Observer Drift making chill waves with escapist debut

In the basement, Observer Drift feels safe
B FRESH Photography

Shielded from Bloomington's vulgar tangle of office parks and rundown strip malls, Collin Ward immerses himself in a faint aroma of incense as he enters the basement of a nondescript split-level home. Here, he dreamed up a solo post-chillwave project called Observer Drift. This halcyon, escapist fantasy aims for the stars, but thankfully never sacrifices the striking intimacy often associated with basement recordings.

In true Prince-like fashion, the 20-year-old Ward recorded with the full drum kit in the far corner, an upright keyboard against the wall, a guitar, a laptop, and every instrument in the room—all by himself. Over an eight-month period in 2011, this constructing, arranging, and rearranging became his debut album, Corridors, released this January via Bandcamp. With zero label involvement or promotion, the project has already yielded inquiries from Mexico and Australia, and is popping up on blogs half a world away, in languages Ward can't understand.

This early attention has undoubtedly fed his ego, but by most outward signs, Ward is much like a typical, suburban American exiting his teenage years. This basement is in his parents' house, after all. When he's not here, Ward can be found behind the counter at the nearby Frankie's Pizza, filming skateboarding videos with neighborhood friends in the summer, or attending gen-ed courses at Normandale Community College up the road.

Despite his musical gifts, the excitable, loquacious Ward seems refreshingly down-to-earth—the polar opposite of a Princely recluse. He can take some time to warm, but once he gets going, especially on the subject of music, sentences quickly become fragments, and his normally pallid complexion begins to blend with his bright red quiff. The album did take the better part of a year to record, but to hear Ward tell it, that was mostly a function of his inability to enjoy uninterrupted sessions.

"The summer was the most productive time," he explains. "I got a good chunk of the songs written then because I didn't take summer courses, but once school started back up on top of work, I usually only had an hour or two in the evening or right after school." Though he confesses: "There were times I would get really into it and skipped class because I just couldn't make myself stop."

One class he's glad he didn't skip was an early psychology course. Without it, Ward jokes, he might have been tempted to call his project Collin Ward's Hot Hits. "It was my first year at Normandale and I was dozing off, losing my attention," he recalls. "But then a teacher mentioned this theory out of the book called observer drift. It's a theory [about] when two people start to agree more and more on one thing and then start to view it the same way."

A gradual congruence of perception can spell disaster for experiments that rely on unbiased observation—including musical ones. Aside from its thematic connection to the billowing, atmospheric music he was creating, Observer Drift's work also serves as a fitting epitaph for the movement that originally inspired him. The "chillwave" motifs, such as faded production and decelerated BPM, loom large inside Corridors, and Ward cites genre stalwart Toro y Moi as one of his favorites. But this album tacitly acknowledges and even serves as a critique of chillwave's shortcomings—the insularity and repetitive self-referencing—that ultimately proved to be the short-lived genre's undoing.

"Toro y Moi and [synth-pop act] M83 were the ones that originally caught my ear, but I started playing around with other ideas, finding ways to make [the music] sound different," he says. Here, the warm, bubbling synths and reverbed vocals avoid rote formalism, and set a course for where the chillwave idea can branch out beyond its rigid boundaries. The guitar and drums on tracks like "Warm Waves" and "Tree Shadow" impart texture and dimension to a kind of songcraft that avoids the fugue-like dullness plaguing similar acts, and Ward's created enough variety to justify a full-length album. Where Washed Out and Memory Tapes' long-players cobble together songs like collections of unrelated postcards, Corridors unfolds with dramatic precision, its instrumental interludes casting the chorus-driven singles into sharper relief.

Of course, Ward recognizes he can't keep churning out records from his parents' basement forever, no matter how compelling they are. Ward has yet to book a single show as Observer Drift but admits he's just as curious as anyone else, "because the only way I've ever heard my music is when I record and listen to it through my laptop." He does plan to eventually find his way to the stage—just as soon as he finishes assembling his band. He's working on it, but doesn't appear to be in any big rush.

"It's not like I'm ready to sell out any venues or anything," he muses. "I don't think I could ever do that."

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