Orchid Mantis needs no introduction on this blog. The experimental dreampop project of Atlanta-based Thomas Howard, described as “found sounds, tape collages, and pop songs about forgetting“, has passed review probably more than any other dreampop act on here. As I mentioned before, his album Kula Sunset from 2018 was a highlight. After that Thomas has still been pretty prolific, but it felt like he was trying a sound that was perhaps steering a bit more towards a form of dreampop that was easier on the ear. I personally missed the part that I think makes his sound unique : nostalgic/dreamy with an undertone of dark lofi weirdness. The new album “Far From This World“, has the uncanny vibe completely restored. Reasons seem pretty clear when Thomas explains: “writing and recording this album, I moved back home after the dissolution of a 3-year relationship, graduated from college, and moved again. Many things changed, fell apart, and were rebuilt.” It just goes to show that finding love & happiness doesn’t always feed the creative process for the better.
Personally, I think “Far From This World” is his best work to date. It pins down that specific sound he is, and should be known for : lofi impressionism, uncanny collages of sounds and fleeting fragments. Highlights of “Far From This World” are “Outside“, “Keswick Park“, “Tell” ,”Even In Dreams“, “Light Beyond” and “Within And Apart“. I talked to Thomas about “Far From This World“, music, influences and King Krule.
Interview with Thomas Howard/ Orchid Mantis:
Fadeawayradiate: When and why did you start making your signature sound? Do you think there are others doing this kind of thing? If it were a genre, what would you call it?
Thomas: “Orchid Mantis started as an experiment in setting limitations on myself. I had gotten into laptop recording and was already writing songs on guitar, but I just felt really overwhelmed with DAWs and digital recording in general. I was also frustrated with my lack of production experience, and didn’t really know how to proceed until I discovered the lo-fi pop scene of the early 2010s. A lot of artists I listened to were recording on boomboxes, old tape recorders and 4-tracks. To me, these weren’t rough demos but fully-conceived songs that embraced a minimal, imperfect and intimate aesthetic. I genuinely loved that sound and also saw a way to get out my ideas without worrying about studio time and production expertise. I used the parameters of my 4-track as strict limitations: 4 instruments, an onboard EQ, and nothing else. Although these limitations were abandoned long ago, that basic impulse to make catchy, intimate songs through humble means is still very much there at the core of my sound. Since then I’ve really just tried to expand things and polish my sound, incorporate influences from genres like post-punk and slowcore. In the early 2010s before the proliferation of Chillwave, this surrealist, ambient-informed strain of pop music was sometimes called Hypnagogic Pop, and if it were up to me I’d probably revive that genre title.”
Fadeawayradiate: What techniques are involved in the making of your collage-like sound? How do you record?
Thomas: “Until Flashbulb Memory, I was following a process that usually started with constructing loops (sampled or recorded myself) in Ableton, writing a song around it on guitar, and then tracking everything to 4-track tape immediately. I would sit in my basement after school writing and recording a whole song in like 2 hours, which was just so addictive to me because it was so immediate, I could make an album in like 2 weeks flat. That’s how I recorded Hessdalen Light. Later though, I gradually added more steps to that process and stopped tracking the full mixes to tape – instead I’d record certain parts with my 4-track and bounce everything back to Ableton to be tweaked and chopped up and arranged properly. That way my arrangements could become denser and more complicated in structure.
I think a big part of my sound is the details and odd production tricks I’ve learned from self-recording digitally for years – I’m constantly pitching down drum loops, synths and guitar (as well as doing the equivalent on tape for many of my guitar recordings with varispeeding techniques), and adding in little field recordings and dialogue samples/ambient loops from the dozens of folders I have. Often a lead guitar line shows up again reversed as part of an ending drone – I constantly repurpose my own audio that way. A lot of my synth sounds are either sampled from Youtube videos using Ableton’s Simpler or just toy keyboards (Casiotones and Portasounds) run through effects pedals. Some small changes I made just for this album were experimenting with live-drum plugins and switching from DI inputs for guitar recording to micing a vintage Fender Ultimate Chorus amp.”
Fadeawayradiate:About this release: it sounds like after a period of detours, you are back at your essential sound and vibe again. Better than ever. Do you agree?
Thomas: “I’ve always wanted Orchid Mantis to encompass all of my musical impulses and influences. I’ve definitely considered side-projects, but right now it seems best to pour everything I have into my most visible project. After Yellow House, I wanted to explore both extremes of my sound, from straightforward pop on Light as Leaving to the more atmospheric and lo-fi on releases like Long Division and Compositions on Midi & Tape. It’s true that this album, however, was conceived as a continuation and further development of Yellow House and previous albums Kulla Sunset and Flashbulb Memory. I do still see this album as a unique incarnation of that sound though, and I think there’s a lot of new ideas on this album that weren’t fully explored in earlier releases. With each release I feel more confident and capable, as well as more varied in what I can pull off.”
Fadeawayradiate: I always kind of think of you as a more lofi/dreampop version of King Krule. Did you ever watch his short movie “Hello World”? It reminds me a lot of what you do.
Thomas: “This is a huge compliment as I love King Krule, and really enjoyed Hello World. King Krule and some other adjacent artists definitely had an impact on my sound starting out, I’ve always enjoyed the emotional rawness and dark aesthetic of his music. I think he’s only gotten better at that in recent albums, and the sort of minimalist, post-punk sound he took on with Man Alive (as well as the surreal fever dream of The Ooz) has influenced me a lot of as of late. His music has an “intense” quality shared by artists like Xiu Xiu and Jordan Maason, that aspect is something I really strive for a lot these days because personally my music has always felt too “tame.” I was thinking about that a lot while writing Tell from the new album, just trying to make something accessible/catchy that was still emotionally intense.”
Fadeawayradiate:You seem to have grown in popularity over the years. How does that feel? Do you think that people are starting to appreciate and get it?
Thomas: “It’s something I’ve noticed more in the last few years, and it’s definitely been rewarding to see. It feels exceptionally surreal because even 6 years into the project I still have that imposter syndrome, like I still have no clue what I’m doing. I’m always shocked to hear how my songs have resonated with people, and although I’d be doing this regardless of whether anyone ever noticed, it’s still so reassuring to know my songs have value to others. Even from the start I think I’ve always received support from people who understand exactly what I’m trying to do, I think it’s more accurate to say it’s just taken time to spread! I never expected to reach half the audience I have now through my DIY approach. I’ve never hired publicists or managers, and my music has spread largely through social media and word of mouth, so I’m just grateful for any attention and support I’ve received.”