"Did you do the planetarium yet?" asks Matt Sheehy, the singer-songwriter behind Lost Lander, as he squeezes his lanky frame into my Hyundai Sonata and spots a copy of his new album sitting on the passenger seat. I have no idea what he's talking about. He picks up the cardboard CD case and folds the sides together, forming a triangle-shaped box. He then holds his cell phone up to a quarter-sized hole on one side and turns on a flashlight app, sending light pouring through several dozen small punctures on the other panels. In the mid-evening darkness, it creates a miniature star map on the ceiling of my car. Each fictional constellation represents a different song on the record, he says.
Neat gimmick, I must admit.
But Sheehy insists the creative packaging is not just a marketing ploy: It's a physical representation of the record's overarching theme. No, DRRT is not a concept album about the cosmos. It does, however, deal with mankind's relationship to the universe; specifically, the relationship between nature and technology. Across the record's 11 tracks, produced with spacious warmth by Ramona Falls' Brent Knopf, Sheehy makes references to rain, the tides, and cold wind blowing "through your bones," while expressing an unease about a world overflowing with "too much information." The title—a vaguely computerized spelling of "dirt"—is meant to suggest the intermingling of the organic and the electronic. And for Sheehy, space is part of that dichotomy.
"If you think about it, outer space is nature, too," he says later, sipping a hot toddy upstairs at North Portland's Interurban. "It's the ultimate nature."
Nature is something Sheehy, a native of Juneau, Alaska, knows a bit about. After the breakup of his first band, the electro-rock duo Gravity and Henry, in 2005, Sheehy entered his wilderness years—literally. He took a forestry job on the Oregon coast, dividing his time between Portland—where he'd come to jam with other musicians—and Oceanside, where he lived, worked and, in his words, did a good deal of âexistential crisising.â
It was during that time Sheehy befriended Knopf. Gravity and Henry had played a few shows with Knopf's former group, Menomena, before splitting up, but the two really got to know each other when Sheehy portrayed the Grim Reaper in Menomena's video for its song "Wet and Rusting." (Sheehy had previously dabbled in acting; his biggest role was starring in a pro-gay rights ad produced for MTV.) "I immediately trusted anything he said, because I respected him so much," Sheehy says of Knopf, who helped Sheehy record his first solo album, 2008's Tigerphobia.
For DRRT, Sheehy and Knopf's partnership increased to the point of nearly a full-on collaboration. The pair often worked back to back in tiny rooms on the coast and along Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Knopf's studio proficiency grew Sheehy's songs—simple enough at their core to be sung around a campfire, Sheehy says—into lush, evocative creations. Even more than in the lyrics, the "nature meets technology" theme is in the music itself: Acoustic guitars, strings and heavily percussive drums loop and sway around strategically placed synthesizer blips and encroachments of digital noise. Although bigger, musically and thematically, than the introspective Tigerphobia—something the full Lost Lander live band helps bring across—DRRT maintains an undercurrent of intimate melancholy, particularly on the haunting lament "Afraid of Summer" and the closing "Your Name Is a Fire," a love song written after a relationship had already begun to fray.
Of course, no one who'd make an album that can transform into a planetarium can be that much of a downer. To fund the light boxes, Sheehy launched a Kickstarter campaign, featuring videos parodying a PBS telethon. Appropriately, he doesn't think of the planetariums as a novelty to sell records but as a gift for donors.
"Making CDs seems weird to me. I don't understand why people want to buy them," Sheehy says. "It feels so much more satisfying to think somebody might buy something and then use it and have it around, show it to their kids or just enjoy it, or feel a little bit of magic in their lives.â