MIXTAPES: Way Back When

ain't no planet x comin cuz ain't not space cuz ain't not globe earth.jpgRelationships are hard to keep in your twenties. It’s guaranteed to be a decade of nonstop reflection and re-evaluation of the energy you give and have given to loved ones. UK emo rockers Way Back When are a sentimental troupe of dreamers whose art is a coping mechanism for this dilemma we all face. Despite being based between the two cities of Durham and Bristol, the band’s transatlantic sound borrows heavily from midwest emo crybabies and British math rock, eschewing angular rhythms for driving percussion and delicate, cascading guitars. Drawing comparisons between There Will Be Fireworks and Algernon Cadwallader, the band’s debut record Retrospectacular drips with misty-eyed reflections on companionship and quarter-life crisis lyrics. Lead guitarist and songwriter Kyle Hawkes effortlessly recites labyrinthine, gliding guitar passages while vocalist/lyricist Tom Lowman delivers soaring vocals with a charming English panache, with lyrics that echo the mutual anxieties of suburban towns and chaotic cities. With all this considered after dropping their impressive debut, I invited Hawkes and Lowman to curate a mix of their key influences for Retrospectacular. Stream the record below and then delve into their inspirations.

#1: Bloc Party – Helicopter (2005)

A big influence for the instrumental side of the record?

K: Yeah, originally we were gonna go more twinkly and [this song] just kept creeping in, especially with the punchy guitars.

T: I was with them up until about Intimacy, then I kinda got off at that point. I’ve seen them since they did their last record and it just seems like they’ve gotten off the board in terms of focus and being a proper band. Lyrically, I love the first two albums. Silent Alarm the most because it’s overtly political but hidden in a much more interesting way.

#2: Death Cab For Cutie – Little Wanderer (2014)

T: It was a big area of overlap for us, Death Cab.

K: When we properly started writing, I was listening to We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes a lot. That really heavily influenced us, in fact the one song that didn’t make it on the EP was just a slightly more math rock Death Cab song. I think we’re definitely leading towards the more Kintsugi era, especially with the effects we’re starting to use. Loads of chorus effects.

T: [Kintsugi] is great Death Cab album because it’s half full band and half singer-songwriter songs and does mime that more melancholic side. I don’t know if we really channeled that; Fireworks is probably the closest but with that more earnest midwest emo “feelings on the sleeve” vibe.

#3: American Football – Stay Home (1998)

K: …that was me. I feel like we tried to go for [the song’s repetition] in Fireworks, and Victoria Park has a lot of slow build-up on structure.

T: I think Fireworks definitely has it, that kind of atmosphere and repetition, and the riffs circle round and round in a way that’s not so A-B-A-B.

K: A common criticism of Tom’s: “it’s great but you need to repeat sections.”

T: Yeah, when we write, Kyle writes a riff and then I’m like, “now do that eight times and I’m gonna whine about my feelings.”

#4: The Hotelier – Your Deep Rest (2014)

K: You can definitely hear that in Tastes Like Stars and some of the heavier, bigger stuff. We actually used The Hotelier as a mixing reference in the studio. We wanted to replicate how punchy the guitars are and how the vocals sit in them mix. Originally they were a lot higher in the mix and we were like “no, bring them down.” They’re a focus but not the only focus.

T: I think they went a bit too far in that direction on the second album. There’s a few songs where it’s literally like “where are your vocals”? But there are a couple of our songs like Victoria Park and Tastes Like Stars where we want it to be a little bit harsh in places, not glossed-over or produced into everything, like bits where the guitars will glare out over the top. Again, lyrically Victoria Park [mimics The Hotelier] in that it’s songs about relationships, but not in the boy-girl sense, just camaraderie and breakdown of friendships, plus people’s general health and mental well-being being a little bit on-edge and contested. That’s really what we were getting at with Retrospectacular.

#5: Moderat – Bad Kingdom (2013)

Okay, this one really sticks out.

T: Yeah! So I was thinking about how I approached a couple of the songs lyrically, like Gomorrah and This Year’s Thief, and it’s taking what Bad Kingdom does which is taking a grand concept like empires and globalisation while at the same time feeling really personal and immediate. I aspire to do that, I wouldn’t say I get it right, but I try to pull down these bigger symbols and historical moments to run more personal stuff through them. But no, production-wise it doesn’t sound anything like it!

#6: Reuben – Song For Saturday (2004)

This is actually one of my favourite songs. You don’t share Reuben’s sound but you can definitely hear similarities in the lyrics.

T: Yeah, what I like about Jamie Lenman’s songs is that it rhymes when it needs to, but it’s mostly just his train of thought. His ideas come through in a melodic way, but it isn’t bound melodic structure or everything matching up so neatly. It almost feels like a rant that’s taken on a melodic form, and that whole album’s amazing for that. Letting things soar is something this song does really well; his melody lines always tend to reach up and hang for a bit.

Way Back When are on Facebook, Twitter and Bandcamp.

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OWED NOTHING: Anarchy, Screamo & Surviving the 21st Century with PUNCH ON!


Existence is a nightmare, and now more than ever. The world in 2018 is one that is rife with discrimination and intolerance. Hateful and bigoted views are validated by corrupt conservative governments who incite symbolic violence against oppressed groups, who are driven into poverty and destitution through lack of support by that same government. In many ways, very little has changed since the 1980s, during the formative years of punk rock, where DIY culture offered sanctuary to the marginalised and their allies in the face of overwhelming political adversity and looming threat of imminent nuclear destruction.

Sean Addicott and Isaac Windsor sought refuge in punk. To them, it is a symbolic arsenal against the constructed elements of the world. Addicott and Windsor play guitar and drums respectively in PUNCH ON!, a hardcore punk two-piece that blends an eclectic synthesis of early 2000s screamo and mindful ambient. Their upcoming debut LP, I Have No History But The Length Of My Bones, is laced with socially and personally-charged lyrics which conjure a call-to-arms of anarchy and self-government. I sat down with the duo over a black coffee and talked octave pedals, fighting fascism, and why PUNCH ON! wants to fill your heart with strife.

Your LP was recorded by Nathaniel Stevens of Nietzsche Trigger Finger, tell us about your relationship with the UK DIY scene. Do you have any particular close kinships with certain bands?

S: We’ve only been gigging for about six months so haven’t had a chance to form any big kinships. We’ve played with a lot of different bands, like Gatecreeper early on, which was quite cool. We play a lot of hardcore shows, like straight hardcore. We’ll think “there’s a beatdown coming up in our set, all these hardcore kids might find something in it”. Then we’ll still see arms folded and think “well, still too soft for these guys. Still too flowery.”

I: But folded arms at screamo shows are some of the best reactions you get.

S: Oh, the inconsistent language of punk rock.

You say you’re proud to be a two-piece, what are the pros to writing, recording, and gigging with just two people?

I: It’s the best. It’s easier to sort out ‘cause you don’t have to chase everyone around for arranging gigs, practices and on-the-fly stuff. It’s “do you wanna do a practice later?” rather than “what are my seventeen other bandmates doing?” and “oh, I can’t come because I wanna eat some cereal.”

