by Saffron Forsberg
Arts + Culture Editor
art by Saffron Forsberg
[originally published July 2021]
Aaron Dilloway has this way of talking to you, like you’re sardonic old friends, like you’re in on a joke. I hadn’t been to his record store, Hanson Records—a true College St. fixture—since before the pandemic closed its doors. Passing the dollar record crate, and hauling myself up those familiar groaning stairs into that record store smell—surely you know the one: dusty PVC and new record sleeves—I realized I had forgotten how much Hanson’s mere existence had been a source of comfort for me during my first year of college. The store, to my surprise, is humming on a Wednesday afternoon in July. The pink and mint pieces of album art from Aaron’s latest album, Lucy & Aaron, drip and twirl from the ceiling in the open-window breeze. The new album is textural and high-energy. Dalt’s distinctive vocals play with stereo sound, lingering on pressure points amid industrial blipping and thudding. Dilloway’s vocals seem to ooze and writhe on tracks like “Bordeándola.” Somehow, the mingling of approaches is seamless, as fresh pop undercurrents allow for some foot-tapping. The sound feels digestible, yet novel in the way it plays with both artists’ experimental processes. The painting that graces the LPs cover—a melting portrait of collaborators and old friends, Dilloway and Lucrecia Dalt—is a project of artist Pieter Schoolwerth. It’s a spin on classic duet album covers like Nancy & Lee, or Port Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s Together Always—only I doubt Lee Hazelwood ever placed a contact mic in his mouth, as Dilloway does in Schoolwerth’s version.
Aside from the art exhibition, the store seems to sit more-or-less as I’d left it. I mill around as Dilloway shoots some emails, my fingertips landing on TIMARA records, .99 dulcimer albums, and a compilation of underground LA hardcore punk tracks. I’d forgotten just how curated Hanson is: a true college-town gem. And I’m surprised when Dilloway looks up from his computer and tells me he can’t remember anybody from The Grape ever having spoken to him before. Furrowing a brow as I pull a chair up to the counter—see here: charmingly obligatory box of quippy buttons, burbling turntable, assorted wires and cables—I say ”never? I’m surprised.” Bastards.
He shakes his head. “Maybe a show review from The ‘Sco. But that might’ve even been The Review, too. I played a show with Pharmakon. Probably six years ago or so.”
Our voices fill the store, an appropriate accompaniment to the afternoon murmur of downtown Oberlin. I address the elephant in the room.
S: So you’re back. You’re happy to be back, but you also almost weren’t.
AD: Yeah I wasn’t sure. I mean Oberlin’s a tricky town. The summers are always pretty slow because the students are gone. But just with the pandemic...I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be around [laughs] people, very much. And, uh, the art show was kind of our reopening. I realized how much I’ve really missed chatting with people about music up here.
S: Do you think Oberlin is a good place to be at this point? As an artist and a person?
AD: Yeah! Yeah, I think it’s great. Especially for someone like me. I mean I feel really at home here. I grew up in a little farm town outside of Ann Arbor [Brighton], and moved to Ann Arbor, lived there for 10 years. Uh, and this is kind of a mixture. A college town and a little farm town...but it’s like a little tiny town that has an electronic music studio in it. And, y’know, tons of people into interesting art and music. So it’s pretty perfect.
S: Do you think the TIMARA program and that sort of scene in general here has been a good part of living in the town?
AD: Oh yeah, yeah. I love it. I mean the first—I think it was the first week I was here…[electronic composer] Gordon Mumma...was here. He was giving a talk. And I went to that. And he was showing all these Super 8 films of him and [experimental composer] Pauline Oliveros. And uh, yeah, home movies. They were home movies of his. He would document a lot of stuff and, um, I was just like ‘oh my god, this place is incredible.’
S: [I’m taken aback, as you can imagine.] Oh wow. Yes. Such a strange little bubble.
