Matt Leavitt was wandering around the woods in Wisconsin when he happened upon woodland orchids. The wildflower discovery was so enchanting that the Minneapolis-based musician decided to name his new musical project after it, along with a collision-happy warship.
Orchid Eaton is Leavitt’s “basement pop” duo with drummer Brian Moen (of Peter Wolf Crier). The band’s debut album, Start of the Dream, was recorded in fits and starts while Leavitt’s infant daughter slept. The result is a collection of jangly, psychedelic tracks with a hint of vintage sound in which Leavitt opens up in a way he hadn’t with his previous bands, Emot and Moon & Pollution.
We spoke to Leavitt ahead of Orchid Eaton’s album release show at Minneapolis Eagles #34 on Saturday.
City Pages: How does the style of music you play in Orchid Eaton compare to the other bands you’ve been in?
Matt Leavitt: Initially, it felt like it was an outlet to explore more concise songwriting. With some of my other projects, it was more stretched-out songwriting and really a focus on minutiae of sonics and instrumentation. Right when I started formulating a lot of these songs, I fell in love with 1960s, 1970s smarmy, syrupy, sunshine pop. Gorgeous instrumentation. They really just threw the kitchen sink at a lot of those songs: strings and horns, all of which were played by amazing professional musicians, mainly on the West Coast. I took that almost pure and naïve approach to music.
CP: Did the desire for conciseness have anything to do with being a father of a new baby?
ML: Definitely. Being a dad was a total life-changer for me, like I’m sure it is for a lot of people. It did kind of change my perspective on just about everything in my life. The songwriting was an exploration of feelings and the things I wasn’t comfortable expressing previously. At the end of the day, I did want to make music that my future daughter would like.
CP: How did Brian Moen become involved in Orchid Eaton?
ML: I knew of his music when I was living in Eau Claire. He was in a band called Amateur Love, which was this amazing local band in the Eau Claire music scene. I’ve loved Brian’s music ever since then. I asked Brian to produce the last Emot record, which came out in 2012. We stayed in touch after he did that production work for us. I had a collection of songs that I’d been working on for two to three years and sent it to him out of the blue. He was living in Oakland at the time. He was amenable to working on them and was interested in playing drums. We started with one song and it kind of had forward momentum from there. A lot of the drum parts I was envisioning, without realizing it, were totally his style and his tonality. Adding that into the songs I had already fleshed out just felt right.
CP: You didn’t use any click track or punch ins on this album. Why was that important to you?
ML: Just about all of this was recorded at home by me. Brian did all the drums and mixing at his studio in Oakland and when he moved back to Eau Claire, at his studio in Eau Claire. I got tired of approaching music that was all computer-based. Without a doubt, computer-based editing has been a huge benefit for me, especially because I’m not an idiot savant on my instruments, but I just got tired of micro-editing songs to death. That whole approach of just looking at a screen and visually making music versus using my ears, I just got really tired of approaching music that way. I bought outdated tech to build up my own home studio. The centerpiece of that was an ADAT machine. It’s linear recording so it’s insanely difficult to punch in or edit little bits out. You really just have to perform the whole song. That influenced my approach to music. I would sometimes do tons of takes of particular parts until I got a part that felt like it communicated a feeling throughout the entire length of the song versus playing the first bar, keeping it, playing the second part, keeping it, editing it. This felt like an honest representation of music.
CP: Let’s talk about some of the lyrics on the album, starting with: “Nothing ever happens when you don’t let it happen.” Where did that come from?
ML: It’s one of those situations where I was trying to get myself out of the way of myself. Rather than trying to control the flow of events or control outcomes in general, and not even speaking musically but kind of throughout the last couple years of my life, I’ve been trying to be more present and aware, to let experiences happen, and to be involved in that moment. Another way of saying it is: “Be in the moment, dummy.”
CP: What’s behind the lyric “I’ve been losing my mind like I had one to give”?
ML: At certain points throughout a given year, I can definitely get kind of trapped and circular in mental functioning. That was an expression of that. It’s kind of a reflection of trying to be aware of personal patterns and mental repeats that I would get into.
CP: One more: “Your conscience showed up about a decade too late.”
ML: That’s from a song called “Communist Cigs.” The lyric-writing process for me takes the most time and it’s definitely collage-based in terms of its genesis. When I’m starting to write a song, instrumentation and melody come first. I’ll have maybe little bits of lyrics that I’ll work through almost mumble-singing at some points to find some meaning for me, personally. I know that’s not maybe a very illuminating answer, but I know that these lyrics mean something to me, but I’m not always sure what they mean to other people.
CP: How does this music translate live? Have you played it out yet?
ML: We’ve played about three shows so far. It’s me, Brian, and another collaborator who plays bass. I cover a lot of the keyboards and guitars. I’m really purposely trying to keep it as a three-piece band. I think it lends a certain leanness to the live show. There was quite a lot of layering of instrumentation on the making of the record, so it’s been a really fun experience to boil the songs down to their core and still have them translate with three people. With Brian’s drumming, we can make things pretty slim and hopefully still capture the essence of the songs.
With: Tungsten and Josh Harmony
Where: Minneapolis Eagles #34
When: 8 p.m. Sat. June 16
Tickets: $5 (cover); more info here