For all intents and purposes, the Andrew Weathers Ensemble has been the soundtrack to my graduate school career. Sitting down to either read and write for multiple hours, I would often need something to listen to in order to maintain both focus and sanity. Unfortunately, my record collection consisting mostly of harsh noise albums did not really provide many options. While bands like Godspeed and Tortoise routinely filled that gap, I more often than not turned to the Andrew Weathers Ensemble to get me through those hours.
Earlier this month, AWE released their final album, a forty-minute powerhouse titled The Thousand Birds in the Earth, The Thousand Birds in the Sky. It also just so happens that I will be defending my dissertation and graduating this month as well.
A coincidence like that seems too good to leave alone. So I won’t.
I first met Andrew on New Years Eve in 2009. We were playing one of those massive NYE parties/concerts that people throw down every so often, despite the fact that they are rarely enjoyable. This one proved no exception.
The people running the venue decided that it was a great idea (it wasn’t) to have the dozen or so touring acts asking for shows around that time to all play on NYE. They then added insult to injury by asking all of the local noise folks to play as well, meaning that most of the money that would have come from the door (which would have been split about twelve ways, mind you) was now gone. When the show actually happened, no one wanted to run the show because they wanted to get drunk and party (cause its New Years!), so this 25 or 30 act show dragged on for hours. Plus everyone got blasted, meaning every set that happened past midnight was miserably bad.
A pretty classic DIY clusterfuck. One of those shows that makes you wonder for months why the fuck you put yourself through this, a thought I very clearly had when I fell asleep around 2 AM during the show and then woke up at 4, also during the show.
Maybe it was just because I was in a shitty mood due to the context, but I remember Andrew’s set being very “meh.” Ambient/droney guitar stuff with additional bleeps and bloops from a laptop. It felt like something I had seen many times before and didn’t like those times either.
But Andrew seemed like an incredibly nice guy, and frankly that is always more important.
Later that year, I meet Andrew again when AWE comes through Milwaukee. He remembered me or my name (never sure which) after seeing it listed on DoDIY.org. Sticking to the nice people over good bands rule (and because I was booking way too many shows at the time), I put it together.
This time through, Andrew’s work started to make sense. Although the drones and bleep boops were still definitely there, the music went beyond simply throwing those gestures out there and hoping for the best. Compositions were built around these sounds, with both elements supporting each other. It was a really beautiful and distinct collection of songs, drawing from a wide range of influences beyond the electronic or experimental world.
When Andrew came to town again a couple years later, the computer was gone all together. Andrew and two other musicians merely set up on stage with a guitar, a banjo, an accordion (I think), and maybe a handful of other instruments. They played a set deeply rooted in folk music, songs pulled from what sounded like a collection of Appalachian bluegrass standards, but with the same droned notes sifting between the cracks of the genre.
It hit at the exact right time. I was already obsessed with Megafaun at the moment and this seemed aligned perfectly with their more experimental leanings. I was hooked and excited to see where Andrew would go next.
Where AWE went next was Fuck Everybody, You Can Do Anything. While I enjoyed the albums that came before this one, it felt like everything that Andrew and his group of collaborators were going for finally snapped into place. The delicate drone passages, the folk meanderings, the intricate computer music that draws you ever closer into the speakers, it all finally made sense together as a whole. No part seemed to dominate the other and each element pushed the other ones into new and interesting spaces.
What struck me most about the album, however, was the unique affective response I had every time I listened. I think it’s safe to say that the group was aiming for a serene sense of beauty on these recordings. The lilting melody lines and swelled tones lend themselves to the kind of calming bliss that drone records ubiquitously strive for. But what those records don’t have (and Fuck Everybody does) is an accompanying sense of power, one instilled deep in the listener as each track unfolds. The album not only makes you experience a sense of bliss but feel that you can power through whatever the hell you want because you have attained that serene pinnacle.
Fuck Everybody, You Can Do Anything isn’t just a clever title after all.
The album dropped the summer before I shipped off to grad school and instantly became my go to sonic co-worker. Turns out, feeling simultaneously calm and powerful is really helpful when you constantly feel stressed and alone. As much as I recognize the privilege (and massively supportive community) that allowed me to spend five years reading books and writing about books, it doesn’t mean that the psychological toll is any less real. Grad school is hard, but this album made it easier.
Without question, I spun that record more than anything else in my collection for two years straight. And the only thing that could replace it was apparently another Andrew Weathers Ensemble record. In 2017, the group drops Build a Mountain Where Our Bodies Fall and dear god if that record didn’t propel me through my prelims (also known as the most stressful two weeks of my life).
