Oregon rain isn't enough to darken Slater Smith’s spirit. Under the name of The Weather Machine, his songs seem to always find a ray of light. After the promising debut album “Mr. Pelton’s Weather Machine”, the new record “The Weather Machine” is the confirmation of an amazing talent in storytelling.
From the college years in the Salem’s Willamette University to the Portland’s musical community, Slater Smith tell us about the transformation of The Weather Machine from solo project to a full band. And about his personal secret to chase the clouds away with a smile.
First of all, could you tell us the story of the Willamette University’s weather machine that inspired the band’s name?
“The Weather Machine” was actually a name a friend of mine came up with. In fact, it’s the shortened version of the original name for the project – “Mr. Pelton’s Weather Machine”. The weather in Salem is rotten, but somehow every year during Spring visitation day for prospective students, the weather was always nice. A joke started circulating around campus that President Pelton had sold his soul for a weather machine. It could be the worst, rainiest weather the day before Spring visits, but somehow the next day was beautiful without fail from year to year.
During the campus music festival, my friend Kate thought that “President Pelton’s Weather Machine” would make a great band name. I did too, so I asked her if I could use the name and went from there. I shortened it because it got a bit confusing when it was still a solo project. People would start thinking I was Mr. Pelton, or they’d get the name mixed up. I can’t tell you how many times people would say something like, “What was the name? Mr. Whose-its Wonder Emporium?”. After a few months I shortened it to “The Weather Machine”, but it still makes a fun story.
How did today's line-up of your band come together?
I had been interested in turning the project into a full band effort for some time. There were four key musicians involved in the actual recording process – myself playing guitar and singing, Colin Robson on bass and guitars, Matthew Cartmill on cello, and my younger brother Tanner Smith on drums. Now that the recording process is over, we’ve added a few more musicians, making it a five-piece band. Since Tanner goes to college in Boston, we recruited Corey Kintzi for live shows, and added on my college friend Jack Martin on bass. Jack is also a great songwriter in his own right and plays in a duo called Booty & The Bandit.
I met Colin about a year ago at an open mic in a little town called Pacific City on the Oregon coast. He was running the open mic as a way to keep himself busy while he was renovating an old garage to turn into a recording studio. Colin had moved to Pacific City from New York to build the studio and launch a business called Kiwanda Sound. We became fast friends, and we thought it would be a good idea to make The Weather Machine record the studio’s first album. This project would have been impossible without Colin. He’s also joined the band since, and plays lead guitar.
My brother Tanner plays drums on the record. We basically locked him in the studio for the first week after he arrived home from Boston on winter vacation. He does great work, and he’s one of the best musicians I know. Because Tanner had to return to school, we recruited Corey to play live with us. He is a recent graduate from Portland State University’s jazz program, and has been an amazing fit for the band. We met after I asked a mutual musician friend whether he knew any good drummers. It turned out that he did. It’s been a pleasure getting to know Corey since, and it’s been a ton of fun playing music together.
Matt Cartmill, our cello player, has been a good friend of mine for years. We went to high school together in a small town called Sisters, Oregon. In those days we didn’t collaborate much musically – I was just learning guitar and I don’t think he even discovered the cello yet. Since leaving Sisters, though, we have played a lot together. Matt also played cello on Mr. Pelton’s Weather Machine. He currently lives in Eugene, Oregon and is finishing up a bachelor’s degree in Spanish Language. He performs with us whenever he can make it up to Portland.
Last but not least is Jack Martin. Jack plays bass for The Weather Machine and is a great person to have in the band. He is trained primarily as a guitarist, but he’s a very smart musician and has transitioned to the bass beautifully. Jack and I both attended Willamette University, but we didn’t become friends in earnest until we both graduated and ended up in Portland. Jack reached out to me when he moved to town, and it happened to be just as Colin and I were finishing up the record. If you listen to the end of “Over All The Land” you can hear Jack play a guitar solo on the final outro. The voice at the end of the song is Jack talking as well, and you can hear him sing harmonies in “Little Surrender”.
How was the recording and the production of the new album?
The recording process was amazing! It was also exhausting. I was working in Portland two days a week, and would make the two-hour drive back and forth to and from the coast. I spent two months living that way, and have only recently made the transition back into Portland-life-as-usual.
