Before founding the two-man project Oort Smog, you were in the Los Angeles “brutal prog” quintet Upsilon Acrux.
Mark: Upsilon has existed with various lineups since 1998. The only continuous member is Paul Lai, and the rest of the band was completely reformed several times. I joined during the most recent reformation in 2010, and Patrick came onboard in 2012. The term "brutal prog" originated with Weasel Walter of The Flying Luttenbachers. I think it can basically be defined as instrumentally complex rock music with an emphasis on passion and intensity. As an attitude, it sort of stands in opposition to the tendency of many "progressive" bands who seem to prioritize perfectionism and hero-worship over the discovery of new musical territory.
Did the band explore new territory because they viewed prog bands’ perfectionism as stale and formulaic? How is your work ethic preferable to hero worship?
Patrick: I don’t think it was because other bands were making things stale or formulaic, but more because Mark and I talking about music that we really enjoyed and from there, creating something that we both feel hasn’t been specifically done before, especially by a duo. As far as our attitude goes, we both have our individual heroes and we know that they just didn’t get there by accident. They put in the time and dedication to create something that is dear to our hearts. We may never get to that point or become someone’s hero, and to be honest that doesn’t matter. We want to create something that we are proud of and that we truly stand by.
Who were some of the musicians who inspired you to take up instruments in the beginning? In what ways were they influential to you finding your own creativity?
Patrick: My parents started me in piano lessons when I was younger, there wasn't necessarily musicians who inspired me but more so playing because my parents made me or because the saxophone looked cool. When I was in middle school and high school I started listening to music that I sought out but I wasn't thinking of making my own music yet. I don't think it was much later until I heard John Zorn's Naked City record & Coltrane's Interstellar Space, those albums changed my whole perspective on what the saxophone's role could be and led me to find out a lot of other different musicians like Magma, Henry Cow, King Crimson, Masada, Koenjihyakkei, and so forth.
Mark: My parents also started me in piano lessons when I was younger, but I walked out during the first one because I just wanted to play drums. I did not get my wish at that time. When I started in school band a few years later, I was assigned to play the trumpet. I wasn't happy about it, but I went along with it, and after the first year I convinced the band director to let me switch to percussion. Then I was able to get a drum kit and dive in. I knew next to nothing about music or any specific drummers up to that point. I just knew that I had to play drums.
What do you and Mark think of progressive metal? Are there any bands you listen to for inspiration or to appreciate on your own time?
Mark: I think there are really great progressive metal bands: Deathspell Omega, Meshuggah, Death, Krallice, etc. Metal, in general, is a fantastic vehicle for creative expression. The common factor between them is that they each found significant ways to push music forward and expand on what came before. The conscious influence we take from that is simply a desire to reach beyond existing music. Of course, various elements of what we listen to make their way into our subconscious soup, and have some influence on the music that comes out the other end. But the ingredients are already mixing in the blender before we start writing, so we don't really stop to analyze them.
Patrick: I listen to more black metal than anything right now, Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas of course and a lot of the USBM bands, Weakling, False, Sanguine Relic, Ash Borer, Orgy of Carrion, Yellow Eyes, Ustalost, and the House of First Light collective.
How much material had been released by Upsilon Acrux by the time you joined them? I presume as part of the new lineup you had to learn a great deal of material.
Patrick: With Upsilon, circumstances led to different line ups for recording each record. For the album Sun Square Dialect I believe it was the seventh line up. We were all focused on writing new material rather than learning old material which at first was intimidating, but was a lot of fun. Paul Lai (guitarist) has this great mentality that when we are writing music, there is no ego and that whatever will make the song better is the route the group will take. I still think about that to this day.
How much does less emphasis on “ego” and more on spontaneous songwriting help the band compose their material?
