Quetico creates drum-centric, polyrhythm-heavy instrumental music
Instrumental music tends to operate with slightly different concerns from vocal music. Pop music tends to be sung. The human voice —like the human face— captivates us, and it’s the element we tend to pay the most attention to. Drummer, multi-instrumentalist and composer Yan Westerlund has a lot of experience making music in a context where the vocals are what anchors the songs. He’s played as a touring or recording member of bands such as Lost in the Trees, the Rosebuds, Mipso, Bowerbirds, and others. So when he got a chance to work on a project that involved finishing up a number of musical sketches that existed for years, Westerlund didn’t hold back. The project, Quetico, is instrumental music that showcases Westerlund’s rhythmic prowess. A full-length Quetico record, Man Alone, came out last year, and Westerlund brings Quetico to Winston-Salem this week for a show at Monstercade. I spoke with Westerlund last week about making his music and about performing the compositions live.
“Basically, the whole record is just a pile of old ideas I’ve had since college,” Westerlund said. Once you know that Westerlund was a jazz-studies student in college, you have a better understanding of the kinds of ideas he’s been kicking around. He studied vibraphone and marimba in addition to drums. He said he’s always dabbled with piano.
With Quetico, Westerlund played all of the instruments, with the exception of bass clarinet and saxophones, and the compositions evolve out of complex shifting meters, polyrhythmic figures and contrasting pulsation between the drums and the keyboards. Prog, fusion and art rock are the first things that come to mind upon listening to the title track. And then the music morphs into jazz mode, with Westerlund rolling out an Elvin Jones-style 6/8 pattern on the kit or with the keyboards playing wobbly low-end sounds that accentuate the rhythmic atmosphere.
One might think of Genesis or James Blake or late Yes or Dean Blunt or Stewart Copeland or Philip Glass. Another point of reference might be the hybridized effects-saturated saxophone of Eddie Harris, particularly on the album Duluth, MN. Or, as Westerlund put it, “like Flying Lotus jamming with the Bad Plus.” You get the idea— virtuosic, but tasteful enough to keep the abacus-calculating complexity subdued— a sensibility that encompasses electro-pop, abstract hip-hop and free jazz. Quetico’s music is sophisticated, with odd-time sections with 5-beat, 7-beat, or 9-beat parts, or passages that seem to have had a beat lopped off, making the whole groove’s momentum turn around before you expect it to, or leaving you feeling slightly at sea as you try to figure out where the downbeat might be.
“I’ve always been obsessed with odd meters,” Westerlund said. Much of the music many of us listen to have patterns that repeat in groupings of 4 or 3 or low multiples of those numbers. Our ears and our feet and rear ends tend to feel when a pattern is about to repeat itself, and the slight variations or surprises, displaced accents, or staggered stresses are what gives music its groove, what makes it funky, to varying degrees. Make it too easy to identify the patterns at work, and people get bored, make it so complex that there’s no real sense of repetition, and people feel at sea.
For the most part, Quetico leans toward those elaborate polyrhythms and lopsided meters, but there’s also an organic feel to many of the compositions, like they emerged from the physical act of playing an instrument with one’s hands and fingers, as opposed to music that sounds like it’s the elaboration of an abstract concept.
“My intention for sure was just to go with whatever felt the best to me in terms of the melodies, the time signatures, the stream-of-consciousness writing,” Westerlund said, “I forced myself to finish every idea I had. I guess the way I worked on it— it was just sort of a daily practice. I would spend at least four hours on it every day.”
The result of that routine was a batch of songs that often unfolded from keyboard or piano ideas, but in many cases, the keyboard lines and grooves have a strong rhythmic component. It’s not that Westerlund necessarily plays the piano like he’s playing drums, but he leaves space for all the parts to interact with one another, with an intuitive call-and-response logic. On “Dolphy Woman,” one of the keyboards toggles between slowly hammering out a kind of syncopated groove that plays off the rim-shot of the drums, or suggesting part of a two-against-three polyrhythm. Elsewhere, like on the ending of “The Dark Waters,” the sparse keyboards map out a gentle descending movement. If there’s a way to be gracefully lurching, Westerlund has done it.
The music is impressive on its own, as it exists on the record that Westerlund made, but another added accomplishment is the fact that Westerlund has two keyboard-playing collaborators who can execute the music in a live setting. Quetico has played about 10 live shows so far. Westerlund said they’ve reached a nice place where they have enough control over the music to cruise off into little zones of improvisation.
“What’s exciting is that we’ve got to pull it off live, to make it more human,” he said. “There’s definitely a rawness to it, which I think is really neat about it.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Quetico at Monstercade, 204 W. Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem, on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 9 p.m. with 1970s Film Stock.