Dave Willey makes his home in the American West, but his most noteworthy music draws from influences elsewhere. A skilled multi-instrumentalist and composer, he flies in currents below the radar of mainstream music listeners, despite being one of relatively few “avant” artists whose music is uncompromising, challenging, and adventurous but also engaging and tuneful, certainly accessible to anyone even slightly open to unusual hybrid forms that can’t be categorized in neat little stylistic boxes. He’s a fine improviser, manifests a world-spanning stylistic eclecticism, and the Beatles and Beach Boys make it onto his “top ten bands of all time” list, along with the Mothers of Invention, Henry Cow, and Zamla Mammaz Mamma (at least that’s what he said around the turn of the millennium). Listen to his music, and that all makes a certain amount of sense.
Dave Willey & Friends album Immeasurable Currents -- which shows Willey as a young tyke wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses that would fit somebody twice his size, while picking a guitar nearly as big as he is -- the music bug bit him early. He was also influenced by his father Dale Willey -- whose book of poetry The Tin Box Papers and Other Poems has a 2001 copyright, the same year Dale died -- and his stepmother Brent (who died in 2010), both of whom were active in the Corvallis, Oregon, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and focused considerable energies on issues of social justice and environmental conservation. Dave’s years in Oregon also revealed him as someone inclined to form long-term and long-range musical partnerships despite distance and the passage of years; he met folk-rock singer/songwriter Henry Winters in Corvallis and years later, in 2001, they began collaborating as the Intralopers, completing their Coming Home CD in November 2003.
But Willey has produced his most signature sounds while living and working in Colorado. He was in various bands including a version of Jeffrey-Paul Norlander’s Americana/roots rock outfit the Denver Gentlemen and played synth bass in a group called Big Foot Torso -- both of which notably also included one of his most important subsequent musical partners, keyboardist/trombonist/composer Jon Stubbs -- although it would take a period of time living in Europe to truly shape his inimitable musical persona. He spent a year in the Czech Republic (where his then-girlfriend Carmel Kooros was teaching English), soaked up live music by groups like Nimal and Lars Hollmer's Fem Söker En Skatt and attended gatherings like France's Festival MIMI, and busked on the streets in Switzerland with his friend Bob Gault. Taking inspiration from the sounds he had been hearing, Willey began putting his own musical ideas to tape on a four-track he hauled around in his backpack. And although he had previously favored free improvised music and -- as he subsequently related to Denver alternative weekly publication Westword -- was disdainful of “anything that was composed or in a time signature or with a melody,” Willey had a change of heart. "[T]here's nothing wrong with being accessible,” Willey told Westword, “You can be accessible and interesting and challenging all at the same time, hopefully."
Willey moved into a -- reportedly quite rustic -- cabin in the woods outside Boulder and began multi-tracking himself on numerous instruments (keyboards, accordion, guitar, bass, marimba, xylophone, percussion, you name it), completing the music, with mastering assistance from Stubbs, that he had begun in Europe and releasing his unique amalgam of rock, European folk, avant-garde experimentation, and modern composition as the solo cassette Songs from the Hamster Theatre, which was reissued on CD by the Prolific label in 1995 (and which features a particularly evocative vocal from Kooros on one track). By 1993, Hamster Theatre was starting to emerge as an actual performing unit, spearheaded by Willey and Stubbs and aimed at playing Willey’s compositions live. Early on, the group featured Willey primarily on keyboards, guitar, and melodeon and Stubbs on bass, along with a host of additional musicians on keyboards, sax, flute, and drums -- including keyboardist Deborah Perry, whom Willey had met in 1985 and collaborated with in a Grateful Dead cover band.
