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To retract and expand 

Raleigh duo Phon is a study in getting small to sound big

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Listen to "Boneless Giants" from Phon's new album The Orm. If you cannot see the music player below, click here to download the free Flash Player.

click to enlarge "Have you seen my black cord?" Phon's Drew Robertson (left) and Dustin Dorsey - PHOTO BY ROBERT SHANKS
  • Photo by Robert Shanks
  • "Have you seen my black cord?" Phon's Drew Robertson (left) and Dustin Dorsey

On its debut LP, The Orm, Phon is a dynamic symphony of the aggregated mundane: Entire 10-minute passages are amplified tides, roaring and washing, breaking and cascading; whispers of captured and recalibrated wind float beneath and above, breathing, flowing, living, occupying ostensibly empty space; mechanical clicks, scratches and gears shift and grind. It's the world in languid motion, real-time distended, cracked and re-concentrated in esoteric algorithms. It's huge, consuming, fascinating.

But Phon is not a symphony. Phon is a duo, a pair of 20-something Raleigh friends, Dustin Dorsey and Drew Robertson. Along with producer and engineer Tim Iseler, they are the sole conductors and major deities in their own universe built on sound. And, despite the voluminous sprawl and colossal breadth of its aesthetic, Phon has been an exercise entirely centered in learning restraint.

"We had two of the best drummers in town, and they both wanted to play bass," chuckles Robertson, referencing the band's early practices and first performance as Phon precursor The Gaze.

In 2003, The Gaze made its debut at the second Superfest--a biennial southwest Raleigh rock party deep in wooded suburbs--as a quartet: The Ladderback and Valient Thorr drummer Jason Aylward and current STRANGE drummer Brian Donohoe alternated between the kit and the bass, but both were eager to step away from their customary instrument. That was their first and last show with The Gaze.

But Dorsey and Robertson kept playing. They had met in 2001 after Dorsey arrived in town from Michigan and started buying obscure experimental albums at Crooked Beat, the record store where Roberston worked. Their first conversation included talk of starting a band. They became roommates and started building The Gaze for a duo format.

"It was suddenly like, 'Oh my god, we have to fill an entire set, and there are only two of us now,'" says Robertson. In the beginning, Robertson admits to a maniacal obsession with gadgetry: Guitar pedals and children's toys altered with audio pickups--or, better still, anything capable of rendering an unorthodox sound--became a piece in the toolkit.

And it was very much a toolkit: Early Gaze gigs were about conciously building a sturdy edifice of sound--a notion that runs counter to the beginnings of most experimental projects. Instead of improvising and turning the best precipitants into loose themes for pieces, The Gaze was immediately about structure: They collected very specific samples and timed sets around them, accompanying them with video sequences. It was arranged and structured, orchestrated to rise slowly, peak without notice and come down into a coelacanth torpor.

As they started to play more shows and consider making an album, The Gaze changed its name. After all, Gaze had been a Canadian band signed to K Records during the late '90s, and they didn't want people to arrive expecting indie pop glee. "We also didn't want to be a one-joke band," says Dorsey, himself a descendent of pun-based Michigan bands Beowulf Scantron Test and Señor Cummypants.

In October 2004, now as Phon, Robertson and Dorsey packed their gear into a van and headed to Chicago. Tim Iseler, Dorsey's Beowulf bandmate at Western Michigan University, had left Kalamazoo a month after graduation in 2001 and become an intern at SOMA, the legendary studio owned by Tortoise and Gastr del Sol drummer John McEntire. Within a month, Iseler had been hired as the sole full-time engineer at SOMA. When the studio went unbooked (especially when McEntire was on tour), Iseler had permission to use it for personal work.

Iseler had never seen Phon play, and he had met Robertson only briefly in North Carolina. In Chicago, Iseler hit record and Phon played its set. The band came home and self-released it as The Gaze EP.

click to enlarge Dorsey (left) and Robertson - PHOTO BY IAN MERRITT
  • Photo by Ian Merritt
  • Dorsey (left) and Robertson

Nine months later, they had returned to Chicago. This time they flew, forcing Dorsey and especially Robertson to minimize their gear. That reduced approach was a reflection of their redirected sound: Dorsey and Robertson had stopped planning gigs and started approaching each show as a chance for discovery. This time, they recorded with the same philosophy.

"We went into the second session at SOMA blind," says Dorsey.

"Yeah, we actually thought, 'Let's not come up with ideas for what we want to do when we get there.' We just did it," echoes Robertson.

Surprisingly, that approach fit with Iseler's more proactive work for the second session.

He had several ideas for the recording, and--because Phon had few notions about what they wanted to sound like--it worked.

"I tried to anticipate stuff. The first time, I was treating what they were playing as their set and we would just take the best parts and edit them together," Iseler says from Chicago. "The second time, I was trying to anticipate what might be cool."

Iseler explored non-traditional recording techniques, combining signals from Roberton's and Dorsey's guitar amps and running them through a bass amp in a room separate from the space they were using. As he recorded their real-time work, Iseler simultaneously fed the sound through a dynamic series of effects. Later, he and the band mixed those channels together to make The Orm.

After all the early reductions, Robertson--who actually threw his sound-making children's toys in a dumpster--says Iseler, who released The Orm on his record label, is an essential addition for making a small band sound so large: "He's actively on every track. When we're recording, we consider Tim a third member."

Phon plays the CD release party for The Orm at Bickett Gallery in Raleigh on Saturday, Sept. 30 at 9 p.m. Felt Battery and Trapdoor, WI open. The Orm is available at www.iselercommunication.com/recordings.

See also: The Orm record review by Brian Howe.

More by Grayson Haver Currin

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