May 2, 2003

Plastic Nebraska: Innovations from the Backwoods

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The Ithaca music scene is oft praised for its diversity, and deservedly so, since our small town boasts everything from reggae to folk to jazz to rock. But Ithaca can also very reasonably be criticized at times for a homogenization of moods and of innovation. It seems the most exciting artists in I-Town are those who explore the darker nooks and crannies of consciousness — people like Johnny Dowd, Mary Lorson, and of course, Plastic Nebraska. On their latest album, ironically titled Stories of Happiness, the boys in Plastic propel their haunting grooves to a new level. It’s incredible what they pull off on one album. Gabriel Tavares reinvigorates the sort of reverb and delay-drenched guitar work reminiscent of early U2 (“House on Fire”). Instrumental passages recall the tension and texture of recent post-rockers like Godspeed You! Black Emperor without being derivative (“Vacuumed”). These moments owe a great deal to the eerie contributions of fiddler/organist/sampler Chad Crumm, who records here for the first time as a member of Plastic (his own band The Hix share Plastic’s experimental side and their fascination with the more disturbing sides of life). Brian Dudla’s drumming, as mixed and manipulated by producer Matt Saccurimorano, is rich and hypnotic, mixing transcendently with Rick Hansen’s accordion and Jay Olsa’s bouncing bass. The traditional instrumentation set beside frequent splashes of Moog and electronics give the album a truly timeless feel, something like a Radiohead from the boondocks. The enigmatic lyrics, as sung in the raspy voices of brothers Ted and Rick Hansen, complete the picture. In short, Stories of Happiness is one of the best albums of the year, local or not.

Here are some words from the Nebraskans themselves:

DAZE: First of all, the new album is phenomenal. I know it’s been a long time in the making — what has taken so long?

Rick Hansen: Every other album has seemed rushed, so we decided to take our time with this one. It’s funny because most of these songs were recorded live about a year and a half ago, and we’ve been listening to different mixes since then. It turned out to be a really healthy process. I feel like the songs sound exactly how we want them to sound, because we would work on them for a week or two, and get away from it for a couple of months, and then come back to make changes.

Brian Dudla: In the past, I suppose we weren’t really aware of the value of a slow recording process. Our first CD was recorded in two days, our second in two weeks, and this one took two years. Letting the songs sit for so long really allowed us to see how the songs settled over time, to see if or how they decay relative to our feelings for them.

DAZE: The songs show a significant evolution, which has been partially evident as stages in your live shows (i.e. the addition of Chad Crumm, the use of the Moog). What do you feel has been the driving force in the band’s growth?

RH: Though this is the first recording with Chad, he’s been with us for three years now. I feel he’s become an integral part of our sound. He’s a great player and adds so much. I’ve never heard the violin sound as mean and crazy as it is on some of these tracks, and we had great fun messing with it at Wilburland. We ran it through a Leslie and used an old Caliphone record player as a pre-amp for some tracks.

BD: Working with Matt Saccuccimorano again has really evolved into a symbiotic relationship. Lots of give and take, more so than the last record. I think Matt really stamped the record with production subtleties that will age well with the record. Our relationship with Matt, to me, has been the driving force in the new directions in which the band has been wandering.

DAZE: What are some of your more recent influences/inspirations? I sense some affinities with experimental bands like Tortoise, Mogwai, and even Godspeed You! Black Emperor (the whole “post-rock” scene), without being at all derivative. Have you listened to any of these bands?

BD: I have GY!BE’s lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven but I haven’t listened to it enough to feel I’ve been influenced.

RH: Although I wouldn’t count them as an influence, I’ve just recently been turned on to Sigur Ros. Early on, we were heavily influenced by the Horseflies, which is where much of the rhythm of the accordion comes from on previous recordings, but I think we’ve evolved a bit from that sound over the years. I’m not sure who to count as recent influences. It’s always easier to recognize that in retrospect, I’m sure it’ll be clear to me a few years from now.

DAZE: How do you feel you fit in the Ithaca music scene? What local bands do you feel aligned with? I feel as though you occupy a more innovative niche than many local bands, along with people like Johnny Dowd and Saint Low. Would you agree with that?

RH: Wow. Thank you. That’s a huge compliment to us. Mary Lorson’s songwriting with Saint Low is incredible. She has such a great voice. It was a huge honor to have her and Kim join us on the record [on harmony vocals]. And of course we all worship Johnny Dowd for his lyrics and musicianship.

BD: I’d like to hope that our local musical brethren include Johnny, Hubcap, Boy with a Fish, The Mofos