Matt LaJoie’s mind is always open and welcome to an exciting new musical experience. As the founding member of the now-disbanded experimental folk ensemble Cursillistas and the current leader of the Portland-based free rock band Herbcraft, the Aroostook County native has made a name for himself for throwing conventions and expectations out the window. Case in point: the lushly atmospheric, evocative – dare we say psychedelic? – soundscape present on Herbcraft’s latest release, “The Astral Body Electric,” out last month on Woodsist Records.
“We don’t set out to make difficult music, but we do throw out songs or ideas if they sound too much like something we’ve heard before, and we also tend to be contrarians,” said LaJoie, who grew up in Van Buren, went to Bowdoin College and now lives in the woods in Windham, overlooking Highland Lake. “If something is popular, it is in our nature to do the opposite.”
Herbcraft was founded in 2009, after Lajoie and his creative partner, Dawn Aquarius, had released nearly a dozen albums and EPs of alternately pretty and spooky experimental folk music under the Cursillistas name. By that time, they were ready to veer away from folk music, and head towards something more electric, more groove-oriented, more rock. LaJoie and Aquarius are both restless creative spirits, and once they feel they’ve run their course with a particular approach, they try something else.
“I felt the dozen-or-so Cursillistas releases I had put out covered all I could contribute to the experimental-folk conversation, and felt held back by expectations of a Cursillistas release sounding a certain way,” said Lajoie. “The name change was freeing, and because of that the music suddenly felt more free and open to reflecting my newer tastes and interests.”
Lajoie lists of a wide array of bands that have influenced their approach to Herbcraft’s music – Neil Young, Curtis Mayfield, the Grateful Dead, Jamaican dub, German experimental rock, African highlife music, all filtered through their own personal lens. Herbcraft’s lineup is rounded out by Corinna Marshall and Nicholas Barker, with the four developing a sound that’s at times trance-like and hypnotic, at other times funky and even dance-able. Lajoie credits Aquarius with hipping him to all sorts of psychedelic music he might not otherwise have encountered.
“She turned me on to so many deep, obscure psych-rock records, my whole world opened up to the past,” he said. “Starting a new project from the ground-up seemed like the best way to feel completely free to explore these new influences.”
Herbcraft’s first album, “Herbcraft Discovers the Bitter Water of Agartha,” came out in June 2010; “The Astral Body Electric,” their fifth release overall, is their most cohesive and rewarding, which was noted by Woodsist’s Records’ Jeremy Earl, of the acclaimed folk-rock band Woods. Earl released Herbcraft’s previous albums on his experimental label, Hello Sunshine, but thought “Astral” would fit in better on Woodsist’s regular roster, which includes indie rock luminaries like Vivian Girls and Kurt Vile. Lajoie also runs his own small vinyl and cassette label, L’animaux Tryst, releasing experimental and underground Maine acts, and has been an early supporter of and longtime performer at the Arootsakoostik Music Festival in New Sweden, in Aroostook County. He keeps pretty busy, but he’s working to strike a balance between playing the music he loves and supporting the artists he believes in.
“I also work full-time, so between Herbcraft and the label I don’t have much time for other projects,” said Lajoie. “I used to be in five or six bands at once, all the time, but I’ve needed to ease up on that a bit.”