”I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move, couldn’t push him off. As black engulfed me, I thought, ‘This is how I die’…”
Somebody once said that the song stories in this unique year-end list are ”like the printed version of Behind The Music”. These stories are important, to me at least, but hopefully also to both the artist and the listener. Often very informative, an opportunity to have a candid look at Picasso’s sketches. Always ear-opening and sometimes quite humourous. However, they rarely contain sentences as harrowing as the one above.
What’s really behind the music is life. Sadly, sometimes also the opposite. Marie Danielle‘s painful recount of how domestic violence nearly ended hers gives evidence to the true power of music: by what’s told in the time span of three minutes, the trauma of near-death experience gets almost too vivid. In addition to hearing the song, reading the story behind Slave Ships takes you on a journey back to that particular moment and the rocky road that led up to it, so much so that you can feel the tension and horror surrounding its culmination. The first time I heard the song’s chorus my heart took a deep stab right at the centre:
”Please kiss me while my eyes are still open, I’ll be anything you want me to be…”.
It was 3 AM in Stockholm when Marie sent her story from Los Angeles and by coincidence I happened to be awake. As I laid there in the cold light of the cell phone screen reading, it became almost too much to bear. My eyes welled up with tears in no time. It was a very personal moment that I’m so grateful she shared with me, although thousands of miles apart. I hope you’re all able to feel the same.
Not every story is as dark, though. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be behind the wheel of Jeremy Fury‘s imaginary car on his way to see about a girl? Or be a fly on the wall at one of those boring dinner parties Ben Bridwell of Band Of Horses has to attend for the sake of his wife’s social life? Relive the ”fruity dance fight for a girl’s honor” that Sean Tillman (aka Har Mar Superstar) dreamt of, anyone?
This list isn’t one that just lines up who did best this year, nor is it for listening only. It’s a list you take great pleasure reading while listening. Use this rare opportunity to visit the creative minds of your favourite musicians. It’s a world you wouldn’t want to be without, I promise.
Now, dig in and enjoy.
N.B. My deepest gratitude(and apologies for the stalking…) to all the artists and musicians for taking time to contribute the stories told in this list by giving their songs a personal touch, additional dimension and even a new life. You are all number one.
100. The Limiñanas feat. Peter Hook ”Garden Of Love”(from Malamore)
99. Shura ”What’s It Gonna Be?”(from Nothing’s Real)
98. Angel Olsen ”Shut Up Kiss Me”(from My Woman)
97. Kaytranada feat. Syd ”You’re The One”(from 99.9%)
96. Bon Iver ”00000 Million”(from 22, A Million)
95. Sturgill Simpson ”Oh Sarah”(from A Sailor’s Guide To Earth)
94. Chairlift ”Crying In Public”(from Moth)
93. James Blake ”Radio Silence”(from The Colour In Anything)
92. NAO ”Fool To Love”(from For All We Know)
91. Pinegrove ”Cadmium”(from Cardinal)
90. case/lang/veirs ”Best Kept Secret”(from case/lang/veirs)
89. BadBadNotGood feat. Sam Herring ”Time Moves Slow”(from IV)
88. JMSN ”Power”(from It Is.)
87. Tegan And Sara ”U-Turn”(from Love You To Death)
86. Holy Esque ”St.”(from At Hope’s Ravine)
85. dvsn ”Hallucinations”(from Sept 5th)
”It must have been after one of those damn dinner parties where I had to be polite. I guess it was my way of getting through with it. I don’t suspect I’ll be invited to too many more in town after this…”
84. Band Of Horses ”Casual Party”(from Why Are You OK)
”There’s this double-life kind of thing we’re living here. Playing rock music, slightly adored at times. Anything you want is handed to you anytime you want it, you know. It’s a terrible way to live, really, getting exactly what you want all the time. So then the coming home thing, my real life isn’t like that at all. My wife’s making friends and I have to go to some dinner party with people that you don’t know or you do know, but they might be a tough hang. They might be strictly conservative or anti-progressive. You feel like “oh, this is going to be brutal!”, some of that stuff. You have to bite your tongue through some of the topics that come up during conversation, because you’re in someone else’s home. I’m not so blunt myself, I tend to be a bit of a pleaser. I can usually grin and bear it but sometimes better than others. At times people are terrible and you feel like leaving, always knowing you’re soon going to cause an argument. So I try to air on the side of just getting through it for my wife’s sake, at least. There are all kinds of things, like dealing with parents at school events having to endure all kinds of people that are, like, functioning members of the society, not neck tattooed rock’n’rollers. It’s a little bit different. I hate small talk.
A lot of times I’ll get on to a song using weird tunings I once made up. I didn’t know how to play the guitar so I put my hand on the strings and then I detuned the pegs to whatever was comfortable for my hand in that position. Now I’m stuck with these very strange tunings that make no sense to anyone else. I need to get it tattooed on my arm so I can look at it while I tune because it’s kind of hard to remember. And that tuning has been like a cash cow for me, man, it’s given me some of the best songs we have. It lends itself quite well to open strumming and you can be a bit sloppy with it, it’s hard to go wrong with it. I say that now, touch wood! So I could tell that was going to be a bit of an uptempo number, a rock song.
When I was trying to figure out how to sing the chorus to the chords, the only song I could reference it to was one of Guided By Voices’ from Under The Bushes, Under The Stars called No Sky. It’s got this great lift to the chorus but they sound nothing like each other. So I used that as at least a reference for Casual Party, like “that’s how you lift a chorus!”. The rest of it, I don’t know how I got those words. It must have been after one of those damn dinner parties where I had to be polite. I guess it was my way of getting through with it. I don’t suspect I’ll be invited to too many more in town after this, if this one gets popular enough!”
– Ben Bridwell
”We had a few days off during a tour with Empire of the Sun, so we went in to our friends studio in Sydney to record some of the main elements. Some friends came in to sing the ”ooohs”…”
83. High Highs ”Catch The Wind”(from Cascades)
”Catch the Wind was the first song we wrote after finishing the ‘Open Season’ LP. The verse dates back to January 2013. We slowly assembled the song over the next six months or so playing around with it in soundcheck on tour.
We had a few days off during a tour with Empire of the Sun, so we went in to our friends studio in Sydney to record some of the main elements. Some friends of ours came in to sing the ”ooohs” in the chorus and contribute the handclaps… those sessions felt very natural and open, compared to the insular/intimate nature of the first record.
The overall chordal movement and structure is slightly unusual and exploratory for a High Highs tune. We didn’t really have a drummer playing on the first record – there’s very little percussion on Open Season. Possibly as a response to that, Catch the Wind had a certain swagger – the few days in the studio in Sydney felt like we were stepping in to a bigger space as a band, which really set the tone for writing the rest of the record.
Lyrically the song is a series of abstract questions. The only idea behind it was to carry over a few motifs from the first album, and then let them go, in a way. This song bridges the gap between the first record and the second.”
– Jackson Milas
82. Hope Sandoval And The Warm Inventions ”Liquid Lady”(from Until The Hunter)
81. White Lung ”Below”(from Paradise)
80. Sir Sly ”Expectations”(single)
79. Jack Garratt ”Far Cry”(from Phase)
78. Cass McCombs ”Bum Bum Bum”(from Mangy Love)
77. Laura Mvula ”Phenomenal Woman”(from The Dreaming Room)
76. Daniel Romano ”Valerie Leon”(from Mosey)
”…at some point during the day you realize you just have to put that thing down and enjoy the moment. What are these people going to do with all these videos and photos?”
75. Allah-Las ”Famous Phone Figure”(from Calico Review)
”That’s Spencer’s song, the bass player. He wrote it and he sings it. It’s kind of a modern look at the way our generation is looking at social media. The “famous phone figure” is someone who maybe has a lot of likes on Instagram or Facebook, so it’s a little bit of a character study of somebody of that type. Maybe sort of like a Ray Davies kind of character study. In my eyes he’s the master of these character studies, people that you might not know but have an opinion about. The line “Mona Lisa smiles at the Louvre” comes from us touring so much and actually being able to explore these places. These words and phrases get stuck in our heads on tour. That’s one nice thing about touring, it adds more ideas to songwriting. Another thing is all the people taking pictures the whole time with selfie sticks, like when we were in Venice. It was just people taking photos of people taking photos, you just couldn’t get a single shot where there wasn’t somebody in your photo taking a photo! I always travel around with four cameras, Super 8 and everything, and enjoy taking photos but at some point during the day you realize you just have to put that thing down and enjoy the moment. What are these people going to do with all these videos and photos? Unless there’s somebody in that photo to remember it. It’s an interesting time right now. I haven’t really noticed it so much at our shows but when I’ve been to shows I’ve obviously stood behind others doing it. I just hope people get to be in the moment more, be present. I mean, it’s okay to take a couple of shots and then put it away. I’ve seen maybe twice somebody being on their phone recording the whole set which just seems silly to me, but it’s not distracting though. I just wouldn’t look at them.
It’s a song that we’d been experimenting with for a while and then decided to take back into the fold. We’d used mellotron on a couple of other songs to see how it came out. That came out pretty alright and we have friend called Laena who plays in couple of bands in L.A., one of them is called Feels. She’s a great violinist so we asked her to come in and just hang out and see where it led. We had decided that we wanted strings on a couple of tracks and weren’t really sure which ones so we had to experiment a little bit. There’s actually a B-side I wrote which is coming out on one of the singles which also has strings. We tried it on a few songs and some worked, some didn’t. I feel like Famous Phone Figure is meant to have that and to hear our sound evolve. There’s plenty of albums we love that have strings on it and we hadn’t got to a point where we had a song that it would be good for. It’s like finally we’ve been able to use this thing that we have enjoyed so much in songs we’ve heard for so long. I think it works in this song.”
– Matt Correia
”I wished I could have helped more but sometimes someone is going to drive that car straight off the cliff and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
74. Still Corners ”Down With Heaven And Hell”(from Dead Blue)
”A song about the battle between good and evil. My friend struggled with it his whole life and eventually lost. It has the lyric: ”it’s a long way down Icarus.” I wished I could have helped more but sometimes someone is going to drive that car straight off the cliff and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s my favorite song on the album.
Recording wise it was done in two stages. We had the main body with the bass and keyboard melody and top line but it needed a third part. The gallop beat after the chorus came a few months later. We knew it needed something more and that fit in really well. The end with the guitar outro was just a place holder to begin with. We tried to better it with other parts but nothing ever stuck and we just ended up preferring that. We did all the vocals on our (new at the time) Manley tube mic which I think is crystal clear but warm, lending a more powerful sounding vocal.”