Mark: There's not much satisfaction in trying to prove how good you are, to yourself, over and over again. If you get stuck in that loop you will eventually become hobbled by insecurity and find yourself far adrift from the creative spirit. Composing music within a band dynamic is largely a series of responses and reactions. Someone comes up with a part on their instrument, then someone else responds with theirs. It is immensely exciting to come up with something that you imagine one way, then present it your bandmate who builds on it in an unexpected direction, resulting in something beyond what you could have conceived on your own. That's the magic of musical collaboration.
Is the band satisfied with Sun Square Dialect after the recording process? How much does the album stand out from other progressive rock bands?
Mark: We're proud of the album. I'm sure there are countless things we could've done better, but I don't lose any sleep over that. Upsilon is a very forward-looking band. Previous work serves as a reference point from which to set the bar a few notches higher on the next round. The songs on Sun Square took a lot of work. We were writing material for an unconventional configuration of instruments and imposing somewhat multithreaded arrangements on top of that. It definitely got easier over time as our ears and brains attuned to what we were attempting. After the record, we rearranged a few songs from previous lineups for live performances. That stuff came together pretty quickly--I guess we had it figured out by then.
How many instruments were used during the recording Sun Square Dialect, and how many “threads” were added to each song?
Mark: It's all drums, guitar, Rhodes organ, and saxophone. Much of the album is structured with two guitar/drum pairs and the Rhodes in between, so it's basically three threads at once. It's not static--the interactions between the five of us shift around in various forms. I think you can get a pretty good sense of it if you listen with headphones.
How much older material was rearranged for Upsilon’s performances? Were you surprised at how quickly it all came together?
Mark: Just a few songs. We also adapted some Kraftwerk and a Captain Beefheart song. But again, all of that came together surprisingly fast compared to the original material. We must've had a deadline or something...
We did “Trans-Europe Express” and “Veteran's Day Poppy”. Kraftwerk is just an incredibly innovative band, and we thought it would be interesting to take a universally recognized melody and present it our own way. It was also fun to arrange the drums around an intentionally mechanical feeling. Captain Beefheart is kind of an archetype for rock music that challenges the listener, so I think the common thread is a little more obvious. We were approached by someone who was putting together a recording of the entire Trout Mask Replica album, with a different band to perform each song. We chose “Valentine's Day Poppy” because we felt like it had enough space in the parts to accommodate the density of our instrumentation and allow us to sound coherent without requiring us to arrange everything in unison. Unfortunately, that recording did not come to fruition.
Do you think your recording of “Valentine’s Day Poppy” will see the light of day at some future point, either in its original form or with some treatment added?
Mark: The project was canceled before any recording was done, so, unfortunately, it doesn't exist. I believe there was an issue with acquiring the rights for the release. If that ever gets worked out and the project is revived, it could happen. I think it's pretty unlikely at this point.
When did you start Oort Smog and in what ways does the band differ from Upsilon Acrux?
Patrick: We created Oort Smog probably a couple of years into being in Upsilon together. Ever since hearing John Coltrane and Rashied Ali's sax-drum duo record Interstellar Space, I've been really interested in that setting... it's just so raw, yet incredibly open and direct. I also have a long-standing sax-drum duo with Dylan (who is also in Upsilon) called In The Womb and we play in a totally acoustic setting. With Mark, I wanted to see how we can attack that setting in a different way and so the two of us decided to write extremely dense pieces of music with my saxophone going through effect pedals and amps. I feel like we definitely achieved that goal with this record.
What inspired you to name your new band Oort Smog? This is an uncommon name for a band; does it have a personal meaning to you in any way?
Mark: We wanted something that wouldn't pigeonhole us to any specific genre. "Oort" refers to the Oort Cloud, which is named after the astronomer Jan Oort and describes a cloud of small objects surrounding the outer edge of the solar system. I was reading about it around the time we were starting the band, and the word just kind of stuck with me. When we started casting about for names, Oort Smog came up pretty quickly. I think it accurately describes us as a speck of pollution on the fringes of music.
As Oort Smog, do you interact with one another similarly to the way Upsilon interacted?