S: It’s pragmatism. It affects the creative process to because I need reigning in sometimes. I need someone to put a box around me and say “stop”. Otherwise I’m thinking “what about this, and this, and this?”

I: You almost wanna be more creative because there’s less people.

S: Our bass player is an octave pedal. That’s one way of reigning in the process, thinking about what’s going on in the bottom end, can it be lower, can I do it without the bass player, etc. There are a few parts on the record where the bass cuts out, like breakdowns and stuff. So there’s that, and observing how that works with harmonic extensions, and with riffs, and asking “how do I make this sound huge?”. One of my biggest influences on this record creatively is Japandroids. I saw a video of the guy playing guitar live and thinking “he’s playing a guitar solo, and it sounds like there’s a rhythm guitar as well. There needs to be a screamo version of this.” There’s Algae Bloom, they’re a screamo two-piece, but they’re a different vibe. When it came to doing this band, my whole thing was jangly European-style skramz, but I thought if we’re a two-piece, we can’t do the intricate guitars in the same way because it would fall flat. So if we can’t be jangly, we’ll just be dumb heavy. I’m not gonna do jangly, I’m gonna do beatdowns, because I haven’t written those before, and they’re dumb and fun!

And the cons?

S: Running out of fingers. The biggest limitation of Punch On! as a two-piece though is that none of us drive. But I’ve yet to experience too many cons.

I: Plus there’s the financial side of not having five band members to split the cost of petrol or t-shirts.

Screamo can be a very insular genre. Does your songwriting take inspiration from atypical sources and other mediums?

S: It’s worth noting that we weren’t originally a screamo band, we were just a band. It just turns out when I’m playing without billions of layers of reverb, the only thing that sounds remotely satisfying sounds a bit like screamo. I find influence quite immeasurable, it’s hard to sit down and list everything you’re consciously influenced by. I did an art exhibition with some friends two years ago on the theme of time, and it was interesting because I was engaging with people who do art in a different realm to mine. There was visual art, painting… a really cool sound sculpture by Ben Chilton of Regolith. Plus going to more noise and techno shows and getting back into John Cage and Steve Reich and thinking more classically about how I do things.

How great is Steve Reich though?

S: The guy’s a living fucking legend. He just stuck two fingers up to convention. Everyone was doing atonal, weird cold war European stuff and he said “nah, this is America in the 1960s, I’m gonna do bright tonal compositions based on simplicity.”

Is that where the ambient/drone element aspect of the music emerged from?

I: That was mainly Sean. I don’t understand music. I’ve gotten into ambient more since being in this band.

S: We both just thought “fuck it, sounds good, so it’s going in”. Which is how we write most things.

Any ambient recommendations for punks?

S: I’ve been ignoring most ambient recently. I’ll say I really, really love it and mean I really love… ten per cent of it. I’ll be on the Reddit ambient music page and be like, cool, you sound like someone who’s literally fallen out of the acid house rave, realised he’s too old to go to that stuff, has all this recording equipment in his bedroom and has gone “yeah, I’m gonna make an ambient record and it’s gonna be sick!” Then you listen to it back and it’s dumb drum loops and drones that don’t make any sense, and I kind of feel like I’m coming down listening to it. But for me, it’s always Tim Hecker. Quite underrated as well is the Riceboy Sleeps album, which is Jónsi from Sigur Rós and Alex Somers’ collaborative ambient record. Nothing impresses me as much as that album does. It’s so complicated, there’s so many layers but it just comes across as a simple work.

I: Didn’t the guy who made Salad Fingers do an ambient album?

S: Fair play to him.

Where do you find the energy to get out of bed and be creative every day?

S: I have a lot of routines that I have in my day anyway just to make sure that everything that needs to be done is done. Outside of creativity I try to keep work and band things balanced, as well as if I’m putting on a show. I try to stay focused, don’t get distracted, and don’t expect too much from myself.

I: In my old job there wasn’t much time for routine because of bar work. But with my new job I’ve got a lot more time to be focused and creative, and we definitely get more done. Now I’m taking time to be creative rather than just constantly thinking about it.

Tell us about your day jobs, do they influence your art?

S: I work in autism education. I have an in-and-out relationship with the role of being a teacher. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I don’t. I love working with young people teaching music, and obviously it affects me because I experience so many different ways of playing music, which has a knock-on effect to how I write. It influences how I perceive the world, like the world wasn’t built for autistic people, so work brings out that frustration. Some songs [on the LP] are just like, “fuck the world, this isn’t how we should live”.

I: And I sell energy for a living. Used to work as a cocktail bartender. It wasn’t the best, working ‘til four in the morning every day.

Punk has a long history of antifascism but recently, many in the DIY scene face hate online for aligning themselves with such far-left ideologies. Do you worry about the criticism that can come with siding with antifascism?

Both: No.

S: It makes life easier in many ways. You know who’s who, where the line is, and what you’re about. I think trying to pacify that is the almost neoliberal answer. “Everyone has to get on and no one can say too much and everyone has to be nicey-nicey”, when sometimes pissing people off who don’t agree with you is your way of saying “we’re this, and we’re not that.” We haven’t had much of an online presence so we haven’t had that kind of backlash yet, but in a way I’m looking forward to it.

How would you deal with your first negative reaction?

I: I’d probably frame it in the practice room.

S: And stick is as the Facebook banner for a while. Really puerile “fuck you” kinda way.

I: We’re proud to actually stand by something and not pacify it and say we have to get on [with fascists]. ‘Cause at the end of the day, we don’t.

“Spring” is a season that crops up a couple of times in the lyrics. Which season do you find to be the most bountiful?

S: I really like autumn and spring when it’s cold and bright. If it’s really cold, I feel more inclined to move, ‘cause I ain’t hanging around when it’s freezing fucking cold. Then when I’m moving I’m like, “cool, energy, this is great!”. When it’s cloudy I almost feel the atmospheric pressure and I have a rubbish day.

I: Yeah, living in England, the weather has extremes. In winter when it’s cold, grey, wet and miserable it’s not very motivating. Same when it’s sunny. Nothing gets done because you feel lethargic.

S: I almost feel inclined to go into our practice space in winter. We shared our space with Idles, the Bristol band, and the thing with Idles is that one of their guitar players is a dentist who lives in London. So the only time they can practice is on Sunday, and they have marathon practices. The reason Idles are so tight, that they can record their whole album in three attempts and every part live is that they’d practice for seven hours in a row. So we went in our practice room once on a hot summer’s day after the five of them had been in a tiny space, rocking out for seven hours, and it was like walking into somewhere between a sauna and a teenager’s bedroom. They left a physical atmospheric presence. So I’d go for winter over summer in that situation.

The lyrics on the LP range from verbose, academic and philosophical to brief personal anecdotes. Without prying, can you offer more insight into the more personal aspects of the lyrics?

