Oakland quartet Trails and Ways makes political dream pop

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Keith Brown’s favorite novel is Greil Marcus’ “Lipstick Traces.” In the subdued, understated manner that is his hallmark, he claimed that it taught him to reject everything he had ever known and embrace the philosophy of punk rock at the age of 17. A rather odd statement, coming from a member of the Oakland-based band Trails and Ways, whose mellifluous dream-pop sound seems as far removed from punk rock as one can imagine. Nevertheless, the genre of punk rock is an interesting way to contextualize the eclectic music of Trails and Ways, who are now working on their first full-length album and embarking on a series of live performances throughout the Bay Area.

Trails and Ways formed in late 2010 when vocalist and guitarist, Brown and his roommate, percussionist Ian Quirk began laying down tracks at a friend’s party. With just two band members in the early days, Trails and Ways soon became adept at mixing various layers of instrumentation in Quirk’s bedroom-cum-studio giving, rise to their dreamy style of pop.

Last year, Brown and Quirk were joined by vocalist Emma Oppen and Hannah Van Loon, who plays guitar, violin and keyboard. Brown says while the band has grown, their process is still very relaxed, “Someone comes in with the start of a song, but it really coalesces in the studio itself … the magic all happens in Ian’s bedroom”, he says, betraying the dry wit that occasionally peppers his lyrics.

One of the band’s biggest challenges is preparing their studio sound for the stage. “There’s always a process of translation,” Brown concedes, “You have to look at it as a new thing … and draw out what you think will work.” This is perhaps easier said than done for a band whose musical style is at turns folk, pop, jazz, afrobeat and bossa nova.  Songs like “No Wisdom” — that draw their charm from juxtaposing an accessable pop rhythm with a folksy melody and lyrics — will be difficult to adapt from their comfortable studio context.

The song “One Note” is emblematic of the influence and process of Trails and Ways’ music. Brown explains that during his time living in Brazil, he played in many samba bands and became dissatisfied with the way that bossa nova “One Note” songs were translated into English, feeling that they were too literal and missed the point of the music. In order to capture the candid flavour of the bossa nova influence, Brown originally wrote the song in Portuguese. “I find I can be much more direct in Portuguese. Something that sounds sentimental in English sounds better in Portuguese.”

It is perhaps unsurprising with the band’s interest in translating songs from one language to another and from the studio to the stage, that their first full-length album, titled Trilingual, will discuss language and communication and be written partly in English, Portuguese and Spanish. “Tereza,” the recently released single gets the album off to a fine start. Emma Oppen takes over the lead vocals, singing soulfully about getting lost and found as Quirk adds even more layers of instrumentation, alluding to New Order and Joy Division with their clean guitar lick backed by a bed of synth. “Tereza” shows Trails and Ways exploring a comfortable harmony between playful, relevant lyrics and the visceral experience of their music.

Brown in particular seems focused on exploring the possibilities of both music and lyrics. He readily confesses: “Politics will always be more important than music, but music can be more personal than politics.” He is politically active, having been involved in the protests against budget cuts while a student at UC Berkeley (where he also wrote for The Daily Californian). Temporal, the band’s latest album, is drenched in politics. Brown describes it as a concept album about a specific moment in time, the present. From the first lyric, the band turns the social malaise of the modern era into a personal narrative.

It doesn’t take much imagination to interpret the opening couplet of “No Wisdom”, “We watched as the wise men came / They sold our school off, they sold the oaks and the pines away.” Brown takes this personal response to the UC budget cuts and with a sardonic wit and a quick limber turn of phrase, not unlike late-period John Lennon, turns the almost apocalyptic sense of being dispossessed into a rallying cry for asserting the rights of students, “The wise men call us good for nothing, ‘lazy, half-drunk kids’ /  The wise men are done with us / But no, we’re done with them.”

“I don’t feel like a punk rocker,” says Brown, checking his earlier assertion, “The music doesn’t come from a place of anger or darkness … but it has shaped our political purview.” Given careful consideration, perhaps Brown is right and Trails and Ways are more punk than their seductive sound would let on.

Brown seems quite comfortable with being perceived as a member of a political counter-culture, but if Trails and Ways are prophets of a new rebellious punk ethos, then given their impressive musical leaps in the space of a little over a year, they have an impressively productive idea of rebellion.