Tracks from the odd folder
Petaluma expands from electronic duo to five-piece band that dances between analog and digital
When Pat Sweeney and Rob Habel started tinkering on songs together two years ago, neither of them considered their project a full-fledged band. Then, they expanded into the electronic five-piece Petaluma and became a band on a mission to make it.
Sweeney identifies a moment when things started feeling official. A year and a half ago, they were only a duo and had taken nearly 30 song sketches and whittled them down to 10. This would essentially become their self-titled album, released in January.
“From there it took on a life of its own,” says Sweeney, the bassist-percussionist-guitarist, who looks like a bearded philosophy grad student and speaks in thoughtful bursts.
For Habel, hearing the tracks side by side showed that it was more cohesive than just some isolated tracks.
“These songs were so new and so different from anything we’d done before, to have them next to each other and working and flowing together, that’s the moment when we felt this could be something really cool,” says Habel, the lead vocalist who also plays keys and guitar.
The album is spectacular. Their two years of work appear in its nuanced production and complex art-pop songwriting structures. The chords and melodies bring to mind Dirty Projectors, Sufjan Stevens and Tame Impala. Even calling the project electronic is misleading. While there’s a prominent component that harkens back to dark ’80s synth-pop, the members also mix in a lot of live instruments.
In fact, when Habel and Sweeney started working together, they focused on making acoustic and analog instruments sound as though they were electronic. Eventually, they incorporated sampling and electronic recording techniques. On the album, they play pianos, drums, guitars, a couch cushion, pots, pans and whatever else they could get their hands on.
Remarkable for a band’s debut album, the songs never seem to be in a rush to get where they are trying to go. They’ll even let a gentle downtempo part linger for a while, past the point most musicians would be comfortable with, before picking back up.
“There has to be the potential for getting lost and confused,” Sweeney says.
The strongest feeling that the mellow, emotive record evokes: teetering delicately on a fence between joy and sadness.
The collaboration doesn’t sound like anything either of them has worked on before. The two members have known each other since high school, and have teamed up on various projects. Habel’s roots are varied, but he hadn’t often mixed genres before. Sweeney played the bass in blues and rock bands, but later took an interest in production.
The band name came from one of Habel’s computer folders for his many original tracks, which are organized by genre: folk, psychedelic, industrial. Those songs he deemed too odd to fit elsewhere went into the “Petaluma” folder. Fully realized on the album, these tracks fuse all of his influences together.
As the duo prepares for their record release show, they have to present a different perspective. At their first performance in December, they played mostly preprogrammed music. Now they have a five-piece band.
“We are in the process of finding these songs again and asking how they are going to grow in this new three-dimensional world outside the computer,” Habel says. “They’re like kids: We released them, now we just have to see what they become.”