S: Some songs are related to more personal experiences and others are more broad, and some of the more obtuse-sounding stuff is a lot more literal than it comes across. One of the songs is about how when I was twenty-two and had heart surgery. Because it was an elective surgery they basically come in with a form and say “we need you to sign this, because in the next six months there’s a 0.5% chance you’ll have a stroke, of which there is a 50% you might die”, and it just kept going with all of these facts, and I was like, “cool, this is my aortic mortality check.” Other songs are just about being pissed off at the world, to be honest. Being twenty-nine and still angry. Having friends your age who aren’t angry anymore. Not liking that I’m expected to do certain things without being asked whether I want to, and not getting an answer when I ask what’s the moral justification, and hating the constructed elements of life.

Each song on the LP ends with a brief philosophical statement that engages the listener directly. What is the purpose of these messages?

S: Those are there to create a very short, immediate context at the end of the song. Lyrically, the record was a coping mechanism for being very nihilistic and being like “ah fuck, don’t know how to deal with this”. One of the inspirations was Orchid’s Gatefold record. If you look inside that there’s a one-line sentence for every song, which put together makes a really interesting paragraph about how to live your life. Reading that I was thinking about how I can condense all my lyrical content into a phrase.

I: It’s like a mantra on how to live and cope. It also sums up the songs in an easy way to understand. It kinda lays it out for everyone, rather than interpreting it in certain ways, it’s “this is what it’s about”.

Finally, this being your inaugural interview, what is Punch On! here to accomplish? What is your message?

S: I guess, we’re trying to find some kind of positive, informed way of viewing certain circumstances… while also having big-sounding guitars and beatdowns.

I: Yeah, a way of coping with living in the twenty-first century.

S: But also big guitars and beatdowns. And cool drum fills. And kick-ass snare tone. And just… coping.

I Have No History But The Length Of My Bones is out 17/3/18 on Callous Records. Sean also plays in Springbreak.

PUNCH ON! endorses listening to their friends’ music: Kate Stapley, Nietzsche Trigger Finger, Salt Bath, Cady, Komarov, Little Baby Sharks, Toodles and the Hectic Pity, and Gnarwhals.

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Jun Togawa: Gender & Violence in Japanese Pop

654cfde8c86392bb9512511fa9888b53--jun-togawa-ninjasPop music is not infallible. We still continue to absentmindedly consume vacuous chart singles while still questioning their authenticity and their larger role in a commercial industry, but the ethics of pop appear to be a much more modern debate. In particular: gender. The intersection between modern feminism and the advent of social media has opened up debates about gender politics in pop music where artists are given more autonomy over their own image. It carries such gravitas that a handful of tweets between Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift can launch hundreds of thinkpieces about modern feminism. The concentration of these discussions across social and traditional media leads us to believe that this is a modern phenomenon, but a hark back to the cross-pollination of gendered images in the 1980s with artists like Prince, Sinead O’Connor, and David Sylvian would have you believe otherwise. One of the ‘80s most unique performers and cultural commentators in this regard however did not come from Western culture, but from Japan.

Even at the height of new-wave weirdness, Tokyo native Jun Togawa became one of the most memorable eccentrics of the ‘80s for her perverse, tortured interpretations of pop music. Togawa became instantly recognisable for her unstable vocal range which cut between girlish lullabies, operatic croons, and mutilated, disturbed cries. Her public image as a performer was multifaceted, with her on-stage and media presence taking on many costumed personas as a schoolgirl, a 1930s wartime crooner, a killer, a warrior, a prosthetic hand-bearing fashionista, and a queen of insects. Togawa’s bizarre persona and eclectic array of influences (from punk to eroguro culture) made it almost impossible to gouge any semblance of meaning from her art. However, like many of her contemporaries, Togawa also became one of pop’s commentators on gender. In particular, on perceptions of femininity in popular culture.

Togawa began her singing career after attending university, guesting with the avant-pop band Halmens (whose members would later form the Togawa-fronted post-punk group YAPOOS). Though it wasn’t until 1984 when Togawa would make her singer-songwriting debut with Tamahime-sama, her first in a long line of statements about femininity in modern culture. Tamahime-sama (literally translating to ‘Princess Tama’ or ‘Princess Ball’) juxtaposed a Disneyesque character of a young princess with the far less-graceful image of a world overflowing with insects. Throughout the thirty-five minute narrative of the record, Togawa narrates a character who devolves into an insect over her struggles with emerging adolescence.

“Once upon a month in a padded cell, Princess Ball has a fit / Her skin five shades of colour, a snake in her black hair. / The radiating aura irrepressible. Her central nerves rush to her womb with the destructive energy of a hundred thousand horse power / Lady hysteric, Princess Ball goes mad.”

Similarly to her female pop contemporaries in the West such as Sinead O’Connor and Björk, Togawa often challenged societal perceptions and expectations of gender in her art with uncharacteristically-female depictions of women. Taboo subjects like the unflattering depictions of the adolescent menstrual cycle in Tamahime-sama dispelled the common, patronising archetype of the demure, dainty female that is often consumed in mass media. In Togawa’s art, women were not idyllic goddesses of unattainable perfection. They were exaggerated, gritty, frenzied, caterwauling beasts; a Frankensteinian, realist concoction of Togawa’s own politics and her penchant for absurdist eroguro art.

Togawa’s caricature of the female was especially important back in Japan. Her transgressive attitudes towards pop music were especially shocking for a public more suited to the Japanese standard of “idol culture”, a popular media industry that operates similarly to those in the West, but with some questionable ethics thrown in. Japanese pop “idols” are manufactured by talent agencies in the very same way that our common chart sensations often are, usually hiring young girls (and sometimes boys) with little experience in the entertainment industry to emphasise an endearing sense of authenticity. Aside from being trained to sing, perform, and act across a wide range of mediums, idols are marketed to represent a romanticised, youthful purity which is the key to their success. Idols are built to be consumed as sisterly-types, love interests, and exemplaries of beauty and grace. However, to maintain the integrity of their public image, the private lives of idols are kept under strict surveillance by their agencies. Idols must remain chaste and not pursue relationships, or act in such a way that it jeopardises their immaculate media personas.


In 2013 Minami Minegishi, member of one of Japan’s most successful idol groups, AKB48, was the subject of a tabloid exposé after she was spotted leaving the home of a boyband member whom she was, reportedly, pursuing a relationship with. Within hours she was demoted by her agency, and a few hours after that, a video surfaced online of a distraught Minegishi with a shaved head (cutting one’s hair is seen as an act of remorse in Japanese culture) pleading to her fans and her management for forgiveness, disowning herself for her “thoughtlessness”. Japanese cultural commentator Ian Martin argues that idols are not only made to sell pop records, but also a fantasy narrative, which presents the central ethical problem that runs throughout all idol culture, in that the personalities and lives of young women are manufactured to be consumed and itemised; they are denied a normal life, and face persecution if they choose to stray.

