Just days after he plays the Nightlight on Thursday, the Chapel Hill-raised, Greensboro-schooled experimental composer Andrew Weathers will pack his belongings into his Toyota 4Runner and head west, to California. This news still surprises him.
"It's so funny. I never ever pictured myself ever living in California," he admits. "Ever."
With gigs in Boulder and St. Louis and a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City's "Spiral Jetty" along the way, he anticipates making it to Oakland's Mills College in just under a week. He excitedly rattles off the scenery-oriented stopovers. But the destination itself—a school with ties to esteemed experimental figures like Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich and many more—excites Weathers the most. On a recent campus tour, he teared up a little when he encountered the first Buchla Music Easel, an early and essential synthesizer. It will now be part of Weathers' classroom.
"It seems like everyone just interacts with each other, even across disciplines. That really seems to me the main thing that's encouraged, that you don't get into your own head," Weathers says of his new school. Sure, these can be uncomfortable, unlikely collaborations, but he welcomes them. Weathers relishes an environment that keeps artists grounded. That's long been one of the 23-year-old's main musical prerogatives: keeping pretense away from whatever experiments he's pursuing.
For all Mills' significance in experimental music, Weathers doesn't romanticize the West Coast. It was, after all, growing up in Chapel Hill that exposed him to music's fringe, and he celebrates the area. "I didn't realize how special it was until a few years back," the composer says, reminiscing about walking to Cat's Cradle shows at 13. "For most kids, it's a huge effort to go to a rock show."
Without that hurdle, his learning curve was not so steep.
Even as an adult, he laments how very un-Chapel Hill Greensboro has been, music school or no. "I don't play party rock," he says. "You can't just go and have a bunch of beers and hang out and see my music." He has given up on inviting touring sound artists to the city of his schooling, he says. And after his graduation earlier this year, he summarily returned to Chapel Hill, the town that's always held his heart.
As a teenager, he was slow to absorb experimental music. Weathers, who finished high school in 2006, took a more conventional path at first. "I was 15, 16 and playing in a screamo band. I would play at Nightlight and they would put a lot of noisier acts on the bills," Weathers says of some of his earliest exposure to artists like Boyzone. He didn't understand this music, which is part of what excited him and eventually drew him in.
Not many years later, Weathers began to elicit the same reactions—Who is this? What is he doing?—in Chapel Hill's experimental music community. Bryce Eiman and Shaun Sandor, both of the 919 Noise Collective, saw one of Weathers' first solo performances as Pacific Before Tiger, a name he's since abandoned. "I can't remember whom I had come to watch perform," Eiman says. "The opening act, skinny teenager with a guitar and something else, absolutely astonished me."
Months earlier, Weathers had been holed up in an Appalachian State University dorm room, relentlessly researching music equipment. The freshman didn't want to tote around a lot of gear or be bound to performing only with a certain set of tools. He wanted to make the transition from more traditional rock music into more soundscape-oriented work. After experimenting with pedals and circuit bending, Weathers settled on sending his guitar signal through a laptop. When he was 19, he started contacting venues.
The Pacific Before Tiger set typically went like this: Weathers would introduce the project, sit down and pick up his guitar, a red Gibson SG. Over 20 minutes or so, Weathers would build a gentle, harmonious wash from silence into a gorgeous cacophony. It would recede. He would smile and thank his audience. Eiman says his genuine appreciation for his listeners was one of several "characteristics untypical of 'noise guys.'"
His easygoing, though academic approach has been refreshing to older artists. Brian John Mitchell, who runs experimental music label Silber Records, credits Weathers with helping him see that "more cerebral, difficult music is not exclusive to people over 30."
Since dropping the Pacific Before Tiger tag, Weathers has expanded his palette. He started by collaborating one-on-one with musicians like saxophonist Austin Glover on free-form drones. He then built to a full-on ensemble, with which he has toured and recorded two records: We're Not Cautious and A Great Southern City. These days, he balances improvisation and composition, but also incorporates recognizable elements of folk and classical in his pastoral soundscapes. At 23, his list of accomplishments already reads like that of an older, more experienced composer, replete with distinct phases and collaborations.
The motivation for Weathers' fast development ultimately seems quite simple: Dialogue is important to music, he says, and he's bothered by egotism and forced inaccessibility in the experimental music world. In short, he takes a more populist approach—if it doesn't sound good and if the performer doesn't seem sincere, he finds it hard to care.
"I was playing in New York at a free improv series, and this guy got up there with a big baritone sax, a really good, powerful instrument, and he got up there and started talking," remembers Weathers. He was turned off entirely when the sax player bragged that he'd studied with the late Derek Bailey, effectively mooching the late guitarist's clout. He lambastes this behavior as "self-important," reinforcing the stereotype of the humorless avant-garde musician.
"I went to go see David Bazan play," he says, dropping a surprising indie rock reference into a conversation about fringe music. "Every five or six songs, he would stop and go, 'Does anyone have any questions at this point in the set?'"
Weathers would rather have a real conversation with an artist—as Bazan attempted—than attend a preach-and-play. This interest in dialogue has Weathers packing his Toyota in early August and hitting the highway. He sees experimental music as a set of traditions, rather than some freak specimen that exists in a vacuum, and is ready to start in a program dedicated to this nontraditional field. Says Mitchell, "He'll probably be able to help us all more from a newly expanded set of experiences."
But even with his work elevated by his inclusion in this elite school—there are only 75 students in the music program—Weathers isn't that different at 23 than he was at 13. Remembers Sandor, "I worked with a girl that he went to high school with, and she said he was a weird guy, always making music—singer-songwriter stuff—and handing out homemade tapes to everyone." Sandor hopes to get ahold of one of Weathers' early recordings. "Apparently, he was making an impression with his music long before we knew of him."