Since forming in 2011, Los Angeles–based art-pop band Hundred Waters haven't done many interviews. That’s what made it interesting when singer Nicole Miglis insisted on meeting in person.
We meet at Coffee Commissary on Sunset Boulevard, just a few minutes south from where she lives in Beachwood Canyon. Three albums into their career, Miglis and bandmates Trayer Tryon and Zach Tetreault are starting to come around on the promotional obligations that come with being a full-time musician.
“I’m still rectifying it today, I think, in being proactive with this interview,” Miglis says with a nervous laugh, while fidgeting with her cup of coffee. “It takes a lot for me to face anything that isn’t music, almost foolishly, I think.”
The band have a Dec. 1 show at the El Rey, and after five years in Los Angeles, it’s the first gig that feels like a true homecoming. Their roots were planted in Florida, with Tryon and Tetreault performing music together for a few years with a former member, Paul Giese, before Miglis came into the picture. They signed to Skrillex’s OWSLA label in 2012, a connection that has, for the most part, only affected how they approach live shows, according to Miglis.
“I think OWSLA made it so we’re playing a lot of shows to people that wouldn’t have otherwise heard our music,” Miglis says. “It’s forced us to adapt and I think helped us be confident in who we are. It can be a valuable experience, different from playing just to crowds who are already familiar with you.”
With the release of Communicating in September, the group hit a high mark. The album marks the first time the band got to focus on writing material while not touring or, earlier in their career, working other jobs.
It’s one of the more gripping breakup albums in recent years, but with a hopeful twist. It’s at least in part inspired by the romance between Miglis and Tryon, and Miglis says she knew she would have to face things head-on more than usual with the new record.
“I think in general, it’s a personal goal just trying to be more exposed and share more,” Miglis says. “For me, it’s really hard. Even music, it takes a lot of people to tell me to put something out. I’m not a super extroverted ‘check out our art’ type.” Talking about a daytime set the band played at Outside Lands this year, Miglis mentions the challenge of not being able to hide behind fog or lights the way you can when you’re playing at night or inside a dark venue.
“It’s definitely weird, to force that upon yourself,” Tryon writes via email about discussing the subject matter of Communicating in interviews. “Having to examine difficult, hyper-personal shit with people you don’t know, for anyone to read.
“There wasn’t really any way around it though, other than to not do interviews,” he adds, “which would be a shame, because biography is great, an inherent human interest. Honestly it’s kind of helped us, because it’s made it impossible to ignore our issues.”
When it came time for Hundred Waters to do an album release show, the band, true to form, decided to try something unusual. They used the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery but changed the room’s layout completely. While the band performed a few of the songs, some songs played over the PA to a light show, and others featured choreographed dancers.
“I couldn't just play it because it would have felt so exposing,” Miglis said of the show. “I think all those other things lightened it up and made it more of a fun experience. We brought in couches, hauled them all up there, just to make the environment more like a place you’d actually listen to an album and not a classroom.”
Miglis worked with a choreographer, Sara Silkin, who had been putting together dances for a couple of Hundred Waters songs for a class she teaches. One song that got choreography at the show was “Better,” the album’s closer.
“Did I, did I, did I, did I, did I, did I/Did I treat you right?” Miglis sings longingly in the chorus. Silkin had the difficult task of bringing across those heartbreaking words, and two other songs, with her choreography.
“It’s knowing Nicole [and] understanding what a process it was to birth this album,” Silkin, a recent graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, says of the process.
“I knew right away that I wanted to create a duet for ‘Better’ because of the intimacy of the lyrics and melodic questioning of Nicole's voice, which inspired the dance between myself and the [other] dancer to explore the push and pull that she describes in the song.”
It was a particularly moving way to experience an album for a first time.
“Masonic ended up being perfect for a few reasons,” Tetreault says. “We all worked super hard to bring the different aspects of the event to life, from the dance component with Sara to the volumetric projections with [frequent Flying Lotus and Daedelus collaborator] Timeboy and just the overall atmosphere of the evening. It felt really good seeing it all come to life and sharing the record in a meaningful and memorable way.”
Tetreault is also the main member of Hundred Waters involved in the development of FORM Arcosanti, the music festival in Arizona that the band launched in 2014 as a means to debut their last album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell. The festival has now grown beyond the trio’s wildest dreams; this past year it featured Solange, Father John Misty, Tycho and a rare piano set from James Blake.
“We never really intended on starting a festival. It just sort of happened, as crazy as that sounds,” Tetreault says. “It’s become this ever-evolving annual project that we work on and it becomes crazier and more multifaceted each year.”
As music festivals become more homogenized and saturated, FORM has popped up as a welcome, unique addition to the festival landscape — a highly curated, intimate, invitation-only event held amid the alien-looking structures of the town of Arcosanti, an experimental eco-village in the desert north of Phoenix.
“There weren’t any music festivals anywhere near us [in Florida], so we didn’t have much experience with them prior to playing them,” Tryon says. “Zach and I drove 10 hours to Bonnaroo with a bunch of friends in high school. I had nothing, so I had to break into a barn to sleep. My best friend didn’t make it back home — he hitchhiked the other direction and dropped out of school. It was a huge experience. FORM wants to be a huge experience like that, but without any of the you-are-cattle mentality.”
With their album-release show and with FORM the past handful of years, Hundred Waters have become experts in giving concertgoers a unique experience. And with Communicating, their music is becoming just as unique and powerful as their vision for what a band can do in 2017.
Hundred Waters perform at the El Rey Theatre on Friday, Dec. 1.