Who Are… Au
Luke Wyland, the soft-spoken leader of the Portland, Oregon based band Au, is searching for that elusive place where high and low kiss. Like the original art/pop bridge-builders George Gershwin and Charles Ives, for whom he reserves an almost mystical reverence, Wyland is both a musical patriot and populist. He trades in quintessential folk sounds — the brassy rain of a marching band cymbal, the hoarse bleat of a trumpet. Au's songs conjure communal moments from America's collective past: campfire séances, ticker-tape parades, prom night.
Wyland's sprawling songs are more like landscapes than portraits, full of textures, accumulated layers, foliage carefully built up through endless hours of arranging. But far from being overwrought, Au's music is almost childlike in its sense of wonder and playfulness.
On music as a social lubricant:
The first time music was a passion instead of a childhood obligation was in high school. I'd moved to rural New Hampshire from Columbus, OH and had no friends. Music acted as my primary social catalyst. I've also struggled with a pretty hefty speech impediment for most of my life, which made the usual verbal banter among friends awkward. The opportunity to play with a band came up, and I went for it out of sheer loneliness. My first band primarily revolved around the music of the Grateful Dead, and was also my introduction to improvisation. The most profound discovery soon after this time was that of jazz — in particular Coltrane and the piano playing of Keith Jarrett.
The relationship I still hold dear with music as a whole was formed with my best friend Nick Park (also a member of that first band) during these years. We used to listen to albums like we were watching movies. No talking, just active listening.
I'll never forget the first time my mind could follow all the separate parts of a song at once, feeling similar to those magic eye images — that relaxation that brings about an even deeper immersion into an experience.
On striving to make American music:
I've always struggled with bands from America that are appropriating very specific musical aesthetics from other countries. It feels like a facade — there's something I don't trust about it. American pop music is what I grew up with — ultimately, it's what everyone here grows up with. My mom used to teach aerobics (and did so while pregnant with me), and I spent the first few years of my life sitting in the day care at her studio listening to '80s dance music. I can even remember the boxes of mix tapes she had for her classes. It's what I'm most comfortable with and what's most ingrained in my memory. American pop has also become so universal, so ubiquitous while still greatly reflecting the place where it was created; it acts as a connector between us all. It's also one of the most malleable musical forms around — it's based on a tradition of breaking down traditions.
On playing the piano:
I started piano lessons when I was very young, though I never really learned much theory. What I came away with was some good muscle memory and a general comfort on the instrument. Because of my lack of understanding around theory and traditional compositional techniques, I've always approached the piano as a very large percussion instrument, breaking down structures more rhythmically than harmonically. I also tend to approach songwriting texturally, as layers of sound enmeshed amongst each other. I like to utilize repetition as a way to allow the listener to digest and break down what may seem initially complicated. I also love the piano as it's all laid out in front of you — a very physical horizon of notes and possibilities.
On the virtues of distraction and letting go:
Most song kernels sprout from a very half-aware state of mind. I used to come up with ideas while watching a movie and fiddling around on a guitar, and I'd get into this state where I was distracted, but trusting my body to find something interesting. Ultimately, when I try too hard for anything the self-awareness squelches anything lasting.
That limnal space between waking and dreaming is a very similar balance of elements. Some part of your brain is holding onto reality while another part drifts into a limitless space of invention. I love that push and pull of either giving in, or somehow pulling away from sleep to wakefulness. I've been a troubled sleeper for years now and have come to really love the awareness of falling into something that at times is so elusive. It's that excitement of losing oneself to something outside your control.
On music as a communion:
I personally enjoy making music in a group much more than I enjoy making music alone. There's a sense of amplified energy that comes from playing in groups; it's like religion, a need to come together to celebrate or to mourn something. There's a kind of validation that comes from numbers. It's a tense balance in my band though, because half the time, when I'm producing, it's a solo project; the other half of the time I'm relying on more people to react to my ideas. It's difficult, but that tension helps give the music its voice.