Needless to say, the image of the innocent, penitent female idol is completely at odds with the grotesqueness of Tamahime-sama’s depiction of adolescent women. Soon after its release, Togawa would continue her onslaught on popular culture, the idol industry aligned as her new target. Released in the same year, her next record Suki Suki Daisuki (roughly translated to I Love You So Much) modelled itself as a satirical caricature of the female idol, as well as pop music as a whole. During this time, Togawa further marketed herself as an idol, and the increased accessibility of the record allowed her politics and comic absurdity to reach a broader audience. Like a ‘real’ idol, Togawa performed on network television and appeared on talk shows around this period. Her array of costumed personas also took a more feminine turn, appearing in schoolgirl uniforms and polka-dotted dresses. The record’s title track and lead single, Togawa’s most successful song to date, was the centrepiece in her pop satire. While showcasing her fast-improving vocal talents, “Suki Suki Daisuki” features Togawa impersonating a cutesy, shrill-voiced idol which isn’t as innocent as she seems. She proclaims her love to the listener, selling the idol “fantasy”, but her expressions of love are far more extreme than your standard idol.

“My love is increasing and transcends the common sense / The love in rose broke out like a mutation / Pure as to be able to call it violence […] Kiss me like thumping, as blood clots on my lips / Hold me, as my ribs breaking”

Togawa’s declarations of love read like a stalker (which many real-life idols are tormented by), and her obsessions reach a disturbing zenith when the repetitious, ear-worm chorus is punctuated with, “Say you’ll love me, or I’ll kill you”. The slasher-flick humour of “Suki Suki Daisuki” can be read in several different ways. While again showing her affinity for the extremes between violence and intimacy seen in eroguro, it can be seen as an expression of the repressed frustration of the female idol, comically suggesting that chastising them for their real feelings and emotions could harbor terrifying consequences. Perhaps it is a protest song on behalf of idols, or simply just a comical jab at the middle-of-the-road inoffensiveness of pop music. Other songs from this period also hinted at the mistreatment of idols and pop singers such as “Virgin Blues”. Togawa also paid homage to female singers with a cover of Françoise Hardy’s “It Hurts To Say Goodbye”.

Very little is known about Togawa in Western music culture despite her wide-reaching influence throughout Japanese independent art. Though she draws comparisons to artists like Björk with her creative output and public image initiating discussions about gender and perceptions of femininity in their respective cultures, as well as transcending the artistic expectations of the average pop star. Many of Togawa’s influences are European female singer-songwriters, whom she paid homage to by working covers of Patti Smith, Nico, Brigitte Fontaine and more into her repertoire throughout her career. Togawa’s creative output is unfortunately not as routine as in the ‘80s and ‘90s. She has just released a collaboration with noise legends Hijokaidan, her first proper full-length record since 2004’s Togawa Fiction, not counting reams of on-and-off collaborations and guest appearances. Togawa’s seminal records are littered with spooky synths, ominous concrete keys and Casio effects that, to many, will sound quaint by today’s standards, like much of the 80s. But her work lacks the slick, neon chic of the decade. While The Human League aimed to perfect the pop ballad, Togawa sided with the transgressors. Her music lacks all optimism. It’s comically bleak, morbid, and absurd, but the messages of her songs are still fresh and compelling by being painted with all of her bizarre eccentricities.

Lyric translations credit to Togawa Jun Collective.

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I Don’t Support Record Store Day, And You Shouldn’t Either


So far, 2016 has been a pretty distressing year for music fans. While many were still reeling from Lemmy Kilmister’s departure to the great gig in the sky, the passing of rock n’ roll sovereign David Bowie only seemed to heartlessly tear open a still-fresh wound in the music-loving community. While not as globally-devastating as the passing of some of rock’s greatest monarchs, the Bristol community received another shock with the closure of one of the city’s most enduring record shops, Head. Having worked at Head up until its closure, seeing it cave in to the multitudes of threats that record stores face in the modern day is just so disheartening, and it makes you question how long until they die out altogether.

Head started out its life in the Galleries in the ‘90s as a Virgin store, later becoming a Zavvi retailer, and finally re-opening independently as Head. Head is joining the waves of independent record stores closing down across the South West, such as Bath’s Raves From The Grave, which shut down in June of last year. There are a multitude of reasons behind the much-loved store’s closure, but the most prominent is merely a sign of the times. Independent entertainment retailers face even more competition now than ever before with the advent of online streaming, downloading, and piracy. While great leaps in technology have considerably improved our media culture for consumers, it’s sending independent businesses to the chopping block. As of 2014, digital revenue streams grew by 6.9 per cent to make as much money as their physical counterparts, and the numbers will do nothing but increase as the market continues to expand.

While streaming and downloading have knocked a major dent in physical record sales, retailers like HMV and Amazon can still sit comfortably atop their thrones as the UK’s leading music vendors. Corporate bigwigs are unaffected while independent businesses are left in a perpetual drought of sales, and some attempts at boosting record spendage in the indie market appear to have gone awry. Record Store Day, an annual event initially created as a call-to-arms of supporting independent music stores, has been criticised for “betraying” its original intent, and effectively doing more harm than good. Bristol’s own Howling Owl record label delivered a savage open letter which berated RSD for being “co-opted by major labels” and harming independent ones. The limited-edition releases manufactured for the event also have a much larger buying-in price from dealers, and have to be bought at “firm sale”, meaning they cannot be returned. Essentially, the event is a pure gamble for independent stores, and unfortunately Head was dealt a bad hand. Piles of unsold limited-release RSD stock gathered dust behind the counter in the months that followed last year’s event in April. Even a Black Friday sale couldn’t move half of the leftover records which Record Store Day distributors promise that fans will clamor for on release.

Record stores and entertainment retailers have a far different place in consumer culture these days. You no longer need to reserve a copy, queue up and purchase the new Adele album on release day. Everything’s completely at your fingertips online, which leads consumers to question why they’d go to the extra effort of buying a physical CD or DVD? Their existence is almost ephemeral. While record stores as a business aren’t as prevalent as in previous decades, they still act as a watering hole for like-minded music fans from all walks of life. When moving to the area a few years ago, I remember all the feelings of apprehension and anxiety that come with moving to a new city melting away upon discovering Head. It wasn’t just a record store to me. Record shops aren’t just a place where you grab the new Taylor Swift; they’re a social hub, a place of pilgrimage that represents and solidifies a sense of community in music much like the rich sonic heritage that Bristol has nurtured for years and years. Head has been one of the most rewarding, fascinating jobs I’ve ever had because of all the colourful, vibrant characters I’ve served and worked with during my time there. You can take away just as much happiness from a bright-eyed kid buying the new Adele CD than you can with a silver-haired veteran bolstering his Lou Reed collection. Therefore, my plea is simple, and one that is shared by music fans the world over: support your local record store. Not just on RSD. Not just when HMV’s out of stock. Put your money into an independent instead. When you put money into a local business, your money isn’t going toward a corporate suit’s new BMW, you’re giving back to the community. It’s a humbling feeling knowing that your money’s going towards someone’s lunch, gas bills, vet treatments for their cat, and ballet shoes for their daughter. The record store is a key social element of music culture, and we can’t allow it to die out.

