True Widow: A More Crushing Version of The xx, Sabbath Produced by Phil Spector
Whether it's sparking up a joint and waiting for the high to kick in or getting together with his two True Widow bandmates to make loud, ruminative, gorgeously glowering music in practice spaces or on stages, drummer Timothy "Slim" Starks says the idea, always, is to relinquish control.
"That's when it all happens. A song will create itself if you let it," the ultra-friendly, heavily bearded, well-baked Starks explains in his casual drawl on a recent afternoon in Austin, Texas, a few hours before showtime on their latest U.S. tour. "There's so little that you can control in life, and when it comes to music, people feel like they're the creator as opposed to being a brush in a larger picture. They end up with more self-conflict than they really need. But when you realize your actual place in the creation process, you realize you don't need to control it."
"It's like a wild animal--why do you wanna go and tame that?" he continues, positioning himself somewhere between de facto spokesperson for the Dallas trio and ace stoner-philosopher life coach. "Just because you can doesn't make it cool. Or make it work. It's all about fear. And living in fear is a motherfucker."
If letting go and waiting to channel whatever the creative ether coughs out--like a three-pronged lightning rod catching heavenly bolts of inspiration and conducting them to two-inch tape--is how True Widow comes up with devastatingly phenomenal albums like the recently issued Circumambulation (the band's third LP), then clearly the threesome knows what the fuck it's doing.
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Theirs is a heavy kind of minimalist slowcore, or perhaps dream-pop invaded by lucid nightmares, with songs that seize on one potent, simple idea or melody and linger on them to hypnotic, atmospheric ends, refusing to clutter things up--sort of like a more crushing version of The xx. Singer-guitarist Dan Phillips' riffs are half-Iommi, half-Morricone, and his voice leans toward the floor-gazing sad-bastard variety. Gossamer-voiced counterpart Nicole Estill, the trio's singer-bassist, sings in a way that lets a little more light in--her reverby lead vocals on Circumambulation standout "Fourth Teeth" transforms the track into something resembling Sabbath as produced by Phil Spector (when Phillips joins in halfway through to harmonize, the effect is mesmerizing). And while Phillips' riffs rightfully command attention, Estill's gritty bass lines and Starks', well, stark drumming create viscous doom-grooves that not only provide a robust spine but are often the thing that sucks you in and makes you want to stay.
Circumambulation, released on the venerable Relapse Records, isn't much of a departure from the band's previous LP, 2011's breakthrough As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth (Kemado), though it is a little more stripped-down (clue: the significantly shorter title).
"Yeah, there's not a lot of frills to it," says Starks. "If you're overworking something, then that part doesn't need to be there. You strip all the bullshit away, that's the way we like to do things. We're not a noodly band that's gonna, like, go into some solo. We're not a band that rehearses regularly either, so the songs, as long as you don't beat them to death by rehearsing the fucking life out of them, will allow themselves to be known and be what they are."
That's an aesthetic and vision the band's held onto since the start, when longtime friends Starks and Phillips first began jamming with Estill -- who'd been a big fan of Phillips' previous band, Slowride -- in November of 2007, Starks explains. Previously a guitarist and self-described "pedal nerd," Starks never played drums before True Widow, but, he says, "From hanging out with Dan and coming up with these tones and the riffs after we'd tuned the guitars a certain way for this crazy low-end vibe, all of a sudden in my mind, even though not being a drummer I knew what I would like in a drummer. And we knew it was gonna be a three-piece, all our favorite bands are three-pieces, and Dan really wanted to hear a female voice in the mix doing leads and harmonies."
The band "hid away in our little hole for quite a while before we ever peeked our heads out," honing their sound and getting to know one another better both as musicians and as people, Starks recalls.
"(Nicole) picked everything up like a pro right from the beginning --she knows what she's doing -- but she thought a certain way, she had been playing other types of music and she never tried to do something with her voice that would be True Widow-ish, if you will," says Starks.
"It took a little bit but we were all too busy enjoying each other's company and making a new friend in Nicole -- we spent as much time going to shows and partying and whatever as making music," he continues. "Musically, the way we connected was a no-brainer, but I think that I'm somebody that doesn't go out much and Dan's a pretty reserved dude, neither one of us would force each other out of that comfort zone, and I think that Nicole, her outgoing personality was the thing for me...it was hard for me at the beginning to be in public and once we started to play more shows and stuff and people were interested in hanging out and talking, I had to break out of that and Nicole was a huge part of that. Growing with Nicole musically, I felt obligated because I loved her as a friend and to see what she's doing to try to create something special, it's the least I can do to put myself out there more."
Still, in the live setting True Widow seems the opposite of outgoing -- serious, stationary, heavy lidded, lost inside the songs-- but it's really the most natural, sincere way for the band to deliver its music.
The weed helps.
"We're all pretty baked when we're playing so we're really just vibing," says Starks. "It's just about vibing. We're not trying to fucking pose or anything."
"Every night before we play we smoke a joint and come up with the songs we're gonna play right there," he says. "We don't write set lists, we don't play the same shit every night. I mean, anything that could potentially stifle the fun, forget about it. I guess Nicole and I like to move around some up there, Dan's a pretty somber guy when he's onstage. But we're not trying to get people jumping up and down, we're trying to create something that people can actually connect with. allow their brain to do something other than wondering 'Geez, why's this solo so fucking long?!' We don't have time for that crap. We just depend on the songs to present themselves."
The trio also intends to present itself on stages more often going forward, as compared to previous album/touring cycles when True Widow would tour for a short while when the music world microscope was on them, usually as an opening act, then retreat to their full-time occupations in the Dallas area -- Starks owns a screenprinting shop, Phillips is a furniture-maker, and Estill is a makeup artist.
But with booking agents calling and more opportunities arising in the wake of the overwhelmingly positive response to Circumambulation, including potential opportunities for headline tours in the U.S. and abroad, "I would be willing to give more time to True Widow because I feel like it deserves a little more than we've been giving it in the past," says Starks. "Does that mean we're gonna hit the road for eight, nine months straight? Probably not. But we'll probably keep it rolling a little longer this time."
"We're not professionals -- not saying we don't know what the fuck we're doing, because we do -- but we don't wanna approach music as such, as a career," he says. "But we'll see how it plays out. We're open to it. You have to be open to experiencing everything at its given time, because if you try to control it when it happens, you're gonna be miserable."
True Widow opens for Chelsea Wolfe on Friday night at Bowery Ballroom, 9 p.m. $15.
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