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At some of their live shows, All Tiny Creatures play in the dark. When they do, the Madison electronic band creates an environment ripe for contemplation. They place lights near their feet, making their instruments glow like angels' harps.
Onstage, front man Thomas Wincek starts loops with a foot pedal connected to a computer while the rest of the band watches intently for cues. Guitarist Andrew Fitzpatrick is usually the only musician using a traditional instrument, one with analog parts. Even drummer Ben Derickson plays a machine at times. After an arm injury, he was forced to give his sticks a rest but unlocked a multitude of space-age possibilities by introducing the device to the live show.
Technologically inclined, All Tiny Creatures are obsessed with precision and technique. "Their music often gets compared to [pioneering minimalist composer] Steve Reich because it has this meticulous thing going on," says Sara Padgett Heathcott, co-founder of the Portland, Ore., record label Hometapes. The label is home to All Tiny Creatures, as well as acclaimed indie acts like Megafaun and Stars Like Fleas. "What grabbed me back in the day was how the meticulous nature of the music is a door to something else. It let my brain swim around."
This mighty quartet of multi-instrumental men is transforming the rock 'n' roll landscape, scoring stellar write-ups on Pitchfork and killing it at South by Southwest three years in a row. Hometapes releases All Tiny Creatures' full-length debut, Harbors, on March 29. The band performs at the Frequency April 8.
"They're constantly pushing the limits of their musical brains," Heathcott says of the group, which played its first Madison show in May 2008. "And there's an intense work ethic and a desire to create no matter what."
Drawing on the members' love of Krautrock and electronic music, All Tiny Creatures began as an instrumental project that layered laptop compositions and synth licks with the rocking sounds of live guitar, bass and drums. A demo of the music wound up in Heathcott's hands.
"I listened to that demo over and over and over and over," says Heathcott, who arrived in Portland with husband and label cofounder Adam after stints in Savannah and elsewhere. "It really stuck with me. When I moved to Portland, I'd work to it. It was my favorite thing in the world."
Wincek's vision for the band began to take shape, both in recordings and onstage. "It used to be me coming up with compositional ideas and asking other people to play them," he says. "Now the band has its own sound and is writing more collaboratively. I think the sound's become more accessible, too."
Heathcott and the Hometapes crew decided to catalog the band's metamorphosis as it happened, releasing two mixtapes, An Iris and Glass Bubbles. All Tiny Creatures also has released an EP, Segni, and they recorded a Christmas track, "Kites," for Hometapes' holiday sampler disc, I'll Be Hometapes for Christmas. "Kites" is based on the Truman Capote story "A Christmas Memory."
One change occurred when the band began to incorporate vocals. On the mixtapes, a series of guest vocalists do the singing, including Roberto Carlos Lange, of Helado Negro and Epstein, as well as Wisconsin indie superstar Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver.
But the band can't bring a vanload of vocalists on a road trip that includes upcoming stops in Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and Louisville, as well as a stint this week at South by Southwest in Austin. So members of All Tiny Creatures - who aren't trained vocalists - sing the parts, imagining the vocals as instruments rather than words set to music.
According to Heathcott, this approach puts a new frame on the band's sound. "You realize how creative they are when you watch them do this," she says. "It's really cool to see how they take these vocalists' choices and make them a part of the music, not just something pasted on as an afterthought. It asks a whole lot of new questions."
The songs on Harbors started as musical ideas, not lyrical ones. "Either Tom or I usually come up with some musical material and have an electronic drum part we use for the time being in whatever recording program we're using," says guitarist Fitzpatrick. "Eventually, Ben will rerecord the drum part with the drum kit and keep the spirit of what the scratch part was but add his own unique style."
Among the new tracks, highlights include "Glass Bubbles," in which loops of guitar mingle with bouncy layers of synth, hinting at a Caribbean party one moment and a lost Talking Heads tape another. These instruments create a warm blanket of sound that envelops guest singer Ryan Olcott's soft, almost-whispered vocals. They bring the tune into dream-pop territory, with lyrics about hands in pockets and staring out windows.
Then there's "An Iris," featuring a lush instrumental haze and soaring falsetto vocals slightly reminiscent of "Angel" by the Virgin Prunes' Gavin Friday. Sung by Justin Vernon, "An Iris" created a buzz among bloggers and critics at Stereogum and Pitchfork when those websites previewed it late last year.
