Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and Doldrums is all tied up in his own microphone lead on stage at Rough Trade East, hitting buttons inside a suitcase and belting out the words to his irrepressibly fun track Anomaly as his brother and co-performer chases a tambourine that’s rolling off the stage. His audience are still and stoic, wryly smiling at his intensely over-played performance and the amount of hair-shaking that’s going on. The audience that he projects with his performance, though – the implied audience – are a raucous crowd. Climbing the walls in response to Doldrums’, aka Canadian musician Airick Woodhead’s, ear-dazzling sounds and riding the wave of his impassioned vocal, they’re a writhing mass in an industrial-sized space, grins plastered on their faces. I can see them in my mind’s eye. But this is a Tuesday afternoon in East London; no one climbs any walls for fear of impoliteness, and the smiles are wry.
“I kind of like to throw a wrench in anyone’s expectations of what a live show means,” Airick tells me later. “I come from a musical family, I’ve been going to shows and playing in bands for most of my life, and the thing that I keep on coming back to is challenging expectations.” It’s a confrontational energy that is to be found all over his new LP, ‘Lesser Evil’, which constantly rattles between wrench-throwing, mechanical noises and softer moments of tuneful reverie. Never content to let his listener think they’ve got him figured out, Airick is all about challenge – it’s part of the very fabric of his record, which consists of could-be-chart-topping pop hooks swathed in layers of experimentation, and it dominates his live show.
Doldrums – Anomaly
As someone who grew up performing – Airick describes the folk-y jams he used to participate in with his family as a child and the DIY punk shows he played as a teenager – he’s completely at ease on the stage, juggling elements of individual songs until they seem to seamlessly weave together into one hyperactive tapestry. The transcendent “oohs” of Anomaly act as a kind of punctuation throughout the set, recurring with more vehemence and a warmer reception from the audience each time. Airick’s spoken before about his debut album, ‘Lesser Evil’, being rooted in the idea of exploring unfamiliar territory, and this sense of discovery is something that permeates his live show. Constantly throwing wind into the sails before reeling it in and throwing down an anchor, half an hour with Doldrums is a lurching journey that veers between comfort and conflict.
Part of me thinks that the surprising androgynous quality to his voice is part of the manipulation of the listener’s expectations, but Airick blasts that idea. “No, I just sing the way I do,” he says, “but the vocals weren’t recorded very well on the album – I just used the laptop mic for some of it…so it probably sounds a little smaller or higher to you.”
Doldrums – She Is The Wave
“[Montreal is like] Power Rangers, there’s like pink ranger, red ranger, each one has their own ability. I feel like they don’t need to homogenise the sound.” – Doldrums
Any preconceptions I had about the album’s concept also fall dead in the water during our conversation – “concept” is a bit of a sore point for Airick, who insists that the idea of a sci-fi world in which people experience an interconnected dreamspace that he described to Pitchfork a while back is not the foundation of ‘Lesser Evil’, though it has been reported that way. He emphasises that each song is its own story, though “a lot of the stories revolve around the same themes, like of alienation or isolation or something. Those were all things that I was feeling when I was travelling by myself.” That sense of being cut loose, being simultaneously freed and a bit terrified of a lack of structure, might not be a deliberate narrative, but it definitely pulsates through the Doldrums sound.
As Airick puts it, “in a way, Doldrums is like anti-Doldrums Doldrums.” Written down this now looks bizarre, but at the time he said those words to me I knew exactly what he meant: the act of writing and performing as Doldrums is a way for him to move himself away from the actual feelings and stories he’s writing about. The coos of Anomaly and the glitches of She Is The Wave were born from a need to find something transcendent and connective to escape loneliness – but in that connective moment when his audience are climbing the walls with him, there’s no loneliness left to cure. “I named the band when I was feeling very stuck and dreaming a lot – trying to escape the doldrums! But I guess it’s worked, because now I’m in a very different place, very busy and having a good time with the band on tour and working on new songs with a more positive outlook. I think everyone needs to experience some kind of revolution or revelation in their own life at a young age, it’s a genetic thing, to push you out of the nest or something.”
That nest, in Airick’s case, is Montreal. Home to countless musicians-of-the-moment, the Canadian city must be an exciting scene to be a part of right now – but, although he agrees, Airick is keen to emphasise that there’s no hegemony in the city, just loads of extremely creative and unique people who happen to be linked by geography. “It’s Power Rangers, there’s like pink ranger, red ranger, each one has their own ability,” he says. “I feel like they don’t need to homogenise the sound…Montreal has a very individual essence.” Elaborating, he describes Grimes as the “pop” star, Majical Cloudz as the “soft crooner”, tripping breathlessly over himself to list the differences between artists. Montreal is a hive of talent, but it’s a space that breeds creativity, rather than a cohesive scene. “I just keep on coming back to how beautiful that is.”
But now, Doldrums is a drifter, tied to his Power Ranger homeland in spirit but crafting his own itinerant identity. When we speak for the first time after his east London appearance, he’s on a rooftop at SXSW, and then, during a follow-up chat a week or so later, he informs me that he’s just about to go to a San Diego beach, where life will be like “a No Doubt video.” Among other changes, this new confident and connected out-of-the-nest lifestyle has lead him to join Twitter, something he was vocal about his disapproval of in the past. “Again, my outlook is changing,” says Airick. “I was a practicing Luddite for many years, ha, no phone or internet, living in a DIY space throwing shows for money, dumpster diving, bike fixing and all that. It feels really good to live off the grid and come to your own conclusions about how to live your life as opposed to just following the herd…Now I’m trying to get more down with interconnectedness and social media and all that.”
Doldrums – Egypt
So how has his outlook changed from seeing Twitter as an overbearing influence to a force for good? “Transparency on the internet and having a Twitter and all that can be an motive to live a little closer to your own ideals I think, rather than being self-conscious about it. Right now I think of touring and everything just like a big reality show; everyone on this trip is pretty insane and it’s quite inspiring. The documenting process doesn’t hinder that at all, but focuses it in a ‘living out front’ kind of Ken Kesey confrontational psych way.”
Again, it comes back to confrontation, with the Doldrums ethos being geared towards thrusting a new way of being, a new way of hearing in an audience’s face. It’s like, stop being so conscious of your environment and just move; Airick’s daring you to forget what you’ve read or what you’ve had beamed at you from your smartphone screen and let some new ideas in. Doldrums is like the anti-Doldrums Doldrums. Get your head around that.