– Greg Hughes
73. Ulrika Spacek ”Porcelain”(from The Album Paranoia)
72. Julia Jacklin ”Leadlight”(from Don’t Let The Kids Win)
71. Tacocat ”The Internet”(from Lost Time)
70. Holy Ghost! ”Crime Cutz”(from Crime Cutz)
69. Gallant ”Bourbon”(from Ology)
68. Night Beats ”No Cops”(from Who Sold My Generation)
67. School Of Seven Bells ”Ablaze”(from SVIIB)
66. Glass Animals ”Life Itself”(from How To Be A Human Being)
65. Whitney ”No Woman”(from Light Up On The Lake)
64. Mild High Club ”Tesselation”(from Skiptracing)
63. Yeasayer ”I Am Chemistry”(from Amen & Goodbye)
62. Teleman ”Düsseldorf”(from Brilliant Sanity)
61. Catfish And The Bottlemen ”Glasgow”(from The Ride)
60. Eagulls ”Lemontrees”(from Ullages)
59. Futurebirds ”Bad Man”(from Portico I)
”Two hours later I woke up from an incredible dream of a fruity dance fight for a girl’s honor on some California pier. I remember the song that was in the dream was really good…”
58. Har Mar Superstar ”It Was Only Dancing (Sex)”(from Best Summer Ever)
”I was trying too hard to write a song one night. I was going in circles and nothing good was happening on paper, guitar, or piano. I really wore myself out trying to write, so I laid down for a quick nap. Two hours later I woke up from an incredible dream of a fruity dance fight for a girl’s honor on some California pier. I remember the song that was in the dream was really good, and I realized I had completely soundtracked my own sleep movie. I wrote down all of the lyrics immediately. I sang all of the melodies into my notepad. It was a complete song in minutes. I think the bridge was the only thing I had to add. The complete melody, lyrics, and even the lead synth part was all there for me in the matter of one nap. I wish it was always like that. Ha! The dream definitely inspired the video too.
I definitely wanted the song to sound like 80s soundtracks especially Romancing the Stone/ Jewel of the Nile era. I love that zone. I think those early soundtracks in my life are what introduced me to such a wide variety of music that still informs my wiring today. Back in when Loggins was king.”
– Sean Tillman
”…played around with a couple of chords that sound like they’re sawing and chopping their way through the whole song. A stomping garage rock number.”
57. exmagician ”Job Done”(from Scan The Blue)
”I started collecting field recordings of sounds in and around Belfast and managed to capture a great clip from a guy playing bagpipes. Tuned the guitar down to the pitch of the pipes and played around with a couple of chords that sound like they’re sawing and chopping their way through the whole song. A stomping garage rock number. A song about begging for forgiveness”.
– Daniel Todd
”It’s a look into the dark side of when relationships go wrong and people treat each other badly, either intentionally or unintentionally.”
56. Night School ”Last Disaster”(from Blush)
”‘Last Disaster’ is a song written from the perspective of someone in a dysfunctional relationship/breakup, the lyrics are fictional. I wrote this song based on the idea of how people’s thinking tends to becomes distorted when they’re going through heart break from the loss of a relationship. It’s a look into the dark side of when relationships go wrong and people treat each other badly, either intentionally or unintentionally. The song was written in pieces over a matter of 6 months or so. I wrote the lyrics, vocals, guitars/song structure,then Baylie added in her drum parts and Cheyenne contributed to the writing of the bass. Cheyenne, our bassist, sings harmonies when we perform this song live. It’s one of my favorites from the record Blush.”
– Alexandra Morte
”…it gave me an idea to go into a sorta trippy “5AM” section at the end, Remix-To-Ignition-style. I’d been messing around with some new tempo/pitch manipulation tricks in Logic…”
55. Bad Wave ”3AM”(single)
Patrick: ”So the way Tucker and I usually write songs is I’ll make a track, get it maybe 80-90% done, and send it to him. He writes lyrics and melody and records his vocal parts, sends it back, we exchange notes, and then I’ll mix. (Yes we are neighbors, and yes we do this over the internet.)”
Tucker: ”We finished 3AM and then Patrick said he had an idea for an ending. Except it wasn’t an ending but a whole other section to the song with a new tempo and a new key and would require a whole new set of lyrics. At first I fought him on it because I thought it was too weird for the song to shift like that, and I was lazy and just wanted the song to be finished. But Pat was relentless and we ended up with a track that I’m very very proud of. And that’s why I’m in a band with him. Like iron sharpens iron, man sharpens man.”
Patrick: ”Aw thanks! I wasn’t that into the track at first, but I really liked Tucker’s contribution, and it gave me an idea to go into a sorta trippy “5AM” section at the end, Remix-To-Ignition-style. I’d been messing around with some new tempo/pitch manipulation tricks in Logic, and they worked really well for this. In my head this section was going to be really dark, like the worst time you’ve ever had at 5AM, but his lyrics totally caught me off guard, and reminded me instead of those nights that go in weird and hilarious directions. We had to do more tweaking than usual on this one, if I remember correctly, trimming the length down a lot and dialing up the reggae. Man-sharpening.”
– Patrick Hart & Tucker Tota
54. Roosevelt ”Colours”(from Roosevelt)
53. Hiss Golden Messenger ”Biloxi”(from Heart Like A Levee)
52. Cymbals Eat Guitars ”Have A Heart”(from Pretty Years)
51. Ladyhawke ”Let It Roll”(from Wild Things)
50. Heron Oblivion ”Sudden Lament”(from Heron Oblivion)
49. D.D. Dumbo ”Satan”(from Utopia Defeated)
48. Lucy Dacus ”Strange Torpedo”(from No Burden)
”I had to figure out what to do. Do you really need to wake up in the morning, start drinking and heading to a venue with my friends, doing nothing all day long?”
47. James Vincent McMorrow ”One Thousand Times”(from We Move)
”The other songs on the record seem to be more of standouts on than that one. I think it’s got to do with the tempo. It throws people where they don’t listen to the lyrics that much. The whole album on a general level was based on the last three or four years including the process of making my second record. Around that time, I wasn’t necessarily talking about the things that was happening while I was making it, and with this album I was sort of going back to that period and even before as well, thinking about certain things.
When my first record came out and started to do really well, I was someone that wasn’t really used to being in the public eye or on stage, it wasn’t an easy thing for me. When you’re on tour with your friends on a bus, things tend to go upside down, you wake up in a venue and don’t know where you are. Everything becomes a bit disjointed and then you’re having too much fun but the fun quickly descends into something horrible. During that period I was questioning what I was doing there. In my relation with everyone, everything kind of fell apart for six or seven months. I wasn’t really talking to anybody, a bit self-destructive. I wasn’t reconciling the two halves of myself; me as a person and me as a musician. I had to figure out what to do. Do you really need to wake up in the morning, start drinking and heading to a venue with my friends, doing nothing all day long? Or is it some cliché hoisted upon you?
I wouldn’t call my personality addictive, but at the same time there are crutches. Like if you’re shy or introverted, just drinking on the day was a way of getting up on stage and doing it, then I got to a point around 2012 when I realized I had never been on stage without having a drink for my nerves. That song documents that period, at least for me, when I listen to it. It was the highest moment and the lowest moment of my career at that point.
There’s no bass in the verses, no. I grew up on The Neptunes and they led me to Prince to a degree. When you listen to “Like I Love You” by Justin Timberlake, the bass is almost non-existent in the mix. It’s impact, isn’t it? My love of music is based around impactful moments. My favourite records are all quite melodic, even though I listen to some more hardcore stuff and some hip-hop. Everything has a melodic thread that runs through it. It’s all about dynamic to me, like “When Doves Cry” has no bass at all. That’s quite a common thing if you listen to “Starfish and Coffee” there’s no bass on it and the drums… There’s a regular drum pattern in there and there’s a weird stereo sucking noise coming across the mix. It’s really odd and you think at some point he’ll sync it up and it never does. If you want things to stand the test of time you have to think bolder and braver than the orthodox arrangements, like muting off a bassline and having just one piano.
If someone hears that and thinks it sounds different, they don’t necessarily know what it is, thinking ”Why is that chorus hitting me harder than it should do?”. Those tricks, I guess, have always compelled me. How do you make a chorus hit without ramming vocals down someone’s throat? It’s a reductive method, isn’t it? You know, I’m a big Kanye West fan and I like a lot of the conversations that he had around the Yeezus album. The important role Rick Rubin played, where it almost was saying ”Reduced by Rick Rubin” instead of ”Produced”. How do you say the things you want to by using the least amount of parts?”
– James Vincent McMorrow
”I like the symbolism of a couple of punks going into a disco bar and having the greatest night of their lives. There’s something really cool in that. ”
46. Beach Slang ”Punks In a Disco Bar”(from A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings)
”When I first started writing it I came up with that riff and I was just trying to rip off Cheap Trick, all those Rick Nielsen kind of things. In my dreams we’re a power pop band. Anyway, so I had that little thing and was in the headspace of two sorts of things coming together that seemingly don’t belong and then they surge each other forward. The work becomes better, everything benefits from these two things that aren’t supposed to collide. I like the symbolism of a couple of punks going into a disco bar and having the greatest night of their lives. There’s something really cool in that. I refuse to believe that we all don’t belong, because we do. We just have to have the moxy to believe in it. Then I just wanted to nod at The Replacements with the little scream at the end, ‘I’m a bastard but I ain’t no one’s son’.”
– James Alex
”…I was obsessed with watching true crime documentaries like The Staircase and Paradise Lost. I was very interested in creating a narrative culled from that dark, dark area of life…”
45. Matt Kivel ”Violets”(from Janus)
”That song was written in the basement of my old house in Angeleno Heights. My brother had just lent me this Roland drum machine and I was messing around with the presets a bit and, very quickly, I wrote two songs, ‘Violets’ and ‘Velveteen’. I used ‘Violets’ on Janus and saved ‘Velveteen’ for Fires on the Plain.
The lyrics for ‘Violets’ were written at a time when I was obsessed with watching true crime documentaries like The Staircase and Paradise Lost. I was very interested in creating a narrative culled from that dark, dark area of life we tend to experience second-hand, via the news media or movies or books. It’s real, but to an unconnected observer, feels hyper unreal at the same time. For the song, I wanted to write a little miniature portrait of a relationship torn apart by violence – both extreme and subtle. It’s a simple tune and I like how the chorus is just a guitar line instead of a vocal melody.”
– Matt Kivel
”…a song of reflection on my life at large as a traveling musician, and named after my guitar – Dorothy…”
44. Kevin Morby ”Dorothy”(from Singing Saw)
”This is a song of reflection on my life at large as a traveling musician, and named after my guitar – Dorothy, who is named after my grandmother on my dads side. Being a musician, when you find yourself at home and off of tour – all the people, places and things you encountered on tour seem like some wild dream. Dorothy, my guitar, represents the people I’ve encountered and experiences I’ve had over the past 7 years of touring – for Dorothy has always been there with me.”
– Kevin Morby
”I thought it was all silly scratch takes at the time and I sent it to Ian, thinking he’d say, ”good start, but needs work.” But he said, I love it, it’s nearly done.”
43. Trails And Ways ”Happiness”(from Own It)
”‘Happiness’ was made a totally new way from how we normally made a song. Usually, I start writing a song on guitar or synth, then vocals, and then we figure out a beat; I had already written (and we’d mostly tracked) 9 tracks of our new album that way. But Ian (drummer/co-producer) had been wanting forever to send me beat ideas, and have me write on top of those. So he went to our practice space and tracked 30 different 8-bar loops of drums and sent me all of them. Happiness was beat #30, and it just gelled for me fast; in a single hour or so I tracked the three layers of guitar on a telecaster, and then sang out scratch lyrics for the chorus and first verse, trying to channel a stupid amount of punk sass and slyness into it, for fun. I thought it was all silly scratch takes at the time and I sent it to Ian, thinking he’d say, ”good start, but needs work.” But he said, I love it, it’s nearly done.”
So what you hear in the released version includes every layer I tracked that first afternoon. (FYI, we made ”The Answer”, last track on the new album, through this same beat-first process.) Then Madeline (Kenney) came and did the back-and-forth vocals that added lots of force and tension, and Rebecca (Drawing Water, Soar, Coherence) and Ian did more vocals, and Max (Miller-Loran) and I layered on some sugary synths. I wanted a sound that had a lot of surface buoyancy and brightness but with some overdriven, spiky edges and sparse moments where it all falls apart uneasily; I think we got that pretty right.
