The Pinhook, Durham
Man Alone, Yan Westerlund’s new album as Quetico, opens with a flurry of rhythm. The title track starts with a stuttering set of chords outlining a lopsided beat that seems to toggle between groups of three in two different tempos. The synth tone is warm, with a slight percussive click. A higher synth tone comes in, bell-like, on a different subdivision; a lower kick-drum-like pulse hits on yet another. Just when you can almost start to intuit the beat, a dramatic swoosh ushers in an explosive drum pattern. And that’s just the first thirty seconds.
For the rest of the song, Westerlund juggles these competing patterns with ease in a way that seems unstable yet totally in-time, even as he occasionally slips into something like a pop or jazz groove.
As a drummer, Westerlund is unsurprisingly intrigued by the possibilities of rhythm. What sets him apart from many drummers, though, is his eagerness to explore more unusual patterns: beats in groups of five or seven, or patterns that occasionally stray from the even pulse that defines so much rock and pop. Over coffee on a sunny Thursday morning, it quickly becomes clear how thoroughly he has absorbed these odd-meter grooves. He often breaks into scatting to demonstrate the kinds of patterns that he is thinking about: “ba-baa-t, ba-baa-t, ba-ba-baa-t, ba-baa-t.”
Westerlund has been a Triangle mainstay for nearly a decade, playing in groups such as Bowerbirds, Mipso, Phil Cook, Canine Heart Sounds, Lost in the Trees, and numerous others. As enjoyable as all those bands have been for him, he says, “I just finally realized that I needed to make something on my own to feel satisfied musically in all corners. I hit a point where I wasn’t feeling that this or that song was fitting this group or that group. Or, if they were, they were changing too much, and I wasn’t as excited about them.”
Westerlund plays practically everything on Man Alone’s nine instrumental tracks, which allowed him to take his music wherever he wanted without compromises. Consequently, questions of solitude are central to his conception of the band, which is named after Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, a place he closely associates with being alone.
Westerlund’s training in rhythm started early. Growing up in Wisconsin, he was a jazz-obsessed kid, diving into John Coltrane and Miles Davis albums. He joined his first band in sixth grade.
“We covered everything from Run-DMC to the Mortal Kombat theme song to anything we wanted,” he recalls. His older brother, Joe Westerlund, was also a big influence. “We shared a bedroom for a long time, and he would play me records and records and records,” Westerlund says. The record stack included Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. Then, Westerlund moved to Duluth to attend the University of Minnesota, where he majored in jazz and spent his days honing his drum chops, learning to play piano, and making his first forays into composition. And those complex rhythms kept appearing.
“I would play along to Brad Mehldau records, and just hash out a 7/4 groove for three hours every night,” he says. Or he would challenge himself to “keep a pattern of triplets grouped in five and see how long I could go until my brain melted.” He was listening to Tiki Obmar—a short-lived Minneapolis group that played Aphex Twin-style beats in the context of a live trio—and jazz players like The Bad Plus, Chris Speed, and Tim Berne. In 2009, he followed his brother Joe and friends Brad and Phil Cook (the trio that composed Megafaun) to the Triangle, where he quickly found a sympathetic musical scene.
In 2012, Westerlund played on the last Bowerbirds album (The Clearing) and he credits Phil Moore and Mark Paulson with pushing him in new directions.
“Phil can write some of the best, oddly- phrased songs,” he says. “Playing with them, I started to go down that path a little bit: Let’s drop a beat, let’s add a beat to the end of that phrase to add a little tension, in a very simple way.” Westerlund’s 2015 duo album with cellist Andrew Anagnost, Crossing Streams, played with time and space in an even more thoroughgoing way.
Through all this, Westerlund started writing the compositions that would become Man Alone. While dog-sitting for Phil Cook one Christmas, shortly after moving to Raleigh, Westerlund was playing Cook’s piano when something clicked. Little ideas for songs started pouring out. Some of them found their way into his various bands, but mostly, he kept them to himself, slowly refining them over the years. When he joined the indie-bluegrass group Mipso, he decided it was time to forge a sound that satisfied all of his musical inclinations. He bought recording equipment and synthesizers and got to work.
“It was like a daily ritual for me to record and compose at the same time, looping phrases and improvising over them and writing,” he says. “I did that for the better part of the last couple years when I was home from tour.” Songs would start with a rhythmic idea, a chord progression, or a bass line, and he would iterate and layer until everything fell into place. The melodies almost always came last, giving structure and focus to the complex underlying beat patterns. Then, he had reed player Matt Douglas add bass clarinet to a few songs to introduce “more of a human quality.”
The resulting songs groove with catchy tunes, enveloping synths, and a sensibility somewhere between pop, jazz, and dance music. Westerlund seems to revel in the complexity of it all. Near the end of our conversation, after a long discussion of rhythmic theory, he remarks, “I think that’s about as far as I can go.” But this record would suggest otherwise.
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