The production was an interesting and new challenge. Unlike a lot of projects where everything is planned out before hand, we were writing all the parts as we went. I had the bones already in the form of acoustic guitar and lyrics, but these songs had never been performed with a band. It was like putting a puzzle together and trying a bunch of pieces out to see what fit. We started with Tanner, who wrote his drum parts after we laid down scratch tracks, then we brought in Matt shortly after. Tanner and Matt really helped dictate a direction for the record, and I’m very glad we brought them in in the order that we did.
What difference do you feel from your previous record?
The first project, “Mr. Pelton’s Weather Machine”, was very bare bones. I recorded it in a week with a few friends in a barn. We had very little time and no money. My goal had been to leave with something that I could hand to people, but I wasn’t concerned with making it sound perfect. There are places where the timing’s off, where there’s too much reverb, and so on. Nonetheless, when I picked the songs to put on that record, I picked songs that I thought would sound good rough and raw – I think it adds to that project’s charm.
“The Weather Machine” on the other hand sounds a little more like what I’ve been dreaming of making for years. I have an odd contradiction in musical tastes – both a deep love for folk songs, and very strong roots in indie and alternative rock. I grew up listening to bands like White Stripes, Strokes, Modest Mouse and Killers. When my family moved to Sisters I was exposed to a wide array of folk and folk-revival artists through the Sisters Folk Festival. I started listening to musicians like Ryan Adams, Anaïs Mitchell, The Tallest Man On Earth and Josh Ritter. With The Weather Machine, I like to think that I’m bringing those two worlds together. I think this new record is a step in that direction.
Why did you include new versions of "Leviathans Get Lonely" and "Back O'er Oregon"?
I decided to rerecord those two songs to breathe some new life into them. I think the stripped down acoustic versions on “Mr. Pelton’s Weather Machine” are still valuable, but I wanted to see what else we could do with the songs. In my mind, “Leviathans Get Lonely” had always been a full band song. It was meant as a lighthearted commentary on Occupy Wall Street, and I wanted to rerecord it while that movement was still fresh. In my mind it had always needed to sound fuller and more playful. We had a lot of fun rerecording it. The vocal effects were meant to mimic a megaphone, and the drum-shuffle makes the song sit somewhere between punk rock and country.
For “Back O’er Oregon” I was excited to see what we could do to subtly add texture. We borrowed a lot from Josh Ritter’s “So Runs the World Away” on this song. A lot of reverbed guitars and cello drones gave the song a wonderful new flavor. This song is an important one to me, and I wanted to do it justice.
I hope to one day revisit all the songs from “Mr. Pelton’s Weather Machine” with the new band. I love all of the songs on that record, and it would be fun to keep them and update them for future albums.
Could you tell us something more about the three-act story of Skeleton Jack?
“Skeleton Jack” is a song I wrote back in high school. I wanted to record it ever since I wrote the song, but it wasn’t until this new record that I had developed the right skills and acquired the resources to make it happen.
The first song, “Act I”, came about as I was playing with ideas surrounding divinity and fairytales. I had envisioned Jack as a sort of king of fairytales since the name shows up in so many stories and sayings – “Jack And Jill”, “Jack Be Nimble Jack Be Quick”, “Jack And The Beanstalk”, etc. I eventually got this idea into my head that it would be interesting to make this Jack character immortal. Because Jack steals from the devil, he can neither be sent to heaven or hell because he’d done good for heaven by hurting the devil (and thus couldn’t be punished by heaven for it), but he had still sinned in that he stole (so he couldn’t get into heaven). This is the context in which the three act play out.
“Act III - Alexei Mikhail” was actually the next song I wrote in the series, but I didn’t do so until years later. In this song, Jack murders a man in a bar fight (but before Jack is a skeleton), and the victim miraculously wakes up in the body of a wounded soldier. The idea is that to take revenge on Jack, the devil saves the soul of a man vengeful against Jack. The narrator in “Alexei Mikhail” then spends his days hunting Jack down.
I wrote “Act II” to explain the connection between the two plot lines. “Act II” is called “Chorus” because it serves the same purpose as a chorus in ancient Greek plays. Choruses were voices outside of the cast of characters used to give hints and explanations as to what was going on behind the scenes, or to give insight into the themes surrounding the story.
