Kraftwerk, motorik beats, New York synthcore, free jazz and lashings of psych. Deeply and thrillingly eclectic, the new album from Arizona duo Trees Speak is one heck of a sonic brew

You’ve got your finger on the pulse, right? You’ve got both eyes on the ball and various other parts of your body plugged into the zeitgeist. But here’s a band who might have passed you by. A band whose international tour last year took them from America’s southwestern states to Soho via Paris and Primavera. A band that produced five albums between 2017 and 2021.

Let’s meet Trees Speak. Their psychedelic instrumentals contain colours of krautrock and post-punk, more than a smattering of Kraftwerk, and healthy dollops of synthy movie soundtracks. In their musical textures, you’ll pick out tones of Neu!, Pink Floyd, John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, Add N To (X), David Holmes and Can. Which sounds ambiguous and non-committal, like your sister’s dull boyfriend saying he listens to “a bit of everything, really”.

‘Mind Maze’, the group’s sixth album, pinballs from claustrophobic minor-key jams to hazy lounge ambience. ‘Sospetto’ feels like an interlude from a 1960s spy film. ‘Odyssey’ is flute free-jazz in the boudoir of the imagination. ‘Machines Speak’ is a motorik techno quartet in a rage because they have accidentally recorded over their ‘Knight Rider’ VHS tapes. All of which makes this sound like a collection of extended ‘Halleluwah’-style loop jams, yet it’s powerfully pithy. Only two of the 19 tracks break the four-minute mark.

To extend the movie analogy, this is no ‘Everything Everywhere’ endless bagel blathering. It’s the opening montage of the Pixar animation ‘Up’ – track after track after track.

I’m talking to the two band members via video call, and there’s a hurdle to scale before a single word is exchanged. Damian Diaz is based in Brooklyn, New York, with his clocks set to Eastern Daylight Time. Daniel Martin Diaz lives in Tucson, Arizona, spending his days in the gloriously named Mountain Standard Time.

Images of weathered goats wearing Rolexes spring to mind. And then there’s Electronic Sound, working to our stuffy old Greenwich Mean Time. This leaves us simultaneously chatting in the morning, afternoon and evening, our time zones as expansive as the music itself.

“Man, I don’t know if you’ve been to Brooklyn, but that place is chaos,” says Daniel in Tucson. “It’s like London, you know?”

He contrasts Damian’s city life in the shadow of Manhattan to his own cactus-studded Arizona Sun Corridor. This area is home to The Orb’s “little fluffy clouds” and new age ambienteer Steve Roach. The geographical disparity between city and wilderness feeds into the band, says Daniel.

“I’m in the desert where it’s crystals and people burning incense. Some of our more sequential stuff contains the vastness of those landscapes, you know?”

Even their name, Trees Speak, refers to a kind of duality, referencing a possible eventuality in which trees store data and communicate with each other. Nature meets technology: an internet made of wood. They came across this idea while attending a lecture at a Californian futurist think tank.

This is Trees Speak’s first media interview. Sure, there have been online Q&As, but for a band whose musical passion is as hippy and outflowing as a severed hookah pipe, they’ve been keeping themselves to themselves.

“We’ve turned down every interview,” says Daniel. “This feels weird. I prefer the mythology, with people making up their mind of what we’re about as opposed to us defining ourselves.”

Daniel is an open book. He waxes lyrical about production methods, his collaborators and his favourite records. He often throws answers over to the quieter Damian, who’s calling from his home studio. The conversation is free and easy, as if they’ve been doing these kinds of interviews for years. And yet, because this is a band shrouded in relative anonymity, when I push too much, the Trees stop speaking.

“You’re brothers, right?” I ask.

Absolute silence. They just look at me, hoping either to stare me out or magick the question out of existence.

Another beat, then Daniel reluctantly says, “We’re family, yeah.”

More silence.

That “yeah” was non-committal as opposed to a confirmation. I still don’t know the nature of their kinship. Don’t expect too much biographical exposition in this article. Trees Speak are not keen on puncturing too many holes in their own folklore. Which makes sense, because the title of ‘Mind Maze’ references one of the greatest myths of all time. Sit up straight. It’s time for a lesson.