The song is about whether happiness is impossible if you have to try to get there. Is it fake happiness if you’re trying and choosing to be happy? That’s what a close friend of mine always insinuated; it was a core conflict for us. It wasn’t totally fair of me, but on one hand I saw that as her defending her own unhappiness–at least she had a hip and genuine depression!–and on my side I felt pretty harshly judged in those conversations, since I always felt like I had to try to be happy to get anywhere close. When I wrote this song it was at the end of a rough year that had broken down a lot of the ways I’d defended and fooled myself (and friends) I was doing fine when I wasn’t. So now trying to get honestly happy felt stupidly harder; a true happiness seemed to require intense honesty with myself as a foundation. But through my work to find that honesty, I started to find a kind of rocknroll confidence in owning my problems and everything else; there was a bold, merry, punky feeling that was coming up. ”Happiness” is my try to embody that spirit and respond to my friend: if you choose to get honestly happier, you’re gonna find that’s the hardest, riskiest inner path of all–and for me there’s no question it’s worth it.”
– Keith Brower Brown
”I had just started dating this gal and I was going completely crazy for her… I knew when I played it for her she would either run away or let me stay.”
42. The Cactus Blossoms ”Queen Of Them All”(from You’re Dreaming)
”I never thought I would write a song like Queen Of Them All. I didn’t know that I could fall in love like that until it happened. I heard the melody in my head on a summer day while I was drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette and daydreaming in my brother’s front yard. I went up to the house, grabbed my guitar and sang it through a couple times to see if it was any good.
I had more coffee then food that morning and the idea I was coming up with was making me a little nervous. Some times simple songs can cut to the core and be so direct, which kind of scared me with this one. I had just started dating this gal and I was going completely crazy for her… I knew when I played it for her she would either run away or let me stay. It’s been a few years since then and she still hasn’t run away. I’m a big fan of love songs.”
– Jack Torrey
”I’m a big fan of simple sad songs, even sappy ones. I’m a sucker for that stuff. I could listen to ‘tear in my beer’ style country songs all night.”
41. Psychic Ills ”Another Change”(from Inner Journey Out)
”I borrowed the lyric from Don Nix, who was in some ways was a big influence on this record from a stylistic stand-point. I like the gospel element in his music. Anyway, he’s got a song called ‘Goin’ Thru Another Change,’ it’s nothing like ours but an inspiration nonetheless. Lyrically the meaning isn’t very veiled, it’s just asking yourself if you’re ready for what you’re getting yourself into. I’m a big fan of simple sad songs, even sappy ones. I’m a sucker for that stuff. I could listen to ‘tear in my beer’ style country songs all night. That’s not exactly what this is, but maybe it’s a cousin to that.
Musically it came together pretty quickly. It was based on a demo I had recorded at home at 3 o’clock in the morning. I think we had to cut it a couple different times because we’d do one that seemed too fast, then we do a slow version, and on and on like that. They all seemed like they could work but they weren’t exactly right until about the third time we went back in and tracked it. It was one of the first songs that I knew was going to have gospel back up singers at the time I was writing it. I heard it in my head…”
– Tres Warren
”If you look at it musically, the synth melody doesn’t work over that first chord – it doesn’t make musical sense. If you play it on a piano, it sounds wrong. But it felt good to inject something fresh…”
40. NZCA Lines ”Two Hearts”(from Infinite Summer)
”Some tracks just come right out pretty fully formed – the production might change, but the basic song is identifiably there from start to finish. That was not the case with ‘Two Hearts’. If anything, this song for me is a testament to the fact that, if you believe something is good and you keep returning to it, you’ll get there in the end.
Some of the key elements of the track were there from the start – the bassline has always been the same, and the space-y chords that come after the first chorus were there in the first demo (with a very different sound, though). The initial demo was much slower – around 100bpm – before I realised it needed to be more of a ‘dance’ tempo. The biggest changes, though, were in the vocals. I must have gone through three or four whole different sets of lyrics and melodies for this track! I went a long way down the wormhole and had to claw myself back. There were periods when I just abandoned the track for months, then tried to return to it fresh. Charlie March (who produced the record) really helped shape the sounds, and also pushed me to approach the track in different ways. I did a version using only vocoder, a version using electric bass and real drums.. we even did a Timbaland-inspired version (which I listened to again a while back – it was pretty good).
Of course, the final version ended up coming full circle to elements of the initial demo. Whilst I was on tour with Metronomy in 2014 I carried around a microphone and some other studio bits, so I could set up in hotel rooms to work on my music. I remember having a day off in the city of Graz in Austria, and digging out the last version of the track – at that point still called ‘envelope’, because of the sound I used on my Prophet 600 on the first demo – and finally putting down some vocals that seemed to reflect the spirit of the music. In this way, the music informed the theme of the song. Infinite Summer is a concept album, about a far-future Earth in which the sun is dying and everyone loses themselves into a hedonistic oblivion. This track felt like it belonged to the city – a place called Cairo-Athens – and always suggested some kind of late-night melancholia. Crying on the dancefloor, if you will. The lyrics are about just wanting a lover to stay, even though what took place between you might now be over. So, this was the first stage of finishing the song – getting a vocal and lyrics I felt happy with. Once I was back in London, I added the synth part under the bridge – ”if there’s a part of you” – for which I managed to get the filter on my Prophet modulating in time with the track. This was total fluke, and I didn’t actually save the sound at the time, so what you hear on the track is the first take! I then got together with Charlie and we replaced some of the sounds using his Rhodes Chroma (an amazing, complicated ‘status’ synthesiser). He figured out some cool sounds to make the track more atmospheric – notably the burbling sound in the second verse, which is then running through a Quantec reverb unit. We also decided that the chorus was too boring, harmonically, as the chords just continued from the verse – this kind of minor thing, which I was very attached to, and had to let go of. It’s difficult to see an alternative when you’ve lived with something for so long, but I went home and messed around with some distorted chords, ending up with this slightly discordant ‘major’ chord at the start of the chorus. If you look at it musically, the synth melody doesn’t work over that first chord – it doesn’t make musical sense. If you play it on a piano, it sounds wrong. But it felt good to inject something fresh into the track. We then replaced the chords with a stack of sounds on the Chroma, which is such a huge sounding synth.
The final element which really helped the song, I think, was having Sarah (Jones, NZCA drummer) singing on it. We’d just started working together at that point, and I was getting her to sing all over the album as she has such an amazing voice. I liked it so much that I sent the label a version with just her vocal singing the whole thing, which I thought would be really cool. They weren’t so into the idea, so unfortunately my lead vocal went back in … We’re actually both singing in the chorus, but something about the frequencies in her voice just totally cancel out my falsetto.
I actually did a Future Music video in which I go through the different versions of the song, if you’re interested in hearing the journey! It’s about 40 minutes long though, so clear some time in your schedule for it.”
– Michael Lovett
39. Fruit Bats ”From A Soon-To-Be Ghost Town”(from Absolute Loser)
38. Kristin Kontrol ”X-Communicate”(from X-Communicate)
37. Kendra Morris ”Le Snitch”(from Babble)
36. Minor Victories ”Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard)”(from Minor Victories)
”…that demo stayed with us for a while. People who heard it seemed to like it and I didn’t grow tired of it, which is unusual.”
35. Grapell ”Don’t Turn Into A Memory”(from Love Chamber)
”Like most of the songs I write that are actually completed and released, I wrote this song very quickly. I recorded a demo right away and that demo stayed with us for a while. People who heard it seemed to like it and I didn’t grow tired of it (which is unusual).
As time passed new songs, which had a lot in common with this one, popped up and the song had found its context. After quite some time we recorded it with the whole band and it now feels like a natural part of our EP Love Chamber.
To me the song is nostalgic but at the same time rational. It is holding on to something that it also knows that it will have to let go of soon. That is what created the vibe, I think.”
– Emil Erstrand
”We did probably 25 different versions of this song… At first it was slow, then super fast, eventually it just hit the groove we were looking for.”
34. Public Access TV ”On Location”(from Never Enough)
”We did probably 25 different versions of this song… At first it was slow, then super fast, eventually it just hit the groove we were looking for. I’m really psyched on how it turned out. We also recorded it in probably 10 different studios. In the end we recorded it with friends and that was the missing element.”
– John Eatherly
”That song definitely has the most complicated arrangement of all our songs. I love how Jessie’s guitar stays on one note and all the instruments change around it.”
33. Bleached ”Keep On Keeping On”(from Welcome The Worms)
”We went out to the desert (Joshua Tree) to write for a weekend in this little cabin. It was all very stressful and kinda funny getting there. My car got stuck in the dirt and we had this local desert dude pull my car out with his belt and truck. Anyhow we finally got settled in the cabin and started jamming together. The next morning we really liked what we had come up with as the verse and I added a chorus that I had written prior. It worked really well. I didn’t really do the vocals till I got back to LA. I wanted to be alone so I could do whatever with my voice and no one listening. I was kind of experimenting with melodies and range, styles I wasn’t used to singing. We finished the demo and it ended up being Joe Chiccarelli’s favorite song. We experimented with a lot of arrangements. That song definitely has the most complicated arrangement of all our songs. I love how Jessie’s guitar stays on one note and all the instruments change around it.
For the lyrics I was thinking no matter what happens in life the world keeps spinning and we all keep moving on. Don’t dwell in the past and don’t stress out over the future but work for it. Similar to the title of the album ”Welcome the Worms” it means life is full of good and bad and we have to accept it all as a package and that is beautiful.”
– Jennifer Clavin
”The song is a study in contrasts, as I observed her delight with everything set against my own depression.”
32. Marissa Nadler ”Janie In Love”(from Strangers)
”When I began writing Janie In Love, I was writing with imagery that was inspired by books about natural disasters and the end of the world. At the same time, I was spending time with a friend of mine who was continuously falling in love to the extreme heights of ecstasy. I had become quite disillusioned with many parts of my life and was feeling isolated and lonely at the time of writing Strangers, and slightly agoraphobic as well. The song is a study in contrasts, as I observed her delight with everything set against my own depression. I was also writing with a band in mind as I wanted Strangers to be very different from July, both sonically and in terms of subject matter. There’s only so many songs that you can write about relationships and heartbreak.
When I came in with songs about the world ending, the producer of Strangers and July, Randall Dunn, said to me, ” I don’t think this album is about the end of the world. I think it’s about the end of your world.”
– Marissa Nadler
31. Field Music ”Disappointed”(from Commontime)
30. Nada Surf ”Cold To See Clear”(from You Know Who You Are)
29. MSTRKRFT ”Runaway”(from Operator)
28. Kishi Bashi ”Hey Big Star”(from Sonderlust)
27. Wild Nothing ”Life Of Pause”(from Life Of Pause)
26. Gang Of Youths ”Native Tongue”(from Let Me Be Clear)
”…I’d been pondering why the 16 beat wasn’t so prevalent in pop music these days. There was a period when it was everywhere, but I guess that was in the 80’s and early 90’s.”
25. Metronomy ”16 Beat”(from Summer 08)
”The song 16 beat began life as a relatively complicated 16 beat that I was practicing. I think for a few days previous I’d been pondering why the 16 beat wasn’t so prevalent in pop music these days. There was a period when it was everywhere, but I guess that was in the 80’s and early 90’s. In any case I was deriving a huge amount of pleasure from playing it, so figured I should build a song around it. The next thing that came along would have been the bass line, it wrote itself really. I think there are certain rhythms that just naturally lend themselves to quite catchy bass riffs, 16 beats seems to be one of them.