With this new set of songs, another previously missing puzzle piece falls into place. Sonically, the album is similar to Fuck Everybody. A bit more post-rock influence this time around, but the same drones, tones, and folk zones populate the rest of the LP. What’s new is the addition of an overt political focus that sharpens the affective response from the previous record. Throughout Build a Mountain, Andrew used lyrics from the Industry Workers of the World Little Red Songbook, a collection of pro-labor/anti-capitalist union songs that evoke the mindset behind those activists striving to build a better world. In doing so, Build a Mountain became the most blissed out political record I have ever heard. As someone who usually associates political music with hardcore, the fact that the group isn’t shouting their opinions down the listeners throat presents a striking difference. Instead, the record sounds the slogans of a better tomorrow from the top of a, well, mountain. It’s a joyful shout, one just as powerful and self-assured.
Every time I hear the opening guitar line on I am Left Buried Where I’ve Been, my mind immediately returns to Angela Davis’ assertion (one I’m going to paraphrase and hopefully not butcher too much) that protest and resistance and rebellion always come from a place of love and joy. Anger plays a part in that equation, sure, but that anger comes from the recognition that the ones we love, including ourselves, have been treated so poorly. It’s an anger born from a deep sense of self and empathy, and that anger never births the struggle. Love does. And if protest and activism exist as an act of defiance born out of love, then a soundtrack that produces an endless sense of both beauty and power seems like a perfect fit.
It’s weird to talk about how a sort of droney, ambient, post-rock collective gets me so hype, but AWE managed to put out a record that did just that. Twice.
With The Thousand Birds in the Earth, The Thousand Birds in the Sky, the final album from the group, Andrew and the rest of this collective extend the legacy of the group while also sounding the conclusion to this specific body. There’s a heightened sense of space on these songs, the instruments each holding their own distinct voice without fully blending into the rich sonic cloth that AWE cultivated on the last two recordings. On my first time through, I though the album felt like things were falling apart, pieces of the plane coming off as it descends towards the runway. But that isn’t quite accurate. The band isn’t falling apart. Each component has just been separated or distanced. (I imagine Andrew’s move from Oakland to the wide expanses of West Texas played a part in this shift)
Through this distance, the album shines a light on what was always there. In making a powerful and greater whole from all of its individual parts, AWE actually did themselves a disservice by downplaying the individuality and excellence of each unique element within the previous two albums. And while The Thousand Birds absolutely works as a whole, the newly acquired sense of space also allows for a focused listening in which the audience homes in on particular contributions that stand on their own. It also makes me want to revisit the last two albums leading up to this one, to see what I missed by allowing those albums to wash over me in their fullness.
It’s this inspiration to look back that makes this album the perfect finishing statement. A conclusion, absolutely, but one that invites the audience to start again, to revisit everything up to this point and find what may have been lost (or never initially found) along the way. It’s an end that invites the listener beyond the final moments of the record by reminding them what came before. In doing so, The Thousand Birds therefore produces a brilliantly human gesture filled with an insistence of beauty and power, one of many similar gestures within the group’s discography.
There are certain albums, songs, and artists that will forever be linked to a specific times and places in my life. I cannot hear Limited Express? Has Gone! outside of sitting in my parent’s basement and playing Katamari Damacy for hours. Enya will never sound as good as it did on that one tour while crossing the hellish steel bridge between Gary, IN and Chicago, IL. The list goes on. I’m sure it does for you as well.
I’m sure that this three album run from AWE will always be important to me (and, if forced to do the music critic thing, rank pretty damn high on my list of favorite three album runs), but I also know that they’re going to be locked into a specific time of my life that is about to end. The need to feel both blissful and powerful will never end, but the importance this group played for me over the past five years will always situate a listening in the past.
Less than two weeks out from defending my dissertation, I’m taking the group’s invitation on their final album to look back at what the hell happened over these past five years. Buried in work and unnecessary stress, it’s been hard for me to really see what’s being accomplished in this process of getting a fancy piece of paper. I suppose now is probably a good time to start figuring that out. But even without reflection, I know that the Andrew Weathers Ensemble made this whole thing a lot easier.
So if you helped make any of these albums, thanks for making some great records that were, are, and will be extremely important to me. And if you didn’t, I’d suggest giving them a listen, whether it’s your first or fiftieth time through.
Bliss and power to all of you.