photos and video courtesy of The Octopus Project
By Art Levy
Every living thing gives off electricity. It’s a fact that shouldn’t be buried in boring textbooks but displayed in gigantic, neon letters at the front of the classroom. When you learn that “every living thing gives off electricity,” it leaves you in awe, and your mind starts to make interesting connections, spreading like mycelium. Soon the next question arrives. “Cool. Then can mushrooms make music?”
That’s the thinking behind one of the more unique concerts you’re able to see from the comfort of your couch. On May 1, Austin electronic group the Octopus Project hosts a livestream and benefit for the Central Texas Mycological Society that features music and visuals essentially “played” by mushrooms, followed by a Q&A on this fascinating process. (And just to be clear: a mushroom is not a plant. It’s a fungus, a separate biological kingdom more closely related to humans than to plants).
Nature has inspired musicians for centuries, but recent history has proven to be a particularly fertile time. Experimental composer John Cage was a dedicated amateur mycologist, going so far as to publish a book of recipes, photos, and essays about the musicality of mushrooms in 1972. There’s also Mother Earth’s Plantasia, a 1976 album of childlike synthesizer music by Mort Garson that somewhat dubiously claimed to help your plants grow. And Stevie Wonder capped off the 1970s (and his chart-topping run of albums) with Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants, a documentary soundtrack featuring ninety minutes of bizarre, electro-funk plant worship, all from the man who brought you “Sir Duke.”
But in 2021, musicians aren’t content with merely playing for plants—they’re playing with plants. The Octopus Project is no stranger to taking wonderful, science-adjacent ideas like these and running with them. The band—Yvonne Lambert, Josh Lambert, Toto Miranda, and Mari Rubio—is known for its wildly-creative live shows, like those for the 2010 album Hexadecagon, which featured eight loudspeakers surrounding the members while eight projectors showed videos synced to the music.
Like a fungal network, the band’s interest in mushrooms doesn’t have a definitive starting point, but the project first started sprouting in Peru in 2019. There, Yvonne and Josh met a friend who had a MIDI biodata sonification device, which measures electrical fluctuations through sensors attached directly to any living thing—plant, fungus, or otherwise. That data is then translated into MIDI notes, which can be played by a synthesizer or computer software. They drove around the Sacred Valley, home to Machu Picchu, and started testing the device on various plants, amazed at the possibilities opening before their ears. Yvonne and Josh quickly bought a sonification device as soon as they got back to Austin, and the process of playing music with mushrooms has been inspiring. “The sky’s the limit with this,” says Josh. “There’s a ton of stuff that can be mined from this idea.”
KUTX: How did the idea of playing music with mushrooms first come about?
Yvonne: In Peru, we had been focusing on plants and we just happened upon this random kind of garden mushroom and decided to try to record that. [We] noticed a huge difference between the biodata that we picked up from the mushroom versus the plants. The mushroom gave off a much more dense signal of this constant information. [When turned into MIDI notes] it sounded like a mad scientist playing a pipe organ, compared to a eucalyptus tree we recorded that played one note and then five to 10 seconds of silence and then that same note again—this kind of minimal pulse of sound. This mushroom was like an explosion of sounds.
Being in quarantine [this past year], I joined the Central Texas Mycological Society just to go on some mushroom hikes and learn more about mushrooms and hopefully gain access to much more mushrooms to record. I think initially I was going to do a mushroom hike where we recorded mushrooms, live and in person. And with lockdown getting more serious last December, we decided to try something a little different and do a Zoom kind of performance.
KUTX: How does this MIDI biodata sonification device work?
Josh: Anything that’s alive is giving off internal electrical impulses. And [the device] is registering the different impulses that each [living] being has and then translating it into MIDI data, which we bring into the computer and then assign whatever kind of sound we want or key or whatever. We design what it sounds like.
Yvonne: For this performance, we’re actually using the MIDI data from the mushrooms to control [both] the music and the video.
Josh: One really cool thing is that, when the MIDI data changes, [the video] can change. We’ll set up the parameters, but [the mushroom] can make things bigger or smaller or change colors or shape or whatever. And it does do it over time, so it does change constantly. It’s pretty interesting.
Toto: We’re also providing it with live input, like Josh will be changing the sound, or Yvonne will be playing another instrument on top, or I’ll be adjusting the video live. So [the performance] has both input from the plant data source and our live input kind of as a feedback loop, I guess, if the plant is listening [laughs]. Both human and plant data [are] controlling what you see and hear.
KUTX: I take it different types of mushrooms are going to “sound” different, right?
Yvonne: Yeah, their data and variations will be different.