In 1996 a major confluence of Denver-Boulder area outré rock bands took place, with Willey and Perry (as vocalist) joining the Denver-based avant-prog band Thinking Plague -- which had been around in one form or another on and off since 1982 -- and Thinking Plague founder/guitarist Mike Johnson and reed player Mark Harris joining Hamster Theatre. Now a member of two Colorado bands of an avant-prog persuasion, Willey found himself covering an even wider spectrum of music in his creative life, as co-leader of the entirely instrumental Hamster Theatre, a comparatively melodic and tuneful outfit, and as bass player in the knottier, arguably more “difficult” Thinking Plague, a band whose often multi-part musical suites feature vocals and Art Bears-informed lyrics. It might be noted that attempts to describe Thinking Plague can evoke a slight prickliness among bandmembers who feel the group is somewhat misunderstood; Willey has said the group “gets mistaken for prog/RIO [Rock in Opposition] music,” although describing Thinking Plague as such does not seem wholly inaccurate. In fact, one might argue that Willey has focused on the user-friendly side of RIO and post-RIO (L’Ensemble Rayé, Samlas/Zamlas, Volapük) with Hamster Theatre and the more “serious” side of that music (Henry Cow, Art Bears, Present) with Thinking Plague.
Willey was busy with both groups, recording Hamster Theatre’s first bona fide band recording, Siege on Hamburger City, live at Denver’s Mercury Cafe with a sextet consisting of himself now primarily on accordion, Stubbs on keyboards and trombone, Johnson on guitar, Harris on reeds, drummer Raoul Rossiter, and bassist Mike Fitzmaurice. And that year, Willey also made his Cuneiform Records debut playing bass on Thinking Plague’s In Extremis. During the remainder of the ‘90s and to the turn of the millennium, Willey would tour and make festival appearances in the U.S., France, and Italy with Thinking Plague. He would also co-produce and mix -- over a recording process that stretched to an entire year -- contemporary folk artist Lorna Hunt's 2002 Sentimental Bedlam album, an endeavor that he regards as one of his "most important musical experiences" even to this day.
Hamster Theatre remained an important focus for Willey during those years, and the group would soon undertake its most ambitious project to date, the Carnival Detournement album released by Cuneiform in 2001. The album was recorded in Colorado with Willey and Stubbs on a multitude of instruments; support from the other Hamsters Harris, Johnson, Fitzmaurice, and Rossiter; and additional contributions from selected guest musicians. Thinking Plague co-founder Bob Drake mixed the album at his Studio Midi Pyrennes in France. Although Willey and Stubbs expressed misgivings on the Hamster Theatre website about their decision "to mess with Bob's master, significantly squashing the sonic palette he had created," Carnival Detournement was nonetheless released to considerable critical acclaim for its wide-ranging carnival-esque blend of quirky, fun, and sometimes mysteriously beautiful instrumental music -- and said misgivings were redressed by the 2009 Collectors Edition reissue of Carnival Detournement, which restored the recording to its Bob Drake-mastered form.
Hamster Theatre was invited to perform at Seattle's Progman Cometh festival held at that city's Moore Theatre, and the band's performance was included on the second disc of the Public Execution of Mister Personality/Quasi Day Room two-CD set released by Cuneiform in May 2006. Mister Personality/Quasi Day Room also includes a studio disc featuring new compositions mainly by Willey and Stubbs, some written for modern dance and multimedia performances (Willey wears a number of hats of both wide- and narrower-brimmed variety as a working musician in Boulder, including a position of staff accompanist in the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Theatre and Dance). Meanwhile, all was not quiet on the Thinking Plague front during the early 2000s, as the band took two years to record its own next opus, A History of Madness, released by Cuneiform in 2003. As the first decade of the 2000s continued and neared its conclusion, both Hamster Theatre and Thinking Plague remained intermittently active, without new recordings but with scattered live appearances and behind-the-scenes activities suggesting that their fans would be rewarded in time.
However, for Dave Willey, a new and important recording was in the works, one that he would later say took “a million years” to complete. Immeasurable Currents, the aforementioned 2011 AltrOck label CD, set some of his late father Dale Willey’s poetry from The Tin Box Papers and Other Poems to music, with Dave as usual multi-tracking many instruments but with important contributions from various friends, including Mike Johnson; drummer Dave Kerman and miRthkon’s Wally Scharold on one tune each; and two singers, Deborah Perry and Elaine di Falco -- the latter notable in particular for her fine performances on recordings (e.g., Delta Flora) by Hughscore, a project featuring ex-Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper. And in fact, Immeasurable Currents also includes some of the last recorded performances by Hopper (who died of leukemia in 2009) himself. (Di Falco fell in with the Hamster Theatre/Thinking Plague crowd upon joining Thinking Plague to fill in for Perry during the band's spring 2008 European mini-tour of France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Portugal.)
