Doldrums and dystopian dance music

We spoke to the Montreal musician about the story behind his new LP, The Air Conditioned Nightmare.

Doldrums Jeremy Dabrowski (640x413) (2)
Doldrums. Photo by Jeremy Dabrowski

The moniker that Airick Woodhead chose for his music project is an old maritime nickname for a weather system that creates storms around the equator, and a colloquial term meaning mild depression, listlessness and stagnation. But on his new album, The Air Conditioned Nightmare, Woodhead is driven primarily by forces and feelings in opposition to the origins of “doldrums”: movement through barren lands and an emotional cocktail of exuberance, anxiety and fear.

“The title was supposed to evoke a road trip through dystopia, or dystopia in a ’90s B-movie,” says Woodhead. “That comes from touring, and driving around America a lot. The only thing that keeps me sane [on tour] is having close friends and my brother [half of Moon King] around — that’s what makes it feel real.”

The title of the new Doldrums record was lifted from Henry Miller, whose 1941 book of the same name was inspired by the American author’s disillusionment with the USA after he’d lived in Europe for a decade. For Doldrums, whose sample-based electronic music has moved a number of critics to use the “dystopian” descriptor over the past half-decade, the nightmare is not so much the disconnection between urban living and nature (as it was for Miller), but the increasing isolation of people in cities.

“All the reasons I moved to Montreal and love Montreal — that it has a real neighbourhood vibe, and there’s a real sense of community here — those are all things that my music addresses the lack of,” says Woodhead, who relocated from Toronto five years ago. “I’m living in the neighbourhood that Arcade Fire wrote ‘Neighbourhood’ about and that romanticism is a big part of living in the city and wanting to stay here.”

Though “Industry City” is the only overt step into sci-fi narrative, the themes on this record, and their sonic reflections, occupy the same nightmarish realm that has informed so much modern music. “That’s something that techno has always aesthetically leaned towards, like Derrick May talking about the super-city and futurism,” Woodhead says. “But there’s something seductive about it even though it’s dark.”

The melodies and hooks and textures spanning The Air Conditioned Nightmare are certainly a different kind of dreamy. Fans of Doldrums’ previous releases such as the Lesser Evil LP (Arbutus Records, 2013) and Empire Sound EP (No Pain in Pop, 2011), not to mention his abstract, experimental early shows played with a karaoke VCR, may be surprised by the increased power in the punch of his new songs. This is Doldrums’ debut
release on Sub Pop, and while it’s not a manicured pop album by any means, songs like “Blow Away” stick in your mind the way that only sweet sonic nuggets do, and elements of that sweetness bind the record’s 10 tracks together.

“Having the whole record be cohesive is really important,” says Woodhead, whose source material (samples) makes the task even more challenging. “It’s kind of like a map: each song is a different place on the map, and each song has a sonic world that interplays with the lyrics to create a visual, but there’s a larger cohesive world that they’re all part of.”

It boils down to the production and the singing and the mixing,” he adds, “but there’s also something integral and kind of intangible that any artist should have: a hallmark stamp that’s immediately recognizable.” ■

Doldrums launches The Air Conditioned Nightmare with Moon King at [NEW VENUE] le Fairmount (5240 Parc) on Thursday, April 9, 9:30 p.m., $10/$13