Now, around about this point, the song hit a wall, I hit a wall…whatever. I probably had a few melody ideas, but I had no idea what to actually write the song about. So, me and the song entered a kind of stale mate for a few weeks. This is actually quite common (for me at least) and the cooling off period gives you some time to think about what you really want.
I came to the conclusion that the whole reason for the song existing was because of that beat, so why not write a song about the beat?
And so, that’s what I did. I guess that’s a quite simplified version of things, obviously the way it was recorded and mixed played their own important roles. But, at it’s heart its just a simple song about a drum rhythm.”
– Joseph Mount
”Even with all the love in the world, there is so much uncertainty when you say goodbye. It’s unsettling and difficult and, in the end, too simple a word.”
24. Charlie Hilton ”Long Goodbye”(from Palana)
”I wrote ‘Long Goodbye’ for my husband, a man called Todd Fulscher. I was about to leave for Blouse’s first long tour, and Todd and I had never been apart for over a month. Before I left, I wanted him to feel loved beyond belief.
The song is made up of four verses, almost like four sturdy walls, or a fortress of comfort. The professions of love are big and matter-of-fact. But in the chorus, there’s hesitation, a question mark–there is no roof on the fortress. Even with all the love in the world, there is so much uncertainty when you say goodbye. It’s unsettling and difficult and, in the end, too simple a word. So the song has some serious tension, a longing, a reaching for something that’s getting further and further away from safety.
Because of all that longing, it always felt like a sad song to me, something that would sound really quiet and heavy. But in the studio, we decided to lighten it with hand claps, synths, a woodblock. The production is really steady and relaxing, which I think makes the lyrics feel like they’re a million miles away. Maybe they’re just a memory of something sad, something that already happened and then got all tidied up and resolved. I have the record’s producer, Jacob Portrait, to thank for that. I always like when a song ends up with that kind of contrast, a sad song that sounds happy. It gives the listener some room to feel however they’d like.”
– Charlie Hilton
23. Frightened Rabbit ”I Wish I Was Sober”(from Painting Of A Panic Attack)
22. Lera Lynn ”Shape Shifter”(from Resistor)
”…it’s this claustrophobic, one-sided relationship where one person has all the power and yet the person who has the power tends to be the needy one. I have sometimes been that person…”
21. King Creosote ”You Just Want”(from Astronaut Meets Appleman)
”It was written the year we released From Scotland With Love. When I have a new record out I find it difficult to listen to any music by my peers. It either makes me paranoid about what we’ve just done or if there’s music that is way more successful than ours. I find myself tuning into Radio 3 or where they play things like drone or even A-Ha, classic pop and amazing songwriters. I was driving from Fife when I heard a program about choral music, reinterpretations of unrecorded music they found manuscripts of in monasteries. They played a madrigal, religious piece that was slowly building up with melody and vocals and I thought it was incredible. I couldn’t figure out the time signature. It was a loop but I couldn’t tell how many bars.
So when I got home from the drive I tried to get a similar thing out from my memory, came up with the chords and had a line I wanted to use which happened to be nine bars long. A lot of reviews of the album have asked if I’m into sadomasochism in this song. Silly, really. If you listen to it you can hear that it’s this claustrophobic, one-sided relationship where one person has all the power and yet the person who has the power tends to be the needy one. I have sometimes been that person who pushes it to the limit and then gets absolutely devastated when the other one’s gone! I think everyone has that desire in them to be in jail and then be the one who broke out. Like people who are in jail for a long time and when they are released the want to get back in again. People condition themselves to be either the doormat or the one who’s constantly wiping their nose on it. It’s very rare that two people are on the exact same page and end up in a very equal partnership.
Last year we started our live shows with ‘You Just Want’ as just a three-piece and afterwards people would come up and ask what that song was. We recorded it as a stripped back version which was about two minutes shorter than the album version. Since we recorded it live, the tempo of the song goes up the further into it we got and I had this idea that we would take out the middle section and loop it. Andy and I started in a skiffle/bluegrass band where every instrument got a chance of their own up at the microphone. I thought it would be a great album opener if we let everybody show themselves except for the bagpipes.
The ‘ah-ah-ah-ah’ bit, an old Laurie Anderson trick, usually has got three or four vocals live, but our backing singer didn’t show up, so on the record it only has a single vocal from Hannah who is the violinist. But it turned out good, now it has that boy-girl feel to it. My vocal part consists of two takes chopped up and put together. The pattern in Pro Tools looks like a knitted sweater!
When my manager heard the song he said it was commercial suicide but I knew that Domino would fall over themselves for it. I’ve done this trick once before on an album called Flick The Vs, I took the song that was the biggest shock and shoved it up front. Domino love that shit!
There are only four lines of lyrics on it. The two first are best and are repeated at the end where I felt it needed to get back to that mesmeric feeling again after the middle section. Reinforce the S&M mindset on people! The difficult part when playing it live is to know how long it should go on, because nobody keeps track of how many rounds it’s run!
The lyric could be seen both as being in the present but also as what will be in the future. It can be meant just as much as a promise. Like the line ‘When you need someone to cry on in the depths of despair, I shall be elsewhere’. I will be elsewhere. It could be read in two ways. Is he nice or a total arse? I like that duality. Is the subject the doormat or not? Then it’s confirmed in the last couplet that it is the doormat. There’s lot in those four lines!”
– Kenny Anderson
”I had kinda forgotten about the song and was surprised that of all the demos, that one stood out to him, but I thought we’d give it a shot.”
20. Frankie Cosmos ”Sinister”(from Next Thing)
”I was at Hunter Davidsohn’s studio in Binghamton NY recording with Porches, and Cameron Wisch was doing drum takes. I was on my computer doing homework and I ended up having an idea and typing up some lyrics. Then, while they were recording, I went into the hallway of the studio with a little keyboard of Hunter’s and wrote the melody and chords to Sinister. I recorded it as a video on Photo Booth. Later, when I got home, I recorded a better demo of the song on guitar, and I edited out a verse. I sent it with a bunch of other demos to my friend and then-bandmate Gabby, but I kinda thought I would scrap the song. Later, Gabby told me that her boyfriend Oliver really liked that demo and thought we should play it in the band. I had kinda forgotten about the song and was surprised that of all the demos, that one stood out to him, but I thought we’d give it a shot. When I brought it into the band, we arranged it and added a small keyboard + guitar solo in, and it became the version of Sinister which ended up on our record.”
– Greta Kline
”In the choruses I took a stab at the Everly’s close harmony. I’ve always been a gut level fan of that style of harmony and seem to always fumble my way back to emulating it.”
19. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster ”Laid Low”(from Constant Stranger)
”In hindsight I’m pretty sure ”Laid Low” is essentially my poor and half-conscious attempt to write an Everly Brothers song. Structurally and as far as the arrangement it’s very simple in that old way, just super basic guitar, bass and drums. In the choruses I took a stab at the Everly’s close harmony. I’ve always been a gut level fan of that style of harmony and seem to always fumble my way back to emulating it.
As far as content, again it’s very much an attempt on my part to take a simple, known, and helpfully alliterate phrase and spin from it a story that includes those old themes of deep sudden romance, distance, choices, and wishful thinking. And to do so in three and a half minutes, which actually is even longer than the Everlys would have done but still. I tried!”
– Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster
”It observes what you’re doing. So if you were to have the wrong opinion at some point it could be possible to manipulate those things. And what would you do? It’s all already in place.”
18. The Posies ”Squirrel Vs. Snake”(from Solid State)
”It’s political in a broad sense. Basically like “Where do we fit in?”, “Where do I fit in the grand scheme of things?”. In a sense it’s more of an existential song. The way things work now there are many places we brush up against existential concerns. This is going to start sounding a bit far out, but there’s a technology that’s out there. Phones and all manner of devices that we’re constantly being observed and tracked and right now it’s all a little bit open and easy. You don’t feel pushed around too much, but this can change in a heartbeat. So that’s an existential question.
If I mean it in a George Orwell kind of way? A Big Brother syndrome? Yeah, it could definitely happen! Stuff they’re implementing right now are really far out. It’s so far out that people don’t even believe that it would work. The stuff that’s happening with this oncept they call The Internet Of Things, where your microwave, your refrigerator, your alarm, your door lock, everything communicates to a central grid. It’s not only just one way, it’s all two way communication. It observes what you’re doing.
So if you were to have the wrong opinion at some point it could be possible to manipulate those things. And what would you do? It’s all already in place. I mean, we enjoy a lot of freedom in general as humans in most countries, in some countries they don’t enjoy freedom at all. Here, we generally do but it’s very tenuous, you know. It’s like everything that’s put in place is trying to push it the other way. Lots of laws, like counter-terrorism has had a great way to move in. They changed the constitution in France like two days after the attacks in the Bataclan. That’s quite something and it’s always going a little bit in favour of less freedom of movement.
They’ve done this in the States. You know, there was the shootings in California with that couple and the government wanted to unlock their phone and Apple said no. Personally, I think it’s total bullshit. I think there’s total collusion at all levels at all time and I think that was a big show. But that’s just my personal opinion. You know, I get up in the morning, I go to school with my daughter, I do my things with my music, I travel around. I do what I feel like doing. In this song I’m going “that is a very pleasant illusion I’m allowed to participate in”. Am I going to run into a wall or are we all going to hit a wall with that and end up very unhappy with the result?”
– Ken Stringfellow
17. Daughter ”The End”(single)
16. Warpaint ”New Song”(from Heads Up)
”…the greatness of Muhammad Ali; we wanted to pay homage not only to his excellent athleticism but also his dedication to social equality and contribution to the anti-war movement.”
15. KING ”The Greatest”(from We Are KING)
”‘The Greatest’ is a song inspired by the greatness of Muhammad Ali; we wanted to pay homage not only to his excellent athleticism but also his dedication to social equality and contribution to the anti-war movement. It was written about a year before his passing, and it was an incredible and sobering moment to have paid a timely tribute to someone we honor so much.
Texturally, we were imagining a retro theme that captured all of the essence of the things we loved growing up in the 80s and early 90s- the synthesizers, the vibe of the music, the energy; and we were thrilled to specifically honor the gaming tradition by creating an Atari-style 8-bit music video.
The song was recorded at our home studio, was written by the three of us and produced by Paris- it went through many evolutions to become the version that made it on the album. We spent time exploring different rhythmic concepts and kept the background textures very creative- it was a great process to bring the energy and drive out of a piece where the vocals are cool and laid back, but the lyrics tell a story. Our hope was to inspire every listener to embrace their own greatness.”
– Amber Strother, Paris Strother & Anita Bias
”The first 9 had come steadily, but for some reason we started running into walls when going for a 10th…and we both agreed the album needed one more song.”
14. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam ”The Morning Stars”(from I Had A Dream That You Were Mine)
”It took about 2 years to make our record. We wrote, recorded and mixed as we went along. In the first year we wrote 9 songs, and in the 2nd year we wrote “The Morning Stars”. The first 9 had come steadily, but for some reason we started running into walls when going for a 10th…and we both agreed the album needed one more song. We were both in DC over the holidays (we both grew up there) and one late December night we wrote The Morning Stars in just a few hours in Rostam’s childhood bedroom. It came together really fast. Then we got this incredible pedal steel player to play on it once we were back in LA. I actually ended up playing some of the drums on this track eventually too.”
