Last winter in Boise, Idaho, East Forest was considering making a new album.
He’d just released Headwaters — recorded live in one evening in a remote region of Utah for a group of friends — and was ready to make something in the studio. A singer interested in collaborating with him had reached out on Instagram, and East Forest contemplated how they could work together. In the meantime, she just showed up in Boise one day.
“She came to town and got a hotel and came to the studio, and I was like, ‘OK. I guess I’ll start writing some songs.’”
Wanting the new album to incorporate more drums and bass than his previous studio LP, 2022’s Still Possible, he needed an ace drummer. “Boise’s not much of an industry town, so I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know where I’m gonna find the drummer I need.’”
But again, he didn’t have to look further than his own neighborhood. Attending a jazz show one night in Boise, he realized the drummer was Jens Kuross, a singer/songwriter who’s toured with Bonobo, performs with electronic-psych band The Acid, and had just moved back to his native Boise from L.A.
“I was like, ‘Would you like come to a studio?’ And it turned out he lived two blocks away.”
With the pieces coming together, East Forest — born Trevor Oswalt — settled down in the studio with his collaborators. The music that emerged over time was, like most everything East Forest has produced during his 15-plus-year career, emotive, cerebral and often lush, fusing live instruments and electronics with musings about life and death and what it all means. Themes of the new songs reflected the uncertainty and anxiety of the time in which we currently exist, and also the idea that while humanity is in what often feels like a freefall, something new might be emerging as well.
East Forest thus called the album Music for the Deck of the Titanic, a nod to the string quartet that played as the ship went down and the beauty of that act. The singer who’d shown up in Boise, Senegalese vocalist Marieme, appears on three tracks. Duncan Trussell muses about music and aliens on the nine-minute “So What?” Techno producer ANNA delivers a sunrise-at-Burning Man vibe on “Currents.” The album cover is a portrait of East Forest standing with a peacock in the driveway at Diplo‘s house. Released via Bright Antenna Music last week, East Forest and Marieme will perform selections from the album tonight (Nov. 7) at Pico Union Project in Los Angeles.
East Forest’s career arc always been somewhat out of the box, with his heady, spiritually-leaning productions infused with the wisdom of teachers like Ram Dass (with whom East Forest collaborated with on his 2019 album, Ram Dass) and often made for psychedelic experiences. In 2019, he released Music For Mushrooms: A Soundtrack For the Psychedelic Practitioner, a five-hour album designed to accompany a psilocybin trip. He recently received a letter from a man, who in the midst of a bad mushroom trip, remembered that the album existed, managed to put it on, and felt his experience shift into something much more uplifting.
As electronic music, and culture in general, becomes increasingly receptive to psychedelics and the consciousness-centric thinking that often comes in tandem, the box seems to be reconfiguring to be more in line with East Forest’s output. Here, he talks about his new album, being a circle in a square-shaped industry, and the advice he gave to Aaron Rodgers.
How have you seen psychedelics affect the electronic music community in over the last five or 10 years?
I guess I’ve seen a few more friends and artists getting into the space, but it’s just a few. I’m thinking of when Jon Hopkins and I crossed paths and, and then we did a track together, then that became part of an album he then decided to call Music For Psychedelic Therapy. I thought that was a big deal. Because it was so forthright, just like when I was doing Music For Mushrooms. You’re telling people what this is for.
And something about yourself that’s perhaps vulnerable.
Absolutely. Even though it’s more mainstream, there’s a lot of judgment around it still. For better or worse, when I started doing this project it was overtly purpose-driven and spiritual. That was not like, cool. I still get pushback on that from agents, industry people, not getting representation, because they’re like, “well, everything’s there on paper, the demand or whatever.” But then they’re like, “yeah, but I don’t know.” It’s the vulnerability thing I guess… That’s a thing that bothers me, because people put [my work] in a category where it’s yoga music or something. But if you took away the definitions, I work really hard on the music to stand on its own. You don’t have to know anything about [where it’s coming from.] It’s like any music; you click with it, or you don’t.
The music industry isn’t necessarily the most vulnerable place.
No! That’s what I’m saying. In lot of ways, I’m like a circle going into a square. And every time I try to fit into that and knock on the front door, it’s usually been difficult. Every time I’m doing it on my own, it’s worked way better.
Are you are you trying to be more traditional, in that industry way?
You have to use certain apparatus of the music industry at a certain level, because in many respects there’s no other way. It’s incredibly extractive, which is what all artists deal with. I think I read that the average artist makes 12% of every dollar. It’s just hard. So in some ways, doing things on your own can be easier, because you can control more of those aspects. So we’ve been trying to produce a lot of our own shows. I did a tour last fall where people lie down, it’s called a Ceremony Concert tour, and it was awesome. But the economics were really hard. I mean our expenses were like, $300,000 for 15 shows.
That’s a lot.
It’s very difficult when you’re not selling alcohol. Some venues won’t even work with you, because that’s how they make their money. I’m not anti-alcohol, it’s just a different kind of show. It’s hard to find partners out there that are cool with that.