Josh: You can also kind of customize it. This mushroom physically looks like this, so maybe it sounds like this kind of thing to me. What does it feel like for that mushroom to be?
Yvonne: In the past we’ve had these big trumpet mushrooms and it seemed kind of funny to assign them these horn sounds. [laughs]
Josh: It sounds cool and sometimes [it sounds] stupid. [laughs]
KUTX: How does it feel as musicians to work with a non-human collaborator?
Toto: We’ve done ambient stuff kind of like this before, like trying to set up an atmosphere. And this just feels like there’s another hand in the process that is something to respond to.
Yvonne: I think plants make excellent ambient music. [laughs] It feels like a true collaboration in this way of just making ambient music.
Josh: It’s either ambient or like totally crazy sounding. [laughs]
KUTX: I can imagine that can be both frustrating but also really exciting as a musician, allowing the mushroom to dictate where the performance goes. What is that experience like?
Josh: We’re not necessarily in control, which feels cool. And ideas or sounds or rhythms that we wouldn’t necessarily have come up with on our own come out, and so it feels kind of exciting every time. But I don’t know what it’s going to sound like—I mean, within parameters—but I just literally have no idea what it’s going to be. It’s like free jazz or something, you know. It’s just like improvising.
KUTX: Right. So each performance is totally unique.
Toto: Yeah. The way we’ve been approaching this show is kind of having a different sort of sound and visual environment for each of five or six types of mushrooms. So Josh and Yvonne have been kind of developing a sound for it, and then I’ve been developing a visual. I’ll get something that I think is working pretty well visually, based on the kind of input I think we’re going to be getting from the mushroom. But then a lot of times we’ll set it up and the mushroom is just not doing what I expected at all. [laughs] So I have to go back to the drawing board like, “OK, well, do you like this one?” [laughs] It’s like having a client—you have to meet their demands.
KUTX: Or like a grumpy band member. [laughs]
Toto: Yeah. “I made this cool thing for you, why don’t you want to play with me?”
KUTX: Where did you get the mushrooms?
Josh: Well, right now, just for testing, we’ve just been buying them at the store.
Yvonne: Wheatsville, Central Market. Asian markets like H Mart and 99 Ranch have some pretty big mushrooms—big, unusual ones. So Asian markets are a really great resource and then the Central Texas Mycological Society have given us some. [And Smallhold], which is a company here in town, they’re going to be giving us some mushrooms for us to play for the performance as well.
KUTX: Has this experience changed your perception of the natural world?
Josh: I guess we’re always [aware] that everything is alive and then this is kind of like a visual and audio representation of it—this is proof. This thing is speaking to you in this way. You’re seeing and hearing it. It makes you feel a lot more connected to everything.
Yvonne: I’ve always loved plants, and going to Peru was another kind of step in learning about plants. And I’ve always talked to my plants and felt a closeness with my plants, but I do feel like this music box has kind of opened up a whole new world of connecting with the plants in general.
KUTX: I’m excited to see this in action. Anything else you want to say about the performance?
Toto: [During the show] I’ll be running the visual system, which inevitably involves continuing to tinker with the way the network is set up, and it already has this kind of like science lab look to it. It’s a visual programing system with nodes that connect with wires, which is super fun and looks really complicated. [laughs]
KUTX: And correct me if I’m wrong, that’s kind of similar to how a fungal network can work, right?
Toto: Yeah. The aesthetic works with that and is, you know, also about connections. It’s all about connections.
The viewer is lured in by the serene scene of a glorious sunset…perhaps piqued by the mysterious renegades looking toward the orange and purple horizon. Then BOOM – cue the surf/garage punk-rock-a-go-go. It’s got the dance and tumble psyched-out film stock vibe of your favorite ’60s exploitation film, the edge of civilization, only Russ Myer’s gotta sit this one out. Sorry, pal. No mercy from the unleashed beasts of the Bombay Beach brigade.
It’s a cool lo-fi badass video Sheverb released this month for “Rattle Can Thrash,” one of ten desert-fueled surf-psych instrumental treasures from Once Upon a Time in Bombay Beach, a conceptual piece literally inspired by tuning in and dropping out.
Cut to pre-pandemic February 2020: The band leaves behind the bustle of Austin, heads out to the “semi-abandoned” Southern Californian resort town the LP is named for, and completely immerse themselves in the songwriting process, including building a makeshift recording studio in a barn and crashing out in bunk beds in communal living spaces. Totally a family affair.
“We wanted to write an album that had elements of Southern California 1950’s/1960’s surf culture, psychedelics, real rock ‘n’ roll, Texas honky-tonk Western vibes, and of course, our kind of signature desert rock sound,” says Sheverb co-founder and guitarist Betty Benedeadly. “The Bombay Beach really embodied all of those elements, and we thought, what better place to go live for a month together?”