There is some hope, however. While digital sales of individual albums are declining as fast as their physical counterparts in favour of streaming subscriptions, vinyl sales continue to soar, with UK sales growing by 56 per cent in the first half of 2015 alone. Though vinyl may retain the affections of dedicated music lovers, some good things must come to an end. Though it comes from a place of sadness, all the sympathies we’ve received from customers, as well as all the sincere anecdotes about how much they loved coming into the shop, are enough heartfelt evidence to show that local record stores can make a difference in the community. At the time of writing, our manager Griff, who’s worked with the store since the Virgin days, plans to have Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells to soundtrack the shop’s final closure. Though I initially thought Tom Waits’ Closing Time, or Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last A Long Time” would be the obvious choices, some of you music boffins out there might recognise Oldfield’s 1973 classic as the first record to be released on a Virgin label. So it’s nice to see that, at the very least, we’re not ending on a finale, but a new beginning.


Airs & The Cherry Wave React To 2015 Records, Plus Stream!

Autumn hit pretty late this year. There’s a massive oak tree that looms over my window whose colours appeared to rust almost overnight. Nature’s playing some winded game of catch-up with us right now, and it’s only just hit me how little time we have left in the year. Panto starts shortly at the theatre where I work. Scarves are working their way back into my wardrobe. Us Louder Than War staff are working on our year-end lists, a ritual which I always reluctantly partake in.

Some of my favourite records to listen to at this time of year are those with thick textures and layering. Ones that evoke the same sensations as the feeling of a cozy jumper or a warm mug of tea seated on a windowsill. While San Francisco’s Airs and Glasgow’s The Cherry Wave may be settled at completely different sides of the world, what unites them is their own brands of warm, fuzzy shoegaze, ideal for this time of the year. Both sides of their new split record sport loud, enveloping layers of melodic noise; captivating, and sometimes punishing, it’s perfect, addictive listening for watching your own leaves turn to brown.

In the true spirit of the looming year-end journalists’ tradition, I invited Adam of The Cherry Wave and Chris from Airs for their blind impressions of some of the years’ most hyped records. While you read, please enjoy a stream of the new Airs & The Cherry Wave split. Make sure to purchase it so many times that Chris can afford a flight to the UK so I can fight him personally. Happy autumnal decay, everyone.

Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late – This is awkward. I am culturally and critically dumb when it comes to hip-hop. I tried really hard to get into it about ten years ago but I just couldn’t. It’s completely my loss, I accept that. Drake isn’t going to change things either. Not much fun, is it? Some of it sounds like a guy rapping over a sleep hypnosis tape. It’s just boring. Sorry Drake. – Adam

Sleaford Mods – Key Markets – This is the most British thing I’ve ever heard. Sounds like a trashed Shaun Ryder ranting over Garageband loops. I’d probably like this more if I wasn’t a stupid American. – Chris

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor – Apparently this album is heavily influenced by Muddy Waters, The Doors and The Stones. Sounds more like nu metal in a blues scale. Even Twiggy didn’t want to be a part of this trainwreck. Is it Antichrist Superstar? No, but it’s better than Born Villain. – Chris

Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon – This one’s tricky. I really like songcraft. It’s the thing that interests and concerns me most musically. This guy clearly knows which chord can come next. He knows them all. It’s just… some of it sounds like it’s from the soundtrack to Toy Story or Shrek, which is fine, unless your tune lacks the context of actually being in Toy Story or Shrek. Then it’s just a bit of a plodding, pedestrian, 70s singer-songwriter tune. It’s very melodic and everything, I just don’t like its vibes. Seems a bit false and targeted. I’m probably being a bit harsh – he obviously has love for stuff like that, so it’s coming from a genuine place. I’m just not into it. – Adam

Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion – Is this the new CHVRCHES album? This is the most vapid garbage I’ve heard in ages. Wikipedia lists like, 50 studios this was recorded at. Did the engineers just get tired of hearing this mess over and over again and pass it off to the next dude? This is the kind of thing they play in malls across suburban America. Thanks a bunch, Canada. – Chris

Deafheaven – New Bermuda – This is fine. Sounds like their last one, all in all. That’s no bad thing of course. Just makes you think that, if you really really nail what you’re trying to do on one album – which is what they did on Sunbather, that’s great – you either need to change dramatically, which is hard, or just call it a day and walk into the sunset. They’ve only got one idea really, but it’s a pretty good one. I’ll let them off this time. They’re amazing live, too. – Adam

Jamie xx – In Colour – I’m like 3 minutes into this album and it sounds like a broken air conditioner. I’m sure this took all of a day to assemble in Fruity Loops. Had to turn it off when baby’s first synth lead kicked in. The xx sucks too. – Chris 

Turnstile – Nonstop Feeling – Now this is a fucking disgrace. Drake got away with it, but ignorance won’t stop me criticising this one. I’ve listened and liked plenty of stuff like this over the years, and this is FUCKING SHIT. What is going on here? It’s godawful. Sounds like a crap Helmet, and they were hardly the best band ever. So so dull, just devoid of anything interesting. I think the early 2000s wants its guitar tone back. Terrible, stop it, leave me alone, forever. Urgh. – Adam

Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, Girl – My living room feels like the coolest coffee shop in town when this album is on. I have no idea what she’s saying but I feel sophisticated as fuck. This one is alright. – Chris

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly – Now this is much better. More ideas in the first song than in the entirety of that Drake album. It’s bright and energetic, but it’s not party hip-hop. Those two things don’t need to go hand in hand. It’s making me want to listen to what he’s saying. Highly quotable too, that’s always a prerequisite of hip-hop I like. The sound of someone who’s clearly on a roll creatively. That’s always nice to hear. – Adam

Airs & The Cherry Wave’s split record is now available to stream. Airs’ Apart is out now. The Cherry Wave’s Avalancher is available to stream and purchase now. 

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Talking With Ghosts: A Séance With Ambersmoke

At the time of writing, Ambersmoke has little-to-no presence on the internet. They barely even glance at social media. Their identity is an esoteric mystery, obscured behind decaying photographs, or eschewed for re-appropriated images of the dearly departed. Instead, the being which we perceive to be “Ambersmoke” is a fragmented, disjointed phantom, whose form, consciousness, and volition are scattered across a boundless wasteland of cassettes, CD-Rs, zines, VHS tapes, and more.

Exploring Ambersmoke’s back catalogue is not an easy feat, even in the all-access age of the internet where an entire artist’s discography can be available with a single keystroke. Their archaic approach to releasing their music, often only available on fragile physical formats, promotes the lost act of discovery in music. Tracking down and exploring each of their limited releases is like brushing away the dust on an old photograph, uncovering repressed memories and feelings that have been locked away for years and years.

Some releases take the hyper-limited characteristic to the fullest degree possible. Some records are only limited to a singular copy, or in some cases, entirely unreleased altogether, leaving the listener with the tangible sense of absence that cascades through Ambersmoke’s music. The tape, CD, or music file you listen to is like a puzzle with missing pieces, and a feigning reminder that everything is impermanent, and will all soon decay.

