Back O’er Oregon
Music video: "Back O'er Oregon"
Special Willamette-only (filmed in Cone Chapel) music video: "Superfolk"
Slater Smith ’12 and (President Pelton’s) Weather Machine
There was a campus joke, right around the time President Pelton departed and President Thorsett arrived, that the former had made use of a “weather machine” to ensure that the Office of Admission’s Spring Preview days would always be sunny for visitors.
For a stretch from 2010-13, they seemed to be: April’s gray moodiness would yield, if only for 12 daylight hours on the right day, just as 18-year-old Californians and Coloradans and Arizonans were on campus to decide if this was the kind of place they’d like to spend four years.
That’s how Slater Smith ’12 got his band name.
“A friend of mind came up with the idea of using ‘President Pelton’s Weather Machine’ as a name,” says Smith, student-turned-musician and architect of a much-publicized 2013 music video spliced together from performances at all of Oregon’s 185 state parks. “I never wanted the music project to be only about me or my name, so we went with it.” The name evolved a little over time: First “President Pelton” became “Mr.Pelton.” Today, the band just uses “The Weather Machine.”
With their recent recognition, the group’s prospects are, as they say, sunny as ever.
Sisters, Ore., Smith’s hometown, is well known for music and a yearly folk festival that draws thousands and turns the tiny town’s main streets into logjams. The Sisters Folk Festival also funds a program at the local high school called The Americana Project, and this is where Smith picked up a guitar and started writing songs.
“Because of its funding, the program was insulated when the economy went down,” he says. “We got to write songs and learn the basics of guitar, and students could cycle through several times and put out a CD. It was a formative experience.”
Smith came to Willamette unsure where his musical interest would lead, but, after tinkering with his own style as an underclassman and learning tricks of the trade from guitar professor John Doan, he picked up a sense of direction.
“I’m really glad I studied politics and did the general liberal arts thing,” he says. “But when I came back from studying abroad, I sunk my teeth into things. I helped out with Kappa Sigma’s reboot, got involved with a songwriting club, joined [a cappella group] Headband to work on my performance, and played at open mics.”
By the time he graduated, his acumen and his aesthetic as an artist were coming together.
In the Studio
Smith met bandmate Colin Robson on a self-imposed thesis retreat to Pacific City, Ore. “Colin was converting his grandmother’s old boathouse into a recording studio. We met at an open mic. We hit it off, and before long he’d come to Salem and we had decided to do a record together.
“I don’t have a lot of background in music theory, so it was hard to articulate what I wanted for the project. We ended up building our band sound around the record itself. Colin played, as did a friend from Sisters named Matthew Cartnell and my brother, Tanner.”
Jack Martin ’11 came in later in the project. “There are sprinklings of Jack on the record,” Smith says, and soon he would become a more permanent part of the group. The Weather Machine was now five strong.
To make the music video happen, Smith needed money. Fortunately, he was able to leverage some Willamette connections.
“I’d made a deal with myself that I wanted to see the whole state. I thought, ‘Why don’t I take this song I wrote, film it everywhere, and it can be a really productive vacation.’”
Initially he wanted to visit every incorporated city in Oregon, and he almost got a grant for that idea, but it fell through. Then State Rep. Tobias Read ’97 suggested a different approach. Smith had worked as an intern for Read, and that experience had already led to a part-time job when Smith graduated. Read said to get a hold of Oregon Film, a program run from the governor’s office.
“Lo and behold, they said they could send some money my way if I could get a matching grant,” Smith says. “Then Oregon State Parks got on board for the match. Funding came through in late June 2013, so I got on the road. I wasn’t done until late September.
“That’s where a politics degree has translated in ways I wouldn’t have expected. The park approach worked much better than my first ideas would have.”
For the sake of the young band’s publicity, the video’s online release was at least as important as its recording process. Smith reached out to SoulPancake, an LA-based aggregator of creative videos, music and related conversations. They liked what he pitched. Having the nationally known website push out the video was huge because The Weather Machine would instantly be in front of thousands of like-minded viewers.
“At one point I was staring at 47,000 views and counting, and thinking how strange this is,” Smith says. “It’s funny when you’re at the center of a project because it’s hard to know what people are saying outside it. With this release we got a bit of a boost.”
The video itself is a tapestry of takes from each park. Some shots include other band members and even random park visitors dancing along as Smith played. Sonically, “Back O’er Oregon” is based on a spry arpeggio, and Smith’s voice is rich, relaxed and almost conversational. The song, an ode to the state its author obviously loves, conveys both contentment and possibility. In this sense, it’s fitting for a maturing group of musicians on the front end of their careers.
It’s all very Oregonian, really:
“Explain for me this affinity For naming all those settlements For things that crop up colorful In spite of all the clouds...” What’s next for Smith and the band? “I’m caught between trying to take a breath and using this momentum,”
Whatever the future holds, he will approach his work with an expanded musical toolkit and an ever-increasing number of advocates — including those he cultivated at Willamette.
He’s seen all the parks, sure, but there’s still plenty to write about.
Smith (left) and Jack Martin ‘11 visited Cone Chapel recently to shoot a special music video for WU.