The experiment proved to be an eye-opening, magical time for the womxn-led collective, capped off with a finale performance at local dive Ski Inn, followed by their “Rattle Can Thrash” video shoot extravaganza in – where else? – a graffiti-covered abandoned house. True, most folks might skip a visit to Bombay Beach, but the remote, dystopian setting was perfect for Sheverb’s latest adventure. The entire journey was, in their own words, a dream come true.
– Laurie Gallardo
Spoon Gets The Fan Treatment In A New Podcast
by Jacquie Fuller
“We need to start a Spoon podcast,” I said to Art Levy sometime around 2017. At pre-pandemic KUTX, Art and I sat beside one another – only a cubicle half-wall and a potted plant between us. Every so often, we’d pop our heads over the half-wall like prairie dogs to make a Mr. Show reference or discuss our favorite band. We’d nerd out on the latter so often that we started thinking that our Spoon chats might make for a fun podcast. We went so far as to draft up a proposal for our boss, but our assigned jobs always got in the way.
For three years, a Slack or email (we really need to make that podcast!) would occasionally float between us. Then, one night while scrolling Instagram, I stumbled upon an about-to-launch Spoon podcast called I Turn My Podcast On. I forwarded it to Art: “Someone beat us to it.” Was I a little bummed? Of course! Until I heard it.
* * *
Though Spoon has been my favorite band since ’97-ish, it never occurred to me to connect online with other Spoon fans. Aside from going to shows and making mixed CDs for friends, my experience of music tended to be solitary. I knew the official Spoon message board existed, but I never participated. If I had, I would’ve encountered the podcast’s host and producer, Tyler Darling.
Darling didn’t learn about the band until 2005, via an interview in Guitar Player that moved him to buy their Gimmie Fiction release sound-unheard. But he didn’t join the message board until 2009, when he first saw the band live. It was then that, Darling told me by email, “I realized I needed to own every recording produced by the band, and seek out their message board to get tracks from fans.”
“I’ve never met up with anyone in real life from the site,” he said, “but there are several people over the years that I’ve traded tracks with.” The board still exists, but with the rise of social media, participation dwindled to only the die-hards. Darling calls the board “a cool time capsule with lots of dead MediaFire links and all kinds of opinions and conversations.” One of those die-hard conversations?: Darling proposing a podcast about his favorite band.
* * *
That’s where it began for Darling. He kicked around ideas with a few fellow members, but eventually the thread went quiet for a year and a half.
Then the pandemic hit, and the thread picked up again: “So this is still happening … stay tuned!”
The pandemic presented the perfect opportunity: Darling had a bit more time on his hands and his favorite band was, like so many others, grounded. Early on, Darling had emailed frontman Britt Daniel. There were polite back-and-forths and Daniel offered to retweet the podcast once it came to fruition. By the time of the pandemic, as Darling prepared to record the first episode, Daniel changed his tune, agreeing to be interviewed for the podcast. “It was supposed to be one interview,” Darling told me, “and I had all these questions I was trying to get through.” But once they started talking, Daniel proposed that they discuss each album, and so Darling split the interview up over several weeks. “Was I surprised? Absolutely.”
Had Art and I actually made our Spoon podcast, we would’ve arranged it through Spoon’s management, and recorded it in a high-tech studio by producers with years of broadcast experience. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have been an authentic effort from two fans. A podcast like this is every music fan’s dream: the opportunity to directly ask your music hero all your burning questions. But with I Turn My Podcast On, Darling approaches his subject with a delightfully starry-eyed enthusiasm that the traditional path beats out of most of us.
Darling is not a broadcast professional. He’s a 31-year-old father of two elementary-aged kids. By day, he works for a housing non-profit. He lives in rural Wisconsin, and records the podcast in his garage, sometimes pausing to sneer at the nuclear dicks speeding down the road in their oversized pickups. As a host, he brings a certain Midwestern, aw-shucks vibe that makes you wish you were actually there with him, say, debating the track order of Girls Can Tell over a six pack of Leinies. Darling brings his experience as a musician to bear, too, but never alienates non-musicians – where he lacks the legal rights to isolate a part of a song, Song Exploder-style, he’ll unabashedly sing it for us instead.
Darling’s conversations with Britt Daniel are the heart of the podcast, but he doesn’t stop there. With bonus episodes, he interviews members of the Spoon cosmos, from Peek-A-Boo Records’ Travis Higdon to producer Mike McCarthy. With these bonus interviews, our understanding of the band expands, through a deeper understanding of how these players shaped their work. Darling augments the interviews with bonus tracks, like the original of “Me & The Bean” (Spoon’s version was a cover), as well as “When We Go FM,” Spoon’s contribution to a 1993 compilation from UT Austin’s KVRX (where Daniel was a staffer) that celebrated the station’s move to an FM frequency.