AD: Yeah. And over the years, it took me a little while to get to know [conservatory professor] Tom, but yeah, they’re great...I didn’t go to college; I’m not really an academic...so I’m a little shy sometimes. There was a professor here, Per Bloland who was a former TIMARA professor. And we would hang out quite a bit and uh—I can’t remember if he was over at my house—but one day I was, like, filing records and I was going through these old ‘70s electronic music studio records and I was like ‘man, it’d be really cool if Oberlin did one of these’, and, y’know, kind of—yeah. [He gestures to a stack of TIMARA records behind me. I didn’t have to ask.] Because I’d like to be more involved with the school. So I mentioned that to him…’you think Tom would ever be up to doing a record of student and professor works?’ and it took about three years and then Per, unfortunately, was gone by then but, uh, yeah so we did that first TIMARA LP. And we did another one. And hopefully they’ll be a third.
S: That’s such a great idea. That’s such a great way of documenting; it’s almost like a yearbook [laughs].
S: So, do you think you’ve had a good relationship with students over the years? Because it feels very cyclical. People come and go.
AD: Yeah it’s hard...there was a crew I was really tight with...like Adrian Rew; I ended up putting out a record for him. But he was, like, this is way back before I even had the shop and I just ran the label as just an online distro for noise and experimental, and he was like my assistant. He was in—I can’t remember if he was on Concert Board or Modern Music Guild, but that crew that was here at that point was just really excited about crazy music. And they brought so many cool shows. So when they left—they all graduated—I felt a little lull, right. Because I didn’t really know anybody, and then, I guess two years ago, like Henry Nelson and Autumn [Culp] and people started coming up here and were like ‘let’s start doing shows up here again’. It definitely got me excited about the shop again.
I smile. I remember those shows; they were some of my first introductions to live noise and experimental music on campus, and in general, along with basement shows featuring now dear friends CORONET and Existence Decay. Taking place from February 2018 through February 2020, the midday show series Free Therapy was an opportunity to witness Oberlin’s overflowing enthusiasm for all things “crazy music.” It was a sweet intermission to a regular Oberlin weekday.
S: I heard from a friend this morning that there’s a class doing field recordings, and they might do a thing here?
AD: Oh yeah, yeah. I’m helping Julia Christianson get a record pressed for her class. So I love—y’know I don’t get to do a whole lot of that...working with the school on stuff, but it’s always really fun when it happens.
S: You seem very open to all sorts of experiments.
AD: Yeah, for sure.
S: [Speaking of which,] I saw that you did field recordings with Lucrecia [Dalt] in Colombia. How did that come to be?
AD: Yeah. Well, let’s see. Lu and I were touring in Europe, and then she had this residency [in Colombia, Lucrecia Dalt’s birthplace] at this incredible place. It’s like this artist retreat in the middle of the jungle. And it’s—I can’t remember what...they had this quote. It’s in Spanish but it was roughly like: ‘a place to rest.’ [laughs] it’s kind of like a place for artists to go and take a little break and think. Not necessarily set up like ‘you gotta come here and work on a project!’ It’s more like: come here and take a breather and think about what you’re doing, and what you wanna do next. That’s what we did. I mean, of course, both of us are always trying to work on something, so we’re still like ‘well, we’re gonna take our recorders around and throw coconuts around.’
AD: She had an art show in a museum in Bogota. She had an installation there. And then I think that was somehow part of that. But it was cool; we flew in on, like, a 15 person plane, and then had to get on a boat—like a speedboat—with all of our stuff, and we were just like [laughs] it was really the middle of nowhere. It was amazing.
S: Alright so Lucy & Aaron! Are there any specific influences you can pinpoint on that record?
AD: ...Yeah. I mean, [Lucrecia Dalt and I] met quite a while ago. We played a festival together and traded records. And I got that at a time when I wasn’t really—my kids were young—I wasn’t really going out and hearing a lot of new stuff. So I remember her record really having an impact like ‘whoa, this woman’s doing really amazing stuff.’ And it wasn’t until many years later that a friend started booking her shows. And so he was like ‘hey, I’m booking these shows for Lucrecia, wanna play?’ and I was like ‘yeah I love her stuff.’ And so we played some shows together, and we really hit it off. So gosh, the record though—she wanted to make kind of an experimental record more than her last record, and I kind of wanted to make a pop record.
