Five years ago, the seven-piece ensemble squeezed into a green Dodge Caravan and embarked upon their first month-long tour. The group, a band of seventeen and eighteen year olds, slept on strangers’ floors and fixed sandwiches in grocery store parking lots. They made sure to eat lots of fresh fruit. It was those long car rides, though, with teenage knees pressed against bench seats and trombone cases at their feet, that first stirred the band to think of more than open house parties and upcoming college courses in the fall.
Two dead vans, ten self-booked national tours, and six member changes later, Anathallo finds themselves in new territory. What began as an earnest after-school post-punk experiment has since expanded outward, crossing genres with an ever-increasing sense of purpose, risk, and fluidity. The group’s steady transformation from their initially awkward and unsure beginning can be witnessed in their now intensely celebratory and theatrical indie rock meets ‘marching band gone wild’ performance. And while still relying on the floors of friends (not to mention the sandwich supplies and fresh produce of America’s grocers), Anathallo faces a new beginning with the release of their first full-length album, Floating World, this summer.
Built upon the foundation of four previously self-released albums, Floating World is the latest stage of a mish-mash progression--the capstone work of a half-decade’s worth of musical exploration. Reigning in the seven members’ many influences, Floating World is the product of the ensemble’s interest in pairing textural choral and chamber melodies with dark orchestral horn arrangements, pinning the 3/4 meter of a Russian piano waltz against the sparse and organic textural qualities of Velcro and socket wrenches. The “anything goes” aesthetic of the largely self-recorded album finds the band dipping their toes in many different pools, a challenging yet cohesive effort. Moving from the meditative entrance of Gennesaret to the earnestly vulnerable silence of Kasa No Hone (The Umbrella’s Bones), the record functions as a whole, interweaving themes to create a dark, sincerely joyful, and, at times, humorous collection of songs.
Transferred to the stage, Floating World is carried out by seven multi-instrumentalist band members, a precise and intricately woven performance that spills over with youthful energy. Some members focus mainly on the standard conventions of guitar, bass, and drums, while others (often in a frenzy, rushing from station to station) carry out each of the songs more peculiar needs: some juggling percussion with trombone, others glockenspiel with flugelhorn, and others still piano with melodica. With their bodies sprawled across a stage book-ended with dumpster-retrieved drums, Anathallo gives a nod to performance art and reveals some sly – perhaps even subconscious – influences from musical theatre.
Though this album has much of its thematic genesis in East Asian folk tradition (the Japanese folktale Hanasakajiijii serves as the collections’ overarching narrative), Anathallo aurally inhabits much of the new Americana territory that songwriting stalwarts like Sufjan Stevens and The Decemberists are already mining. At the same time, Anathallo’s tendency to experiment with forms and styles also demonstrates a certain deference for freak-folkers like Animal Collective and The Books.
Written collectively, Floating World is the result of an individually intense yet stubbornly cooperative will. Hours spent arguing over the usefulness of different structures and melodies are simply counted as part of the songwriting process. A democracy at its core, makeshift coalitions can appear from practice to practice; debated chords have been bartered for changed time signatures, key mellotron votes have been traded for the future consideration of bringing marimbas on tour. While this may seem impractical, it’s also for the better. The vibrant energy of Anathallo’s live performances can be traced back to their dedication to functioning as a group.
Interestingly, this reliance between band members has also served to foster a fierce independence that emanates from the group as a whole. For five years, Anathallo naively traveled the country without the help of a booking agent or publicity campaign. Of their four independently recorded releases, three were finished in a mobile home in Indiana. The fourth was done in a friend’s living room. While one was individually hand-painted, another was packaged with dirt and wildflower seeds. Anathallo’s identity, in many ways, then, has centered not only on contentment in creating, but also in fully carrying out their vision.
Floating World, the first release through their own label, Artist Friendship, signifies a new beginning for the band. An imprint of Nettwerk Music Group, Artist Friendship pairs Anathallo's hard-fought for independence with Sony/BMG distribution. The band, however, has not entirely resolved to forfeit their familiar grassroots approach. Pre-orders done for the new record necessitated the transformation of their apartment's kitchen into a burgeoning soap factory. Each copy of Floating World was sent out with a handmade bar of soap encasing Hanasakajiijii's plastic slugs, bugs, and flowers. Artist Friendship is a long articulated vision finally materializing, an attempt to rectify the band's handmade ethos with a national audience - and business.
This collective consciousness, it can be said, is an unlikely artistic outpouring from a sleepy Midwestern locale like the band’s hometown of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, which, in figurative terms, resides worlds away from Omaha or Montreal. Perhaps, though, it’s this geographic estrangement, and an isolated environment which afford the band the pastoral sensibilities that seem so present, realized or not, in their unique expressions of folk art. With the release of Floating World and a full slate of nationally booked tours in the coming year, a larger audience will soon be introduced to the underground’s ecstatic seven-membered marching band: Anathallo.