The colorful, shifting soundscapes of Dead Western Plains' songs are the fortunate result of what Johnnie Munger calls "too many cooks in the kitchen."
The five members of Dead Western Plains piece together sounds like collage artists, with each musician adding his own distinct style and personality, until a song reaches its rich and layered conclusion. The band, voted the TAMMIES Up-and-Coming Artists of the Year, will spend a month or two on a song, writing and recording as a single process, exploring different sounds and paths each step of the way.
The band formed two years ago after Munger and Wesley Sebastian Tucker—who had both been working on musical projects rooted in looping and electronics—decided to try writing songs together. Munger says the project wouldn't have amounted to much if they hadn't recruited friends Michael Sanger, who was playing drums with Munger in Juarez at the time, and Darren Simoes (The Bled) on guitar. Nathan Ziebell (The Swim) joined on bass about a year later.
"It's an honest sound. It's a Crock-Pot of all of our likes. I can actually hear the personalities of every single person in the band," Munger says.
He elaborates: "When I start layering what I'm going to do, it's definitely going to have electronic stuff and a sample. Darren—who's pretty much just a mastermind of guitar; he's got impeccable taste for riffs and guitar tones—he really provides the traditional sense of guitars. Wes has a very atmospheric type of sound. Most of the guitar-produced atmospherics are from Wes. Mike Sanger grew up (with a) very rock background and really levels us out. We might be a little too dance-y, so he helps bring in a little bit of the bottom. Nate gives us an anchor. We didn't have a lot of harmonic bass, and adding that low end has been crucial, especially for live shows."
Munger handles vocals, accordion, piano, synthesizer, organ, glockenspiel, electronics, samples and percussion. Prior to DWP, he was playing electronic, beat-oriented music on his own Milk:Blood project, and also playing bass in the heavy-rock band Juarez, which was the fourth band he and Sanger teamed up in, each one playing a different type of music.
"We all have a very wide taste of likes. (DWP) is just another color on our palette of music. It just so happens it's the one I love. From my heart, I've always been a very electronic-music type of person. I didn't grow up listening to punk rock or rock at all. I grew up listening to the classic electronic," Munger says. "I do enjoy playing in anything I can get my hands on. But there is something to being where you feel good, and where you feel strong, and eventually, you'll do a better job."
Dead Western Plains' debut recording, "Alta," a 7-inch vinyl single for local label Fort Lowell Records (with "Gift Horse in the Mouth" on the B side), was released in November 2010.
"Their sound is simply so fresh," says James Tritten, of Fort Lowell Records. "Their caliber is much more in line with a national level than they even realize themselves. As long as their music is getting out, they'll continue to grow and challenge themselves as a band. I knew I wanted to help get their sound out there outside of Tucson."
Dead Western Plains has indeed gained some momentum outside of Tucson, with a mention on the LA Weekly's music blog comparing the band's "psychedelic swoon and upbeat power-pop" to Animal Collective. Elsewhere, indie-rock blogs have compared the band to Arcade Fire and Band of Horses.
"Being able to record was really defining for us," Munger says. "Up to that point, we'd written songs, but we hadn't really solidified much, just tinkered."
The band recorded everything except the drums themselves, going over every small detail collaboratively. The process involved a lot of long nights, with five musicians jammed into a little room, and the songs growing bit by bit.
"Every little thing comes into question when we do it. We get really into the details and try to explore a lot of things. When we're sitting down to write the music, most of the talk is about carrying a vibe," Munger says. "Despite all of our differences as far as too many cooks in the kitchen, our end goal usually ends up trying to carry a certain story throughout the song. When we write like that, it ends up with the parts growing, and it isn't built on a planned structure."
For the "Alta" release celebration at Plush, the band put together a live show that focused on visual art as well as the musical performance. Each musician wore all-white clothes, and the band projected video across the entire stage during the performance.
"We're very hands-on with every aspect of the band, from recording to live shows. We have a little bit of (attention deficit disorder) when it comes to that type of thing," Munger says. "We happen to have also in the band a lot of different talents visually. Everybody comes up with something, and we just have a lot of tools at our fingertips. We'll definitely be growing that as we go along."
The current agenda for Dead Western Plains, however, is a period focused on writing and recording new material. The band's third song for release, "People Beat," will appear Oct. 18 on Luz de Vida: A Compilation to Benefit the Victims of the Tucson Tragedy, a collaboration between Fort Lowell Records and Music Against Violence. (Full disclosure: I am involved in the project.)
"We're giving ourselves the time to be total schmucks about all the details," Munger says. "We go into the studio, and we click well, so it lets us have blinders on to everything else."
The band has four or five other songs already written, with plans to release one or possibly two EPs by the end of the year.
"We're pretty much in record mode right now. Our main passion is creating," Munger says. "We've decided to go for shorter, more-frequent releases. We want to tackle as much ground as possible without getting stuck."