Gowns recorded its first EP in a small Los Angeles apartment, with a fuzzy blue rug on the floor and a hodgepodge of miscellaneous instruments in hand: bullhorns, mandolins, guitars, contact mics taped to the back of an amplifier. At that time the group was a duo, consisting of Erika Anderson and Ezra Buchla. Anderson had just learned how to use ProTools software and fiddled around until the music sounded good. Buchla, who came from a dynasty of knob-twiddlers and electronic music-enthusiasts (his father, Don Buchla, invented a series of cutting-edge synthesizers), had grown up using the computer as a musical instrument. Theirs was an odd dichotomy, Anderson said: "His extreme knowledge combined with my complete ineptitude."
The duo's first EP, Dangers of Intimacy, was born of intellectual rigor but unconstrained by genre or methodology. In its own fussy, highly educated way, Gowns sounded totally instinctual. Most of the band's songs were anchored by an acoustic guitar strumming two minor chords behind barely whispered vocals. Sound effects — like the wind and chickens in "Feathers" — clawed through the blank space. Listening meant sticking your head in a world where the sun blazed too hot and the prairie grass stood too still, and you knew that bad things lurked on the horizon.
Buchla and Anderson took the noisy rock music they had made in past lives (as members of the Mae Shi and Amps for Christ, respectively), pushed it through a filter of technology, and set it to lyrics about drugs, neo-noir landscapes, and the end of the world. They tried to soak up and re-create their environment, mixing guitar and viola with rumbling computer tones. They mapped everything out, recorded it all in one take, then squirreled it away indefinitely. Five years and one LP later, Gowns still rests on a precarious balance between primal emotion and carefully constructed sound. "It's like a continuum these days — how much do you want to use premade tools versus how much do you want to dip into the microscopic details of what it's doing to sound," Buchla said. "I tend toward the microscopic." Indeed, Buchla's obsession with detail has led him to write a customized computer program for each Gowns song.
For decades, bands in the so-called "art-rock" or "indie" vein have invented their own instruments, written their own computer programs, or created elaborate devices to capture the precise sliver of a thing they want. Anderson and Buchla took that approach not as a way of fitting into some performing-arts tradition, but because they both have exacting personalities. "If I hear three seconds of a guitar solo off any oldies radio station, I can name it," said Anderson, who grew up fronting rock bands and listening to jukeboxes. She loves mainstream hip-hop and recently tried recording her own rap over an iPhone drum sampler, basing it on the Game's hit "My Life."
She met Buchla when they were both playing shows in the LA punk scene. Buchla had recently left Oberlin Conservatory to study music composition at CalArts. Anderson was in her last semester at the Claremont Colleges, where she studied video art. "When I first saw Ezra perform, I thought he was one of the best front people I'd ever seen," Anderson recalled. "It almost didn't matter what the music was."
They were an odd couple: The South Dakota transplant who had never heard of John Cage and the laptop geek who had grown up with Cage hanging out in his living room. One time, Anderson and Buchla were sitting in a car and Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" came on the radio. "To me that's one of the most obvious intros in the world," she said. "Ezra was like, 'What is this?'" One of the first records he loaned her was John Cage accordion music — which to him was "normal." They started dating in 2004.
Their first composition, "Feathers," followed a long night spent drinking Miller Lite at Anderson's house. "At 5 a.m. I said, 'We should make a song!'" she recalled. Anderson recorded a vocal track and muted it so that Buchla could lay his own version on top. Neither had any idea what the other person was singing until they played it back. The harmonies were serendipitous.
They released Dangers of Intimacy in 2004 and went on tour the following year. By time the tour ended, they had lost their apartment, so they shacked up in a South Dakota cabin owned by Anderson's parents. It became the primary setting for their debut LP, Red State — a weird, minimalist, droney, folksy record inspired by dystopic landscapes and long stretches of loneliness. "In South Dakota, the sky is enormous and you can drive for miles down a gravel road without meeting another car," Anderson wrote in a recent e-mail. In Red State, they tried to capture that atmosphere sonically, writing lyrics about lightning storms and meth addicts atop an orchestra of darkly romantic machine sounds. The drumbeats on "Subside" sound like raindrops on a gutter. The drone on "Mercy Springs" is actually a space heater.
"What I want is often these dusty, crackly old sounds that are easier to find in the world than they are to make up," said Buchla, who contributed wheezy electronic studio effects and some fine viola to the sonic palette of Red State. He grew up alternating between classical viola and punk. His mother played cello in the Oakland Symphony and hung out at Berkeley's Arch Street Studios, which was a hotbed of electronic music during the Sixties and Seventies. As a kid, he already knew the work of avant-garde composers like John Zorn and Cornelius Cardew. He had enough chops on viola to sight-read Bach sonatas.
Gowns finished Red State in a Berkeley Victorian that belonged to Buchla's father. Buchla and Anderson rigged the place with samplers, amps, and microphones, and retuned their guitars to get weird pitches. The following year they recruited drummer Corey Fogel to join the band. Fogel and Buchla incorporated structured improvisation into Gowns' performances; they would plot pieces out on paper but never practice them. Anderson found that discomfiting, particularly since Buchla kept tinkering with the electronics. These days, the setup comes out of necessity rather than choice, since Fogel and Buchla recently moved back to Los Angeles while Anderson stayed in West Oakland. "This is something that used to bother me a lot, playing a show and not being sure if we would make it through a song or not, if the technology we relied upon would backfire and meltdown," she wrote. The fact that they usually pull it off is a minor miracle, she said.
Despite this geographic handicap, Gowns maintains the same creative process. The trio records in claustrophobic spaces, uses technology in weird ways, and fixates on small details. Anderson, who works as a substitute teacher, still stays up late at night, obsessively mixing. Buchla still enjoys sifting through old material and retooling it. He says they're still working with takes of things made in the middle of the night five years ago. That's not the preferred way of doing things, he confessed. "I think the normal way to record songs is to write them, play them at shows a hundred times, then go into the studio when it's really tight, or something," said Buchla. "I like that, I appreciate tight recordings. But I also appreciate mess. Trying to find the balance of that is — arduous."