In ancient Crete, King Minos ordered Daedalus to construct a legendary labyrinth – that’s Daedalus, the father of feathered failure Icarus, not the foppish Santa Monica electronic musician once signed to Plug Research. At the centre of this labyrinth was the Minotaur – top half bull, bottom half man. As it turned out, the maze was rubbish because it was bested by Theseus wielding a bit of string, like a rejected ‘Taskmaster’ task that never made it to air, only more Athenian.

And the point of all this? Trees Speak see the concept of the labyrinth as a psychological conundrum at the heart of their latest album.

“Usually, labyrinths were designed to protect the wealth of the leaders,” explains Daniel. “So they would always have a Minotaur or some secret code or whatever protecting the gold. But the Minotaur would cast a spell on the labyrinth, so anybody who entered it again got lost.”

He equates this to the long and winding journey of album creation, to endless corridors within corridors and “all these weird doors that open in the hierarchy of your psychology”.

Like the Minotaur, ‘Mind Maze’ is a beast of two distinct halves. It was recorded at Brooklyn’s Mighty Toad Recording Studio last summer, with studio owner Craig Dreyer on engineer duties as well as throwing in a load of flute and saxophone. The first half comprises songs ping-ponged between Damian and Daniel. The more textural second half contains studio sessions with collaborators, including singer-songwriter Gabriel Sullivan, owner of Tucson studio Dust & Stone, and violinist Ben Nisbet from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

“While we were recording the second half, we were pleased about how organic everything sounded,” says Damian. “It had a really nice movement that happened naturally.”

“Ben’s strings added an emotional element that took things to another level,” continues Daniel. “He plays strings for the orchestra, but he also plays metal guitar. He’s an interesting guy.”

Despite Trees Speak letting a metalhead into the room, this is without question an electronic music album. Their vibraphone-hazed track ‘Minotaur’ could easily be lifted from a classic era of trip hop. ‘Black Phone’, with its melancholy synth buzzes, may well be a Massive Attack collaboration. They claim to be aiming for a science-fiction feel, what Damian calls “Radiophonic Workshop stuff”, yet they’re working with limitations.

“We don’t have a load of synths with all those buttons and chords,” explains Daniel. “We just have the [Moog] Grandmother, the Prophet and the JX-3P. We are so minimal because we want to get that basic oscillator sound without lots of bells and whistles.”

They refer to the simplicity of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Kraftwerk, and to an unexpectedly more fantastic world.

“You know when Willy Wonka puts the boot in the pot and you hear the bubbles?” adds Daniel. “And then you’re in the laboratory with all those sounds? That’s what we’re going for. Nothing fancy.”

Gene Wilder’s child-troubling chocolate peddler was not on the bingo card for a ‘Mind Maze’ interview. You can appreciate Trees Speak’s gradual synth transformation by listening to their self-titled 2017 debut, which is more guitar-focused, despite the occasional electronic bass and a spectacular oscillator jam halfway through.

It’s a reminder that there are indeed five previous long-players and that you, dear reader, probably have a lot of catching up to do (like when we all discovered the famously dense television series ‘The Wire’ way too late). After their debut, and before this latest release, Trees Speak put out four albums on Soul Jazz in two short years. I’m going to list them all, so have a pen and paper handy.

First there was ‘OHMS’ in the spring of 2020, which immediately made a satisfying dent in year-end lists. Some months later came ‘Shadow Forms’, its title no doubt inspired by the 44-minute psych rock-out that is ‘Shadow Circuit’ from their debut. The following spring saw the release of ‘PostHuman’. Praised for its cinematic scope, this one doubled down on the Diaz duo’s John Carpenter obsession.

Then, later in 2021, they unleashed the epic ‘Vertigo Of Flaws’. This 29- track monster ended up as one of Mojo magazine’s best electronic albums of the year, despite a difficult genesis.

