Airick Woodhead’s first foray into music as Doldrums came in the form of a soundtrack to a collaged VHS tape he made after raiding his parents’ video library. The standout track was illustrated by a short tale involving Santa Claus arriving on earth from outer space. Musically, it also sounded like it had been beamed in from another world. A percussive stab plucked straight out of Bollywood, a beat ripped from Missy Elliott, and Woodhead’s anguished staccato howl of the song’s title, “I’m Homesick Sittin’ Up Here In My Satellite”.
Woodhead says the initial impetus behind Doldrums developed during a stagnant period of his life – the doldrums being a “feeling I wanted to escape from” – and he intended to use music to break free. His first year of work was then collated and released as Empire Sound by No Pain In Pop. It was the sound of a specific 21st-century alienation, of experience mediated by technology and a lonely digital existentialism.
If the early recordings were marked by a feeling of anger and futility reflected in what he calls a cheap sound, his next release, the Egypt 12-inch, pushed his music away from its lo-fi cut-and-paste origins into something more ambitious and nuanced.
Now on the cusp of releasing his full-length debut, Lesser Evil, Woodrick finds himself drawn to the grandiosity the format allows. “Lesser Evil is about the duality of experience between innocence and anxiety,” he says. “I was thinking specifically about all these neuroses we have about who we are and what we’re doing, but contrasted with the immediacy of reality, both of those modes of living have problems attached to them if you stray too far into either one.”
The Doldrums moniker was inspired by the magical realm in Norton Juster’s children’s novel The Phantom Tollbooth: a place devoid of colour and happiness. The book is a story about a boy discovering wonder in his own world. During our conversation, Woodhead admits to having just rewatched The NeverEnding Story, another tale of a boy consumed by an imaginary land that acts as a form of escape from his own life. Lesser Evil was originally going to be called Fantasia – building on the notion that the magic of art and the imagination can take you into another, purer, realm – but the tension in Doldrums’ sound comes through the idea that these imaginary realms aren’t entirely safe; that escapism requires something to escape from. As the refrain of “Jump Up” points out: “I had a bad dream / now I’m stuck in it / just a kid who’s seen too many movies.”
“I think childhood anxiety is something suppressed and not discussed in our society,” says Woodhead. “Childhood is seen as this very pure state, but when you’re actually there, and eight years old, it’s quite terrifying. In general that dichotomy between beauty and purity, versus anxiety and negativity, is what all my music is about.”
Like the heroes of his favourite childhood stories who lose themselves in imaginary worlds, Woodhead’s music forms an artistic barrier against the anxiety and negativity of modernity. In short, he seeks what he refers to as the “psychedelic catharsis of music as a form of escapism. I want an hour where I don’t have to feel all these things bearing down on me. I want to create this world for myself.”
Lesser Evil is released by Souterrain Transmissions on February 25.