S: Yeah, I can see that in listening to it.
AD: I think it melded pretty well.
S: I think I can especially see that in a track like “The Blob” which is almost danceable. It has a really infectious beat to it, which I found surprising compared to the rest of the album. That one in particular.
AD: Yeah, I think that’s definitely the poppiest.
S: Is there a story behind that one? Why is it called “The Blob”?
AD: Well, she’s singing about “the thing”...she keeps bringing up “the thing”-
S: Is that about the movie?
AD: It isn’t about the movie, but she says that. And then we just thought it’d be funny [laughs]
S: There’s definitely some humor in this record.
AD: Yeah, a lot of it is just little inside jokes, and like movie soundtracks...early electronic music. Everything we listen to is kind of in there. In the last track [“The Tunnel”]—it’s funny because I just read a review of the record that complains about the last track and they were like ‘that fade-out on the last track drives me crazy’—and it’s funny...I did that because as a kid...we’d rent these horror movies...and the end credits would always have some cool synth soundtrack or something, and it’s like this groovy song. And the credits would fade out, and the song would just end. It’s just over. And so that was kind of like my tribute to that; ‘I wanna do like an old VHS tape.’
AD: So when we [Lucrecia and I] played the first show of our tour together, I was watching her—and y’know when I play, it’s mostly working the mixing board. But I move a lot. And I’m watching her and I’m thinking…’she-she moves the same as me when she plays’. It’s weird. Y’know I’ve seen videos of myself so I know. Just watching her perform—she’s really a master of spacing out sounds, and just finding weird little pockets to put little sounds in. I was just super blown away.
S: Do you think you have similar creative processes, or-?
AD: Somewhat. I think her’s is a bit more thought-out and mine’s a bit more ‘ahhh let’s see what happens!’ I think it’s a good mixture.
S: So, this is sort of a big question. And also an expected question. But, how did you find yourself into this sort of [noise and experimental] music? How did you find yourself enjoying this, or discovering this?
AD: I mean I grew up always into music. Like as far back as I can remember, I was super into rock n’ roll. I had an older brother and sister who were nine and ten years older than me, so we had records and 8 tracks around the house. I was born in 1976, so, like, as I was growing up, y’know, KISS was huge, and Cheap Trick, and Journey. My brother was into all those bands, so those records were always around. We got MTV in 1981, when it first came out. And, y’know, that was when they were showing Gary Neuman videos and just weird new-wave videos, so I was just always into rock. And I used to get Hit Parader magazines, and at one point, I would kind of see things here and there about punk music. I mean basically, the short answer is that I got into experimental music through punk music. [Laughs] So, I played hockey as a little kid, from like Kindergarten to sixth grade, because my brother played hockey. And I was really into it, it was super fun. But there was a kid on my team whose sister was, like, a total punk-rocker, with, y’know, leather jacket, spikes, big huge spiked black hair. I thought she was the coolest being I had ever seen. But he brought in a tape of The Butthole Surfers. So I’m in like fourth grade.
S: Wow. Early.
AD: And he brought that into the locker room, and he was playing us Butthole Surfers. And we just thought it was hilarious. Because we’re, like, fourth graders—we thought the name of the band was hilarious; they’re swearing, and it’s just total chaos. And we’re like ‘this is punk music!’ So, that was in my head as to what punk rock music; it was just basically, like, chaos...freaking out...stuff just everywhere. So then I got bad grades in sixth grade—or fifth grade. My mom made me quit playing hockey, so I got a skateboard. And with the skateboard came Thrasher magazine, and it was either on a Thrasher or maybe it was a Hit Parader, but I ordered a punk rock mail order catalog from a company called Toxic Shock, and so that was the first time I saw a lot of bands I would eventually hear. But, there were a good number of years before I—y’know we didn’t have the internet. It was hard to hear a lot of this stuff. So I was in sixth grade, and a friend of mine, Alyssa Farrow, her older sister was also a punk, and Alyssa was already a punk. She was [in] like sixth grade with the side of her head shaved. And she made me a tape, and it had the Sex Pistols, and Butthole Surfers, and the Circle Jerks, and Suicidal Tendencies. And that was the first punk music that I heard.
