Rat Dreams ponders place on new album 'Six Postcards'

The Columbus band's new instrumental project, assembled remotely last winter, began with a prompt: 'Where do you sense a secret meeting between the generations of the past and that of our own?'

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Rat Dreams, clockwise from top left: Carrie Stratton, Dan Seibert, Andrea Gutmann Fuentes, Jack Doran, Laura Cook, Will Myers.

In the early days of 2021, just after releasing the album In December, the bandmates in Rat Dreams looked ahead and saw only uncertainty.

“There was really no future where we were playing music together in the same room in sight, which was pretty hard to imagine since that's what I like about music,” said Will Myers, the Columbus band’s singer and guitarist.  

Determined to still make music over the winter, Rat Dreams reinvented its creative process for a new instrumental album, Six Postcards, which releases today (Friday, Feb. 4). To kickstart the project, Myers sent a proposal to his bandmates — Andrea Gutmann Fuentes (violin), Laura Cook (flute, synth, mandolin), Carrie Stratton (bass, voice, electric guitar), Jack Doran (piano) and Dan Seibert (percussion, synth). 

“The proposal for the project was like a thesis. There were citations and a works cited page,” said Seibert, who joined Myers for a recent Zoom conversation. “It was so in-depth, and that was really exciting to get.” 

Each musician was tasked with making a roughly five-minute field recording, then adding an instrumental composition on top of the ambient sound. From there, the demo would go to another bandmate, who would add an additional track and send it along to the next person, and then another, until the whole band had contributed to six audio “postcards.” (Six Postcards also takes inspiration from the environmental music of Hiroshi Yoshimura, who made an album titled Music for Nine Post Cards.) 

The location of each field recording became central to the project, and to get the band in the right headspace to think about the concept of place, Myers provided a prompt: “Where do you sense a secret meeting between the generations of the past and that of our own?”

“The idea was: Find a place where you feel like the veil is thin between the present and the past, and go there and listen,” Myers said. 

The prompt quotes a line from Walter Benjamin, a Jewish Marxist philosopher from Germany who is perhaps best known for the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which Myers studied in his undergraduate years. “He wrote that in France as he was in exile, fleeing Nazi Germany. Basically, he's asking ... where does hope come from? How do you have hope for a future society where people can share in the wealth [and] where people can live equally?” Myers said. 

The bandmates didn’t talk about each location or why they picked it. They simply made a field recording and named it accordingly, with song titles such as “Fargo Beach,” “Glen Echo Creek” and “Tea Time.” “There was a bit of mystery, like, what is this place and what does it mean to this person? I actually don't know,” Myers said. “I'm just going to try to be there, too, and hear it and be empathetic to what's going on around me.” 

For an added challenge, the band agreed to certain rules and parameters. For one, each part had to be recorded in a different tempo from the other tracks. “We couldn't really rely on beat or tempo to unite the parts, so we had to think more about timbres and melodies and how those are interacting, and then think about polyrhythms, too,” said Seibert, who was reminded of his college days studying classical percussion and working on pieces by minimalist composer Steve Reich. “The parameters are very flexible and open to interpretation, and I love that. … You’re trying to find those moments of connection and trying to lean into each of those moments.” 

While the conceit sounds complicated (and the music is, indeed, complex), Six Postcards sounds natural and beautifully complementary, each part charting its own path while remaining keenly aware of the contributions that came before, resulting in pieces that are both avant-garde and accessible.

During our interview, Seibert and Myers also revealed the backstories behind their chosen pieces for the first time, providing a narrative layer that was unknown during the recording process. Myers, for one, came across his location while staying at a friend’s place in Michigan. He kept hearing strange noises and walked outside to see three huge sandhill cranes, which he recorded for “Pinckney / Three Birds.” The interaction got him thinking about the physical landscape around him and the history of settler colonialism. 

“I was in a place called Pinckney, which is a certain label, and then thinking of other different ways to define location. Being next to these birds is perhaps a more significant way to define my location,” Myers said. “What is the arbitrary boundary of this town that was carved out of stolen land and probably named after some white settler?” 

The prompt led Seibert to record sounds from his hometown of Blue Ash, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati. In particular, he visited Pioneer Park, a nostalgia-soaked spot where he spent time as a kid. Revisiting the park, though, he was struck by its proximity to a police station.

“My thoughts turned more towards the police state in this country and all of the police violence that was being carried out at that time, and is still being carried out, and the odd feeling of realizing a place where you grew up was constantly under a police presence,” said Seibert, who titled his contribution “The Park Next to the Police Station.” “I’m able to approach that from a very privileged place, being a white male. I never had to actively fear for my life in that way. But there was still a sort of low-level paranoia.” 

The entire creative exercise of Six Postcards helped Rat Dreams get through a long, hard winter and stretched the bandmates in ways they plan to carry with them on future recordings.  

“Having a project where we have to actively be thinking about a location and the generations meeting there and what that location means over time and how that changes, it was just a really good chance to reflect on all of those things and then try to respond musically,” Seibert said. “When we're all in a room together, creating is very much about making something in the moment. And when we are all distanced from each other ... you have to become reflective. It’s less spontaneous, and it becomes more thoughtful and more purposeful.”