Darling is not an Austinite – his focus is on the band, not the city that birthed it. (In one episode, he refers to the video for Spoon’s “Jealousy” as having been filmed on a bathroom floor, but he isn’t privy to which bathroom floor. If he ever visits Austin, I’ll buy him a beer at Hole in the Wall.) But place is unavoidable in the story of Spoon. Even if it wasn’t Darling’s intention, what begins to emerge in the podcast is a sort of love letter to a particular moment in Austin’s music history – one less storied than Austin’s Armadillo years, but still deeply cherished by many (including me). From the conjuring of defunct Austin bands like Teen Titans and venues like The Electric Lounge to the story of a stellar prank Daniel pulled on an unnamed ska band (I have my suspicions, but won’t say who), these interviews are a fascinating glimpse of the Austin music scene in Spoon’s early years.
At the time of this writing, Darling has covered five total Spoon releases with eleven episodes, including fan responses for each album. In Spoon’s chronology, we’re now in the early aughts, when the band first began its ascent from near-failure (dropped by their first major label) into the totally unassuming rock stars we know today (my favorite-ever analogy: writer Steven Hyden comparing the band to the Spurs’ Tim Duncan). As Darling cranks out episodes – between parenthood and pairing Wisconsinites with affordable housing – there will be more goodies in store, especially with the release of Spoon’s 10th LP coming down the pike. I Turn My Podcast On might be a bit too dense for the Spoon uninitiated – it is, after all, a podcast for fans. But it’s all the more enjoyable because it’s made by one.
You can hear I Turn My Podcast On wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, check out some of ours, too.
Willie Nelson’s 1972 performance at the Armadillo World Headquarters in front of a crowd of rednecks and hippies is recognized as the starting point of today’s Austin music scene. So it’s only right that we pay homage to the man on his birthday every year.
Join us in our fifth annual Willie Nelson birthday celebration. We’ll kick the party off at 6 p.m., Saturday, April 24, with a special “My KUTX,” and then we’ll go big on his birthday, April 29, with wall-to-wall Willie.
6 to 7 p.m. Saturday, April 24
The special Willie Nelson birthday edition of “My KUTX” features Texas Monthly’s John Spong and Joe Nick Patoski taking a deep dive on some of the more rare Willie recordings from early in his career.
6 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday, April 29 (Willie’s birthday)
Celebrate the Red-Headed Stranger’s 88th birthday all day long with wall-to-wall Willie – from the classics you know and love, to deep cuts you’ve never heard.
March 8 is International Women’s Day – a worldwide day of recognition and action for women. KUTX is participating in the best way we know how: with music!
For years now, KUTX has celebrated this annual event with special programming, curated by the women of KUTX. Join us again this year on Monday, March 8. Starting at 6 A.M., we’ll shine the spotlight on women-identifying musicians – from singer-songwriters, to kick-ass front-women, to rappers – from right here in Austin and around the world. (We can’t promise you won’t hear some men singing – how else do we honor awesome women on drums, guitar, and keys?!)
In addition to the music, you’ll hear only women hosts. (Kicking the men out of the studio wasn’t actually that hard – there were only two of them.) For the occasion, our usual Women of Monday – Taylor, Susan and Laurie – will be joined on the schedule by the co-host of our Pause/Play podcast Miles Bloxson and Live Music Producer Deidre Gott.
On-Air Schedule for March 8
6-9 A.M. – Taylor Wallace
9 A.M. – 1 P.M. – Susan Castle
1-5 P.M. – Laurie Gallardo
5-8 P.M. – Miles
8-11 P.M. – Deidre Gott
11 P.M. – midnight: World Cafe, hosted by Raina Douris
International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. Join the 2021 Campaign on social media with #IWD2021 and #choosetochallenge.
More International Women’s Day Events in Austin
Whole Planet Foundation – a Whole Foods Market nonprofit organization dedicated to poverty alleviation through microcredit – presents an International Womens Day virtual event March 7 & 8. The event features talks with women entrepreneurs and leaders, activities, and a concert with Debi Nova and Andy Allo. $10 registration funds the foundation’s microloans.
Join the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute at UT Austin on March 8 for a day of virtual content that inspires, empowers, and equips the next generation of courageous and creative female leaders to create an inclusive and more gender-equal world. The day will consist of virtual, live-streamed content that allows viewers to “go at their own pace.” Free with registration.
See more Austin events here.