everything is coming out the way it is."
As Lichens, Lowe has played solo, with a drummer, with a viola player, and occasionally with no instruments at all: when he performed at New York City's Knitting Factory in early January he sang a cappella. "It's always different, mainly because I want to make sure that I'm not treading over the same ground," he says.
To that end, Lowe is involved in a raft of other projects. He's been collaborating with Jeremy Lemos and Matt Clark of the local psych-drone act White/Light for another improv project, White/Lichens, which headlines the Empty Bottle on Monday; the trio recently recorded material for an album slated to come out next year. At last month's Adventures in Modern Music festival Lowe debuted an unnamed trio with ex-Black Dice drummer Hisham Bharoocha and Battles multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton; they plan to write and record this winter. And already in the can is a drone album by Dream Weapon, a group featuring Lowe, percussionist Michael Zerang, and members of local free-folk outfit Town and Country. Lowe sings and plays tamboura in the group, which also includes violin, viola, harmonium, and hand drums; the combo takes its name from the Dreamachine, a whirring, illuminated contraption invented by Beat-era artist Brion Gysin, which the band uses as part of its performance.
Lowe's cohorts in the 90 Day Men have also moved on to other projects. Guitarist Brian Case joined the Ponys and has a solo act, Parish School; keyboardist Andy Lansangan plays with Sterling; and Cayce Key plays drums in Half Cut. But Lowe says the 90 Day Men are still a going concern. "We're all doing things really steadily," he says. "But we're definitely still a band." He notes that the group's committed to playing a festival in Austria in April, "under the constraints that we actually have [new] music written by then, which shouldn't be a problem."
In the meantime Lowe has more Lichens work to keep him busy. In November he'll tour with Bharoocha's new group, Soft Circle, and the Brooklyn outfit Grizzly Bear. The next Lichens release will be a limited-edition seven-inch single that includes a book featuring works contributed by 15 artists, including Justin Schaefer, Becca Mann, and Devendra Banhart.
Lowe admits his packed schedule has him feeling harried, but he's quick to add that the work is keeping him fulfilled creatively. "Sometimes it's a little hard to keep everything straight," he says. "Sometimes it gets a little jumbled. But I manage. Mainly I'm doing what I want, and that's the most important thing."
White/Lichens, Number None, Zoo Wheel, Maths Balance Volumes
When: Mon 10/10, 9:30 PM
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Info: 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.