Organic Growth – Dirt Room Cultivates Experimental Sound through Live Shows and Releases

Dirt Room 1a
Dirt Room will bring their burgeoning sound to Small’s in Hamtramck. Photo – Mykel Andre

With new blood, Dirt Room continually thrives on organic growth.

The Detroit experimental collective of Samuel “SJ” Sprague (vocals, bass), Patrick Norton (guitar, Octatrack), Nate Zonnevylle (synth) and Duncan MacKillop (drums) will cultivate their burgeoning sound through a series of upcoming Nice Place Presents live shows, including Feb. 4 at Small’s in Hamtramck.

“This is a completely new lineup for Dirt Room, but the synergy is there. Their musicianship and enthusiasm inspire me to keep going,” said Sprague, who co-founded the band in 2016.

“Pat has been an absolute rock for me over the past few years. Their ambition and work ethic astounds me, and the music we write together is truly a blessing in my life. Duncan and Nate are the young bloods in the group. They’ve been super enthusiastic about the new music we’re playing together and working really hard to make something special.”

For the Hamtramck show, Dirt Room will share the stage with emerging Detroit acts Who Boy, Rob Apollo and Mykel Andre.

“We’re very fortunate to be playing with such talented local artists, especially after being undercover for so long,” Sprague said. “I’ve known the Who Boy group as well as Mykel Andre for a few years now, so being able to put a show together with these guys is definitely special.”

Hibiscus Skies

Hibiscus Skies
“Hibiscus Skies” provides a serene descent into space and time. Artwork from Tommytrailmix’s world premiere Shorties Vol. 1.

Fused with improvisational elements of ambient, electronic, noise rock, punk, world music and freak folk, Dirt Room creates a hypnotic kaleidoscope of sound across a growing series of singles and albums.

Their latest single, “Hibiscus Skies,” provides a serene 18-minute stream-of-consciousness descent through space and time in collaboration with Matias Brimmer (aka Casey Jones), Sree Kota and Alison Rios. Whirring, metamorphic synths, atmospheric samples, airy bass and gleaming piano guide listeners to the far reaches of the galaxy.

“Matias is the reason I make ambient music. That all started back in 2013 when he and I were in high school making cassette tape loops in his East Lansing basement. When he visited me in Detroit last spring, he had just picked up a Digitakt sampler. We sampled some chords from Pat’s Rhodes piano, and the four of us started jamming on various synths and samplers,” said Sprague, who grew up in Lansing and formed the band with brother Simon Sprague.

“We were all plugged into one mixer, so I just decided to run that output into my cassette deck while we were improvising. I would record for a few minutes during the jam when I thought we hit a sweet spot, and then stop and start again when something good came up that was a significant change from the previous take. I repeated this process until we filled up the entire side of the cassette.”

After the initial recording of “Hibiscus Skies” with Brimmer, Sprague and Sree Kota embarked on all-night editing session to condense the track from 36 minutes to 18 minutes.

“We added some effects and crossfades for some additional flavor. That 18-minute edit was then recorded onto a reel-to-reel tape machine. We then digitized the tape recording one last time … we made pitch adjustments and other tape manipulations on the reel-to-reel while it was recording back into the computer,” Sprague said.

“This whole concept of processing, recording and processing again takes cues from the late great 20th century minimalist composer Alvin Lucier’s ‘I Am Sitting in a Room.’”

Today, the track serves as an ideal ambient resource for emerging artists to sample and add to their future recordings.

“Its lack of drums and heavy focus on atmosphere, ambience and repetition lends itself to sampling quite well,” Sprague said. “We have yet to sample it ourselves, but I have had a friend use it for a beat he made earlier (last) year.”

Summer Salts and Winter Shows

Summer Salts
“Summer Salts” features an array of auditory influences. Artwork – Patrick Norton

Dirt Room also collaborated with past lineups of friends on their psychoactive, exploratory debut album, Summer Salts, which dropped in late 2020.

