By Teagan Hughes
Will Curry and Henry Nelson have just come from a music video shoot for Oberlin singer-songwriter Claudia Hinsdale when I meet them on the second floor of Wilder. Curry and Nelson comprise Probable Voltages, an art collective that produces music videos, short films, original music, covers, and everything in between. As of late, they’ve been holding house shows at the longtime “show house” that they inherited this year.
TH: Just for a baseline, what is Probable Voltages?
HN: It’s a label, as well as a mini-mini-mini studio for shorts. We do have a lot of our own gear. Saying it’s a mini-mini studio isn’t too far off because we have a lot of our own gear through which we can produce things. And I guess, at the moment, it’s a concert venue. But if you break it down really really really mathematically, it’s an Instagram page, a Bandcamp, and a YouTube channel. And I guess—I suppose now a Venmo. We have an email too!
WC: And as far as the personnel, it’s kind of everyone and also not.
HN: Yeah, I mean basically, Will and I run the thing. And a lot of people overlap in terms of acting in the music videos and personnel on records and shows.
Curry and Nelson are both fifth-years. They began Probable Voltages as freshmen in the fall of 2017, and Curry tells me how they met in order to elucidate the whole process.
WC: We met at jazz orientation, actually. At some point along the way, we discovered that we both loved movies, and that kind of started this relationship where we were playing together all the time, watching stuff, thinking about movies, and we kind of realized at a point that our trajectories were parallel in a way, and that there was a sort of fruitful thing that we could do, not only as really close friends, but as artistically aligned...we were gonna be able to push each other, but also not always be fighting about style and things, you know, that there was going to be some sort of understanding there. And so that’s kind of the genesis of how we started working together, and then Probable Voltages as a whole started as the record label, yeah?
HN: Yeah, it sort of kicked off with this album we did called Minotaur in freshman year and so it started as a label to do that [author’s note: Minotaur was recorded in the fall of 2017 and released in the winter of 2018]. It was just like, hanging out in the TIMARA studios, and the engineer of the album and myself were hanging out and it was just about done, and we were like ‘we should come up with a fake label, just to seem more professional, to seem cool’ and we tossed that name out there, and then now we’ve put out projects from an assortment of other folks.
WC: Not just that, it’s kind of become the blanket entity by which we can do a lot of things. On our social media there’s all the photography. So when Henry and I are gone for the semester, or really at any time, we’ll just take pictures, mostly street photography, and upload it. It’s this unified platform and this idea really just to make something that encompasses what we wanna do, because, you know, we’re not just musicians, not just whatever. There’s a way in which all those different things intersect, and I think both of us feel that music and movies and writing and photography and even drawing, these things have to be a part of our lives. So it’s just kind of a way for us to, in a way, put a little pressure on ourselves to just put it out there. And two, just to have a place to put it.
HN: And also it’s that thing where one style always tries to bleed into another. Our hope is to have a continuity between all these things.
Probable Voltages has existed in some form or another since the fall of 2017, but like many enduring artistic ventures, they’ve become more productive since March of 2020.
HN: Junior year when COVID hit, we really decided to try to do something with it because we couldn’t really do much else, so I figured ‘we can build this thing up!’ Because one of these music videos got some attention on campus; it was a music video for a song that our friend Owen [H Frankel] did called ‘Upside Down.’ And when that came out and got some attention, Will and I figured ‘well, we should try to build this into something bigger than just a label.’
WC: That’s when the Instagram page started. If you look at the dates, it’s like, all the first things are from March 2020. So yeah, we kind of went in full throttle there.
Curry and Nelson identify a number of friends and frequent collaborators throughout our interview who are or have been involved with Probable Voltages and its projects: Beth Ann Jones, Matei Predescu, Holly Handman-Lopez and Tom Lopez, Sam Friedman, Jeremy McCabe, Jack Hamill. (Hamill hosts weekly listening sessions on Fridays at approximately 7:30 p.m. in the TIMARA studios, Nelson tells me after asking if he can “plug someone else’s thing.” At these sessions, Hamill exhibits experimental music from every continent.)
