Temporal, the second EP from Oakland-based DIY-pop quartet Trails and Ways, is a startling — and startlingly impressive — sophomore release: unique and ambitious and freighted with potential, at once dense and delicate, deftly combining disparate genres and dozens of instruments to create a sound that’s hard to categorize and equally hard to forget. It is also, quite possibly, cursed.
“We had a lot of bad luck making this album,” said vocalist and guitarist Keith Brown, and that’s an understatement. A couple weeks into recording, Brown was pushed off his bike, robbed, and shot at while riding home from a session; he was physically fine but admits it was “a pretty alarming experience.” And then, in September, when the album was about half-done, someone broke into percussionist and vocalist Ian Quirk’s bedroom studio and stole a laptop containing the only copies of the band’s as-yet-unfinished record. Since then, the group has fallen victim to various other accidents, misfortunes, and strokes of bad luck, including a serious health problem that they preferred not to discuss, as well as various other less grave bumps in the road. So yeah, “bad luck” covers it, though Brown is also quick to point out that he and his bandmates have “also had some really tremendous luck, too.” He continued, “The emotional outrage [of being robbed] provided a lot of emotional drive for me recording. A lot of people go through an experience like that and want to get vengeance. But I started thinking about these people that robbed us, and the Oakland that produced them. And losing the album sort of gave us a chance to really build it into the most ambitious thing we wanted it to be.”
It’s a typically Brownian statement. Slight, soft-spoken, and bespectacled, with a look like he could be the bookish hero in an indie romantic comedy, he is circumspect, politically conscious, and very earnest, as is Quirk. The two met while living in a vegetarian co-op at Cal; Quirk had been playing since he was a young kid, in jazz, classical, punk, emo, and metal bands, while Brown came to music from writing, after becoming “pretty enamored of songwriting as a way to connect with people better than poetry.” It wasn’t actually until late-2010, years after they’d met, that they’d start playing together, and earlier this fall, they added two members — Emma Oppen and Hannah Van Loon, both trained musicians and Cal grads who contribute vocals and violin, respectively.
“We actually originally bonded over out political interests in activism and environmentalism,” Quirk recalled. He and Brown work full-time in the field of renewable energy and they both consider Temporal to be an activist album, albeit one on which the politics are implied — more Radiohead than Rage Against the Machine. On first listen, “Chills” sounds like a standard-issue indie love song, but Brown said it’s really about the threat of global warming, and worrying about what will be left of the earth for future generations: I will not burn up/in my dreams I see my children I don’t yet know/what do I tell them? “No Wisdom,” meanwhile, is about “the United States after the fall, and this generation of us as kids” — everyone in the band is 24 — “running around after the wise men have fallen down.” They wrote the album at the height of the debt-ceiling negotiations and in the afterglow of the bailout, when “there was just this huge obsession with selling the country off — with taking these things that built our country, like the public education system, and selling them out from under us.” Brown calls it “post-austerity music.” There’s a sweetly fatalistic lyrical bent to all of it, a distinct seriousness to the project that Oppen said comes from Brown and Quirk.
“Keith and Ian are remarkably similar, and remarkably different,” she said. “But they are both very earnest. What Ian teaches Keith and what Keith teaches Ian is a lot of what you’re hearing in the music. Ian is super-structured and so specific about what he wants, and Keith is very sort of dreamy. I think if he were born in another age, Ian would have been a composer of symphonies. Keith would have been a poet.”
Temporal manages to invoke sounds as disparate as bossanova, afrobeat, calypso, and jazz, often in the same song; it’s telling that the band has a broad range of influences, including Animal Collective, Bon Iver, Thelonius Monk, Drake, Paul Simon, and, especially, tUnE-yArDs. “Our ears are definitely open to the rest of the world, and not just what happens in the Anglophone world,” Brown said. They record everything in Quirk’s bedroom, often incorporating stomps, claps, whistles, jars, and various blunt objects.
None of which translates well to live performance but they’re working on it. “We try to write without any constraints and then figure out how to make it happen live,” Oppen said. “The real chemistry is what’s happening in Ian’s room.” Hopefully, with two extra members, they’ll be able to translate the density of sound onstage; beyond that, both Quirk and Brown are committed to their jobs and don’t necessarily harbor any big dreams. Besides, they’ve got more pressing concerns. “After we all die of global warming, me and Keith are going to be rocking in the afterlife,” Quirk said, mostly joking. “I hear in heaven they’re really into bossanova dream-pop.” He may be right.