Dirtwire’s restless walkabout

The Oakland-based experimental world music trio on channeling the blues, the challenges of ambient, owning the space at festivals, and adding a drum kit to the mix

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The thing starts a little ominously, the nervous whine of an arpeggio picked across a Telecaster with heavy reverb, a loping tempo behind it, maybe evoking some imaginary Western with tumbleweeds and horses and distant sandstone buttes. Slide guitar comes in, veins across the Tele’s tonal body.  

And then comes the voice of the late Ram Dass, recounting a particularly intense LSD jaunt he took in a hotel room in Kansas, of all places; an occasionally chuckling audience punctuating his narrative. He recounts seeing all the world’s suffering, embracing humanity, and eventually condensing the firehose of thoughts and panic and awe and revelation into a perfectly reductionistic epiphany of self—all this sometime after he (wisely) stopped himself from running naked to the front desk to beg for an ambulance.   

Events like the one that he describes are indisputably profound experiences in the firsthand; they lose a little of their technicolor relief in the retelling, though. Kind of a you-had-to-be-there sort of thing: With the spoken word alone, and especially for those not necessarily devotees of Ram Dass and his work, one may be left with no more than the irony that one of the most renowned psycho-spiritual teachers of the late 20th century bagged the Nature of Everything in a Kansas motel. 

But the soundtrack embraces it as something—if not profound, at least dramatic and vivid and owning its own space. Cooked up and released a couple of months ago by California ethnotronica trio Dirtwire, Mid-American Hotel leans into the group’s bluesy, Americana vibe, one of the stanchions of the Oakland-based trio’s many musical influences. There are some things that can only be said well with a tweaked-up Tele.

“The Ram Dass Foundation reached out to us,” explains founding member David Satori. “They were putting together a compilation that just came out in August, and we were the featured single on it. They gave us a bunch of options, a bunch of different links to audio of 10-minute to half-hour talks. We went through and listened to them and sort of sampled one that we were inspired by.

“And then we took a jam that we had started before that, it was really just this progression that Mark (Reveley) had come up with, and then we built it out, did some overdubs, and kind of built it around the vocal sections . . . It was the first spoken-word piece we’d ever done.”

Since their inception in 2012 (originally as a duo with David Satori, who is also founder of Beats Antique, and Evan Fraser, with Mark Reveley joining around 2016), Dirtwire has probed and poked at a dizzying collage of musical influences: Brazilian, West African, South Asian, contemporary electronica. Appalachia. The Delta. Mandolin meets ngoni, lap steel guitar meets kalimba. Cigar box guitar, zabumba, toy piano, whamola. At turns mesmerizing, confounding and yet eerily familiar, what on paper should sound like some pranksters goofing off in an after-hours world music shop actually renders as a team of sound craftsmen coaxing aural images and teasing melodic phraseology from carefully measured and mediated instrumentation, pieces that challenge the listener and dare them to find the statement’s heart and soul, to come back and listen again, and sometimes again. Because, even in Dirtwire’s improvised journeys, the soul is always there. 

Passive listening is always okay, but active listening is richly rewarded. 

“I think we like to be a little challenging for people, like they have to use a little more of their ear than they’re used to,” Satori says.

The last year fully revealed the band as masters across divergent disciplines. Its December release, Crux, is largely centered around blues. The Hill Country stomp of “Sally May,” the icy slide-guitar of “Rain Gonna Fall,” the back porch banjo vibe of “Sain Reign.” Completely at home with these testaments, it’s easy to imagine these forms as gravitational influences, a springboard for their wanderings off-continent.

“We enjoy that we can draw on that American heritage as well as the rest of the world, because we are so fascinated by global music culture that it’s nice to have a common ground to draw from, like blues, Appalachian folk, and combine them with electronica,” Fraser says. 

And yet, earlier this year came Hjärta, an EP of ambient soundscapes supporting their friend and frequent collaborator Emma Lucia’s angelic vocals, singing/vocalizing Nordic poetics. The two releases, separated by six months or so, could scarcely be more different from each other.

And ambient, as anyone deeply invested in the form will tell you, is a lot harder to get right than it may sound.

Reveley agrees. 

“[Emma] writes a lot of these ancient, sort of Viking tribal songs, harkening back to her heritage as a Swedish-American, and we had this vision of combining those with ambient and experimental sounds, sort of work toward creating an imaginary psychedelic journey music in a Nordic tradition.”

“Ambient can be really hard or really easy,” Reveley adds “It’s a fine line. It’s really easy to get 75 percent there, it’s really hard to get 100 percent there. I did the mix on this one. We tend to rotate projects, and I thought, ‘Oh, this will be easy, just vocals and some ambient sound design, should take a day or so,’ and it took months. There were just so many little details, little things that would pop out that would take you out of the ability to really drop into the thing.” 

But the journey, for the producer and the listener, is often the point. So for a trio that resolutely evades easy categorization or pigeonholing, in an artistic process where rules and boundaries are routinely defied, how do you know whether something doesn’t work?

“I don’t think you ever really know if something will work until you’ve done it,“ notes Reveley.

“For us, it’s mostly what will work live, but at the same time, there’s a lot that we make that isn’t meant to be played live. When we’re finished recording music and we’ve uploaded it, we pretty much move on. How it’s received or how well it works doesn’t really factor too much. I mean, we do look at Spotify charts and what people like and what they find interesting, but I don’t think we spend too much time on the recorded stuff. We do spend a lot of time on what will work live. We give a lot more leeway to the recorded stuff.”   

“We play all kinds of different festivals,” notes Satori. “Sometimes we’ll play a festival that has more electronic-based music where we’re up against big sound systems. We’ve definitely worked on keeping the dance floor party going. So we’ve crafted these sort of festival sets, and now we’re experimenting with adding a drum set player for this upcoming tour, and that’s leading us in some different directions. We’re figuring out how to navigate that, with the electronic, dance-party flow of a festival set.

“So, we’re kind of in a learning process right now. Trying to crack the code.”

On the bill:

Dirtwire with Gone Gone Beyond and Blossomn. 8 p.m. Thursday, September 23, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder. Tickets: $22-$25.

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