, Salem, MA

January 16, 2014

Taking off with Underwater Airport

Local musicians thrive on improvising ... and let the music flow

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — As far as we know, Gulu-Gulu Cafe in Salem is neither a spaceship nor a temple. But if you go there Saturday night, when Underwater Airport is playing, there’s a chance you may be transported to another realm.

“For most of us, this is a very spiritual exercise,” said Ed Blomquist of Hamilton, a member of the band. “Music is a profound mechanism for transforming consciousness, and that power has been recognized in virtually every musical culture.”

The group plays ambient music that is neither rock ’n’ roll nor jazz, but it is always improvised, he said.

They have no doctrines to impart but are serious when they say they want to take you someplace where you’ve never been.

“The music is the path, if you will. That’s why we feel free to draw on anything,” Blomquist said. “We’re not trying to impart a specific code. It’s Zen in the sense that the experience happens in the moment, then it’s gone.”

Blomquist, who teaches music business and management at Berklee College of Music, has been playing with some of the band’s other members for decades.

Underwater Airport formed in 2008 as a partial reunion of another band several members had played in, Free Range Experiment.

“We got together and it was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” he said.

The current lineup features two drummers, Peter Spellman and Russell Lane, who went to high school together on Long Island.

“We have this amazing double drumming thing,” Blomquist said. “Having the rhythm and time-keeping spread out across two people gives it a dimension you can’t get any other way.”

Spellman and Lane play different sorts of drums in styles that complement each other.

“Russell plays a drum kit, whereas Peter mostly plays percussion,” Blomquist said. “Russell does the deep grooves, while Peter does the decoration around it.”

Other band members include bassist Jim Whisenant and saxophone player Lynda Stephens, while Blomquist plays guitar, an instrument he “approaches ... as a hybrid between a meditation cushion and an interstellar kayak,” according to the band’s website.

Videos, created by Marc Lisle and projected behind the band, are an important part of their performance.

In addition to playing at Gulu-Gulu “every two or three months,” Underwater Airport has played twice at the Berklee Performance Center, and all their performances start the same way.

“What happens is, somebody throws some musical idea out there and everybody starts responding to it,” Blomquist said. “Every time we have ever tried to talk in advance about doing something, it has failed abysmally.”

Spellman also works at Berklee, as director of career development, and the school has awarded two faculty recording grants to the band. These allowed Underwater Airport to go into the studio in 2011 and 2013, and each session has been highly productive.

“We just did a new (session) we’re releasing in the next few weeks,” Blomquist said. “We came out with three albums’ worth of music after two days.”

Blomquist has been playing music since grade school, in bands that jammed on Grateful Dead songs, progressive rock and eventually jazz. He also studied electronic and experimental music at Wesleyan University but says he tries to forget what he knows when he’s playing with Underwater Airport.

“Get yourself out of the way is the biggest thing,” he said. “Let it come through and be present to it, without trying to direct it. I feel like I’m a conduit.”

Rather than a score to be followed, music of this sort is something Blomquist feels and sees.

“Music is very cinematic and visual to me,” he said. “I hear the unfolding of music in a kind of visual way. I don’t think about things like keys and time signatures. Other people do. I just feel where the notes are supposed to be.”

The band’s unusual song titles, including “Mine the Dead Stars,” “One Giant Eyeball” and “So Far, the Natives Seem Friendly,” are drawn from Blomquist’s lifelong interest in science fiction, surrealism and spirituality.

As with the notes he plays, these titles are also chosen through visual intuition.

“I need to listen to the music and feel for an image,” he said. “It will suggest some sort of image, and the image will give me a name. “

As for the band’s name, Blomquist says on their website that it “revealed itself ... one day for no apparent reason,” but that it “represents a kind of mythical alternative universe that’s familiar and (mostly) friendly, but also only accessible by means of a transformative, shamanic journey.”

This weekend’s concert is one of four that Underwater Airport will play at Gulu-Gulu in 2014.

“One of the nice things about this music is it’s unbelievably fresh,” Blomquist said. “You can hear the birth struggle in it. Other than the polish we bring, it’s raw, it’s fresh, it’s always new.”

IF YOU GO What: Underwater Airport When: Saturday, 8 p.m. Where: Gulu-Gulu Cafe, 247 Essex St., Salem Admission: No cover Information: 978-740-8882