In the past week, Brandon Locher has unveiled two new presentations of his art. One, his exhibit Mazes to the Motherlode, at The Bottleworks, in his hometown of Johnstown, is visual; it's ordered, intricate, bordering on obsessive. The other, It Happens Outside, a full-length vinyl by his sound-collage project The Meets, is everything the art exhibit isn't. It's messy. It's sculptural. It's built as much by chance as it is by Locher's close direction. It's sometimes hard to believe they both come from the same mind.
But that's Locher's modus. More than a singular artistic vision, the 28-year-old has built his reputation — and Johnstown's My Idea of Fun art-and-music collective, of which he's a central part — on nearly constant production, and a lot of variation.
"It's obsessive in its way — I'd maybe call it more, like, consuming," says longtime collaborator John Thorell, a cellist who has appeared on all of The Meets' records. "He's devoted to making his art. It feels like it's not really even effort to him; he has so many ideas, he can just keep doing this. He never seems to get tired. He keeps putting out good material."
Locher's art started early. Drawing came first.
"I have these memories as a child of being 4 or 5 and trying to draw these mazes," Locher recalls. "Then it wasn't right, and I'd rip up the page, take a tantrum. At the time, being 5, 6, 7, 10 years old and I'm drawing all the time — I have a collection of pens, all this nerdy shit. But at the time, I didn't have this greater understanding of art, or fine art. Or to understand even that, instead of drawing on these little notebooks I have, maybe I should purchase a roll of paper."
Locher's parents, while not artists themselves, are supporters of the arts; his father, Bill, works in banking, and sits on the board of trustees of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra. It was a supportive environment that benefited Brandon and his younger sister Olivia, also an artist.
"They didn't at any time tell us not to [pursue art]," Brandon says, "or push away our creativity or make us go in any direction that they thought would be better for our lives, our destiny, that kind of stuff."
After getting into rock music as a pre-teen, Locher became involved in a band, Elementary Thought Process, as a drummer; that took up much of his time in the mid-2000s. It also laid the groundwork for My Idea of Fun, as he and his bandmates became dissatisfied with the way being in a rock band worked.
"I think everyone who was involved with it — we were a five-piece at the time — we all felt like creatively we're so limited in the structure and the work flow that we're going through," he recalls. "You have a guy recording your record; you record and it's three months later and you're mixing it; and we were going on tour for, like, 10 months, losing our minds. That turnaround process — it would take two years to flush out an album.
"We were like, 'Things don't really need to work this way. We can get back to the source of making things, and just make things, and once they're done, throw them up on the My Idea of Fun website.'"
Including a few proto-My Idea of Fun releases from 2000 and 2001, and a few re-releases of Elementary Thought Process records, there are now over 260 My Idea of Fun releases. Many are online music releases; some are CDs; some are art books; The Meets' It Happens Outside is the first full-length vinyl release.
The Meets came about, like so many My Idea of Fun projects, as a chance collaboration. Cellist John Thorell and drummer Brandon Volkman, both of whom played with Endless Mike and the Beagle Club, got together on the spur of the moment in 2008 to record a drum-and-cello record.
"We got together, and I produced it; it was really fun and collaborative," says Locher. "Then for whatever reason, we all got tired, I think the one kid wanted to go get a hoagie. We parted ways, and we talked about getting back together the next day but we never did."
"Yeah, we never really did anything more with that, other than that first night we hung out with Brandon Locher and recorded some things," Thorell recalls. "And then all of a sudden there was this Meets record, a few weeks later."
It happened inside Locher's head, while no one else was looking.
"That night, this traveling musician named Adam Cullum stayed with me — the next night, I made a record with him. So he became the second track of the Meets record. He left, and a few days later, I'm thinking: Brandon Volkman meets John Thorell meets Brandon Locher meets Adam Cullum meets ... you know, Dave DiStefano, this guy I hung out with that week who plays his hand drum or whatever. So, taking that idea, I put together this sound-collage record in 2008, and the project was called The Meets."
That's the nature of what would become The Meets writ large: Locher starts with a plan (or a semblance of a plan), records musicians he knows playing parts that he might or might not give direction on, then takes the recordings and uses them as samples in a piece that may or may not end up sounding like what it started out as.
"What I was interested in was recording people playing objects. You have a piano sitting in a room; you may or may not notice that it's there. If someone hits a chord, you'll look over. Seeing this object, going back to those old ideas of ambient music — I was interested in recording this object, and the person playing that, and the person who could be credited to playing those samples, a lick, a part, anything like that. And naturally, kind of this fake ensemble was created out of that. The reason I say 'fake' is that none of these ensemble players in the recording or production of this were in the room with each other at the same time."
It Happens Outside also differs from the handful of previous Meets releases in that much of it centers on a drum-circle field recording Locher made in 2009; the drum sounds are a textural backdrop for a large portion of the record. This makes it a more organic-sounding recording than, say, last year's Conundrum, which more resembled the work of Nick Zammuto (who mastered It Happens Outside).
Locher unveiled It Happens Outside in conjunction with his exhibit opening on Sat., Sept. 28, playing recorded Meets tracks to accompany his pieces.
"Those things, he's sitting for hours, doing all of these 90-degree angles and tiny variations," says Meets collaborator Matt Miller, referring to the maze art in the current exhibit. "Over and over, forever, all by himself. But at the exact same time, he's doing The Meets. There's nothing in common. Yeah, it's layered and it's complicated, but The Meets is a lot of dice-rolling."
Both are indicative of Locher's artistic temperament, and his ability to find a balance between the perfectionism of a highly focused artist and the pragmatism that allows one to be productive.
"I've just always naturally been the kind of person who gets — not obsessed with things," Locher says. "But I liked to explore things completely."