Tony Schurbon twists and curls strands of his long dirty blond hair with his finger, searching for words to describe his music -- something he admits he’s never done.
“I’m trying to make something I like that I also haven’t really heard before,” he says at last.
The mind behind the atmospheric, mostly instrumental music of Good Doom, Schurbon crafted two EPs' worth of evocative, moody songs in 2016: Naps and Hug. Now, on New Shapes for You, Good Doom’s first full-length (out today on Minneapolis label Forged Artifacts), the 24-year-old has begun to build holistic worlds out of a range of tones that are warm at times, chilly at others, often spooky. Even the album art, an aerial photograph of mini-cacti, evokes a trip across an alien terrain.
Schurbon first picked up a guitar as a teen in rural Iowa, not knowing much music beyond the classic rock he heard on the radio, and he started out playing in traditional guitar-bass-drums rock bands. After he moved to Minneapolis to study at the Institute of Production and Recording, he was introduced to music outside the mainstream, particularly the dreamy electronic pop of Broadcast, Pram, and Stereolab. Schurbon soon shifted to ambient music, using the same tools in a different way, choosing to stray from what he refers to as the “fairly toxic environment” of rock.
“On a sonic level, I feel like sometimes guitars and drums are used to sound sort of like weapons. It hurts your ears sometimes, and it’s really loud usually, or at least what we were doing was like that,”Schurbon says. “The stuff I'm trying to do now has some softer tones, which I like -- sounds that draw you in as opposed to pushing you away by being physically painful.”
Good Doom is Schurbon’s first project dedicated to pursuing his new vision, and already his sound has progressed from what it was on last year’s EPs. “It’s definitely a tonal shift from what he was doing before,” says Matt Linden, founder of Forged Artifacts. “It’s a more subdued and vivid release. It’s more dreamlike, and I did like that quality.”
“It’s the sound I’ve been trying make the whole time that I’ve been learning audio, that kind of fat, grungy, dark, comfortable-on-the-ears sound,” Schurbon says.
“One thing that really drew me in from start to finish was taking it in as a whole.” Linden says. “Front to back, I think it really speaks to itself in a complete listen. You can throw it on and it’s kind of a journey.”
New Shapes for You is a cassette-only release, and that format highlights how each track flows into the next like a series of visceral dreams. “I heard it and there was no question that we had to do this on cassette. It lends itself to that medium. It has that deteriorating, dreamlike quality when you’re listening to it,” Linden said. “On tapes, you’re gonna get that warpyness, and on every repeated listen it’s kind of warping and changing itself, and that’s what I hear in this release.”
The debut single, “Total Animal Soup,” named for a line from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” is filled with mellowed out synth buzzes, a loop of bright keys, and glitchy drums, while a contemplative whisper of “rock and roll, rock and roll” repeats throughout, a meditation of sorts on the possibilities of reimagining rock music in 2017. The quiet murmuring across songs like “Beams” or “Swell” recalls groups like the Cocteau Twins, who twisted abstract words to fit into vocal melodies, not as concerned with meaning as with evoking mood.
“He kind of uses his voice as an accent or texture, used more as an instrument more than him speaking or using those lyrics to tell a point,” Linden said. “It’s woven in there in the tapestry he created with the ambient sounds and the beats. His voice is really a texture.”
Despite his training at recording school in audio production, Schurbon’s creative process is informal. He typically starts from a common riff or chord progression, reinventing familiar notes in his own style along the way.
“I like to make the riff and the effect one thing, processing sounds as I play the riffs, as opposed to mixing it later. That way the effect and the performance are intertwined.” Schurbon says. “It’s just a cool beat, and a cool riff, and I just try to combine them in their soundscape, make the beat and the riff seamless, and squished together.”
Schurbon plays most of the instruments himself on New Shapes for You, with occasional contributions from additional musicians. And though he now performs live with a full band to embellish the album’s lush sounds, he recently finished his first solo tour as Good Doom, singing and playing guitar to the accompaniment of an iPod of his prerecorded, hip-hop styled beats and basslines.
“At best, the room felt like people were hypnotized,” Schurbon said. And the mesmerizing world of ambient music truly can be easy to get lost in, with your thoughts filling the spaces between abstract beats and instrumentals. On tour, Schurbon noticed that his music had some unusual effects on certain listeners. “One guy said he wanted to lay down to it, and then at the next show somebody actually did lay down on the ground—in a good way.”
Ambient music's greatest asset is allowing the listener to take things as they come, and New Shapes for You, like an abstract painting, may hold a unique meaning for each person who encounters it. But though accessibility is hardly Schurbon’s major concern, he isn’t trying to be difficult.
“They’re still supposed to be pop songs,” Schurbon says of his new material. “That’s the intention. And then when it gets filtered through what other people think, that’s what it becomes.”
With: Tony Peachka and Psymun
Where: Kitty Cat Klub
When: 9 p.m. Sat., March 11
Tickets: 21+, $5