Words by Andrew R. Fetter
Plankton Wat’s 2021 album Future Times saw primary songwriter/instrumentalist Dewey Mahood slowly moving away from the more synth heavy roots of the band to more guitar-based psych rock he has played in previous bands. Towards the end of last year, Mahood revisited a limited run cassette called The Hidden Path, originally released in 2017 and now having received an official vinyl release via Thrill Jockey. With a more sparse and acoustic vibe, The Hidden Path explores Mahood’s roots in many different ways. Wether through the folk music of his youth, exploring the identity that he has in the music he makes, and even the visual atmosphere of his upbringing (shown in the video for the title track).
Off Shelf: This album was originally released in 2017 but is getting a full vinyl release this year. Is what we’re hearing now the record in its original form or were they any changes that you made?
Dewey Mahood: It’s the exact same. That album was originally on a smaller cassette label called Sky Lantern. They had reached out to me and I had a bunch of different recordings that hadn’t found a home yet, so I almost see Hidden Path as a compilation of different ideas I had at the time. It wasn’t originally going to have a wider release on vinyl, just a pressing of 100 tapes. So I used the opportunity to collect songs that I personally really liked and felt strongly about but hadn’t found a home.
OS: Having a chance to sort of “travel back in time” and revisit it, are you able to see it as a full official album?
DM: Well, I saw it that way even when I first released it. Once the tape all came together and we compiled the songs together. The opening and closing tracks were written specifically for this cassette. But as I compiled all the songs that ended up on the album I started to get kind of disappointed that it wasn’t going to have a full vinyl release. Well, fast forward a bit and Bettina at Thrill Jockey said they were going to be doing some reissues for their upcoming anniversary. I told her I had this tape that I really love and she was excited to give it a second life with a full official release. It’s part of what makes Bettina and Thrill Jockey so special and unique is that they put out music that they like. It’s based really on their personal tastes.
OS: As you revisited Hidden Path, what stood out about who you were as an artist then vs. you as an artist now?
DM: Yeah, this is a pretty big difference honestly, when I was working on those songs. I just left a band called Eternal Tapestry that I’d done for about eight years. That was very much a very loud, over the top psych-rock band and I was definitely going in the opposite direction. I was playing a lot of acoustic guitar and more folk based type music and not even really playing as much electric guitar.
Since then I’ve gotten way more back into rock’n’roll. I started playing in Rose City Band with Ripley from Moon Duo and Wooden Shjips. And the drummer for Rose City Band is Dustin Dybvig who also plays on a lot of Plankton Wat stuff. Now Dustin and I are rehearsing all the time. New Plankton Wat music is gonna be much more of a full band sound and electric guitar. Much more similar to Future Times. If anything it’s going to be heavier. So I think Hidden Path will end up being this interesting bridge between two very different sounding albums.
OS: I was excited to see you’re touring with Rose City Band. It’s been interesting to see how a lot of things that started as kind of solo projects eventually evolve into a full band once you sort of find the right kind of kindred spirits to work with.
DM: Exactly. Yeah, Ripley is an awesome person to work with. And it’s evolving fast with Rose City Band, we’re playing with a full band now. I think especially with COVID, we are all kind of working on things individually in our own homes. It’s a great time to home record and work on material as a solo artist or as an individual. But now things are kind of opening up again. So we want to play together and be with our friends together in a room again.
OS: Do you feel like things are getting back to more of a sense of normalcy? I know that a lot of the time it depends on who you talk to, especially with touring musicians. Some of them are still a lot more hesitant going out on long full tours.
DM: I think so, yeah. We had a really successful two week tour in the UK and all the shows were very well attended and people are just excited to have a band come play in their town. There’s just a lot of excitement and enthusiasm right now. It’s a good time. But I also get that COVID still out there, it hasn’t gone away. But, you know, at least with our band we’re all vaccinated, we’re all pretty careful. I feel like just going forward, you know, it’s based on whatever your comfort level is. I know that a lot of people have pre-existing conditions or have somebody sick at home or whatever. So you need to be more careful, right? I think people should try to be as considerate as possible and stay healthy. We’re just happy to be out playing shows for people.
OS: So, you’ve mentioned that this is sort of a political album, about a choice to eschew mainstream culture, materialism, things of that sort. How did you feel you were able to infuse that message into the music where it’s primarily instrumental?
DM: Well, I’ve been a musician since I was a teenager and, you know, over the years I’ve had a lot of different jobs but music was always my main love, my main passion. But I never really thought of myself as a career or professional musician. Then it got to a point where I’ve been playing music for 25 years now. This really is who I am. This is the constant thread over all the years, no matter what other things I was doing in my life, it’s always been based around making music. I feel like this is my life path, and I didn’t even really realize it until a certain point. And now I’m trying to completely embrace it, so it was kind of a self-realization essentially. All my good friendships and relationships… everything has come out of the music world.
OS: I’m also curious about some of the instrumentation on this album, mainly the use of the flute. What appealed to you about bringing some of those sounds into the mix?
DM: I think more in the conceptual sense it is instrumental music, but I wanted it to have a lyrical quality. It’s still very important to me to have a sense of melody, and I feel like even in the most abstract music I make, there is a melodic component to it. The flute is the thing that’s most like singing or most like a human voice. So I like having that in there to give it more of a lyrical quality.
OS: Yeah, it definitely does come across that way. And I mean, I’ve noticed that in Future Times too, where you try to incorporate other musical voices so that it wasn’t just an album of you playing guitar.
DM: Yeah, I didn’t really want to do that. It’s funny because guitar is my main instrument but I don’t listen to a lot of solo guitar music. I like more collaborative music and I’m more into piano and saxophone. I’ve even messed around on clarinet and sax. I really want to continue incorporating more of that. One thing that a lot of friends have pointed out is that it’s a little bit like Miles Davis, who’s one of my big heroes and role models. I don’t think my music sounds anything like Davis, but the type of color and texture that he’s always been able to add to music, because Miles’s trumpet playing is really sparse. And I love that just mild, less is more, approach to it.
OS: So I absolutely loved the video for the song “Hidden Path”. You really captured the atmosphere and it ties in with the record. How did the concept for that come together?
DM: Well, a lot of that I have to credit Dustin again. He’s a great video artist and he’s actually directed two videos for me – he did one for my last album, for the song Modern Ruins. We have very similar artistic taste and vision, so we just work well together. When we were on tour with Rose City Band, we played in the Redwoods in Arcata and Northern California, which is where I grew up before moving to Portland. So, the opening of the video and the closing of the video both were filmed in California. Then the rest, I wanted to highlight us playing in my little home studio in my basement, show the way we work and how we make our music. Kind of bringing it back home and then bringing it to my current home. I don’t know if you’ve been able to spend time in Northern California at all but you should put that on your bucket list. Yeah, there’s a really cool little college town called Arcata. And that whole area is just incredible. It’s the last area of untouched old growth. All that’s been logged everywhere on the West Coast, and there’s just a couple state parks where John Muir back in the early 1900s convinced the government to preserve that land. And it’s incredible.