Ambersmoke remains an elusive character in the pantheon of experimental music, more akin to a ghost than a personality. Little is known about them, other than their base of operations being in the Bay Area of California, the centre to a flourishing hub of like-minded experimentalists. Ambersmoke has never given interviews until now.

Over the years, you’ve been slowly encompassing a wide range of styles into your music. Weird folk music… psychedelia… is Ambersmoke growing into more of a tool for experimentation?

Ambersmoke has always been a tool for experimentation, honestly. The project started as sort of an in-joke between my friends and I and after the joke got old (which didn’t take long at all), I immediately began experimenting with just whatever ideas I had that didn’t fit musically into any other project. Lately I’ve been working on droney “ghost folk” and choral, almost spiritual, drone pieces.

Why choose to keep yourself anonymous?

I don’t really. I just don’t care. Lots of people know who I am, lots of people come up to shows and recognize me from Ambersmoke performances. I don’t try to hide my identity, you can easily find my name in a quick Google search. My name shouldn’t have any effect on the art.

Many of your records are super-limited releases. I feel like that goes beyond for more than just a lack of resources. Is there a statement you wish to make by releasing records in strings of ten, three, sometimes singular copies?

Sometimes it’s a lack of resources. You know, along the lines of “oh, I only have these 4 blank tapes and I want to put this out at my next show cos I have nothing else to sell”. Things like that. Other times it’s just a total pisstake. We (much to the surprise of many, Ambersmoke does have a revolving collective-esque lineup) decided a few weeks ago it’d be funny to put out a new tape every day, each limited to 1. It quickly proved too hard to accomplish, but the first tape ended up really cool so it’ll be released soon. Things like the “hand curiated foliage” in the recent box set happen just because we see things in craft stores, like small jars, and just think “wouldn’t that be ridiculous to package this with something?”. While Ambersmoke is a serious project, we don’t take ourselves very seriously all the time. I certainly don’t.

What kind of emotional spaces does Ambersmoke manifest in?

There’s no real answer to this question I think. Nothing I can easily name. It’s easy to say something like “sadness and despair”, but that’s not the case. It’s hard to explain.


Do you feel closely associated to any nearby “scenes”? California has a rather large noise scene.

Not especially. I’ve been shunned by the majority of the people who have heard my music and at the last show, we played to maybe 3 people. Nobody talks to us, nobody really cares about what we’re doing. I’m not trying to be a part of any scene, I don’t care. We’re embraced by the Arcane Visions Collective up north and the Salope Cassette scene down here in southern California, but I don’t see Ambersmoke as really a part of either family.

Other mediums of art appear to play an increasingly more important role in Ambersmoke. Outline the importance of the non-musical aspects of your art, such as the visual design, performance aspects, physical releases, etc.

Ambersmoke has never really been a “band” or a sort of musical project. While the music is the primary artform, I feel the visual design, the tangible elements and the visual elements of live performances are equally as important. As I said earlier, while Ambersmoke is a very serious project, a lot of what I or we do is tongue in cheek. The artwork for Une femme est une femme is clearly a ripoff of Sacred Bones artwork, for example. It’s meant to be absurd or ridiculous. I’m not trying to rip something off and pretend like nobody notices. It’s the absurdity of it. There’s a lot of that in the packaging of these releases. It gets really over the top sometimes and that’s the point. It helps me convey the duality in the project, the balance of very serious musical works with ridiculous packaging, artwork or (less so these days) song titles.

Iconography from French films, Japanese art, nature and nostalgia is something that you appear to revisit constantly in your art. What is your fascination with these subjects?

I like French films because a few years ago I was really depressed and didn’t want to do anything so I laid in bed spending my time watching the most seemingly pretentious things I could get my hands on. There’s a lot of that in French cinema. The Japanese art stuff comes primarily from my adoration of Suehiro Maruo, which has influenced a substantial portion of my work. The rest of it is just because it works, honestly. I’m a photographer, it’s easy to take photos of flowers. Flowers look nice on a good black & white film. The subject matter itself is nearly irrelevant, it’s the feeling it invokes. I work around feelings, not directly with the subject matter.

Listeners tend to lump your music into the labels of “shoegaze, drone, black metal, post-punk, etc.” Do you reject these labels? Do you feel pigeonholed by listeners or critics?

I feel like nobody has really listened to my music. “Black metal”? “Post-punk”? I think like, did you really even listen to it? There are elements of all those genres you listed in my music, but there’s so much more. I don’t limit myself to one genre. I don’t work like “let me make a song in this genre today”, I write a song and whatever elements work their way in make the song. On the last record there were a lot of sampled house and funk beats under the heavy, doomy drums. Lots of tambourine. It’s not a black metal record, but everyone sure as hell tried to call it that.

That said, do you identify somewhat with the insular, “one-man band” character that appears numerous times in experimental music? Say, Scott Conner of Xasthur, for instance.

I see myself more like a loner Keiji Haino or Anton Newcombe. I like working with others, but I like writing and recording on my own. When performing with others, I prefer to let the musicians make up their own parts. The recorded material is that of a “one-man band”, but when others get involved, Ambersmoke is more of a true psychedelic group.

Do you believe in the supernatural?

Absolutely. The next album is inspired heavily by a few supernatural experiences that happened to us over the last few months. Even before then, the supernatural has had a lot of influence on me.

Are you fascinated by nostalgia?

Oh definitely. It’s a big driving force creatively for me. Ambersmoke lives mostly in the past, emotionally. Nostalgia is a concept that comes up a lot on just about every album.

Is “decay” an important element of your music? If so, please explain the importance of it.

Possibly the most important element. It led me to stop releasing music in digital formats, or at least cut back heavily. It bothered me that digital was essentially eternal and never degraded. I know analog formats are the cool thing right now, but I grew up with tapes. I grew up with VHS. Somewhere along the line, I realized that it was weird that the digital formats I’d become accustomed to never degraded. Not naturally at least. I’ve always been fascinated with analog decay. That’s how I want my music and my art to be experienced. I don’t want it to be eternal.

Do you worry about the future?

I worry about the present.

Wear Your Love Like Heaven is available now. Photography by Cameron Puleo.

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CROSS SECTIONS: The heartbreak and conflict behind Xiu Xiu’s “A Promise”.

cararobbins-xiuxiu-0005The story of A Promise begins in a gay cruising spot in Hanoi. Jamie Stewart, whose eccentric extremes have propelled Californian experimentalists Xiu Xiu through all manner of indie trends over the past decade, found himself on vacation in Vietnam prior to the recording of the band’s 2003 sophomore album. A chance encounter with a young homeless man would lead to one of the most striking, controversial, and ridiculed album sleeves of the past decade.

