Heron Oblivion: Sonic soundwaves
by Keenan Ketzner
photo by Alissa Anderson
There has been a struggle between the modern sounds of popular music and people with a nostalgic hook on things they’ve grown up with, who also try to push the envelope of those genres in current days. That’s how we’ve ended up with so many great psychedelic and indie rock groups in the 2000s-2010s: a willingness from people to experiment with the sounds of new and old. And that’s where we get to the psychedelic rock band Heron Oblivion.
“Psychedelic is such a vague term,” guitarist Noel Harmonson noted, “but it does kind of apply to what want to do. To conjure something visual and trance-like out of sound.” The band certainly does this, with their wall of fuzz bass and guitars and beautiful female vocals floating over the ruins of distortion and empty space.
Heron Oblivion is a proverbial supergroup to anyone who’s been keeping their eye on the coastal rock scenes of North America. West Coasters Noel Harmonson, Ethan Miller (bassist/vocalist), and Charlie Saufley (guitarist) all have been successful. Harmonson played with Comets on Fire, Sic Alps and Six Organs of Admittance, while Miller was in Comets on Fire, Howlin’ Rain and Feral Ohms, and Saufley played in Assemble Head and Sunburst Sound. East Coaster Meg Baird (drummer/vocalist), a well-established solo artist, was also a band member of Espers and Watery Love.
All respected artists in their own right, having written music ranging from psychedelic rock, to drone, folk, experimental, punk and everything in between. They were just friends with separate music projects before the formation of Heron Oblivion.
During Harmonson’s hiatus with Comets on Fire, he and Miller were hosting regular jam session with a cast of rotating guests called Wicked Mace. They ended up asking Saufley and Baird to jam together.
Baird was a long time friend of Comets on Fire, “so we got Meg and Charlie to come over one time, and normally we all play guitar,” Harmonson recalled. “At first it was all just like feedback and distortion… But over time we’d find this groove that we could really work. Maybe it’d be a little repetitive, but everyone would just start vibing really well. And we were like ‘woah, that works.’”
You can still hear this guitar heavy element of these early jam days in the current work of their self-titled album. Layers of guitar mark their way on nearly every song, with a strong sense of musical interplay between all the instruments. But the thing that gave them their extra edge is from when Meg sat down at the drums and started singing.
“Luckily Ethan is kind of an obsessive recorder… So he’d set up these records in the room, and then we’d listen back to them after the session and pick out some of the things that we still liked and tried to replicate them and develop them as songs, because we proved that we could come together in a room and jam, but we wanted to start working on something with the group,” he said.
Eventually they ended up working with Ty Segall (producer) and long time friend Eric Bauer at a studio in a San Franciscan basement called The Bauer Mansion, where the whole self-titled album was recorded onto 8-track tape to help give it that extra nostalgic edge. “He had a great tape machine, and not a lot of room and low ceilings, so we all set up in the claustrophobic space… but it was cool because we could watch each other for cues.”
Similarly, after doing some touring and more playing (including opening up for War on Drugs), they recorded another reverberant and spatially bounded project called The Chapel, a full set comprised of six songs from their debut album, a new track, and an epic cover of Doug Sahm’s “At the Crossroads.” It was also engineered and produced by Thee Oh Sees’ producer Chris Woodhouse and Eric Bauer, respectively, to give it that crunchy, raw and spacious sound that Heron Oblivion is known for.
With another surely stellar record in the works, Heron Oblivion will continue to etch noticeable lines in the lineage of modern rock music, and bring out the psychedelic images in your mind.
Heron Oblivion performs Feb. 17 at the Wild Buffalo, opening for The Thurston Moore Group. For more about the band, follow their Facebook page or see heronoblivion.bandcamp.com.