Aside from that, there are a ton of little hidden kernels throughout the three acts. For instance, the cracked crown is from “Jack And Jill,” the golden violin is a reference to the song “Devil Went Down To Georgia” and the name Alexei Mikhail carries symbolic importance. In addition, there is still some mystery surrounding the characters - the listener never learns Alexei’s real name, and there is no way to know whether the narrators in “Act I” and “Act III” are the same person. Matt also had the idea to use the cello as a sort of storytelling tool to tie the three songs together, which I think added a ton of character to the Skeleton Jack series.
In your lyrics there’s always a lot of irony. For you what's the secret to telling a story with a smile?
I don’t know if there’s any one secret for writing songs, but I do know that I can always tell I’m writing a good song if I find myself laughing. That’s not to say a song needs to be funny to be good, I just have noticed that whenever I am writing my best songs get really giddy and start chuckling.
When it comes to irony, I think that comes across because I tend to take things I find boring or cliché and turn them on their head. “Skeleton Jack” is a good example of reimagining a narrative cliché (a fairy tale), and I think “Puppet” does a good job of twisting somewhat cliché imagery. It took a long time for me to learn to write a good love song, and it wasn’t until I learned to laugh at myself and at the wonderful absurdities of romance that I could write songs like “Puppet”, “Leviathans Get Lonely”, or even “SuperFolk”. I don’t really ever sit down to write and say, “I’m going to be ironic today”, it just sort of happens as I play with ideas. I think if I tried to premeditate it, the songs wouldn’t be much good.
Do you have any favourite place or time to write a song?
It really depends on where I’m at in my life. I’ve had spaces that I’ve loved to write in that have become stale over the years, so new settings are always good and creatively freeing. As for time? Unfortunately I tend to end up writing some of the best stuff at two or three in the morning. I think there’s something about sleep deprivation that can kill the filters in the head. At night, you’re also forced to be alone with your thoughts, so there are fewer distractions.
Recently, I wrote a song on a nighttime walk. It was the first time I’d ever done this. It actually worked really well. There were no distractions, just turning over lyrics in my head to the rhythm of footsteps. I need to try that more.
What do you think about the local music scene in Oregon? Do you feel part of it?
I really love the music communities in Oregon. I grew up in Sisters, Oregon around the Sisters Folk Festival, and now since being in Portland I’ve started to meet a circle of some great musicians. What I would say about the music "scene" is that it can be easy to think you have to "find" an existing one, but in a town like Portland, there are so many great musicians and such a great community feeling that I’ve found it’s almost better to create your own circle of musician friends. This has definitely been a huge part of forming the band, and I’m meeting more and more great people every day. Portland is really a wonderful town – there’s not as much money as there is in Seattle or LA, but it also gives musicians an opportunity to build from the ground up on their own terms.
What are in your opinion the best and the worst things about being on stage?
I love being on stage. It’s why I decided to play music for a living. I can’t really think of any bad things about it. I will say it is much more fun to be on stage once you embrace making mistakes. I almost look forward to screwing up on stage, because it gives me an opportunity to connect in a different way to the audience. As long as you give people a good grin, and they know what’s up, every mistake can become a performance opportunity.
You released "The Weather Machine" with a Kickstarter campaign. From social media to crowdfunding, what do you think about the chance for the artists to promote their music in the digital era?
I think music is in a very interesting place. At no other time in history has it been so cheap to make very high quality recordings and spread them on the internet. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s easier for artists to record and promote themselves, and they can function better as entrepreneurs. On the other hand, this means that musicians are expected to do a lot of work up front before labels will look at them, and it means there is a lot more competition and white noise to compete against.
Having said all that, I think crowdfunding is a great tool if used responsibly. During an age where the is so much recorded music, and a time when musicians have to literally give their songs out for free to get ahead, crowd funding makes it possible for people to pay not only for music, but to be part of the creative experience. By giving to KickStarter or Indie Gogo, fans and friends can help create the project instead of simply helping musicians cover their costs after the fact. It gives people a reason to pay for music again.
If you could collaborate with any other artist, from today or from the past, who would you choose (and why)?
Jack White, hands down. I have a lot of musical heroes, but he was the first. While his lyrics don’t always hit home (though they often do), the attitude always does.