Born by the sea, “nature psych” band Foxtrails brings “beautiful landscapes of sound” to Masters in the Chapel
By Christina Campodonico
There’s something about Foxtrails’ music that is transporting. Listen to their song “Kelp” and you’ll hear the crash of ocean waves. Listen to “Bee’s” and you’ll hear the hum of an industrious hive. “Creekbeds” babbles with the rush of a brook, while birds whistle in the distance of a dreamy sonic tapestry.
“I really do feel like I’m sitting by a river,” says Venice artist Barbara Schwan of listening to Foxtrails’ music. She directs First Lutheran Church of Venice’s Masters in the Chapel concert series, which normally features classical music, but welcomes the psychedelic folk rockers Foxtrails back for a free performance on Friday.
“I just felt it was a really good match for the series because they are a cutting edge contemporary band, but their music is sort of orchestral and they do these beautiful landscapes of sound,” she says.
Born from an alchemical reaction of music and roommates flowing in and out of a house on Zanja Street — “We had such a chemistry and all these songs were happening supernaturally,” says bassist Dane Sandborg — Foxtrails now comprises seven multi-instrumentals: Sandborg, vocalist-guitarist Blake McLeod, drummer Micah Sohl, guitarist-singer Michael Brenner, keyboardist Cory Yamashiro, and new recruits violinist Nikitia Sorokin and percussionist Dylan Grombacher.
Formed around a core group of songs by McLeod, the group released their first album last May under the Venice label Prizefight Records (run by Barbara’s husband Robert Schwan). You may have heard their songs on KCRW or performed live at The Townhouse & Del Monte Speakeasy, the Venice Art Walk, the Lincoln Boulevard boutique Late Sunday Afternoon and, more recently, this winter’s Venice Sign Holiday Lighting featuring The Police guitarist Andy Summers.
While Friday marks the second time Foxtrails performs at First Lutheran, performing in a place of worship is especially familiar territory for McLeod, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and traces his earliest musical memories to singing in church.
Though McLeod no longer identifies with that faith, he does notice a spiritual quality running through Foxtrails’ songs. For instance, he thinks of the song “Waltz on the Water” (which brings to mind Jesus walking on water) as his vision of a “so-called God … kind of plucking the strings of water.”
“I’m kind of seeing evidence of something greater in nature,” he says, “It’s kind of like the wind on water — the tides, the ripples.”
Nature is an even bigger influence on the group. At the start of recording their first album, the band took a trip to Vashon Island and sampled sounds directly from its environments.
“We went out with a big boom mic, and we literally just explored the whole island and got sounds,” he says. (Hence the buzzing in “Bee’s.”)
While the song “Barnyard” was inspired by McLeod’s grandmother’s Missouri farm (the band’s name also stems from a road that Blake lived on in the state), it teems with rich imagery of man and nature’s circadian rhythms: “Pulling ground up, raising the beds, tossing the seed / on a bed of dead leaves… Evening follows / To kiss the sun and swallow the light. … in the barnyard ready for night, in the barnyard ready for night.”
“It’s kind of funny,” McLeod says of the phrase “to kiss the sun,” “because originally I was just thinking of the sunset on her farm and then I thought about it.”
“To kiss the sun” could also mean “to kiss the son,” he observes, likening the phrase to a mother kissing her son good night. The song is about his paternal grandmother, “so it kind of has a double meaning,” he says.
As for the dappled with longing love ballad “Lucky Jewel,” which includes the swoon-worthy line “I’d love to see the valley where you pick your flowers from when they’re in your hair”— “that was inspired by a little crush I had in Topanga Canyon,” McLeod says with a knowing sigh. “It didn’t last too long. I kind of just experienced something there … all the feelings, all at once, of seeing this kind of hidden canyon … and also meeting a really nice open-minded lady.”
The bands’ in-progress album, which they’re developing at a retreat in Three Rivers, has “got a desert kind of vibe,” he says, “and really warm tracks.”
Sandborg describes the group’s overall sound as “nature pysch,” short for nature psychedelic.
“It’s like nature-inspired psychedelic, ambient, folky, electronic music,” he says, “or ambient soul music is even another phrase I’ve heard.”
It’s a music that defies categorization, notes Prizefight’s Robert Schwan, and both McLeod and Sandborg are OK with that. For them, it’s more about keeping the group’s synergy authentic, rather than conforming to certain music labels or lifestyle expectations.
“We’re not doing this to be in a rock band,” says McLeod. “We’re all friends first, living life and exploring nature and everything that comes along with that.”
“We’re not necessarily looking for that rock ’n’ roll lifestyle,” adds Sandborg. “We’re just trying to get in a position where we can share our music with as many people as possible.”
Foxtrails plays from 7 to 8 p.m. Friday (Feb. 22) at First Lutheran Church of Venice, 815 Venice Blvd., Venice. Free. Visit flvenice.org/master-in-the-chapel-concerts or follow the band at foxtrailsmusic.com.