“We recorded most of it in lockdown,” says Daniel. “We were both going through lots of emotional stuff and we were worried about that. But when we got back to the studio, we just gelled again. It’s such a symbiotic relationship.”

The album’s full title is ‘Vertigo Of Flaws: Emancipation Of The Dissonance And Temperaments In Irrational Waveforms’. Going through stuff indeed.

As a rate of production, Trees Speak’s is comparable to that of The Fall, Anthony Burgess or Kylie-era PWL. Daniel remembers a slightly snooty Discogs review that said, “At this rate, they’ll probably knock out another LP by the time you finish reading this.”

“They were roasting us,” says Daniel. “But I loved it. I was cracking up.”

Pushing their productivity is the style-hopping London label, Soul Jazz. Essentially a library label, it’s an unlikely home for them. Their recent vinyl re-releases include historic reggae funk, early 1970s proto-punk and, on their ‘Deutsche Elektronische Musik’ series, a deep dive into krautrock. Founder Stuart Baker runs the label from an office above a record shop in Soho. The building, incidentally, was the location for The Rolling Stones’ first-ever band rehearsal.

“There’s no bureaucracy there, man,” says Daniel. “We have friends in bands that have finished a record, and while they’re still getting the packaging designed, we’ve already put two albums out.”

“Stuart allows us entire creative freedom,” says Damian. “They’ve also released so much music that is inspiring to us – it’s a beautiful relationship.”

When pressed about their creative process, it all sounds enticingly vague. Damian talks about “tinkering” and “spending a long time just absorbing” and “making a few ditties here and there”. As for rehearsal time, forget it.

“We never really know what we’re going to get from a recording session,” says Damian. “The songs all end up being entirely different. It’s almost like painting abstractly.”

“Totally,” agrees Daniel. “We embrace chaos. One time, when we were in the studio in Brooklyn, Craig said, ‘Man, I got this great microphone – it’s a stereo mic’. Do you remember what that mic was, Damian?”

“Yeah, it was this very rare vintage Neumann and it was his baby,” says Damian. “He was going on and on and on about the cool sound we were going to get. And then the moment we started recording, only one of the channels worked. He spent an hour trying to fix it. So we recorded with it not working. But who cares? Whatever the universe is providing us with at the time, that’s what we go with.”

This is the same band that started their creative relationship by setting up a bunch of gear in a local art gallery. After closing time, they switched on a fog machine and a light projector, and pressed record on a portable 8-track recorder.

“Close the curtains, then fog it out,” says Damian.

“The only thing we discussed when we started was doing minimalism,” adds Daniel. “Just playing one note then building on it. Damian would experiment on guitar, and I’d experiment with the synths, and that’s what we’re still trying to capture. The innocence of the creative process.”

“The fewest number of takes possible,” emphasises Damian. “Keep all the flubs in, because then you can hear the musician.”

Mind Maze’ possibly marks the end of Trees Speak’s chatty era. Although they are likely to tour again soon, they don’t have any plans for a new album. Well, not right now, anyway.

“We kind of go with the flow,” says Damian.

Daniel, however, has a proposal.

“I haven’t told Damian this, but there’s an idea that’s been bubbling up in my head,” he says.

“I want to make a record that’s ambient, but not ambient.”

“We spoke about this,” corrects Damian.

“I just love those Tangerine Dream records,” Daniel continues, unabashed. “Man, I used to go to sleep to those things. We could create a record that embraces those early ambient records, with a weird atmosphere.”

I ask Damian if he’s up for Daniel’s ambient idea.

“Yeah, this is what I want to know right now,” says Daniel.

Damian gives me that stare again.

“The next album is reggaeton,” he deadpans.

End of discussion. Definitely brothers, right?

You’re now fully up to speed on Trees Speak. Your finger is more firmly on the pulse, you’ve got even more eyes on the ball. Whichever part of your body is plugged into the zeitgeist, you can pull it out now.

My final question is a cry for help – where does a new listener begin with so much output? Daniel has the answer.

“You should start from the beginning and keep going.”

‘Mind Maze’ is out on Soul Jazz

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