Christopher Willits hears things. It might be a melody in his head or a sweeping chord progression that he finds in his heart. What he hears has evolved into what he describes as the "song-like things" that make up much of Surf Boundaries, his stunning new full-length release on Ann Arbor's Ghostly International.
"I'm surprised at what emerged," says Willits, 28, from his home in San Francisco. The songs "grew from simply trusting my intuition and the choices I was making, musically and in my life in general. I feel the music come through me, it's not an analytical process."
That's not to say there isn't lots of technique involved. Processed effects are evident all over the album. For the record, Willits uses Ableton Live software and other custom-made plug-ins that he created using the Max/MSP/Jitter programming environment.
But gearhead factoids aside, what Willits does is play guitar, harmonize with guest vocalists and add electronically treated strings and horns to make something unusual: a marriage of celestial dream pop, ambient jazz and human emotion laid bare.
One highlight on the 12-song album is a suite that includes "Colors Shifting," "Green and Gold" and "The Greatest Rain." It shimmers and soars in melancholy shoegaze style and features vocal parts by Willits and New Zealander Latrice Barnett. "Yellow Spring" and "Medium Blue," meanwhile, recall the lighter side of groovy California psychedelic pop as well as current like-minded artists like Canadian Dan Snaith, better known by his performance name, Caribou.
Willits says he usually starts writing on his guitar, and that "might be the end result right there. Other times, I add layers and let them build or erode. I never design a song like a modernist architect may build an upside-down house. I'm interested in the creative process working from the bottom up, not top down. There is no blueprint."
At 14, Willits says he was part of a "psychedelic noise funk band" that combined Hendrix with Sonic Youth and Sly Stone. A native of Kansas City, Mo., he later studied painting, sculpture and video art at the Kansas City Art Institute and completed a master's degree in electronic music at Oakland's Mills College, where John Cage, Steve Reich and other theory-based innovators once held residencies. Faculty at the school when Willits was in the program included experimental composers Fred Frith and Pauline Oliveros. (Oliveros is also, coincidentally, in Ann Arbor for this weekend's improv conference.)
"I was always into art, painting and making stuff," he says, "and when my dad bought me a guitar when I was 13, it transformed my life. I knew exactly what I wanted to be doing from that time on."
Willits has collaborated with a wide range of artists, including micro-tech-house producer Taylor Deupree, Miguel Depredo better known as Kid606 and legendary Japanese musician Ryiuchi Sakamoto.
"Sakamoto and I are editing and mixing some recordings that we made together in a New York studio," Willits says of the man who formed Yellow Magic Orchestra in the late 1970s and has had a long solo career, including composing film soundtracks for The Sheltering Sky, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and The Last Emperor.
"It's really intense, atonal ambient music. Working on it is difficult because it always puts me in a trance as I'm editing. It makes concentration hard!"
Willits is also part of the two-person group North Valley Subconscious Orchestra with guitarist Brad Laner of the Los Angeles-based group, Medicine. The pair released The Right Kind of Nothing this summer on Ghostly. The album is available only as a digital download at ghostly.com.
Willits appears to have found a home at Ghostly International, a label he says, "has its shit together, and I trust them. Few labels have their diversity and vision into the future." He makes his first visit to the area this weekend in a big way: Willits will perform three times at three separate venues in Detroit and Ann Arbor.
Willits will appear Friday, Dec. 1, at the Michigan League (911 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-763-4652) on the U-M campus, with Ann Arbor's Postprior and Boro. On Saturday, Dec. 2, at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (5141 Rosa Parks Blvd., Detroit; 313-899-2243), Willits is joined by DJ Aarnio (Moodgadget's Jakub Alexander), Postprior, Roger O'Donnell (ex-the Cure) and Benoit Pioulard. Willits also appears Sunday, Dec. 3, at the Lager House (1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668) with Black Moth Super Rainbow.Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]