Being asked for sex in return for money by the down-and-out young man, Stewart instead invited him to his hotel room. There, Stewart paid him to take his picture, his only attendant being a rubber baby toy which had been carried around with Stewart on his trip. He stripped, posed with the baby, took his money, and left. This absurd conflict between sex and human relationships, along with Stewart’s guilt towards the experience, served as a stimulus for the harrowing emotional palettes of the band’s formidable A Promise, which would launch Xiu Xiu to the height of indie rock infamy.

Cross Sections is a series which dissects cult albums with the help of their creators. Myself and Stewart pulled into a shimmering vegetarian restaurant on Baldwin St, Bristol to discuss A Promise, relationships, self-abuse, and the heartbreaking vow behind the album’s title. Read and listen along below.

“Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl”

Older fans will recognise this as a song from your previous band, Ten In The Swear Jar. Why choose to rework and open the record with it?

I wish I had a decent theoretical reason for picking that song. It was mostly for practical reasons. Ten In The Swear Jar was a band that nobody had heard of. We self-released one CD that was limited to about five-hundred copies and we never toured. It was a song that Cory McCulloch, who started Xiu Xiu with me… yeah, we both liked it and essentially didn’t want that song to go to waste! I also think the Ten In The Swear Jar version didn’t really suit the feel of the song with how it was arranged. More of a rock feel.

So it feels more at home here?

Oh yeah. I think that the Xiu Xiu version, to my ear, says what I think that song is trying to say.

And what is that song trying to say?

Cory and I used to live in this really terrible house. When we first started off the band we were obscenely broke. We lived in this house that was literally falling apart, not really like a punk house, more of a nerd house in the style of a punk house. Attached to the house was an apartment that was right above my bedroom window, and there was this young girl who lived in an apartment next door. She was gay and was dating an older woman from the neighbourhood, and I think the older woman was married to a man. Their relationship was completely secretive, and they’d sit above my window and be a couple. But they didn’t know I was there.

So, kind of a voyeuristic experience?

Yeah. Most of the lines from the song are things they had said to each other, and it’s an observation of their impossible attempt to have a relationship… their difficult existence. At the time it was very specific, but now to me it’s probably just about difficult existence in a more personal or general way, depending on what year it is, what happens to be going on… does that even make any sense?

“Apistat Commander”

What are the mentions of the Chinese names in the lyrics here?

“Chen” is Yvonne Chen, who was in Xiu Xiu at the time we were writing it, who co-wrote it. At the time we were real close friends, and “Wei” and “Huai” are her brother and sister.

Is the mention of the names used heighten the personal element of the songs?

I frankly don’t remember because this song in particular is more about suicide. [The names] are more there to illustrate what there is to lose from suicide.

Yeah, there’s definitely a sense of uncertainty in the lyrics in regards to suicide. It’s not very pro-suicide.

It’s more just dealing with it as a way of life. Not promoting it as a way out, but just as a way of just… dealing with it. It is an option, and thankfully it’s not something that is as big of a part of my life as it was then. But it was, at the time, a daily concern. Not so much now, thankfully.

How did you create the grating, mechanical sounds on the record?

Back then I think we only had two synths. Two shitty synths, and not shitty in a good way. We had a Yamaha DX21, which I think Cory was the only person in the entire world who could get some decent sounds out of it, and some other garbage synth that I don’t think anyone feels fondness for even now. Then we just ran them through distortion pedals. I think we had three distortion pedals at the time. This is literally the only shit I care about, just distortion pedals! One was a yellow MXR that I left in a parking lot at an airport, one was a crappy RAT. But the one cool one we had was a really cheap Danelectro called the French Toast. Really cheap, maybe around twenty-five dollars, and it had a horrible octave shift in it that couldn’t follow anything so it was mostly just random. I should get my hands on one of those again. That is a piece of garbage that is a wonderful piece of garbage.

“Walnut House”

This song has some of the most bizarre, vivid lyrics on the album, like “they have as many eyes as a pineapple”. But it’s juxtaposed with really grounded, direct phrases like “I am the dumbest bitch on the planet”. Did you aim to create this kind of disorienting dynamic when you were writing it, or was it more natural?

Again I’d love to say there was any theoretical basis behind this song. It’s a song about the nursing home my grandmother was dying in called ‘Walnut House’. It was a very surreal place, essentially a warehouse full of people with dementia whose bodies are falling apart. I think, if I remember correctly, a lot of the imagery was cribbed from books I was reading at the time, or things I’d hear people in the nursing home say.

Is that where the “don’t worry Mom” freakout at the end comes from?

Oh, that actually was some small attempt for me to console my Mom while she was watching her own mother die. As well at the time I was getting into some worrisome sexual activity, none of which she was privy to, but I think she was generally worried about the way I was living my life at the time. So it’s a very incongruous combination of literary references, my grandmother dying, and consoling my Mom.

Very similar subject matter to the This Song Is A Mess But So Am I record where all the songs are about his mother dying of cancer.

Oh yeah. Freddie and I are still very close friends.

“20,000 Deaths For Eidelyn Gonzales, 20,000 Deaths For Jamie Peterson”

I guess the obvious question is to ask who Eidelyn Gonzales and Jamie Peterson are.

This song isn’t really about either of those people. A lot of Xiu Xiu titles don’t necessarily refer to the subject matter of the song. Eidelyn Gonzales was someone who I, for lack of a better description, had a fuck-buddy relationship with, who I treated very, very, very badly, and in no uncertain terms took pretty horrible advantage of her, I think for a couple of years. Jamie Peterson was a percussionist I liked a lot but anyone barely knew. She played in a lot of Bay Area bands, lots of experimental stuff but nothing anyone would’ve heard of. But she’s a really good percussionist. Anyway, Eidelyn, I’m sorry I was such a shithead to you.

How much of the record was inspired by true events like that, and how much was more of an idealised fantasy?

So far the only constant about Xiu Xiu is that the songs are always about something true.

“Pink City”

How were the less-structured tracks like this composed for the record? This song sounds like someone having a million different mood swings mid-composition.

I was pretty out of my mind at the time so it’s entirely possible that’s what happened! Those were dark days. Very dark days. Yeah, this will just sound melodramatic, but it was without a doubt one of the most difficult and worst times of my life. It was a pretty miserable existence.

You mentioned taking inspiration from literature before. The lyrics here are quite violent and debauched, in the vein of, say, William S. Burroughs or J. G. Ballard.

I’m always really hesitant to be specific about explaining songs because it’s very different to what you’ve described to me, but I don’t want it to be what it’s about to you. Half of that song is about a book about the Balkans War, but the author of the book who was strung-out on heroin at the time of the Balkans War, an American guy. We never play that song live, so it’s kind of removed from my consciousness. We just never got around to it. Again, forgive me for being melodramatic, but [emotions] would never prevent us from playing songs live.

“Sad Redux O-Grapher”

Another old song, right?

We had two different versions of the song. One appeared on a 5 Rue Christine compilation, the label we were on, but I thought we could do a better version of it. But that song is about just liking a boy, and having that boy think you were an idiot. And him not being all that far off base. Again, this was a long time ago, so it’s faded from my memory slightly. There was this boy that I liked, I tried to get him to like me, and he thought I was stupid, and him being right that I was pretty stupid. As one does when they’re in that situation, feeling pretty miserable and hopeless, a fairly typical subject matter for a sad song.