Right. You can’t sell mushrooms at the bar.
Not yet. [laughs]
As your new album was coming together, did you feel like there were themes presenting themselves? It doesn’t sound like you knew what it was going to be when you started.
It’s true. Sometimes I feel like this is the Titanic, and I’m playing music for it. But then I also started to realize that something’s dying. And I felt like well, maybe I’m more like a death doula. But something’s being born too. Same thing [with the string quartet playing] on the Titanic — it was a way of assuaging fears, and there’s beauty to that, but it’s also helping with grieving. But it’s also a celebration about something new emerging that perhaps will be over generations. I do feel like we’re in a very poignant time, where this is like, going to get harder, and so it’s a lot about inner fortitude and grieving. Those are the themes. On all the songs it’s either a mixture of hope, of something emerging, or letting go of something and the sort of in betweens of that.
What do you see emerging?
Well, it’s of course speculation. It’s sort of like, what’s emerging in our hearts, or anyone’s heart. We get wrapped up as the protagonists of our own stories, so we get very hyper focused on our story, but I have a feeling that my story is probably similar to a lot of stories. We’re all having the same story in our own language. It just seems like it’s about letting go of old ways and allowing something new to come through that’s a lot less about control and maybe growth in the economy of scale, and more about how like, petting a cat is just as important as going to Mars. My heart tells me that’s true, but the world says that’s absurd.
I just very much believe that the change we need in the world always happens from the inside out, always has, always will. So it’s more about people working away from this information sickness and distraction, and learning the very basics about “Who am I?” and taking a few breaths and learning what they know already? It’s surprising how much we’ve forgotten, and how much noise is going on.
That’s interesting term, information sickness. How would you define it?
The economy of attention is what drives the world. So it’s also a recognition that your attention is very, very valuable and powerful. That’s not like hippie mojo, it’s about like, “how many seconds can we keep you on the platform, even if we kill the entire world doing it for the shareholders for the stock to go up.” We’ve used the best minds in the world to do that at any cost. Early AI, that’s a whole other side of it. But we’re manipulating our own selves, for the sake of the dollar that way. We’re hacking our minds that way. So it’s very much about clearing away the noise.
You can only do that through elements of choice — you choose to do it, and it’s very simple and there’s many myriad ways to do it. But it is up to the individual. So this is actually not a victim story as much as an empowering story of, you can do this, but you have to decide, and you have to chart your own path. And it is hard, but it’s not complicated. So I think music is a very powerful way to latch on to very easily with your attention and let it take you into emotional places and [foster] self discovery.
I understand you advised Aaron Rodgers on his darkness retreat before he did it last February. How did that happen?
He knows some people I know, Aubrey, Marcus and a few people, so it was kind of a couple of degrees away. I did that same darkness retreat in January, which was really powerful for me. When I came out, it was in the news, like “Aaron Rodgers is going on a darkness retreat!” And I was like, “there’s only one. It’s got to be the same place.” I didn’t have his number or anything.
I didn’t know how to get in touch with him, and I wasn’t really that concerned about it, but I remembered he’d liked a tweet of mine years ago. I don’t even use Twitter, but I fired up Twitter. It was like
“@AaronRodgers I just came back from there if you want to talk.” Two minutes later, he wrote me. It was like, 11 at night. We were talking on Twitter. And I was like, “Look, man, here’s my phone number. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
Then we FaceTimed for an hour and a half and just talked. It was the same place so, I gave him tips and we talked about the process and doing some stuff where he’s interested in bringing psychedelic therapy into the sports world.
I’m not that interested in just doing things for the [psychedelic community.] I’m very interested in how you build bridges. I thought, well that could be an interesting place to work. So we started talking about doing something together, ceremonies and projects, but that was months ago, and now he’s not retiring and back at work. [Editors note: this interview was completed before Aaron Rodgers suffered a torn achilles tendon during his opening game with the New York Jets during week one of the 2023 NFL season.]
What was the darkness retreat like?
You’re in a [fairly small] room, and it’s somewhat underground, so it’s totally quiet. It’s 30 minutes in the back country, outside Ashland, Oregon. There’s no cell service, no power, no outlets or anything. There’s a bathroom with no door, and a bed and then a little table that they can pass food through the wall without light. And a yoga mat…. You’re just left with you.
I found myself to be incredibly emotional at times. And all this stuff just starts coming up. All these memories about certain things, like, “man, I don’t want to deal with that. I don’t want to think about that.” But it just keeps coming up, and I’m just crying. When I knew Aaron was going there and people were slagging him, I was like, “you try it.” It’s actually amazingly honorable. If you want to make decisions, this is the richest way to really sit with something.
Is there anything you’d like to say?
I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I’m not. I’m super grateful. And I don’t want to sound like I’m just complaining about things in the industry. That’s not it at all. It’s more that I’m amazed. I’ll play songs that are really not different than what I played 15 years ago at my friend’s farm for my 20 friends on mushrooms. I never ever thought that that would somehow translate into anything that could be commercialized or performed in a theater. I thought that was impossible.