– Hamilton Leithauser
”I fell in love with a trouble maker, a real wild creature of the night. But I was totally crazy about him, even if it wasn’t good.”
13. Weyes Blood ”Do You Need My Love”(from Front Row Seat To Earth)
”The story is such: I fell in love with a trouble maker, a real wild creature of the night. But I was totally crazy about him, even if it wasn’t good. To me the value was that he restored a sense of feeling to me, of passion and longing. Its like a fuel you can live off of when your heart swells with love for another person. I wrote it in a few months, but the words changed a bit overtime. ” Do you need me the way I need you ” came about when I realized the love was mutual.”
– Natalie Mering
”As we recorded it on record after record, and scrapped it on each one, we found an excellent coupling for this extreme minimalism in 1970’s German music, and reworked the song…”
12. SUUNS ”Translate”(from Hold/Still)
”Translate” is the exhumed and reanimated corpse of one of the first songs that our band ever wrote a good nine years ago; it represents a specific field of the band’s influences as we found our sound; and it suggests possibilities of things to come in the future. It references our early approach in that the rhythm section paves on one note and one note alone (when we started we thought of ourselves as extreme minimalists). As we recorded it on record after record, and scrapped it on each one, we found an excellent coupling for this extreme minimalism in 1970’s German music, and reworked the song accordingly.
There are the single note delays on a monophonic keyboard, from Kraftwerk, the boxy funk of the drums from Can, the linear guitar line, unrelenting and hypnotic. And then the middle section of the song: more serene and open, representative of the approach we discovered on songs like ”Edie’s Dream” or ”Infinity”, as we had digested Krautrock and were ready for other things, maybe something more like SUUNS than a collection of our influences. The song has also proved to be a malleable and unpredictable aspect of our live show, which qualities have been the lifeblood of SUUNS from the beginning. Sometimes I think the longer you incubate a song, the deeper the fermentation, and when it is born it has strong, fast legs. It’s good to have healthy songs like this that run away on you – they keep you spry, in pursuit.”
– Liam O’Neill
”We had to EQ out the squeak on the sustain pedal as it was a really dry, hot day and no amount of WD40 would stop the pedal from squeaking!”
11. The Anchoress ”Bury Me”(from Confessions Of A Romance Novelist)
”‘The agony is exquisite is it not? A broken heart. You think you will die but you just keep on living, day after terrible day.’ – Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
This is one of the oldest songs that I recorded for the album and was always intended to be part of a 3-song suite, in the vein of Kate Bush’s The Ninth Wave, with ”Intermission (Notes to the Editor)” and ”Waiting To Breathe” forming the book-ends on the album sequence. We recorded the main piano in my front room on my 1960s Challen baby grand, completely free-form, with no click track – which was a nightmare for editing later on. We also had to EQ out the squeak on the sustain pedal as it was a really dry, hot day and no amount of WD40 would stop the pedal from squeaking! The finished production sticks pretty closely to my original multitrack demo of the song and we actually ended up importing a fair amount of the original audio and I felt I didn’t want to try and recreate some of the more improvised moments of my original recording. I actually started writing the song on the guitar before shifting the whole thing over to a piano instrumental I’d been developing. It’s really difficult to play live as not one of the sections repeats itself and it’s structurally much more like a classical piece than a pop song.”
– Catherine Anne Davies
”After the film we came out of the cinema and I remember looking up, punching my arms into the sky. I really believed I was going to take off, but I didn’t, obviously.”
10. Steve Mason ”Planet Sizes”(från Meet The Humans)
”The lyrics were written by me, as well as most of the song when I took it to Iain Archer who helped me out on the chorus.
Do you remember the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve? It came out around 1977 and I was about six or seven years old when my dad took me to see it. I thought it was amazing. After the film we came out of the cinema and I remember looking up, punching my arms into the sky. I really believed I was going to take off, but I didn’t, obviously. So my heart was kind of broken and I’ve never gotten over it, really. A lot of things like that happen to you when you’re a kid. Since society hasn’t told you, you think that anything’s possible. Unfortunately flying is out of the question for human beings. That’s what Planet Sizes is about, trying to keep alive your imagination, the wonder and beauty that you had when you were a kid and thought anything was possible. Looking at the stars and just being in awe of the heavens. Someone saying that every star you see is a sun and that it has planets around them and that universe is just full of life. Then scientists say “no, no, no, no”, the only thing that has living things on it is planet Earth. Then they find traces of living things on Mars and you realize they have no bloody idea. But it’s also about being indoctrinated into a way of fitting into a kind of very dull, very narrow spectrum of living where you’re just taught to be a capitalist. To work, to earn money, to buy crap. Is that what living really is about? I don’t think so.
There’s nothing wrong with being a dreamer, having imagination and stepping aside to the prevailing way of thinking. Society is very difficult to live in for most people. All the pressure to just try and survive. Try to keep that child inside you alive. Being an adult is really fucking boring…
I worked out the best way of playing it with my drummer and my bass player, recorded guitar, bass and drums first and laid everything else on top of that. Very straight-forward really, layering things. It had this magical quality to it which I really, really love. Originally we had the chorus in full time but it just didn’t work. We worked hard and suddenly it just became something else. You just have to try things and see what happens.”
– Steve Mason
”The driving theme of the song is a bit funny being that I don’t own a car and no one really drives here in NYC besides Ubers and cabs. The driving theme more so came from the pulsating rhythmic guitar.”
9. Jeremy And The Harlequins ”Into The Night”(from Into The Night)
”I started writing ‘Into the Night’ in my apartment in Manhattan late one night about two years ago. It’s about being apart from the one you love and desperately wanting to get to them. Even though I wrote it about my girlfriend at the time (who was Swedish coincidentally), I think it’s really about pushing through the dark times in order to make it into the light.
The driving theme of the song is a bit funny being that I don’t own a car and no one really drives here in NYC besides Ubers and cabs. The driving theme more so came from the pulsating rhythmic guitar line. We recorded the tune early on in the recording process for the album and were really pleased with how it came out. It seemed like the perfect introduction to the album… so much so that we ended up calling the album ‘Into the Night.'”
– Jeremy Fury
”…its description of ‘when I was beautiful’ or ‘we’re the kids who got kids at parties’ are relative to societal judgements of age, especially for women and the loss of freedom with parenthood”
8. Haley Bonar ”Kismet Kill”(from Impossible Dream)
”Kismet Kill started as a ballad. More than that, it started as a strand of melody with no words years ago… and every once in a while it would surface and I would try and figure out what to say with it and pack it away again. Finally, one day, something clicked, and the story became entwined around the melody. I believe it’s important to put pictures to words, and in songs, the instrumentation and melody serve that purpose.
The story revolves loosely around the subject of two young lovers who are spirited away until a pregnancy occurs. The reality sets in, with no money and having to let go of certain aspirations one often has upon finishing high school. However, the story is not hopeless. It is also playful in its description of ”when I was beautiful” or ”we’re the kids who got kids at parties”, because these ideas are all relative to societal judgements of age, especially for women, and the loss of freedom with parenthood. It scans, rather than participates in, these measures of youth, beauty, and freedom being given up- because we all know someone who has been a young parent, and not all of them bury their dreams of running.
The nature of love being ”kismet”- fate- is something that I cannot deny, whether the relationship works out or not. All people that we come across in our lives will teach us something about ourselves, and in that regard, there really can be no mistakes. We fight this idea throughout our lives, despite the lessons that we are given. Some love dies a cruel death, others are ghosts that we can still see in our present relationships, and some, as is the case in ”Kismet Kill”, will bind you to one another, literally, for life- ie, if you create a child.
Though the words sound disparaging to the idea of ”fated love”, I really just love the way they sounded together, the way they antagonize one another. Kismet isn’t always what it seems, and sometimes killing it opens up the doors to the eye of the self, a reward rather than a price to pay for following your own heart.”
– Haley Bonar
”The song is about temptation. Someone begging you to come with them to their idea of heaven, you knowing that you can’t really go there ‘cause, you know… ‘I’ve got enough to lose…’.”
7. Benjamin Francis Leftwich ”Mayflies”(from After The Rain)
”I wrote and produced that song with my friend Joe Janiak. We were on tour together in the UK at the end of 2013. Living in the tour bus together we became friends. My dad was ill at the time and me and Joe set up a studio in my dad’s living room so I could work from home. The song is about temptation. Someone begging you to come with them to their idea of heaven, you knowing that you can’t really go there ‘cause, you know… ‘I’ve got enough to lose…’. So it’s about temptation and self-reflection. Mayflies are animals who after they mate, they die. I made the opening sample on the (Akai) MPC. I just woke up one morning and it was there, a result of messing around making sounds and I just loved that one, so we built the track from it.
I remember thinking about a lady I’d met called Carolyn who became a really close friend of mine. She’s actually from Denmark, I think. We met at a show in America outside of Los Angeles somewhere a couple of years ago. It turned out she lived just five minutes from our house in York. She was in the back of my mind when I wrote the song, she’s someone I’ve felt really close to although I’ve never spent much time with her. I think the spark for a song always comes from a personal place.”
– Benjamin Francis Leftwich
”…the lyric that came to mind of someone just sitting there, crying in a corner (or in a closet) about something they did not have enough courage to do was: boo hoo.”
6. Nite Jewel ”Boo Hoo”(from Liquid Cool)
”As detailed elsewhere, I recorded Liquid Cool in a couple walk-in closets in LA. ‘Boo Hoo’ was recorded in the first one. I remember it clearly because I remember sitting down in my small space, closing the sliding door and thinking, ‘let’s start with a really simple beat’. I wanted something that could sound somewhat upbeat but the underlying tone would be one of yearning or sadness. There was this real pathetic desire ingrained in the lyrics I initially wrote; in particular considering oneself a ‘devoted lover’ of someone who does not care or think about you. And a person so timid in their ability to confess their love yet so confessional, the lyric that came to mind of someone just sitting there, crying in a corner (or in a closet) about something they did not have enough courage to do was: boo hoo. Once I heard that in my head, the song unlocked itself.”
– Ramona Gonzalez
”I was listening to Otis, Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack, these people I really felt like I could identify with and we were pulling from those inspirations so it just came out really funky, man.”
5. Anderson .Paak ”Put Me Throu”(from Malibu)
”I think that I have a habit of being a glutton for punishment in regards to some of the women I’ve liked and dated in the past. Some of the women that I’m attracted to are sometimes detrimental and bad for my health. Then there’s the whole thing that I was going through with being a musician, being someone who chooses to live life outside of the norm. You have to be a little bit crazy sometimes or masochistic to be that in order to go through some of the themes willingly as you do as an artist. I mean, once I was in the situation where we’d go traveling to play these long hours, put all this time in but didn’t get compensated and we got treated like trash. I don’t know, we just loved it still. Sometimes it felt like life or women, either literally or in my art, couldn’t care less for me but I still needed to have it. I think that’s what the song is about, essentially.
Initially I wanted to make the song a blues, like Heartbreak Hotel, that type of tune. I wanted something like that for myself. My boy Kelsey Gonzalez who’s been playing with me for years took out that bassline and the progression. I wrote on keys when I was going through different eras that I really liked in music and settled on the sixties. I was listening to people like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and stuff. You know, Otis, Sam and Bobby Womack, these people I really felt like I could identify with and we were pulling from those inspirations so it just came out really funky, man. We spent some time on the hook. I remember the hook was different, the chorus had a different feel to it. When you hear it now it opens up to this driving thing but it wasn’t like that at first, we had to find it. It’s one of my favourite tunes.”