Mark: It's different in the ways that you'd expect with a duo vs a quintet. Also having one drummer instead of two. Simpler logistics, more individual responsibility.
Patrick: Definitely simpler logistics and more responsibility, there isn't any melodies that someone else is doing that I can play off of or create counterpoints or harmonies. I have to make sure that the melody not only fits Mark's drum part but also strong enough to carry that section of the song to the next point. I feel we do try and keep the intensity that is apparent in Upsilon songs though, that is an important part to me.
Describe your transition from being in a band with two drummers to a band with one drummer.
Mark: Being the only drummer is the default scenario, so it was an easy transition for me. We usually have multiple projects happening at any given time, so we're pretty good at switching gears.
What effect does playing saxophone with amplifiers and effects have on Oort Smog? What pedals do you usually use?
Patrick: It gives a bit more edge and abrasiveness to the sound, especially live. The effects give me a little bit more room to play with as far as textures and tones. I originally got the idea from listening to Sam Hillmer from Zs' solo project, which in turn led to me trying that out in a solo setting and eventually in Oort Smog. Currently, on my board, I have a frequency analyzer, pitch shifter, pitch factor, freeze, loop & reverb pedals. After the next record, my plan is to switch things out and change my board, which will be uncomfortable at first but I think it will lead to new paths.
What was Sam Hillmer doing with his solo project? For his inventiveness, why haven’t more people heard his work yet?
Patrick: I just think it’s hard in this day and age, especially for creative music in general. With the internet, there's so much available, so many people can create and share instantly... which of course is a good thing, but a lot of shit gets lost. Attention spans are smaller and if the music/video doesn't grab your attention within five seconds, you're off scrolling to another post. Records are rarely listened to in their entirety anymore, at least the general public. Algorithms benefit social media posts that already have traction and we don't have any desire to post a video of ourselves doing something stupid to get views or the money to get some good PR. At the end of the day, I don't think people like us or Sam Hillmer are looking for fame or attention and are making the music for ourselves.
Are there other obscure musicians who inspired you while you listened to them?
Patrick: We both listen to a variety of different things, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what I was listening to that directly inspired my writing at that time... although it might not be completely apparent maybe it was the intensity of Harry Pussy, the melodies of Trespass Trio, the rawness of Okkyung Lee, the progressive movement of Yellow Eyes that I had in mind then.
How much material has Oort Smog released to date? Are they on streaming format as well as CD format? Where on the internet can your releases be streamed or purchased?
Patrick: We released two songs in 2015 and then recently dropped Pulse Smeared Transfers on vinyl on Sweatband records and will see a cassette releases as well on Geweih Ritual Documents in the coming months. They are available to stream on our Bandcamp profile (oortsmog.bandcamp.com). We are close on completing what will be our second full length, we're hoping to tighten that up and get into the studio before the year is out, and hopefully, that will see the light of day in 2020!
How much feedback have your releases had on Bandcamp since you began streaming them?
Mark: Not a lot. Our main goals with the first songs were simply to get an idea of what kind of recorded sound we could achieve and to have a stepping stone for getting gigs. We didn't really push for a lot of attention with it. We really consider Smeared Pulse Transfers to be the first proper release, so we're trying to get it out there a bit more.
What studio will you be heading into to complete the new album? How much more work does it need at this point? In what formats are you planning to release the album?
Patrick: We do not have a studio lined up yet in regards to recording the new album. The material for the new record is about 90% done at this point in time, we are planning on playing the piece as much as we can this year to make any adjustments and hitting the studio to record it. Our goal is to do so before the year ends.
The new record will be recorded and will be released, there is no question about that, fancy studio or otherwise.
Vinyl, of course, would be the most ideal so we will definitely be pushing for that.
How do you want Oort Smog to be remembered for their contributions to underground music and music in general?
Mark: We're still trying to get established, so we are not ready to contemplate any sort of legacy. Honestly, just having the opportunity to put our music out there is a huge gift. The listeners can make of it what they will.