Where so many musicians in the movement have followed the mighty Emeralds into the realm of grand-scale composition and ambient expanse, the trio of Sophie Lam, George Bennett and Mark Dwinell have rocketed-off in the opposite direction, in search of ways to pour all they have to say into the most compact of abstractions, all shot through with the concision of space-age pop.
And speaking of space travel, early on in our talk Lam passes along something a friend once told her. "Josh Millrod of the band Grasshopper compared FORMA to a spaceship," she explains, gripping an iced coffee that's long since melted into creamy water. "He said George was the engine's anchor, Mark was the engineer who designed the ship, and I was the astronaut riding in the ship. I thought that was an accurate breakdown of our roles in the band."
If FORMA is indeed a spacecraft, then I suppose where the four of us are now gathered, the group's rehearsal space, is its bridge. A plasterboard box more or less, the room is tucked deep inside the bowels of what has been christened The Schoolhouse, an elementary school in Brooklyn that was active in the 1920s and '30s. Also serving as Lam and Dwinell's residence (Bennett lives a few streets over), the large red-stone building is a genuinely gritty live-work space.
A few feet beyond us rests the trio's meticulously assembled set-up. It resembles a chunk of perplexing technology, like something from a science fiction novel. Though each musician possesses, as Lam points out, a specific role in FORMA's creative process, their individual instruments have gradually fused into a single entity, one with tendril-like cords slithering to and from three stations, each one filled with vintage goodies. Among the many pieces to be spied: a Moog Slim Phatty, Roland TR-707 and -606, DSI Mopho and Tetra, Alesis MMT-8 and SamplePad, Tom Oberheim SEM and an Akai AX73. Underneath all this lurks a Farfisa, an instrument that betrays the Stereolab influence I've long suspected in the group.
While they walk me through all this stuff (none of which I have the faintest idea how to even turn on), the sci-fi fan in me scribbles in my notebook: They've constructed a living, breathing mensch-maschine. All three musicians interface with it, simultaneously.
"We're definitely wired together," Dwinell replies after explaining what I just jotted down.
FORMA's sound, too, is in a state of constant flux. Coming together in late 2008, first as a duo then a trio with the addition of Bennett (who handles drum machines, as well as that SamplePad), their trajectory has been forceful and resolutely forward-looking. In three short years, they've journeyed from droning minimalism to proggy hypo-rock to (currently) an electronic mélange of pointillist melodies and motorik drive. Between their eponymous 2011 debut for Spectrum Spools and OFF/ON this growth was particularly radical. Where the former hums and bobs in a warm bath of optimism, the latter lunges, plunges and spurts with prickly nervousness. That same sense of what culture writer Erik Davis has described as "musical mysticism manifested... through electronics" is still there, yet it's badgered by raw emotion that on more than a few occasions threatens to blow apart the group's craftily tuned sense of propulsion.
These qualities actually revealed themselves to me before I even heard the new album. It was several months prior, during FORMA's end-of-summer performance at Voice of the Valley, the annual American noise festival in rural West Virginia. Both Dwinell and Bennett say their blistering set, which featured several piece from OFF/ON, was a watershed moment; things clicked in ways they never had before. When thinking back on the gig (far and away the best I caught in 2012), I now realize just how right-on Millrod's spaceship metaphor is.
With Nautical Almanac's psychedelic lights throbbing and radiating in time to the hallucinatory music, there was Bennett on stage right, head buried in his drum machines, in the engine room, so to speak, ensuring the ship's motor never stopped churning. Dwinell, meanwhile, stood dead center. As the engineer, he directed and monitored FORMA's incessantly mutating patterns, a task that involved a small, stutter-step dance: either he was shifting backwards, carefully surveying what his mates were up to, or he was sidling up to his gear, making vital adjustments via all manner of knobs, buttons and levers. As for Lam, the astronaut over on stage left, she exuded the most living-in-the-now abandon of the three. When the trio really started to burn, as they did on "OFF," her head gradually tilted back and up, towards the nighttime sky. The rest of her, meanwhile, swayed as if it was a metronome made of melted rubber. A classically trained pianist before turning to synthesizers, she appeared to be riding those searing string arrangements she devises out past Jupiter.
Maybe kosmische is an overused term. Yet when FORMA fire on all cylinders it really is the only descriptor that feels appropriate.
Burrowing deeper into our conversation, it becomes quite clear that communication between Bennett, Lam and Dwinell—all of them articulate, well-educated—is unlike that of most outfits I've interviewed over the years. FORMA haven't designated a spokesperson, nor do they have a clear-cut "leader." What's more, the band doesn't engage in a whole lot of freely flowing banter. Rather, there exists a specific (if unspoken) procedure: for every question posed, each one takes a turn giving his or her unique response. Afterwards, a space for open dialog is established, wherein any dissenting opinions and alternate views are measured, compared and further developed. Consensus is sometimes reached, but is clearly not essential. The entire process, rigorous and thoughtful in a putting-politics-into-practice kind of way, makes me feel as though I'm attending a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting in the early '60s.