– Anderson .Paak
”…you don’t know whether you want to keep putting yourself through pain or want to find someone whose company you enjoy, which is also difficult for me because I really enjoy my own.”
4. Keaton Henson ”Comfortable Love”(from Kindly Now)
”I had to write a description of all the songs and I was kind of stuck on that one! It may be to do with my age but you get to a point where you’re starting to see a lot of people finding that kind of comfortable love, a kind of co-existence that means you just don’t have to be lonely again. That song is me railing against that, I guess. I’m thinking “Is that the best thing? Do you want to find the comfortable thing or is the painful thing the real thing?”. Wondering what love would be and what it’s there for.
I’ve been in a lot of relationships which are explosive and it’s kind of addictive, isn’t it? If it’s laced with danger or pain and I think it can be quite damaging. I think that song is quite confused for me, I’m at a point where you don’t know whether you want to keep putting yourself through pain or whether you want to find someone whose company you enjoy, which is also difficult for me because I really enjoy my own company. There’s almost an envy of people who seem so comfortable and content but there’s also a feeling of “Do I want that? Is that vibrant enough?”
As on Birthdays, I feel that the quiet moments in an album aren’t as powerful if it’s just them and to have a quiet moment really means something and it’s nice to have something loud before it. Also, people tend to fall asleep to my albums and I felt like I should have something loud just in case…”
– Keaton Henson
”Is the song title a double entendre for ”horny”? Well, everybody puts his own things into it… Maybe that was the state you were in when you were listening…”
3. Justice “Randy”(from Woman)
”One of the funny things is that the singer, Morgan Phalen, lives in Stockholm! He used to live in the US, he’s originally from Mexico but was raised in San Francisco and then lived in New York and Los Angeles. When we met him he lived over there but then moved to Europe which made everything much more easy to work with him.
There are always a couple of tracks on each album where, instead of making it by the two of us playing piano and bass in a traditional way, we start them by just trying things with sounds and electronics and based on how they react, the response of the sound. “Randy” is one of those songs. Our first idea when we made it was to play it sort of industrial, EBM. So we had all these loops that were generated by software and we were sequencing them in different ways. Then we started playing on top of that and found this chord sequence that worked on it. We immediately felt that it could go in a much more interesting direction having this almost R&B cruising music blended with these very cold electronic sequences. The first session of writing this song was one afternoon and we had almost everything, but we felt the chorus was not good enough. That’s when we called Morgan and he flew to Paris where we began writing lyrics and different options for choruses. The three of us found the chorus while just playing something to which he was singing whatever it was. The difficult part comes when you have to replace those gibberish words you sing when you find the lines to replace with lyrics. We sat for maybe two or three days to write the lyrics. It was really fun working with him, we’d know him for eight years now since he worked with us on the previous album. We don’t let a lot of outside people participate in our records. For us, it’s really a weapon to have a guy like this that we know we can spend fun time with.
Is the song title a double entendre for ”horny”? Well, everybody puts his own things into it… Maybe that was the state you were in when you were listening to it, or maybe this song was making you randy and you started imagining it… Personally, we never thought of that, never ever…”
– Xavier de Rosnay
”He was all rage and bluster for an eternity wrapped in a month. Then he went suddenly calm. Standing in front of me as I sat on the sofa. Then, his hands were around my neck.”
2. Marie Danielle ”Slave Ships”(from Hustler)
”I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean. The enormous power and beauty of waves crashing on the beach, fury and rhythm, hypnotizing in their ferocity. The wind whipping you with the scent of salt air. You dip your toe at the lip, the mouth threatening to swallow you whole.
It’s this same sort of pull that has lured me to the type of darkly brooding man to whom I’ve always been attracted, their wounds so thinly veiled, simmering just below the surface. It was no different with Ian. We had grown up together in a sad suburb of a broken-down rust belt city. We were cut from the same cloth so we recognized the thread of each other’s making, and all the flaws within.
The beginning was enchanted, it was a lightning strike in the night sky. Countless hours in glistening barrooms, silent evenings spent watching Los Angeles glimmer from high atop the Hollywood Hills. Days lingering in the haze next to the ocean as we settled into oblivion. Back to that ocean – chaos and order, hand in hand, just like us. I’m always trying to reorder things, glue the pieces back together in a tattered approximation of their original shape. And Ian was shattered, I wanted to repair him, to rein in his chaos. Maybe my own as well. But, there’s no fixing anything: it is what it is.
Ultimately, the light gave way to the darkness we kept inside. Everything unraveled. Squabbles bloomed to all-out war. Pleasure lost its appeal. So, we looked for the softest parts of each other in which to press the blade, blood needed to be spilt. Chaos broke the shackles, hands turned to fists.
All I remember from that last day is the quiet. He was all rage and bluster for an eternity wrapped in a month. Then he went suddenly calm. Standing in front of me as I sat on the sofa. Then, his hands were around my neck. He pushed me into the fabric of the lush, brown couch. The place where we had lain entwined in softer times. I was submerged. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move, couldn’t push him off. As black engulfed me, I thought, ‘This is how I die.’ At the last moment, he let go. Stood up, then sat down, then laid down next to me on the couch. I caught my breath and ran out of the house.
The part that came between that day and the writing of Slave Ships was the hard part. A part I won’t revisit now, or likely, ever. That was the final battleground that led me to write the song in question. It was all that warring that made me see relationships of this kind as servitude, each person enslaved to the other, slaves to the bottle, slaves to anything that could maybe save us. That’s the ultimate shackle. The belief that anyone can liberate us. Freedom comes only from within.”
– Marie Danielle
1. Mitski ”Your Best American Girl”(from Puberty 2)
(Mitski was approached with a request to share her story behind ”Your Best American Girl” but she was unfortunately unavailable due to travelling and other commitments.)
Unedited English version of interview previously published in Swedish in Gaffa magazine.
Bad Art And Weirdo Ideas from last year was about a friend of yours who wasn’t aware of how talented she was and the song was your way of telling her what she needed to hear. Do you think people in general don’t make use of their talents?
– Yeah, I do, at least in my group of friends who I hang out with. A lot of creative, eccentric, outsider types you know. They are the most talented people I know but also the most self-doubting and I suppose those two things go hand in hand. It makes for a rough existence but for great art. I just need some of them to know it so more people than just me can see or hear it. Unfortunately those to things go together quite often.
Was that how you felt about yourself when you started Beach Slang?
– Without a doubt. Beach Slang started when I got nudged out of my room of writing these songs because I let a couple of friends hear them and they were like “These are pretty alright, you know, you should record them” and then I felt like “Okay, that’s all it’s going to be, a recording project” and then just hide again after poking my head out. I have this horrific fear of rejection so I thought that if I just kind of peak out I can duck the bullets a little easier. So we did the first EP and it just connected and I was sort of forced out of my bunker as it were. It’s been good for me. It showed me the world could be pretty soft if you allow yourself to see it.
On stage you were saying how you didn’t expect anybody to show up. Did you really mean that?
– It’s true. To me, with Beach Slang I still play songs with my friends hoping some of my friends will show up. We’re knocked back by it every time and we have played enough shows and toured enough to maybe see that we’ve got at least a little momentum going. I don’t know, maybe I never want to buy into that. I like the wonderments of surprise. It’s really beautiful when you’re not seeing it coming and the room fills up with people singing your songs. It’s nice.
I suppose it’s a different feeling compared to if you would’ve hoped for it?
– For sure. To me, ego is the embarrassment of rock’n’roll. When you start believing your hype, your press or whatever people are telling you. There aren’t many rules to Beach Slang, right, but one that we sort of agreed upon was that humility would captain the show, and I think that has served us well. We haven’t lost any of that yet and we don’t plan on it either.
Now, I’ve got to compliment you on your clothes. I really like your Beau Brummel, dandy style.
– Sure, I’ll take that! My mom raised me on The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Buddy Holly, that stuff, and they always seemed to dress. You know, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan with the suits. To me, it goes from… I’m really like a wallflower in life, kind of quiet, read books, but when I put my little suit on it’s kind of like Clark Kent going into Superman or something! I saw a documentary on Freddie Mercury who I love dearly. He’s really quiet too and then he goes on stage and becomes larger than a thousand lives at once. Just an enormous, gigantic personality. It’s that little switch, I guess. I get to find my voice in rock’n’roll. Out in the world I’m more of an observer.
You read a lot and you’re often credited for your way with words in lyrics. Have you ever considered writing a book yourself, like a novel?
– I have and I want to. I wanted to be a writer long before I was a musician. When I daydream I’m just in a quiet house in New England typing and writing books. I haven’t cracked the code on how to make a living on doing that yet, but I’m hoping! Maybe I can gather enough weirdo adventures with this rock’n’roll thing that would make a good book someday.
I promised myself to not bring up the Salt Lake City incident [where a frustrated Alex on stage called out that the band was breaking up], but would you say that social media reporting from fans and other observers blew that out of proportion?
– Without a doubt. It was a molehill that became a mountain. When we woke up the next day and saw the hurricane of coverage we were shocked. It was everywhere. We were like “wow, I didn’t think we mattered that much”, to be honest. It’s just one of those weird things where I’m in a four-way marriage, a relationship where you have moments when things bubble over and tensions were there and then you immediately run out and get roses and make up for it, you know. We had a change of personnel and a lot was related to that. We’d been putting a band-aid on a broken leg for a very long time and I think that was the catalyst for fixing it. We’re all still very good friends.
Now you gave me an explanation although I didn’t expect that much, but I’m glad you did.
– You know, there’s one word I use about Beach Slang and that’s “honest”. Heart on my sleeve, there’s no smoke and mirrors here. I don’t know how to have secrets!
Is that sort of scenario the back side of social media?
– It is, everything happens in real time. That window for human flaw these days is minimalized at best or non-existent. You’re really not allowed to make mistakes unless you’re a band like us who not only embrace it but we celebrate it. What we’re about is the human experience. The glory, the flaws, the scars, the triumphs. All of it, man. While I wish that hadn’t happened, I’m remiss to apologize for it because I don’t want to look like some plasticized, manufactured image. We’re just like everybody else, you know, we have a bad day and we have good days.
It gives you an identity to have flaws as well.
– Without a doubt. It rounds out the story and makes it more real and honest. That said, I don’t plan on repeating it, ha ha!
Seeing as your heroes are the Replacements, do you think that you sometimes can come too close to following their footsteps…?
– I mean, that case was a little too close to their self-imposed self-destruction stuff. Somewhere in the deeper parts of my head I glorify that sort of myth of bands but I’m a real romantic, man, I hated that that happened, I hated that it took that sludge for us to get to the root of things. But I stand by this statement: I doubt that any occurrences of us thinking we’re the ‘Mats or the Kinks or Oasis, slugging it out on stage. It was just boiling under the surface for a while.
Where did you get the idea for Punks In a Disco Bar.
– When I first started writing it I came up with that riff and I was just trying to rip off Cheap Trick, all those Rick Nielsen kind of things.
Yeah, I see that you’ve got a Big Star badge on your sleeve. Are you a power pop fan?