Immeasurable Currents was obviously an intensely personal album for Willey, with his accordion prominent in many places but with the album’s overall feel closer to Thinking Plague than Hamster Theatre -- mixed with Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom and a bit of Slapp Happy for added seasoning -- as the musicians involved contributed to a widely varied palette of sonic imagery to match Dale Willey’s often free-verse poems. The elder Willey’s poetry was informed by his unflinching love of nature in all its facets -- beautiful and terrifying -- along with a social conscience that one might presume reflects aspects of his days with wife Brent at the Unitarian Fellowship in Corvallis, the days of Dave’s youth. (The shortest poem on the album, entitled “The Conservatives,” should have resonance for progressives a decade after The Tin Box Papers and Other Poems was published: “They buried their dead near heaven/on the hilltop above the town/Veneration of their ancestors/has poisoned their children’s wells.”)
Notably, while most of Immeasurable Currents was recorded at Dave Willey’s house in Colorado, with Hugh Hopper recording at his studio in England, Elaine di Falco -- studying composition in the contemporary music degree program at Western Oregon University in Monmouth -- recorded the piano for the track “Autumn” (“Which, in waspish foolishness, will be trapped, which will not, is as hard to say as how the algae strands will move to the unpredictable motions of these immeasurable currents”) at the very Unitarian Fellowship in Corvallis where Dale and Brent were active. When considering the genesis of the album and the passing of key principals in its underlying narrative -- Dale Willey, Brent Willey, and Hugh Hopper, to all three of whom the album is dedicated -- it does indeed seem that certain currents are immeasurable, while others can be measured at least in the sense that they return inexorably to their point of origin.
Dave Willey's musical heart is a new transatlantic trio, 3 Mice, featuring Willey, di Falco (who now lives with Dave outside Boulder), and the like-minded Cédric Vuille, a Swiss multi-instrumentalist with a decades-long involvement in the rather Hamster Theatre-like L'Ensemble Rayé. Israeli avant-prog mixmaster Udi Koomran (who mixed and mastered Immeasurable Currents) had suggested that Vuille meet up with Willey and di Falco in Geneva, Switzerland during Thinking Plague's 2008 tour, and upon their get-together the threesome agreed to collaborate in a long-distance group featuring Willey on accordion, bass, guitar, and percussion; di Falco on piano, vocals, accordion, and vibraphone; and Vuille on various instruments including cuatro, ukulele, guitar, clarinets, and theremin. Initial evidence of this outfit appeared on a MySpace page under the name "Pook & Fuegi," but that moniker has since been abandoned in preference for 3 Mice, a more accurate name for a trio, obviously. The group's CD Send Me a Postcard, featuring appearances by Hamster Theatre drummer Raoul Rossiter and L'Ensemble Rayé drummer Daniel Spahni, was mixed and mastered by none other than Koomran, and was slated for release on the Disques Rayés label in November 2011. Meanwhile, the long wait for a new Thinking Plague album, again featuring Willey on bass, was finally over in January 2012 with the release of Decline and Fall on Cuneiform.
Willey has remained active as a collaborator on various other projects, including clarinetist Dexter Payne’s Brazilian jazz quartet. Willey also showed up playing accordion on a track from Vuille’s 2010 album, Faire, and he also appears -- along with diFalco and guitarist Mike Johnson -- on Iridule, the 2010 AltrOck album by the Italian mega-avant-prog aggregation Yugen, another group far from Colorado that would seem to share at least a part of Willey’s “challenging yet engaging” musical sensibility. He also appears to have partially rethought his earlier pronouncements that seemed to favor composition over improvisation, returning to free improvisation as a guitarist and declaring that "improvising is way fun with the right combination of people." Based on the evidence to date, one would expect his 21st century free improvisations to be way as much fun for listeners as they are for the participants.