Sugar Candy Mountain Makes a Good ‘Impression’
Hypnotic psychedelia with a deep groove is the musical stock in trade of Oakland’s Sugar Candy Mountain. Led by multi-instrumentalists Will Halsey and Ash Reiter, the group debuted with a self-released, self-titled album in 2011. Swimming in the same pool of influences that informs modern-day acts like Khruangbin, The Allah-Las and even the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sugar Candy Mountain is more firmly rooted in classic pop values than many of their contemporaries. The group’s irresistible melodies and lush-yet uncluttered arrangements make for some alluring listening.
Ten years and six albums after their start, Reiter and Halsey – joined by producer and fellow multi-instrumentalist Jason Quever – have returned with Impression, the group’s most fully realized effort to date. There’s a cohesiveness to the album’s 13 songs, but there’s variety, too. That comes from the frequent change-up of who’s-playing-what on a given track.
“Part of it comes down to if we’re recording together live,” Reiter explains. The last track on Impression, “Please Don’t Look Away” was recorded in Quever’s L.A. studio (he has since relocated to the Bay Area). “For that one, I played bass, because I had written the bass line,” Reiter says. “Will was on drums, because he’s the best drummer [among] the three of us. And that left Jason for guitar.”
Other songs on Impression got their start at Halsey and Reiter’s home studio setup, where they would sometimes be joined by their new neighbor Quever. So sometimes, Reiter says, “it just comes down to, ‘Oh, I think your style would fit right here; could you come up with something?’”
As sessions for the new album began, the couple bought a couple of vintage ‘70s-era home organs; those machines’ distinctive texture is a central component of the album’s sound. We’ve got this one Lowrey that was the same [model] used for ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,’” Reiter says. “It was pretty exciting to get that on there.”
While many recording artists use the less-expensive (and often more reliable) sampled keyboards or computer-based soft synths, Sugar Candy Mountain prefers the real thing whenever possible. “We like to use a lot of vintage instruments,” Reiter says. “That’s something that we’ve always valued.”
That’s a real Mellotron (tape-based mechanical keyboard) on Impression. “As long as it’s working,” Reiter says with a laugh, “we always try to sneak it in. But half the time when we go to the studio, it’s, ‘Well, the Mellotron isn’t working today.’”
When it comes to live shows, the group isn’t a slave to those vintage gear fashions. “For one thing,” Reiter laughs, “we couldn’t move that Lowrey.” And Quever’s finicky Mellotron stays in the studio as well. “For the atmosphere of playing live, it’s less important to have the actual [vintage] keyboards,” Reiter says. “We’ve started bringing one of those MiniKorgs, because it’s the size of a laptop and only costs a couple hundred bucks.”
And as creatively useful as switching instruments in the studio can be, Sugar Candy Mountain doesn’t do much of that at their shows. “I think it’s cool showmanship to change things up,” Reiter admits. “But it can take you out of the flow if you’re like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to plug into this and move onto that.’”
Reiter says that the new album’s “Love Between” is influenced by one of her favorite artists: Shuggie Otis, who also happens to be a multi-instrumentalist. “He’s such a touchstone for me; I love his album Inspiration Information,” she says. “It’s one of those albums I’ve listened to a thousand times; it has such cool organ sounds and funky little grooves.”
And Sugar Candy Mountain draws inspiration from 1970s experimental krautrock, too. Reiter and Halsey were turned on to krautrock by fpodbpod guitarist Sean Olmstead, a member of the group in its earliest days (he guests on Impression as well). “Finding your way into those grooves and some of the kosmische guitar work from bands like Ash Ra Tempel really resonates with me,” Reiter says. And that music’s hypnotic quality is a trademark of her band’s style as well. “Controlled chaos,” she calls it.
On Impression, the trio of Reiter, Halsey and Quever is augmented on select tracks by Olmstead and/or four other musicians. But Reiter says that – for better or worse – Sugar Candy Mountain doesn’t give much thought in the studio to how the songs will eventually be played in a live setting. “I’ll write things where it’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time,” she laughs. “So we find ourselves in a conundrum: ‘Oh crap, now I have to figure out how to do this!’”
Reiter notes that some of the new songs’ vocal parts run counter to what she is doing on guitar at the same time. For live shows, the group has a simple solution to that challenge. “We’re going to be using five people in the band,” she says. “It’ll be a little different that way, and that will give me a chance on some songs to just focus on singing.”
Thanks to the collateral effects of the global pandemic, none of the guest players on Impression are part of the live Sugar Candy Mountain lineup. “All our guys who we’ve played with have found themselves in new life circumstances,” Reiter explains. “New jobs, back in school, having kids.”
Halsey and Reiter experienced some changes during the downtime, too; their second child was born in late Spring. And they’ve continued to record in their home studio. “We’re pretty satisfied with what we can do at home, and then we work with Jason for other things,” Reiter says. On one hand, she believes that Sugar Candy Mountain’s biggest change of late is moving more toward rocking, psychedelic sonic textures. She suggests that the new album’s track “The End” has a “Tomorrow Never Knows” vibe.
But then she rethinks the point she just made. “I always go back to writing songs that are more classic-styled,” she says. “And I think that Impression has the whole spectrum of what we’re into.”