HN: We try to direct for folks who, I guess, push at some sort of border in some stylistic way. You know? It has to be something that we really really really really really love. It has to be something that, whether it’s folk, whether it’s noise, whether it’s jazz, whether it’s free music, it has to be on the edge of something. If there’s anything that Probable Voltages stands for, it’s that.
The videos on Probable Voltages’ YouTube channel have a very identifiable and consistent aesthetic. The most recent video on their channel as of this writing is a recording of a performance by Jack Hamill, filmed on November 6th, 2021. In the video, the camera drifts from Hamill’s face to the crowd to Hamill’s instruments and sound equipment, holding close on its dimly lit subjects, bathing everything in ultra-saturated blues and oranges.
HN: We’ve kind of upheld an aesthetic through everything. Through the way the performances work, through the albums that we put out, and through the music videos, and through the shows too, we’ve tried to maintain a really retro, old-seeming kind of aesthetic. And when building the space in that house, we really worked hard to keep that going.
That retro aesthetic has stayed consistent through the years, judging by Probable Voltages’ social media archive. I ask what draws them towards that aesthetic.
HN: Yeah, I think it’s a lot of the stuff Will and I watch and listen to. I mean I personally love Tom Waits, we love old movies, and we love period movies, and I love old clothing and old furniture, and so I guess when I’m making decisions about art and making decisions about production, both musically and visually, we love to call attention to the machinery, to, you know, things forgotten. We love shooting in old places. We love wearing old things. You know, I guess we just like forgotten stuff. For me it’s a–
WC: It’s an intuitive thing, yeah.
HN: Yeah, I guess I was kinda like an oddball in middle school and high school and feeling very lonely, and I guess seeing old things...I don’t know, I guess that kind of made me feel better.
Now that we’re discussing their stylistic trademarks, the time has come for me to ask about artistic influences. I pose the question. Nelson looks at me very seriously and says, enunciating every word: “We love Radiohead so much.” They list a few filmmakers: Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch, Lars von Trier, Park Chan-wook, Gaspar Noé. They like directors that “use the form and tradition of filmmaking sort of against itself,” Nelson says. “Yeah, you know, folks that a lot of people would call provocative for the sake of being provocative, but I actually have a different take on all that,” Curry adds. “I find it, kind of, incredibly sincere.”
Curry and Nelson list a few musicians along with the filmmakers: Wolf Eyes, Tom Waits, Alex G, and Black Midi.
WC: Bands like Black Midi, though, have been kind of a guiding force—you know, it’s kind of astonishing when you listen to their music, you say ‘how did this band get to be as relatively big as they are?’ And they have kind of similar instrumentation to a lot of the groups that we play in, they play stuff that’s somehow really interesting and iconoclastic, yet not pretentious. And I think that’s a line that we would like to emulate.
HN: Yeah, I think that another thing is, everything we try to program and do, I think we try really hard to keep it coming from a place of honesty, especially when it comes to the folks who we put out and the folks that we direct for. It comes down to honesty and expression and nakedness towards one’s audience.
Curry and Nelson have been planning and hosting house shows this semester; it’s a new development for Probable Voltages. The programming they do at their house this year has its roots in Nelson’s prior experience doing programming for Hanson Records. They inherited a known “show house” this year, giving them a great deal of freedom when it comes to planning and hosting shows. They acknowledge that the house show scene at Oberlin changes a great deal depending on who’s hosting: “It totally depends on who has the houses. We just got the house this time,” Nelson says.
TH: With regard to the shows, do you see them as kind of existing in this continuity? Like, do you see yourself as part of a tradition of this sort of thing that’s been happening?
