In 2014, when the band Hundred Waters programmed the first installment of its FORM festival in the eco-friendly desert village known as Arcosanti, it was an entirely DIY affair. The group was about to put out its second album, The Moon Rang Like A Bell, and was looking for somewhere to put on an album release show in a place where "no one has ever done something like this before," according to Zach Tetreault, a member of the trio.
In that first year, FORM Arcosanti's bill included eight bands. Each played as a favor to Hundred Waters, whose record label paid for flights and accommodations. Just 350 people were in the audience, each having filled out an application in lieu of paying admission. Hundred Waters brought the P.A. from its practice space.
Three years later, as it prepares to put on the fourth year of FORM Arcosanti, Hundred Waters — Tetreault, Trayer Tryon and Nicole Miglis — is again releasing new music. The Currency EP is made up of five songs culled from three years of constant recording, the preamble to a third album the band plans to release later this year. "We were tired of keeping everything to [ourselves] and wanted to give something back while the record is being topped off," wrote Tryon in an email. "The vast majority of what we make stays between us and our friends. When a song feels like it has something to offer the wider world, we'll try to take it to the true end. That doesn't always work, but when it does, it's the greatest living feeling and justifies all the life lost to failing."
"It took us literally three years to even feel comfortable using the word 'festival,'" Tetreault said in a phone interview earlier this week while in the midst of setting up this year's installment of FORM. That slow, organic growth — the 2016 edition was the first time FORM charged admission — has allowed the band to inch closer to luxury while maintaining a sense of community and a mission. The 2017 bill includes high-profile headliners including Solange, Father John Misty, Skrillex (whose label, OWSLA, puts out Hundred Waters's music) and James Blake, and there is a "glamping" (Tetreault: "I hate using that word... I don't know why it still comes out of my mouth") option, with food and drinks included and a luxe tent featuring real beds available at the price of $2,500 per pair of tickets. But unlike some other notable recent festivals that have stretched beyond their means in pursuing a luxury experience, FORM has expanded to fit its founders' ethos. The weekend also includes daytime panels and film screenings focused on arts, immigration, Black Lives Matter and climate change. It's still probably the only festival whose "purchase tickets" link leads to a page that requires an answer to the open-ended question "What inspires you?"
"FORM now shares a small part of responsibility in the future of Arcosanti," Tryon wrote. "FORM is a direct extension of how incredible Arcosanti is, and Arcosanti is a direct extension of how incredible its people are. So we want to help to see this place thrive and grow."
Arcosanti is an array of cement structures plopped right in the middle of Arizona, about a third of the way up from Phoenix toward the Grand Canyon. The combination of natural beauty and intentional, man-made structure meshes with the group's sound, which can obscure the difference between organic and mechanical sources — human voices or recordings of footsteps are manipulated into geometric patterns; electronic sounds are woven into a lush or pointillist backdrop.
"Sometimes it's hard for me to consider myself a singer," Miglis wrote in an email. "I don't sing regularly unless I'm writing songs. It's kind of up to the stars if I'm in the mood to sing or if singing comes out." Those stars didn't cooperate on Currency's single, "Particle": At the moment Miglis started writing the song, she had lost her voice.
"I really wanted singing in it, so I asked my roommate Moses Sumney, who is an amazing singer, to improv over a loop, and I chopped and edited it and Tray chopped and edited it further. So the synth-sounding melody before the chorus in "Particle" is actually Moses' voice chopped and manipulated because I didn't have a voice," she wrote. "I love that meaning in it, because the song is very much about searching for a part of yourself and your identity, and every step of the way had its own obstacles and ways of challenging that search."
Hundred Waters has simulated vertigo to keep a sense of unease near the surface in past recordings, but the songs on Currency dance around the idea of joy, even if a hum of anxiety lingers. "Wake up, come on, go on, get up, get out of bed, you're tired but this is most extraordinary," Miglis sings at the start of "Jewel In My Hands," the EP's opening track. Another song, "Everywhere," is built out of sampled voices and synths that swirl around a dozen words that Miglis repeats like an incantation.
"I cut myself off from a lot of the world when these songs were recorded, and I really tested the limits of solitude," Miglis wrote. "They are meditative to me in the end. They're like the lesson I feel I needed to tell myself."