Jesse Hall of Experimental Dental School
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Experimental Dental School’s name is forbidding—listening to music, after all, should be a more pleasant or interesting pursuit than tooth maintenance—but the Portland, Ore., duo doesn’t do much to frighten. The band’s newest album, Forest Field, is its most accessible, with plenty of hooks for every unnerving breakdown. And while drummer Shoko Horikawa’s pixie voice makes for frequent Deerhoof comparisons, the band’s overarching sense of chaos helps to dismiss those comparisons just as handily. In advance of a show at Market Hotel on Sept. 12, The A.V. Club spoke to singer-guitarist Jesse Hall about dropping a member, giving away an album, and the comforts of recording in the basement.
The A.V. Club: You and Shoko have been making music for almost a decade now. How did you first meet?
Jesse Hall: We went to school together in a small town called Chico, about three hours north of San Francisco. I had put up a flyer that was really more like an art project—it was covered in wires and glitter—and it said, “Noise person wanted.” Shoko said “I could do noise.” And we started playing music. She ended up preferring the organ to making just pure noise—she’s got a very natural musical sense, so we gravitated towards that.
AVC: What were your shared musical touchstones at that time?
JH: We were total opposites. I had been playing just pure noise, a lot of it. Shoko had just come from Japan—I think she liked Yo La Tengo or something. So we’ve really influenced each other in a lot of ways.
AVC: Do you see Experimental Dental School as principally a noise project or a rock project?
JH: I don’t see it as a noise project at all. Maybe at one time it was. I like to think of us as a pop band or a rock band. I really love pop music, so making good songs is my first love and priority.
AVC: Well, yours are some fairly off-kilter pop songs.
JH: I guess that’s just something that happens—it’s not something that we can control. As soon as we start making a song that’s really straightforward, or that follows a standard pop structure, we either get bored or it’s just not acceptable to us. I don’t know if we’ll ever make a normal record.
AVC: Forest Field is the band’s first full-length as a duo. What is your collaborative process like?
JH: It’s much easier to make songs as a duo, because we only have to meet with one other mind. To one degree or another, I’ve always thought of us as kind of existing on an island. When we lived in Chico, we didn’t have a lot of outside influences, and now we live in an outer part of Portland. We go down into our basement and make music just for ourselves, to a large degree. That hopefully leads to something that is a unique expression of our personalities.
AVC: What motivated you to move to Portland?
JH: It’s cheap. We figured if we’re ever going to be able to make a living doing music, it’s not going to be in a city where we’re constantly working to pay rent. We were in Oakland, and even in Oakland—in one of the roughest parts of town—it was still really expensive. We moved up here to Portland, and it just seems like everybody does what they want.
AVC: Speaking of creative freedom, you’re giving away Forest Field on your website. What was the rationale behind that decision?
JH: I thought it was kind of aligned with my thinking all along. The music reaches out a little further, and I think the fact that more people are being exposed to it means we get a lot more feedback from that. Also, people appreciate the act of giving something away.
AVC: Now that you’ve given away an album, have you thought about moving away from the album form as a means of releasing your music?
JH: I find that idea to be really exciting. Forest Field came about because it was really cheap and easy to make. We got some modest but quality recording equipment and recorded it in the basement. So the thought that I could have an idea, write a song, and give it away a couple of weeks later is a really awesome thing to me. But an album makes a little bit more of a package that can be, well, promoted. But I would like to give away single songs too.
AVC: Were there other considerations besides cost that led you to record at home?
JH: We had been in studios before—fancy studios. The labels paid for it, but there were always time pressures, and that’s not an organic way to make music. It’s like talking with somebody and saying, “Okay, let’s hurry up and have a great conversation.” You just can’t force something like that.
AVC: On the flip side, someone might say that constraint is conducive to focus.
JH: Yeah, that’s true. I like the approach the jazz greats would take—three takes and that’s it. The problem is if you want to flesh out and explore something you haven’t done before, it might take a little more time. We can go down in our basement every day for hours and record, and still have the luxury of saying, “Hey, let’s rip out half of this song and redo it.” That’s the benefit.
AVC: Do you anticipate keeping the basement studio for the foreseeable future?
JH: I don’t know. The number one reason we moved to Portland was to have a basement. Literally: We moved for a basement, that’s it. There are other cities I’d like to explore, and I wouldn’t mind trying to live in other places. I think Tokyo would be exciting. I really like Berlin. We may go visit Russia next year. I don’t know if we would stay in Portland, but we do have our little island in the basement.