HN: I think so, actually. I think that there have been shows here for as long as we’ve been here—house shows. And I see us as a part of that. And when we leave, somebody else will have the house that we live in, and they will probably put on shows. And with that we also—understanding that and having been to those shows and even played some, we wanted to do our own thing with it.
Probable Voltages hosts these house shows on their own terms, on their own time, but Curry and Nelson both have experience booking and hosting shows through the College and Conservatory as well. I ask them how their shows feel different from school-sanctioned shows. Their more informal format makes the entire experience more cathartic for everyone involved, Curry says, and Nelson adds that there’s no institutional pressure.
HN: I think that putting it in a house, and putting it later at night, and stripping away a lot of the formal elements that were previously there, I think that allows people to come for fun. And I think people are coming for fun, or for an experience, or to get pushed in some way, or just to hear some really really loud shit, depending on the concert.
WC: I mean, a lot of the stuff that’s played at the shows, I think, just wouldn’t be the same in a different venue.
HN: Yeah, it’d be a little bit more buttoned-up, a little bit more rehearsed. There are very few rehearsals for the sets that are performed at our shows.
TH: So would you say that there's almost an improvisational element sometimes?
HN: Absolutely. I mean in every respect both musically and just in nature. Even though we’ve done a lot of work, there’s still that.
Curry hails from Chicago, and Nelson from New York. Being from a small town myself, I can’t even imagine how making art in Oberlin would compare to trying to hack it in the Big City. So I ask.
HN: I think that in a big city, yes, that we’d be hosting shows for folks all over, but sort of on the other hand, we’d be competing against the Beacon Theater, Terminal 5, every single place in Brooklyn. But because we’re all fucking here, we have to care about the things that we put on. You know? You would be writing an article about AC/DC, for all I know—you probably wouldn’t be writing an article on AC/DC.
TH: I don’t know what I would say!
HN: But I think that us all being here together, while socially it can cause this place to be a toxic fucking nightmare, I think that artistically speaking, we are in this greenhouse where we have the freedom to do whatever we want. And also, it causes the people here to really get exposed to a lot of shit and not shy away into independence. I know a lot of people at colleges in the cities who aren’t friends with folks at their college because they’re friends with all their friends in high school, and it’s just basically no fucking difference. But here we have to meet new people and get exposed to new things, and people take every opportunity to do that, including going to these house shows and watching our videos. And I think that if we were to try to do something like this in a big city, it would fall on its ass.
WC: Yeah, I think it’d get lost in the shuffle. Or, there’s a greater chance of it getting lost in the shuffle.
HN: Absolutely. And also, it’s so competitive.
WC: It’s so competitive, I was gonna say. The necessity for self-empowered DIY stuff that happens—I mean, Oberlin’s got a ton of musicians, but there isn’t, I would say, a scene in the way that a place has a scene or something. You know, we make it. Everyone makes the scene. And so everything’s kind of fair game, and I think it allows people to really fuck up in interesting ways that lead to more—ultimately, more interesting and considered work than if you are reaching for some kind of criterion that is so elusive and ambiguous and enigmatic and it just doesn’t—where you’re waiting for someone else’s approval. Here, it’s just, like, every four years this incredible group of musicians cycles and there’s an attentive audience, ‘cause people all over the school love art. And that’s really unique...I think people are very supportive, you know, people are very open-minded to seeing something new. There’s not a million other things you could go to, you know. You’re not wasting your time if you go and see someone really try something. And that’s great not only for people that are 20 years old, but I think it’s great for listeners and people that engage with art, too.
Before I end our interview, I ask if there are any messages they want to transmit to The Grape’s readership. They have a few plugs to share: Jeremy McCabe’s WOBC show Community Hour, Tuesdays at 2 p.m., and Curry’s upcoming recital, which will take place at The Cat in the Cream on December 11th at 12:30 p.m.
Probable Voltages can be found on Instagram @probablevoltages, as well as YouTube and Bandcamp under “Probable Voltages.” Their next project, a short film called “The Settler,” comes out on November 20th, 2021.