Armchair rockstars

Smaller is bigger: William Cashion and Bruce Willen trade punk and synth-pop backgrounds for the atmospheric and experimental instrumentals of Peals.

While most bands are looking to upsize, working from small stages to full-on arenas, Baltimore, Md.-based Peals is taking a smaller-is-better approach. “We recently played a tea room in Philadelphia,” says guitarist William Cashion. “It was the smallest venue I’ve ever played. I could reach my arm out and touch somebody. But it ended up being one of the best shows.”

That’s because the band (an experimental duo with multi-instrumentalist Bruce Willen) is, according to its bio, an “exploratory headphone panorama of the highest order.” How do they translate that experience — the lithe jangle, warm resonance, enveloping melodies and inquisitive cadenzas — to a live show? “We try to create a living room atmosphere when we perform,” says Cashion. The duo actually travels with a homey lamp, which they set up on stage. “We try our best to let the songs meld together, and hopefully we take the audience to a place.”

Peals wants to go to the parochial villages and unusual venues, to the places where “we can make something weird happen,” says Cashion. He and Willen are both from small towns, both grew up appreciating weird happenings. These days, they both live in Baltimore where, says Cashion, rent is cheap, the scene is supportive and it’s a great springboard for touring artists.

But the two musicians met back when Cashion lived in N.C. with his other band, synth-pop outfit Future Islands. Willen reached out over MySpace and suggested his band (now-defunct noise-punk group Double Dagger) should play a show with Future Islands. The two bands met at Whartscape, an annual celebration of Baltimore’s underground arts and culture, hosted by the Wham City collective. “To see them live was really something: It was a powerful, crazy show,” Cashion says of Double Dagger. They took a number of tours together after Future Islands relocated to Baltimore, and Willen is the one who passed the Future Islands demo along to the Thrill Jockey label (which also released Peals’ debut, Waking Field, last month).

“We’ve always talked about the possibility of working on some kind of project,” says Cashion. “I felt like we were cut from the same sort of cloth.” He and Willen have long shared a mutual respect, which makes sense: They’re both bass players in their respective bands.

Surprisingly, there’s no bass to be found on Waking Field’s eight tracks. No drum kit or computers, either. “It was such a departure from anything I’ve done before,” says Cashion. “We were just wanting to experiment with other sounds and see what other kinds of textures we could come up with.” The album boasts electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, toy pianos, tambourines, walkie-talkies and a field recording of a campfire.

“Floating Leaf” launches the album with warm tones and a jaunty folk-blues cadence. “Lonestar” is haunted by burnished guitar reverberations through its sludgy strata. “Belle Air” is almost architectural in its stacking of sounds — “One of those happy mistakes,” Cashion says, with no overdubs.

At early shows, Cashion suspects the audience was expecting something loud or punk or dance-y (an amalgamation of Future Islands and Double Dagger). Instead, the songs are layered and thoughtful, rhythmically meditative, organic and expansive. Peals’ sound is also melodic and accessible.

Cashion says that both he and Willen have pop sensibilities that sneak into the dissonance and atmospherics of Peals. Some songs contain an unspoken narrative — falling leaves here, a cartoon robber there. (Cashion points out that Willen would probably say something different.) If all of that suggests randomness, that’s not the case. Initial trails-and-errors eventually blazed promising pathways. “The process was special,” says Cashion. “We wanted to document what we were doing last summer.”

And now, though Waking Field is perfectly at home in a pair of headphones, scoring a personal moment, Peals wants to share its creation. So far the response has been worthy of the cozy, approachable, intimate mood the band sets out to create. Cashion and Willen have the Future Islands and Double Dagger fan bases to drawn from; they also realize that some fans of those bands won’t jump on board with the exploratory instrumentals of Peals. But, says Cashion, “We’re finding a new audience that neither of us had through our other bands.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

who: Peals (with Small Sur, Difference Clouds and Body of John the Baptist)
where: Apothecary
when: Sunday, June 9 (7 p.m. documentary If We Shout Loud Enough about Baltimore underground music scene; 9 p.m. music. $7-$10.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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