This song fits nicely together with Walnut House. Did you think a lot about the structure of the record before putting it out?

I think that might have just been good luck on our part. We just wrote a bunch of songs, and then once we had ten, we decided we were done. We recorded in the same house as Knife Play, with the same people.

How did the configuration of band members in Xiu Xiu at the time shape the sound of the record?

For the beginning of that record, like I said, Yvonne Chen played on it. Once we started touring, she kind of excused herself since she didn’t want to tour. So it was mostly Lauren Andrews, Cory McCulloch, and myself. Lauren didn’t really write all that much, but she had a really excellent feel. She could play things that were incredible simple, but with a notable brutality and a real sense of space that was superlative. The exact right amount to my ear between notes, and particularly for that record since the songs were so sparse. She really played nicely on that one. The tension and release between playing and not playing. Music nerd things, but she was all quite good at it.

Cory was really instrumental in picking good vocal takes. At the time, the three things he was really fantastic at. One was keyboard parts that were extremely dissonant but also very melodic, and then making really wonderful and really musical feedback, and then serving as producer for the vocals. I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone since who could produce vocals that well. We had been friends for a long time before, I haven’t talked to him in several years, but I really trusted him. It made it a lot easier to… open up and be comfortable. I could essentially say anything with him in the room. He knew me well enough to know if I meant it or if I was faking it, and he’d push me to mean it.


Did you want this record to challenge the listener when you composed it?

It’s never something that we would ever do consciously. With this song, or any song, we try to get something out of the listener, without having any business out of what that something is. Again I don’t want to ruin what a song could mean for somebody else with what it means to me.

Do you have that in mind while writing? What a listener can take away from a song subjectively?

Absolutely. For me it’s always about something very, very specific. But it’s not important that that specificity is passed onto someone else. I hope they can appreciate that it’s about something specific, but as well being something personal for the listener. I don’t know if we succeed at it, but that’s what we’re hoping for. But as far as attempting to be challenging, we just create songs that sound good to us, and whether or not that is challenging isn’t up to us.

“Brooklyn Dodgers”

What were the outsider influences for this song in particular?

It was about my brother. My whole family at the time lived in the Bay Area, and fortunately my family now is a little more levelled out. In a state of crisis, to say the least, he decided he didn’t want to live there anymore and moved to New York somewhat unexpectedly. It broke my heart a little bit. I mean I don’t blame him! If I had as much guts as he had I’d have gotten out of there also. But he realised that he needed to get on with his life, rather than get mired in the disaster that was our family at the time.

“Fast Car”

So, the Tracy Chapman cover’s an interesting choice. It expresses lots of the same sentiments as the original songs on the album despite coming from a different era. I remember in our last interview you spoke about having a huge respect for pop musicians.

That song has always amazed me that it actually is a pop song because it’s one of the most depressing songs I’ve ever heard. It’s just a list of bad things that happen, and then it’s over. There is no happy ending to that song, which at the time, and forever more, is what life is!

I do think it’s quite ironic that the song that epitomises the whole record wasn’t even written for it.

Well, it was a humongous influence on us, obviously! When I was a kid, there was an MTV show called 120 Minutes that used to show “alternative” videos, and interestingly, that Tracy Chapman song was shown on it and was considered, at the time, an alternative, underground song. Probably because the subject matter’s so dark. It somehow became a light rock hit two years later with a very long-lasting life. That’s when I initially came across it, when I was really young.

So you have a strong connection to it for hearing it in your youth?

I think when I was younger I was too young to really understand what it was about. Like, there’d be that, and there’d be a PiL video on after that. It wasn’t until I was an adult and I was driving around when I was stunned by how incredibly bleak it is. We didn’t really think that much about it for the record, we just loved the song and wanted to say “thank you” to it.

“Ian Curtis Wishlist”

“When you tell me everything, I will take it too far”?

The specifics of it are that it was me being very foolish and unrealistic! And knowing I was being foolish and unrealistic, but not being able to stop myself from behaving in that way. It sounds very boring, but there was this girl that I liked, and she was just very polite, and was like, “no thank you, you’re… a mess”. I think at the time it was a realisation of what an incredibly fucking loser I was, and an astounding sense of loneliness and stupidity, but being aware that I was being stupid and lonely. Even then it was only very briefly that I had feelings for this person. It was someone who I made out with one time in a basement, and then just got completely, absurdly unrealistic about. It’s probably more just about feeling like an idiot, rather than just being hopelessly in love with someone specific. But it was a period of extraordinary idiocy, and I think I was at my wits end with how little things were working out. I couldn’t really stand myself, and was certainly not making it easier on myself.

The vocals of the song, again, have a sporadic, improvised feel. Some of the lyrics sound like they were ad-libbed.

As little as I remember about this record, I do remember recording for the vocals for this song pretty clearly. I was teaching pre-school at the time, came home from work, got incredibly drunk very quickly. Sat at my desk, which is odd, since one tends to stand when doing vocals. I put the microphone in front of me, I think I had written the words down on paper in front of me. It was a rather spontaneous idea to do it. Recording vocals is usually a trial for me and I have to work up the courage to do it. I just recorded it in two takes, then a couple of days later I went back, listened to it, then edited the two takes together. There were written lyrics, but I think it was because I was because I was so drunk there was a certain looseness to it.

One thing that’s just occurred to me right now is what that must’ve sounded like to my roommates! It was a very crowded house, and I think I just put on my headphones and made whatever grunting sounds made up that take! Normally I would’ve waited, but the people me and Cory lived with were huge assholes. I’m sure they felt I was an asshole also. It was a very hostile environment. Now that I think about it, I don’t think we made any attempt to curb any amount of noise that we were making. We were extraordinarily inconsiderate. But so were they, about other things. It was a lot of gross guys, kind of hopeless nerd guys, but mean hopeless nerd guys. People just did not give each other a break in any way. They probably just thought the worst of me.

Did your experience in Vietnam directly influence any of the songs on the record?

That happened a couple of years before we made that record. Using that photo wasn’t so much a reference specifically to the events of the record, but more of having the feeling of what was happening at the time. There was a very distinct emotional connection, but not any sort of chronological connection. It seemed like he had a lot of cigarette burns on him. Some kind of rotten abuse somewhere down the line.

Did you get any heat from the album sleeve? Did anyone refuse to stock it or put it out?

Initially we had the little orange square. It was a reference to Todd Solondz, a movie director who I like a lot, and was really obsessed with at the time. He did a movie with a sex scene that no one would show, so he put an orange box over it. So that was an homage to him.

To close, why title the album “A Promise”?

…It always depresses me to answer this question. I don’t mind saying it, but it’s really bleak.

My mother made me promise her not to kill myself. I am here today because of it. So, thanks Mom.

A Promise is available to stream and purchase from Kill Rock Stars. 

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Have A Nice Life – “Voids” (2009)

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