Thomas Howard and Atlanta Dreampop: An Interview with Orchid Mantis by Kelli Redding

Thomas Howard and Atlanta Dreampop: An Interview with Orchid Mantis by Kelli Redding

by Kelli Redding

Orchid Mantis is the glowing dream-pop project of Atlanta musician Thomas Howard. Last month I reviewed his most recent record with Orchid Mantis, Yellow House, a lush mirage of experimental guitar and synth-driven pop bliss. I was recently able to interview him about Yellow House, his inspirations for songwriting, and his plans for the band this year.

Hey Thomas. We’ve really been enjoying the latest Orchid Mantis album Yellow House over at Somewherecold. I recently published a review of it on our site and had a lot of fun really analyzing both the feelings and instrumentation within the record. What does this album mean to you?

Like anything else I’ve released, the themes and subject matter of Yellow House developed through intuition and unconscious connections more than any actual focused approach – that’s something I’ve sometimes struggled with in my songwriting, trying to reign in my impulses and make choices/direct things intentionally rather than instinctively. However, at this point I’ve made my peace with that to an extent, because as much as my last two albums (Flashbulb Memory, Kulla Sunset) each felt utterly incoherent during the recording process, when sitting with the finished songs and working on the visual elements I could easily identify where the songs pulled from my present situations, and the books, films, etc. that made a mark on the album. During that curative stage, a narrative would became clear in an organic way. That said, recording Yellow House I did feel a lot more confident lyrically and maybe more deliberate in both the instrumentation and thematic material than I have been previously. It’s still an explorative, free-form thing, and I consider imagery and emotions a lot more than anything personal when I write – I can’t ever sit down to play music about something that happened to me, it’s always the reverse, where I sit down in a receptive mood and search for a sound that has an atmospheric foundation I can build on. However, because the majority of the recordings were made in the span of a month or so (which was entirely new for me), I was able to focus in on a certain feeling of displacement and transition that was influenced by my experience moving between homes, and build the visual elements and track titles around that. So in both the subject matter and my experience recording it, Yellow House is really all about growth for me.

It’s clear that your music is influenced by a wide musical background. I sense elements of dream pop, electronic music, and even some more guitar-driven rock. What have been some of your main musical influences over the past few years while writing music as Orchid Mantis?

I’m really interested in the intersection of experimental approaches to music and accessible pop structures – that’s just the taste I’m wired with for whatever reason. Originally, the project was inspired by my introduction to 4-track cassette recorders and other alternative ways of capturing/manipulating sound, which sort of opened up this whole array of broader musical currents found in every genre, ambient or pop or both: stuff like sampling, alternative recording methods, heavy effects, all of that. I cycle between moodier, insular artists like Duster and Mount Eerie, and higher fidelity, more upbeat artists like Atlas Sound and The Radio Dept, and I’ll often get obsessive about one particular idea – in the case of the past few months it’s been bare-bones 4-track songwriting. In the end though, the songs are always most heavily defined by my use of samples, guitar-oriented songwriting, and a lo-fi/”dreamy” approach to production, which is just the niche I’ve found myself in.

We’ve seen Yellow House listed as one of the best local albums of 2018 in Atlanta. What is the indie music scene like there?

I feel pretty lucky to be a part of the Atlanta scene, although to this day I’ve operated online more than anything else and have a limited knowledge of the community as a result. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences though, and while we have gone through the painful loss of several venues in the last couple years, I’m really just thankful that Atlanta has such an expansive DIY scene and lots of avenues for reaching audiences that just don’t exist in other places.

I love the Yellow House album art and I think it fits the vibe of the album perfectly. Did you design it?

Thank you! I can’t say all the art is my own, since in the past I’ve incorporated some old public domain photographs and thrift store finds (along with my own film photography) into my album art and other visual elements, but I haven’t worked with anyone else on art yet – definitely open to it though! In the last few years, I’ve been experimenting with collages both digital and handmade the last few years and started incorporating it into the visuals for Orchid Mantis, so I really wanted to continue that for this one, especially since I sort of went a different route with the Kulla Sunset cover. The background is a film photograph of the titular yellow house, with additional materials I cut-and-pasted on top that were sourced from a 1950s nature magazine I picked up from an antique store – I’m lucky I picked such a generic title because I was actually able to cut the words “yellow” and “house” straight out of the magazine.

What are your musical plans for the rest of 2019? Will you be playing any tour dates this year or releasing other new music?

I still don’t feel quite ready to put together a tour but maybe this’ll be the year? I’m always working on new tunes, so like 2018, my plan is to stay diligent and keep things coming. I’m pretty set on an EP, actually 2 EPs with two wholly different approaches, because that’s just how things are happening right now. With Yellow House, I wanted to challenge myself to make something hi-fi and accessible, and it’s left me in an odd place where I’m genuinely inspired to push that further – I’m really excited about some of the demos coming out of that approach at the moment – but it’s also had a backlash effect where I’ve become pretty set on making something a lot more low-key and minimal. These things change fast though and rarely turn out how I expect, so something totally different could happen in the end, who knows!

What other new artists would you recommend checking out that may have passed under our radar?

Melaina Kol! His split with waveform* was incredible, especially the title track. Give it a listen and buy the tape, it’s worth your time especially if you like the sort of artists I mentioned before!


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