Contemplate All Tiny Creatures' personnel, and you might imagine a Venn diagram laid over a map of the indie-music hub that is Eau Claire, Wis. That's because members of All Tiny Creatures have close ties to Eau Claire sensations like Megafaun and Bon Iver.
There is, for example, the band Volcano Choir. All Tiny Creatures' Thomas Wincek and Matthew Skemp are members, and so is Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. Then there's the Madison/Milwaukee supergroup Collections of Colonies of Bees. Wincek used to be a Bee, Skemp still is, and other members belong to Volcano Choir.
Meanwhile, Skemp and Creatures guitarist Fitzpatrick jam side by side in the Talking Heads tribute Houses in Motion, which packs the High Noon Saloon with dancing groupies on a regular basis.
What brought all these people together? A glove.
"For my senior show, I had made a turntable glove, which had phonograph styluses on all the fingers," recalls Wincek, who was attending school at the Art Institute of Chicago while his wife-to-be, Megan, was studying in Eau Claire.
"I made instruments and stuff in the art and tech department at school, and my project was this sound installation thing with a performance. It turns out Brad [Cook] from Megafaun was there with his cousin and stumbled upon it. I remember this giant dude sitting on a bench, freaking out the whole time, and it turned out he was friends with Megan, which we discovered later."
Wincek moved to Eau Claire soon afterwards, and Cook discovered through the grapevine - and the local alt-weekly newspaper - that the artist who'd blown his mind in the Windy City was part of his social network. The two quickly connected and began making music with Megafaun's Joe Westerlund, which led to projects and parties with Bon Iver's Vernon and numerous other musicians.
Soon Wincek joined Skemp in Collections of Colonies of Bees, and after that band released its 2008 album, Birds, it spawned Volcano Choir with Vernon.
Skemp and Fitzpatrick had teamed up even earlier, as high school bandmates in La Crosse and as Houses in Motion collaborators in 2004. But it was an Eau Claire connection that drew Fitzpatrick to Wincek and, ultimately, to the Creatures.
"I went to college in Eau Claire, and my wife was good friends with Megan [Wincek], but we didn't really connect until he moved to Minneapolis and I moved to Madison," says Fitzpatrick. "At my wedding, he approached me and said, 'Hey, I'm starting a band. You want to play guitar?' I was really into the music he was making, so of course I said yes."
Wincek recruited drummer Derickson, a childhood friend from jazz camp. That completed the foursome.
Thanks to a handy connection to a Japanese label, Wincek and Skemp rocked Japan last November - but not as All Tiny Creatures. Their agglomera tions Volcano Choir and Collections of Colonies of Bees joined forces for a tag-team tour.
Despite his success in the U.S., Justin Vernon has yet to make a major splash in Japan. In fact, Collections of Colonies of Bees are probably the better-known act, with a well-received Japanese release under their belts.
"When we travel there, we're on equal footing, which is kind of weird," Wincek says of touring with Vernon. "And we hadn't even played live as Volcano Choir until Tokyo, which is even weirder."
When All Tiny Creatures tour, Fitzpatrick serves as group historian, toting a Sony Clear Voice tape recorder to each show, diner and airport, whether the gang's traveling to Texas or New Jersey. "He gets all of these weird sounds and stitches them together," Wincek explains. "It's sort of an abstract representation of what happened during the tour."
Fans can listen to these travelogues on the All Tiny Creatures website, and while they're there, they can check out the vivid cover art of Harbors, which was created by Portland-based artist Aaron Draplin. The packaging of Harbors - which, in its LP version, features colored vinyl and a luxurious gatefold album - was largely the brainchild of Hometapes' Heathcott. She worked in advertising and also was the singer for the early screamo band To Dream of Autumn, so merging cool tunes and super-creative marketing ideas is what she does.
"We're really proud of being able to honestly measure up to the music with the packaging," she says. "Our goal is to translate what the bands are doing with everything about it. This one really delivers and enhances the All Tiny Creatures experience." And, she adds, "it's completely badass."
Still, even though their new album is a triumph of visual design, All Tiny Creatures sometimes plays in the dark. In a musical universe full of visual stimuli, from Lady Gaga's risqué costumes to Lil Jon's diamond-studded teeth, these guys are completely confident and creative rocking out in T-shirts amid the shadows.
"I know these guys would still be making amazing music without Hometapes, and they'd still be compelled to be creative if they didn't have any equipment," says Heathcott. "That's the stuff real musicians are made of."