“Oh, brother of mine, how was your year?” sings Newton Pritchett on “Don’t Fall Apart”, one of the singles off of a new record released earlier this year, Look at The Sky.
The lyrics, and the title, can reasonably be construed as a pointed reference to the challenges of 2020, but in fact the song was written in an Airbnb in Joshua Tree in 2019. That house was the seed of the new musical project Winds, originally formed by several Chicago scene alums who have since moved to LA. However, due to the pandemic and the associated lockdown, the album was delayed substantially and the first live performance even longer — until now. As it turns out, 2021 has been a banner year for Winds, who not only released their first record but also held their first-ever live performance as a full band, opening for SoCal psych-rock favorites the Allah-Lahs.
Says John Zabawa, who plays guitar and contributes vocals for Winds, “It was an awesome opportunity for this to be our very first show — we held off on taking anything and used it as our jump-off point to introduce ourselves. I couldn’t be more thrilled, it was a real diamond in the rough opportunity and the best case scenario. It was the light at the end of the tunnel during the pandemic.”
Brendan Peleo-Lazar, the band’s drummer, emphasizes how long the wait for the band was to perform the music. “We recorded the album over two years ago. COVID put a stop to shows like we had the other night.”
For Newton, who also contributes vocals and plays keyboard for the band, the live performance was not just the opportunity to finally perform as a new band after a long hiatus, but also to take on a new musical persona. “It was the first show I was singing without something in my hands; I’d mostly played guitar in the past. It’s been a dream of mine to just bounce around and sing.”
John, Brendan, Newton, and the lead guitarist, Nick Dehmlow, played together in Chicago before moving to LA three years ago. Sam Richards, the latest addition to the band, is also just now trying out a new instrument for Winds. Originally hailing from San Dimas (following rock legends Bill and Ted), Sam has rain checked his prior experience on the drums in favor of the buttery bass guitar on this first album.
In the end, it all came together beautifully, with a performance as polished and powerful as a band that had all been playing together for years. Nick and John’s bright guitar licks, Brendan’s energetic drums, and Sam’s solid, steady bass held down Newton’s soaring, often theatrical vocals, at times reminiscent of a young Bono or Julian Casablancas. Winds’ musical style had a recognizable SoCal breeziness with a psychedelic influence but is solidly rooted in classic rock n’ roll. After the band mentioned it was their first time playing live during the set, I was shocked to recognize an original song. “Mango Mango” is a single off of the new album with a memorable keyboard hook that was recorded some time ago.
And yet, the album, and therefore perhaps the band, almost never happened. “To give you the honest truth,” says John, “when we came to Joshua Tree to record this album we had like four songs, we had booked this Airbnb, and really the hinge on whether this album was going to get made or not was how long this Airbnb rental was. We had five nights and we were like, let’s just do these four songs, let’s not try to do an album, let’s see what happens. We covered that in the first night and a half, and then we had four more days left. So we wrote things on the spot and tried to listen back to old demos. It was a big gamble on our time there, but I’m really happy with the result.”
He continues, “When you’re at that stage, when you’re ready to record an album, you come in knowing the song, you have it all dialed in. In this case, the recording process informed the music and the other way around, so that songs were written and artistically created because of the nature of our session. It was more rolling with the punches. Me and Brendan, we didn’t have much rehearsal time either.”
Brendan teasingly corrects him. “None at all. Improv is great, though, I’m all for it.”
“My favorite story from recording,” says Newton, “is there was song that had no lyrics they had tracked it while I was outside somewhere in the desert [NB: probably on acid], and I was just like, roll it for me once, I’ll just sing nonsense over it to figure out what the voice should be doing in this song. One performance while I was vamping ended up having exactly the right vibe and we talked about releasing it with just the nonsense words. In the end I decided, I’m just going to listen to it like I’m hearing it for the first time and try to figure out what the lyrics are, assuming there were lyrics. I still can listen to that song in the same way you’d listen to someone else’s music, and I appreciate the process for that reason.”
The location may have also influenced the process. “It was a great spot, it had exactly the right vibe,” says John. “Mid-century furniture, clearly built in the 50s. We weren’t concerned about making noise because it was out in the desert.” The band moved all of the lovely furniture out of the way to record, but took painstaking notes on the location of each piece so they could move it back as if they had never been there. “It was one of those ask for forgiveness instead of for permission kind of things. After recording and mixing all the stuff we sent a message to the guy who we rented the place from and said, ‘we recorded this from your living room, I hope that’s okay.’ Much to our surprise, he absolutely loved the fact that we did what we did.”
The album was recorded, with mixing and mastering underway, before the pandemic began. The band had just signed with a newly created label. They released two singles, were preparing to release the album, and then everything came to a halt. “At first,” says John, “we said, let’s be patient and wait and release things when we can, and then finally it just came to a point where we wanted to release it, because it just needed to come out, and who honestly cares. COVID really fucked things up, not just for our band, but for everybody’s band, but it gave us time to reevaluate things and figure out how to become sharper. There’s no reference material for a band on how to navigate through a pandemic.”
Now, John says the band is looking forward. “We’re talking to friends to see what’s going on next year. We’ve started working on booking the first sessions in January for what I believe will be our second album. Newton, Brendan, Glenn [a friend of the band], and I had recorded the first album, and we’re excited to have Nick and Sam now. This is Winds, this is the final configuration. I’m more excited for our second album having two new members that can add to the music. I have no doubt in my mind saying our next album will be better, 100%. Because now we have more perspective and more experience.”
He adds, “In terms of musical direction, I think that’s yet to be determined.”
Maybe it will just depend on which way the winds happen to be blowing.
Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity. Look at The Sky is available from Natural Records and on Bandcamp.