S: Of course, yeah.
AD: But a lot of it just sounded like—the Sex Pistols especially, who I came to end up loving, but when I first heard it I was like...this is that crazy band? This sounds like, just rock music, compared to, like, The Butthole Surfers. So it was, like, years and years of just trying to find weirder punk music. There was a lot of noise rock stuff in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. And back then if you bought something—y’know you spend all your money on it, you couldn’t really test it out beforehand, so it’s like ok, I bought this I gotta listen to it over and over. Maybe I’m missing something. So you give stuff a lot more trys. But, I was still wasn’t finding what I was looking for. And eventually, I saw a band called Couch play, which I ended up joining a couple years later. But they were, like, the noisiest noise rock band I’d seen. And those guys were like 10 years older than me, and they kind of became my music mentors. And they were like ‘you gotta check out Captain Beefheart, and this Japanese noise stuff’ and that lead me to all these other things, and to early electronic music. Which—I remember as a little kid in science class watching film strips. Y’know watching these old science filmstrips, and they would have this weird, mysterious electronic music. I remember asking my teacher if there were records of that music. And she just kind of blew off the question. And then it was like many, many years later it was like ‘oh! There are records! Lots and lots of records of this kind of stuff.’
S: How did you find this stuff?
AD: It was mostly like—I think I started finding horror movie soundtracks, like synthesizer horror movie soundtracks first. Um, but there was a great record store in Ann Arbor called School Kids [RIP School Kids (1976-2011)]. And those guys in the band Couch would turn me onto stuff. I had my own band and we ended up playing shows with them [Couch]. And we were doing this noisy grunge-rock stuff, and then we saw them play and it was like a gamechanger. We were really into Devo, too—Devo and B-52s. So we saw them, and we were like we’re never going to play chords again
[we both laugh]
AD: We’re gonna play like—Justin, my buddy started tuning his guitar all weird. Our friend Julie played oboe, so we invited her to be in our band. And so then these older guys started to put out our record and we became buddies with them. And then they needed a drummer for our tour, so they asked me so I went. I was 17 or 18, but I went on tour with those guys.
S: So young!
AD: A couple shows got canceled because the bars found out how young I was.
At that point, Dilloway was playing guitar, drums, and the organ. And, of course, experimenting with tapes. “Ever since I was really little I always messing around with tape players.” He tells me. Indeed, more than any other title, he likens himself a “tape player.” “We would get dubbed copies [of punk tapes] from older brothers and sisters,” he explains. “So I think that’s kind of where my love for tapes [comes from]: listening to these punk bands.”
S: Wow, [making music] came so early for you, just completely as a child.
AD: Well, they [instruments, tape recorders, musical influences] were always there, y’know. And it’s like, my cousin and I would make little tapes, little pause button things of us, like, burping into a tape recorder over and over and over. And I would make medleys of songs I liked and create these medleys of all my favorite parts of all my favorite songs.
While listening to a sampling of Asmus Tietchens soundbites—and between musings on Hamberg radio shows, hallway field recordings, Neil Young’s 1982 album Trans, and briefly, Algebra Suicide—I take Dilloway’s photograph. He leans back in his swivel chair and flashes me a genuine smile. “Thanks, this was fun.”
Aaron Dilloway’s new album Lucy & Aaron—and his extensive discography—are available from the Hanson label via Bandcamp. To shop Dilloway’s record store online, check out Hanson_Records on Discogs. Dilloway’s Instagram is @medicinestunts.