Here's but a small taste: we're discussing that heightened emotionality I detect in OFF/ON. Am I accurate? And if so, what happened in the last year to cause it?
Bennett opts to go first. "I don't think of FORMA as a means by which I express my emotions or domestic issues or, say, stress at work. Of course, it's impossible for that stuff not to come out in some way. But I think 'hermetic' is the right word to use—there's just something about FORMA that feels sealed off. It's a very abstract thing for me."
"That's not how I see it at all," counters Lam, with that balance of politeness and blunt honesty common among people who spend significant time together. "We all have so many roles we play in our own universes—jobs, families, other responsibilities—that it's hard not to internalize what goes on in these different realms. (For me it was a difficult year, but that's not something I feel like going into.) But that might also be a function of the fact that I'm not locked in as much as George in terms of the drum patterns and stuff like that. What Mark and I do has more to do with the layering."
Dwinell, finding merit in the others' viewpoints, dovetails them into his own. "I think part of that emotionality you speak of is just the result of time and evolution," he says. "The first record was our adolescent phase, us discovering how we play with another. And OFF/ON is more about us growing up, playing out more, having discussions, having disagreements, etc. Yet I also bring my personal politics to the music. This past year was a crazy time. What went on politically in New York was very inspiring. I went down to Occupy [Wall Street] a lot and watched it grow week by week. I saw a lot of bravery, stupidity and brutality. It was scary and intellectually intense, but also tedious and boring—the whole bag. I offered myself up for arrest, which was an expression of my gratitude, as the experience inspired a certain gravity and emotional expansion to my work in FORMA."
We then dive into the nut and bolts of their creative process. What I quickly learn is that how they interact with one another in the interview setting is, in many vital respects, a microcosm of how they work together as musicians. There's that same steadfast commitment to collective action and procedural consistency.
The group is, at its core, a creature of improvisation and experimentation (though they've also composed numerous pieces, including the aforementioned "OFF," the new record's lead track). Furthermore, jamming and recording are one and the same endeavor.
"We work on, at most, two ideas per session," says Dwinell. "The jams are usually 15 to 20 minutes each."
But where the music really begins to take shape is in the following phase: FORMA' s intensive editing meetings. This is when each jam is laboriously sculpted and carved. As Dwinell goes on explain, "The review process involves trying to find the gold through a lot of deep listening—just listening and listening." It also includes heavy talks amongst the three: what works, what doesn't, how should each track begin and end, etc.
According to Bennett, this review process reached new levels of immersion during the making of OFF/ON. "This record is way more collaborative," he points out. "There are the times we jam together, but then there are the times when we sit together and listen to all these recordings, thinking about what we want to create. Basically, we play together, we listen together, we talk about it—but we don't always agree."
This line of thought spurs Bennett to revisit the topic of politics, during which he says something that nails the group's atypical relationship: "For me politics represents ambiguity and complexity, and I think the way we interact also represents this ambiguity and complexity."
What's striking is how the music emerging from this ambiguity and complexity doesn't feel at all burdened by it. Which isn't to imply it lacks depth or is simplistic. As touched on earlier, OFF/ON is a remarkably expressive record. Just about every track is a world-in-miniature riddled with its own worries and joys, victories and defeats. On "FORMA286B" (most of the group's song titles adhere to this peculiar cataloging system) Bennett uncorks a torrent of agitated percussion, which Dwinell and Lam then attempt to pacify with coolly serenading orchestration (synthesized strings, woodwinds, brass). But this only causes Bennett to ratchet things up, resulting in a deliciously poly-phasing stalemate.
On top of all this, their music possesses enough space to house each member's musical trajectory. I already mentioned Lam's classical upbringing, but in both "FORMA278" (synth-pop splendor slipping elegantly between Stereolab's Mars Audiac Quintet and O.M.D's Dazzle Ships) and "Mécanique" (11 thrilling minutes of futuristically pulsating communal rave-up) you can hear plainly the other musicians' respective roots in rock and indie music. Both of Dwinell's previous projects, Bright and Nonloc, were also preoccupied with rhythmic repetition and minimalism. As for Bennett, he was brought into the band for his drumming expertise. "I took my full set to our first session," he says. "I had no idea how to operate a drum machine at all, nor was it remotely in my head that my future as a musician would lay in machines."
But again, none of this muddles the exquisite immediacy of the group’s music: its crisp lines, its clean structures, the way it flows in and through the ear canals with ease and smart efficiency. I can totally understand why FORMA—though thoroughly engrossed in technology in their own way—also express weariness over its will to increasing complexity. It’s because their sound is a reflection of a man-machine humanism that feels refreshingly anachronistic in our current age of inescapable digital mediation and Internet saturation.
Bennett sums this up when he posits, "One thing I keep thinking about is how we have to interact with technology on such unprecedented levels. The technological engagement of FORMA is completely different. There's a really clear set of parameters that we work in. It's a way to engage the technology that doesn't feel antagonistic."