– Without question, in my dreams we’re a power pop band. Anyway, so I had that little thing and was in the headspace of two sorts of things coming together that seemingly don’t belong and then they surge each other forward. The work becomes better, everything benefits from these two things that aren’t supposed to collide. I like the symbolism of a couple of punks going into a disco bar and having the greatest night of their lives. There’s something really cool in that. I refuse to believe that we all don’t belong, because we do. We just have to have the moxy to believe in it. Then I just wanted to nod at the Replacements with the little scream at the end, “I’m a bastard but I ain’t no one’s son”.
Let’s pretend you made your Sorry Ma… album last year with your debut. I haven’t yet heard your new album. Will it become your Let It Be, if you know what I mean?
– It’s pushing in that direction. That was the first thing the label and my manager said to me, that even if I delivered it in my home demos they went “you’re definitely evolving this”. It’s going at Let It Be, Tim and Pleased To Meet Me, that stuff. And that’s the stuff I celebrate, the stuff that turned me on about Westerberg as a writer. Even on Stink, that really raw, punk stuff, you could hear that something more was coming. He delivered on that promise he made me.
– I also feel like I draw more from my love of Britpop, shoegaze and power pop, stuff that I love so much. That showed itself and kind of sculpted the sound. I never want to Xerox things, I never want to paint Beach Slang into a corner, so yeah, I think you’ll feel the stretch.
Another band I come to think of is Buffalo Tom and their first two or three albums. You combine the rawness with good lyrics and Bill Janovitz is also a great lyricist, I think you have that too.
– Sure, yeah. Thank you. I always say that I don’t think Beach Slang does anyhing overly original, but what I think we do well is we draw from a real broad brushstroke of influences. To me, we can have a sort of seering, early Replacements guitar but then I was really tapping into Teenage Fanclub, where you have sweetness partnered up with that grid. I guess that’s the cool thing we get to do, so we never really get pigeonholed into anything. To me, rock’n’roll is holy, I love so much of it that I never want to… This is the thing we do.
– By the way, I love that you’re analogue, man! (Points at my highly old-school notepad…)
A lot of rock stars have died this year, as you know. Which one has affected you most?
– The Bowie thing iniolated me. I was really shut down for a while. I was writing LP two when that happened and for no other reason than to just say “I love you, you’re going to be missed”. I called a song on the record “Hot Tramps”. Lyrically, it has nothing to do with absolutely anything, I just wanted to put my little flag in the ground to say “You meant a whole lot to me and a bunch of people”. You know, when Prince passed away that was brutal. We went through Minneapolis on that tour, you know all the flowers and the wall and everything on First Avenue. It was incredibly moving. People were there singing songs, really sweet. Those are the two that really rocked me.
You wear a lot of badges of various kind. Are you following politics and how do you feel about the election.
(Grunts) – Ugh… You know, we’re all planning to move if Trump gets in. We’re terrified! We really thought we had a chance with Bernie Sanders. It really, really looked like he had momentum in the same way no one thought Barack Obama was going to get elected it just took on, this grass roots kind of thing and we thought we had that with Bernie Sanders. Then all this flawed, rigged government stuff… It’s a (lesser to evil?) situation to us now. But Trump is just not an option. I have everything crossed, fingers, legs, whatever it takes. We’re hopeful that that won’t happen.
All photos: Tommy Östlund
Unedited English version of interview previously published in Swedish in Gaffa magazine.
It sounds like it was a fluke when Rick Rubin called you out of the blue and he eventually made sure you ended up releasing your new album Why are you OK within the Universal umbrella. But what was the original plan for the album?
– Yes, absolutely. Being self funded you get to a point when you realize it’s about time to start. You need to have some songs so you can start shopping it around or else they are going to repossess the car and take the house from you. No, it wasn’t that dire… Much like Rick had done about five years previous when it was the same kind of situation, I self funded our third album, we were free agents. It’s one of those things when if you believe in what you’ve got then you shop it around and you can weigh those things like financial help or who’s more enthusiastic and all those things. What is the right team. When Rick came in and wanted to hear Infinite Arms, our third album, it was pretty much right off the bat “that’s who I want to work with”. Thanks to him we signed to Columbia Records within the Sony system and now we fast forward to this past year. Same thing, we had amicably split with Columbia and Sony, we were like “you can’t afford to keep us around, this contract is going to kill you”, so we asked politely if we could be dropped. So we went our separate ways.
– So it happens that Rick comes around, I’ve selffunded the album and it’s getting a bit expensive now. He hit me at the right time. I played him some demos we were doing and what material I was thinking about for the record. His role was more of like a cheerleader, not someone telling us what to change all the time. He told us to go into the studio and trust our own confidence. A mentor. We had another sit down session near the end of the record, we had a lot of material recorded for real now. I had three more songs that I had a hunch about, like “I think we could really round out the record with these” because you can’t really have enough. I went out to play the last three to him. He got them as well, we snuck them under the gun and recorded them.
But you recorded them with Jason too?
– Yes, but they were garbage demos when I played them to him. It’s pretty terrifying to play that to someone with that kind of ear, you know. If anyone can see the forest for the trees it’s that guy. So anyway, now he’s under the Universal public system and guess what, he would like to help us get signed again and saves me from financial ruin. I’m very grateful, man. And so far the relationship with the new label has been really nice too, so we’re really happy.
Sequencing an album, is it still important these digital days? People seem to be a lot for cherry picking songs from albums nowadays.
– Hell, yeah. Well, think about this: even for you writing a piece on this and you’ve been given the album. You’re not going to picking it apart as soon as you get it, you’re probably going to listen to the experience and get a whole vibe from it, hear it from top to tail. Other heads, old guys like me, I need that in my life. I need chapters of a novel. Something to hold on to like a book. It’s funny, though, I’d never realized the importance of it. Jason [Lytle] already halfway through the recording asked me how I wanted to sequence the album and I was like “well, we haven’t even recorded these other songs yet so how would I know how I want to sequence it?”. But that’s how he thinks, “If you have some idea we could craft what their common thread is, there might be interludes and things like that in some ways creates the glue of cohesion”. That was something I had never really even considered. Usually when an album is done for me I have no damn perspective at all, so you give it to somebody who has fresh ears at the label and they’re like “oh this makes perfect sense” and I go “how the fuck would I know, I don’t even know what songs should be on the damn thing”. So luckily he tipped me off to that. You can think of it out of lyrical themes as well, like is there a common theme and if so, is there a start to it? It takes a lot of the guess work out of it.
You’ve put the longest song first this time.
– Yes, this applies. It’s the start of the story. I knew I was going to get some pushback, it’s long as hell and really slow. I thought they’d make me move it from track one or split it up, because track two is always good to have a banger but luckily they let me get away with it. They understood it, because the first two really tell a story with the lyrical theme of the whole album which is the doldrums of parenting in the suburbs.
Hag is quite an unusual title of a song. It sounds like this unhappy, beautiful love song. Please explain…
– First, you’re the first one to pick this up or ask me about the title for days here. It was written on a Hagström air organ. Even my wife said “Nice, asshole…” and I went “no, no, it’s the Hagström air organ!”. So it was a bit of Swedish love there, I believe that’s a Swedish company? So there’s that, but I remember deliberately setting out to write a song to try to make people uncomfortable in the audience. That was the goal. So you can look at people and ask them the question “are you really, really in love, or are you just comfortable?”. I don’t think I achieved that in the end.
A line like “I spend half the time indifferent and the other half alone” sounds pretty sad to me…
– Yeah… You know, we’ve all had our little tinges in relationships, we’ve all been in that part, right? So hopefully it’s universal and my wife doesn’t think it’s about her, ‘cause it wasn’t intentionally written to be concerning our situation. I’m good. I don’t want to scare her.
– When I wrote it, like I said I was on the air organ. I’m a terrible keyboard player, much like guitar, like “Okay, keep your fingers in the right position and move ‘em and you can get three chords out of this thing!”… (Laughs) I rarely sit and think “this song is going to be about that”, I’ll just sing phonetic garbage to get the meter for a melody. Then a couple of words will come along so I can form a story that pertains to me while hopefully making it more universal. That one was for me about deliberately trying to fuck with people.
Was it Paste Magazine that called Casual Party “dad-rock”? You didn’t take to that?
– Yeah, they did. I didn’t mind that so much, I just thought that the review of the song was a little bit off. But I think the guy just missed the point. It seemed like he was ready to hop on the bandwagon that a lot of those writers turned to piggyback on. Like they knew we couldn’t be good anymore and they just might say it first. Fucking don’t, you should listen first!
And that song isn’t so much of a dad-rock song, is it?
– No, it’s youthful! And going back to those tunings I make it feel like I’m returning to the first scene of the crime. I don’t know how much higher I can sing to sound less like a dad? You know, it sounds like a damn 13-year old girl singing! (Laughs)
– There’s this double-life kind of thing we’re living here. Playing rock music, slightly adored at times. Anything you want is handed to you anytime you want it, you know. It’s a terrible way to live, really, getting exactly what you want all the time. So then the coming home thing, my real life isn’t like that at all. My wife’s making friends and I have to go to some dinner party with people that you don’t know or you do know, but they might be a tough hang. They might be strictly conservative or anti-progressive. You feel like “oh, this is going to be brutal!”, some of that stuff. You have to bite your tongue through some of the topics that come up during conversation, because you’re in someone else’s home. I’m not so blunt myself, I tend to be a bit of a pleaser. I can usually grin and bear it but sometimes better than others. At times people are terrible and you feel like leaving, always knowing you’re soon going to cause an argument. So I try to air on the side of just getting through it for my wife’s sake, at least. There are all kinds of things, like dealing with parents at school events having to endure all kinds of people that are, like, functioning members of the society, not neck tattooed rock’n’rollers. It’s a little bit different. I hate small talk.
This summer you’re going out on the festival circuit again. How do you feel about that?
– Great! I like festivals but I also like theatre gigs and tiny rock clubs. They all present different challenges and opportunities. Obviously you can go deeper into your catalogue setlist wise with your own show but I like the challenge of how you can curate 35 minutes of pure pleasure. I don’t mind the atmosphere of a festival. I grew up in a small town and not going to festivals as a young punter or whatever, so the novelty’s worn out on me. I like discovering new bands that way as well because when I’m at home I’m not about to ask my wife if I can go to a show, that’s just not going to happen. Too many kids…well, not too many! Goodness. Sorry, the youngest!
– Sometimes with the monotony, the rigamarole of touring you’re going to be in a bad mood, you may not want to go out and talk to this or that band again. More times than not I’m just glad to be there doing this for a living and glad to even get the opportunity to get out of the house. (Laughs)
On the 30th of June you play the Bråvalla festival here in Sweden and the day after…
– Oh God, now what…?
…Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are playing there too. I noticed there’s a gap in your own tour schedule that day before you go to Belgium. Will you stick around and go up on stage with them?
– Oh, I thought you were going to tell me about some band I’ll want to see, because every time I’m at a festival I’m always missing something because I’m not able to see it. It’s always “Get your ass off stage, leave the gear, get in the van and to the airport…” as we’re off to Glastonbury or somewhere else. So you can never allow yourself to get your hopes up. One summer we followed Nick Cave and Grinderman around and being a big fan I thought we would finally be able to see them, but hell no, we were always missing them. That’s the thing, I never know and I almost don’t want to know until it’s just time to find out.
I thought since you worked with them some time back.
