BY OSSIE BLADINE // Frontman Slater Smith discusses the band's upcoming East Coast and European tours, and opening for The Alabama Shakes.
“Whether I mean to or not, I think a lot of my songs become very place oriented,” says Slater Smith, frontman of The Weather Machine. That’s likely why the Oregon-native’s lyrics resonate so well across all corners of the state.
With upcoming tours on the East Coast and in Europe — and a gig opening for the Alabama Shakes for the Crystal Ballroom’s December to Remember in between — Slater will have plenty of fodder to inspire upcoming songs.
Smith was born in the Portland area, grew up in Sisters and attended Willamette University in Salem. In the midst of writing his thesis at college, he met Colin Robson, who had just moved from New York to turn his grandmother’s Pacific City beachfront house into a recording studio — Kiwanda Sound Recordings.
“I always wanted to do a band thing, but I just didn’t know how,” said Smith, who refined his singer/songwriting around Salem venues like the Governor’s Cup. “Colin, being the ultimate collaborator …He talked us into doing the band.”
The band was built around songs that Smith had already written, releasing a self-titled debut album in 2013. It was evident that the makings of a cohesive ensemble was there early on. That included cellist Matt Cartmill. “He was a surprise. He pushed it all in a unique direction, and he’s since become sort of a centerpiece of the band.”
He added: “It started out as a backing band of my solo songs and evolved very quickly into a collaborate effort.”
Among those first recordings created in Pacific City was “Back O’er Oregon,” which Smith said originated as a challenge to himself to incorporate his home state into a song. During the summer of '13, he set out to visit all 185 state parks, sometimes with band members, sometimes solo, and recorded live performances of the single in all 185 of them. The Oregon Governor’s Office of Film & Television helped fund the project, and a music video that exhibits the landscape of a state so beautiful and varied was created.
The project also put The Weather Machine on the map as a band Oregonians could connect with.
But being just a sea-to-mountain folk band is not the story of The Weather Machine, which currently includes Luke Hoffman on drums and Andre Zapata on bass. After a few personnel changes, the current lineup has found it easy to come together as a group, Smith said.
The group released Peach, in March, which Smith said feels kind of like a second debut album.
“Like we’re debuting the new iteration of the band. We’ve been redefining ourselves over the last couple years,” he said. “The first record was folksy, but we’ve evolved into a much more high energy rocksy act. It’s been fun to settle into that identity as a group.”
Smith said there’s no single ownership among the members. “It’s no one’s singular vision. …It’s kind of like I bring in a skeleton and then the whole band pushes it as far from Americana as we can.”
That cohesive approach is evident on Peach. The album garnered praise from reviewers locally and from afar: “The spirit of Weather Machine is still largely present, with a focus on songwriting and storytelling, but it’s more about how The Weather Machine are telling the stories that is so noticeably changed,” wrote Jeff Pearson of Paste Magazine. “They have bolstered their sound through live performances, garnering attention as a full-fledged rock band, capable of channeling a soaring energy through their performances that is fully evident here.”
Smith’s lyrical always has a movement to it, often telling stories of human relationships with one another and to the landscapes around them. Sometimes it’s universal, sometimes it’s very Oregon. “And we’re in high school, don’t want to be cool, with red dust on tennis shoes,” he sings on “Wannabe Cowboys,” about running around the Sisters Rodeo with a soon-to-be flame.
“The idea of it is kind of being a love song, but it’s more about being about home - disguised as a love song.”
“How to Get to Roseburg” spawned from a joke while on the road about giving up on everything and moving to Roseburg. It, too, is disguised with human relations — “Rosie, babe, I’m coming home,” Smith sings. And a new song he wrote recently was inspired when entering into Montana., he said.
“Place to me has become important,” he said. “Hopefully as I go more places it’ll help me write more songs.”
The band hired a booking agent to set up its first East Coast tour, and then was later approached by a European booking agent who set up a March tour in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
With all that to look forward to, the phone call asking if the band would open for Alabama Shakes on December 7 at the Crystal Ballroom was icing on the cake.
“It’s a pretty surreal thing. We’re trying to not be too psyched out about it,” Smith said. “It’s been a very good year. I feel like it’s snowballing in a good way.”