Next door to the J Bar N Boot Shop in Littlefield, Texas, and behind two conjoined storefronts, a visual artist and a modern composer are hard at work.
The couple's new space in northwest Texas needs some work: they've already had to repair a leaky roof. A row of sinks, a holdover from when one storefront was a barbershop, needs to come out. Their end goal is that one side will be a commercial recording studio and the other will be the brick-and-mortar store of their experimental music label, Full Spectrum Records.
"Everything is more physical now," artist Gretchen Korsmo says. "There's a lot less sitting down. I don't chill here. I feel relaxed, but I don't get on my couch and chill."
"Because we don't have a couch," composer Andrew Weathers adds with a laugh.
In early 2017, Korsmo and Weathers left Oakland, the Bay Area's storied hub for art, music, and progressive thought, for this obscure Texas town of about six thousand people, and they're thrilled about their new life. Korsmo is from Rochester, Minnesota, while Weathers is a Chapel Hill native and UNG-Greensboro alum who sustains close ties to the Triangle.
Weathers, who holds music degrees from both UNC-G and Oakland's esteemed Mills College, crafts drone-descended compositions that draw from both folk and new music traditions. He's an inventive recording artist and collaborator, but that isn't Full Spectrum's sole purpose: the label also issues records by like-minded contemporaries and reissues of forgotten experimental albums. Tuesday, Weathers returns to his home state to perform with the experimental collective Polyorchard in Durham.
But his and Korsmo's more long-term future is in a town they probably wouldn't have heard of otherwise, in a building they found on Craigslist. The cost of living is low, enabling the recording and touring Weathers craves, and the locals they've spoken to are simply glad to see newcomers set up shop in Littlefield's blighted downtown.
"Hopefully we can be something beyond two weirdos in town trying to do their own thing," Weathers says. "I would like to be a fixture in the community and be something that is useful and valuable to people that isn't here otherwise."
The story of Littlefield has happened so many times and to so many towns that it's entered American folklore: a bypass is built around a small town, and a highway (in Littlefield's instance, Highway 84) that once funneled travelers through the town now swings them around it. Downtown used to buzz with activity, locals recall, but now it's in an advanced state of decay.
Weathers and Korsmo harbor no illusions about becoming a bustling business in their new town—serious foot traffic simply doesn't exist here. On top of running the Full Spectrum label, they already make extra money selling records and vintage clothes online and aren't worried about sustaining themselves. Because the overhead cost of living in Littlefield is so low, Weathers can tour in a way that was prohibitive in high-rent Oakland.
"Being on the road is the full expression of the music I make," Weathers says. But he couldn't go on the road for more than a week at a time—any longer, and he'd would come home flat broke. It was unsustainable. After weighing their options for a few years—Southern California, New Mexico, Arizona—Korsmo and Weathers settled on a small town where they could afford to work, tour, and focus on their art.
Weathers doesn't need any hip amenities, but he does need music. It helps him define the world around him and the way he wants it to be. And as he explains, he has a utopic vision of what music is.
"We can use music and art, how we make it, and how we allow it to exist in the world as a model for the actual functioning of the world and our lives," he says. "We can test and develop processes and systems with music and art, and then we can see how they work with people and as economic systems [and] social structures. It's very powerful."
To Weathers and Korsmo, art a way to envision what we want out of the future, even if the present, as they point out, is pretty dark. Making art, Korsmo says, is a way to channel her energy into something that doesn't contribute to broken or destructive institutions. It's impossible for art to exist outside of politics, Weathers maintains, and neither of them wants their work to be apolitical. Rather, they want to respond to this dark moment in American history with optimistic alternatives.
"When everything is so bleak, you kind up put your hands up and say, 'OK, I'll try not to be bleak and try to make connections with people around me,'" Korsmo says. "Just to exist operating at this higher frequency feels important right now. I'm super-privileged, and I know people who have a lot more fear than I do right now. If you have enough of it at all to share, then it's important to do."
In Littlefield, Korsmo and Weathers are working to bring such lofty ideals to life, one structural repair at a time. They can make their music and visual art, but the upcoming Full Spectrum brick-and-mortar store is especially exciting, in that it'll let them completely engage with their new town. They don't picture the store as a de facto youth center, but they've noticed how many teenagers there are, and how quickly many of them depart for Lubbock, Littlefield's "city," after they finish high school. Korsmo doesn't know what these kids even do for fun, but she hopes the Full Spectrum store can be a way for them to engage with something new.
"Our being here for us is just a tactic to have an affordable lifestyle and be able to work on our art," Weathers says. "I wouldn't want to be here doing that if I wasn't also creating something for other people who want to have a similar future for themselves."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Astral Plains."