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Scatter Swept

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NEW DIRECTIONS Scatter Swept does not shy away from their music’s African origins.

Limitless form in the low-key psychedelia of Bay Area band’s latest album, ‘Unfolding’

Scatter Swept’s music is difficult to define. The Oakland-based outfit—Patricia Kavanaugh, drums, guitar; Ryohei Hinokuma, guitar, bass; Matt Holt, guitar, bass; Sean Norris, saxophone, electronic wind instrument, flute and bass—began working together in 2018, slowly settling into their experimental, all-instrumental sound a year later.

“Ryohei, Trish and I were in a previous band,” Holt said. “When it broke up, we agreed to continue playing together, but didn’t start practicing regularly until the summer of 2018. Sean first jammed with us in March of 2019. We had already been writing the songs for Unfolding, our debut album, when he joined. We finished most of the parts for the record ahead of the two live shows we played in August 2019.

“After that, we turned our attention to doing improvisations in our practices and arranging them into new songs. Luckily, Trish suggested that we get into the studio and record them, before we started moving on to the next batch of songs.”

Holt said that the sounds and ideas Norris brought to the band helped move them in exciting new directions. “The sax part Sean added to ‘So Many Snow’ changed one section of the song in a way that totally surprised me,” he said. “What he played reminded me of Ethiopian jazz, which is not at all where I thought the song was going when Trish, Ryohei and I had been playing it as a trio. When we wrote our bio, I thought referencing [Ethiopian vibe player and percussionist] Mulatu Astatke would add an extra angle to help people understand our mix of rock instruments and horns, as well as our blend of structure and openness.

“Speaking just for myself, I hope that some of the characteristics of my favorite African guitarists—like the guys in Tinariwen [the Tuareg blues band from Northern Mali], Sir Victor Uwaifo and the Guinean bands on the Syliphone label—subconsciously seep into my playing. We decided to call the album Unfolding, because the word suggests opening something up to discover what’s inside. As an album title for our first release with this lineup, that’s what I hope a listener would experience.”

Unfolding covers a lot of musical and emotional ground in its eight-song, 30-minute span. “Wired Weird” opens the set, with a captivating, mid-tempo groove created by Kavanaugh’s drums, an undulating bass line and two gently chiming guitars. One plays short, West African–inspired lead lines, the other contributes dreamy, chiming chord clusters. “Ribbon Twist” features soft, sparse, finger-picked electric guitar notes in the foreground, with flurries of distorted horns and guitars shifting in and out of focus in the background.

“We never sat down and decided to be an instrumental band,” Kavanaugh said. “In fact, we’ve talked about adding vocals to various songs. Since I’m the only ‘singer’ of the four of us, the responsibility of adding vocals has rested upon my shoulders. I’ve been struggling with adding vocals, because I don’t know what to write, lyrically. I came up playing in hardcore bands, so for years and years my lyrics were angsty and angry.

“Now, I’m happily married, have a job I love and a wonderful little boy. Lyrics that are angry or forlorn didn’t fit who I am anymore. I find words that are happy or upbeat in content intimidating. Once I figure it out, the vocals will be approached as a fifth instrument, not a typical verse/chorus, verse/chorus affair.”

The press kit the band wrote to accompany promotional copies of the album says the sounds of Unfolding are post-rock, but the quartet avoids the abrasive rhythms that often characterize the genre. “At the core of it, we don’t really define or categorize our music,” Hinokuma said. “People can call it whatever they want. The post-rock category was used with an intention of providing the readers with a rough idea of how our music sounds, but low-key psychedelia sounds good.”  

“The bands that Trish, Ryohei and I were in, starting in the late ’90s or early ’00s, were all very much inspired by that first wave of post rock,” Holt said. “The music does bring out our post-rock background, but we shape it with the other kinds of music we enjoy, hopefully ending up with something that’s all our own.”