The collective tumbles through an array of auditory influences ranging from freak folk to Balinese gamelan and African rhythmic patterns to artificial intelligence, punk and darkwave electronica.

“It’s very raw, and it doesn’t have a consistent sound in part because the recordings are from all over the place. It’s not like we just sat in a room for a week and recorded everything at once,” Sprague said.

“It kind of just happened over a very long period of time in a freeform way. This was a very unintentional album … it ended up coming together, and it really worked out.”

Recorded in Lansing and Detroit from 2016 to 2020, Summer Salts serves as an imaginative journey filled with trippy experiences that fall between the conscious and unconscious.

The album’s 13 mystical tracks lay the groundwork for a prospective companion film that chronicles the hallucinogenic journey of Jack (named after former member Jack McKay) who encounters demonic forces and time-warping drugs.

A series of three shapeshifting videos, “Breeze,” “Jack’s Progress” and “Next Step,” by Norton create the initial framework for the potential Summer Salts film.

“I’m trying to think of a more practical way of bringing this world to life in a way that I’m able to,” Norton said. “Simon (Sprague) wrote a lot of the scripts for it, so I’m trying to actualize what the scripts are and open it up to other filmmakers.”

Filmmakers aside, listeners can quickly picture their own version of the Summer Salts film by starting with the mind-altering opener, “Jack’s Progress.”

Alarming synths, thumping electronic drums, clicking cymbals, pensive electric guitars and anesthetized bass infiltrate the soul as the collective sings, “Bend back/Time is calling/Was told it’s all medicine but/I don’t ask questions anymore.”

After vicariously experiencing the intoxicating head-trip of “Jack’s Progress,” listeners delve into the tranquil realm of “Breeze.”

Drenched in defiant electric guitars, erratic synths, throbbing bass and shimmying electronic drums, the track fuses Animal Collective-inspired soundscapes with polyrhythmic jams as they sing, “Powers come and go/All eyes on the moon/Shine so bright I know the words will go/Over your head like a UFO.”

“At least for me, I’m not like a natural singer. It’s something that I practice a lot. Being able to color my voice in different and interesting ways and look for an alternative route … like how can I use it as an instrument … is really inspiring to me and helps to lower my inhibitions,” Sprague said.

While “Breeze” may provide a rejuvenating sonic escape, “Next Step” zaps listeners back to an alternate reality as hurried electronic drums, tolling synths, ticking cymbals, otherworldly samples and foreboding bass signal time of a bygone era.

Summer Salts is a project that was crafted so particularly to a very specific era of Dirt Room … at this juncture, it doesn’t make sense to resurrect it onstage in 2022,” Sprague said. “I view this album as more of an experimental recording project than something I’d want to go see live.”

As part of Dirt Room’s creative growth spurt, Summer Salts features talented cast of collaborators. The Sprague brothers, Mahadeva Kota, Sree Kota, Henry Potter, McKay and Norton planted the initial seeds of the collective’s nascent sound.

“Our purpose for releasing the music was to pay homage to the people and freaky times that contributed to the project. Putting it all together at the end of 2020 as a conventional ‘album release’ was more of a ceremonial gesture than a commercial venture. It’s a way to seal the envelope on the past, if you will, and make way for a new evolution of music making.”

As part of the collective’s new evolution, Dirt Room will play additional live shows and release fresh material later this year.

“We have some singles, which are currently being mixed by Chris Koltay at High Bias Recordings in Corktown. Those were recorded in March 2020, so we’re very happy to be getting them out,” Sprague said.

“We are practically always recording and writing music. What I am looking forward to is collaborating with the current lineup of Dirt Room on writing and recording new material in the studio when the time is right.”

Show details:

Nice Place Presents Who Boy, Rob Apollo, Dirt Room & Mykel Andre

7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 4

Small’s, 10339 Conant St. in Hamtramck

Ages 21+ | Tickets: $12 in advance/$14 at the door

Note: All attendees need to show proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours. Masks are required and must be worn at all times for those showing a negative test result to enter.

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