– Yeah, we hung together last summer at some festival in Denmark, I think, and I hadn’t seen them since we recorded the song together. Since then, they went into the stratosphere, man. So it was crazy to see them. That record, when I did my track with them, I had no idea that was ever going to happen. There was a hunch from someone at our old label Sub Pop saying “this band is making some really big stuff and I think something really big is about to happen”. So I went “Okay, I’ll trust your intuition” and told them “I’ll do it as a favour. Pay me the lowest scale, like a guitar player coming in or something.” But they went “No, no, you wrote that part so we’re splitting it even ways”. I said no, but they would not let me turn down their offer. Then the record goes bananas. Thanks so much, I’ll have some more kids! (Laughs)
Do you have any specific, strong memories from playing festivals?
– God, there are so many things, tragic, hilarious. I remember being at T In The Park in Scotland and a lot of the time you get teamed up with the same type of bands. MGMT somehow had been billed before us and in the interim between booking them, slotting them and showday their song Kids took off and the tent is fucking filled to the brim, people couldn’t even see into the tent. People were climbing up the scaffolding and shit, just mayhem. We were sitting there watching them and thinking “how in the shit can you go after that?”! Besides the songs being great, look at this teenage enthusiasm! This is like the fucking Beatles! They’re handsome, they’ve got models everywhere. Many things have happened over a decade but I often remember that one, I was just gobsmacked. “Okay, let’s go so we can get paid and get the fuck out of here”.
– But I love festivals, you see a lot of artists perform that you wouldn’t have otherwise. You get teamed up with some death metal band and end up on the same flights becoming best friends. A lot of bands are so competitive, maybe they’re just younger. There are some that think they’re hot shit, God’s gift, brats. You see them throwing tantrums and stuff. One thing that festival culture has taught me is that we’re all here just working. You’ll see bands that has been around 30 years, like NOFX, who are out there still making young people dance, and they’re still into it and enthused by it. Even if you think my band sucks we can still be friends. You can lean on each other and be a sense of support. A lot of us are old men now, we have feelings and shit now. (Laughs) Not like before when it was all about me, me me! Ha ha! No, I was never like that.
One good thing about festivals to me is that you get to check out bands that you maybe wouldn’t normally have done.
– Absolutely. At least a couple of us will get out and go wander around. At some festivals it’s easier than others. You don’t want to distract and be taking pictures for fifteen minutes, it’s awful. People are taking selfies and more and more start coming. But I remember one time I heard some sound outside so I bee-lined out of the bathroom . It was this band from England, Goldheart Assembly, I didn’t know them and I became a fan and took them on tour for a couple of times in the UK. Just from that moment because I was outside instead of hiding in my bunk sleeping I discovered a band that I thought was really great.
Alright, I’ve got one last question. Since you started out social media has exploded. For a band of your stature you seem pretty accessible. How do you cope?
– Yes, it takes a lot of time. It’s a tough one too, being a parent for one, being on your phone. We all have to make sure we’re in the moment more. Even only for safety’s sake. That said, we just celebrated the tenth anniversary of our first record and we didn’t do any reissue campaign or anything like that because we were so engrossed in rolling out our new album. It snuck up on me and I thought we needed to commemorate it somehow. So went to a chest, like a military chest, and noticed there were some stuff in it that I’ve saved up over the years.
Photo: Sophie Harris
Written byTommy Juto
Unedited transcription of an interview in part previously published(in Swedish) in Gaffa magazine.
As any Keaton Henson fan would know, the man is virtually a reclusive locked up in his house near Heathrow Airport where he’s fiddling about with painting and songwriting from dawn till dusk. I’ve managed to dig up just a couple of interviews on the web and he’s sometimes answered interview questions with sketches instead of words. For many years I’d wanted to know more about him than what’s googlable but had little to no hope of getting in touch with him when I put an interview request through to his record label now that a new album is coming up. Surprisingly, he agreed to talk to me! So there I was a couple of days later at one end of a Skype call crossing my fingers the mythical, mysterious artist would pick up at the other. When my first try ended without success I began to feel a bit downhearted, but then he called back all of a sudden and I felt a sense of relief upon hearing that low key voice saying hello. Not only did he call back, he also proved to be very talkative indeed, contrary to common image, albeit strengthened by half a pack of cigarettes during the course of our conversation…
Here is our 40 minute chat, unedited. Enjoy.
Tell me about your new album Kindly Now. To me it sounds like a mix of all your previous work.
– Yeah, I think you’re right. I’ve learned different things from every project I’ve worked with and with this album I tried to bring them all together.
You have always been known for your heartfelt and confessional lyrics, but even more so on this one than on Birthdays. Agree?
– I try not to think too much about the process when I start, but because I’m old now I think my emotions have become a bit more complex. When I wrote Dear… I was 18 and when you’re younger I think your emotions are much simpler. With age they become more complicated and conflicted. I still write about the things I won’t speak about. Listening to it now I realize that a main difference is that a songwriter usually tells one side of the story but when it comes to relationships there’s always two sides to the story. I don’t think anyone’s perfect, so I tried to show the imperfection and the wrongs on my part.
”In a lot of pop songs out there it just seems like they’re this nice perfect person and the other person is completely in the wrong. I just don’t believe them.”
Well, you sure did… In my opinion you’re very harsh on yourself.
– It’s just a kind of reflecting. Again, it’s an adult thing. It’s more sad to me when you realize things are your fault. I think there’s a lot of pop songs out there… I just don’t believe them, it just seems like they’re this nice perfect person and the other person is completely in the wrong. I don’t believe them.
Why do you think it’s so difficult to speak about these emotions in conversation instead of doing it in song?
– Especially when you have an anxious brain I think there are a lot of social pressures. When you discuss things in a social situation there’s a social infrastructure in place that kind of limits you slightly. When you’re writing a song, for me anyway, you’re deconstructing feeling, which is a very therapeutic experience. Trying to figure out how you feel, once you figure that out you take it apart, you try and see if there’s anything beautiful in it, how you can shape it and make into a creation. It’s both a distraction and a therapy and while you’re doing it you making these things your own and they don’t hurt as much.
”It’s more just finding your own way of making the things you don’t want to think about bearable. Writing them as songs and painting them is just how I do that.”
Do you think we need to honour our emotions more?
– Perhaps. I can’t speak for you, but English people certainly do! I know there’s a very Scandinavian way, but in England there is an element of hiding emotion. Hopefully that’s an idea I use to kind of laughing through pain. It’s more just finding your own way of making the things you don’t want to think about bearable. Writing them as songs and painting them is just how I do that. I think that’s a positive thing.
Maybe you’re not too keen on discussing this topic, but around the time I discovered you and your music yourself and SoKo ended a relationship and she was very public about it while you stood back. How would you describe it from your perspective?
– Like I said about the album there’s two sides to every story and I believe I can tell my side in song. It’s something I don’t feel qualified to talk about with other people. I’ve learned to not use other people’s names in songs just because I don’t think it’s fair on them. There are so many people in the public eye that use that platform to talk about other people. When it’s not a two-way conversation you’re only giving the world your own side of the story and it doesn’t seem fair to me. So I’m very conscious now of keeping people’s names and so on out of my record as much as possible.
Can you understand that people get very curious about your relationship when she told things the way she did while you did not?
– It’s partially my fault, but when you don’t tell people things they instantly want to know more. In all of my life that’s been a learning curve while I’ve realized it’s important for me to have my own space and privacy. When you leave a hole in the story people either are desperately trying to find out what’s there or fill it with whatever they think. It’s a strange thing, it’s understandable but I think people would be potentually disappointed in how boring my life actually is!
Not that it’s any of our business, but from the outside your relation [with SoKo] seemed so beautiful and at the same time miserable, and still we wanted you to remain a couple.
– Well, it’s a strange thing. Again because people are hearing one side. I think people maybe attribute a lot of my songs to being about a particular time in my life when I actually wrote a lot of my songs long before they were released. I totally understand that, but being on the outside all relationships are human but they can be quite boring in real life. Of course they are immortalized in song and it makes everything appear hopefully a lot more beautiful and less human.
”Dan Gretsch set my bedroom up as a studio, put the microphones in place and said “just don’t touch anything, just leave it exactly where it is”!”
If we go back to talking about Kindly Now, how was it recorded?
– I actually did it all here at my tiny, tiny house. Birthdays was recorded in a studio in Los Angeles like a real studio experience with amazing musicians. I really enjoyed it but I wanted to see if I could take what I had learned there and bring it back to my bedroom and the sound of the airplanes! I don’t obsess over production and sonics, but I think being in my bedroom without someone behind a piece of glass in front of me means my performances could be more emotional and I could do a hundred takes if I want to. So I chose to do it all at home. I worked remotely with a producer called Dan Gretsch, he’s amazing. He basically came to my house and helped me set my bedroom up as a studio and we brought a piano together. He set me up, put the microphones in place and said “just don’t touch anything, just leave it exactly where it is”! So he left me to it and I did it over a few months.
– The orchestral parts I arranged and recorded them individually. Conceptually the idea was that we recorded each instrument very close and placed them in the mix. Hopefully it doesn’t have that pop orchestra sound of them being in the background making everything sound sweet and sometimes too close and oppressive. I wanted it to sound like there’s an orchestra crammed in my bedroom, way too close to your ear and they’re playing quite aggressively, so there’s a push and pull there, the orchestra serving me and helping me and then fighting me and then helping me again.
Could you tell us a little about the song Comfortable Love?
– I had to write a description of all the songs and I was kind of stuck on that one! It may be to do with my age but you get to a point where you’re starting to see a lot of people finding that kind of comfortable love, a kind of co-existence that means you just don’t have to be lonely again. That song is me railing against that, I guess. I’m thinking “Is that the best thing? Do you want to find the comfortable thing or is the painful thing the real thing?”. Wondering what love would be and what it’s there for.
– I’ve been in a lot of relationships which are explosive and it’s kind of addictive, isn’t it? If it’s laced with danger or pain and I think it can be quite damaging. I think that’s song is quite confused for me, I’m at a point where you don’t know whether you want to keep putting yourself through pain or whether you want to find someone whose company you enjoy, which is also difficult for me because I really enjoy my own company. There’s almost an envy of people who seem so comfortable and content but there’s also a feeling of “Do I want that? Is that vibrant enough?”
– As on Birthdays, I feel that the quiet moments in an album aren’t as powerful if it’s just them and to have a quiet moment really means something and it’s nice to have something loud before it. Also, people tend to fall asleep to my albums and I felt like I should have something loud just in case…
Are you difficult to live with?
– Ha ha! I don’t know, you’d have to come and live with me. I very much enjoy living with me. Just because I have so much to do in a day, I try and write a few songs in the morning and spend the rest of the day painting and hopefully more writing after that. I kind of do that until I go to sleep so I probably am. A lot of people know that that’s the way I live my life. The art comes first, always.
I thought since you seem to have a bit of a bad conscience in your lyrics.
– Ha, ha, I think it’s a wrestling, questioning all that stuff.
Once in London I was upstairs on a double-decker bus when a middle-aged lady picked up her phone and the screen image was the album cover for Birthdays. It took me by surprise, I would never have expected her to be a Keaton Henson fan, she was more the typical “tourist type” if you know what I mean?
– Ha, ha, I think that’s really nice. It’s so nice to see so many different people… I mean, I don’t enjoy playing live but when I do I see so many people of different ages and it’s interesting. I think it appeals to people who aren’t afraid of that emotional confrontation. But it usually shows a sort of emotional strength that I always admire in people hearing my music.
”I don’t intend to do very many interviews but potentially this album needs a bit more of an explanation than the previous ones, so it’s important for me to discuss this a little bit before I disappear into the shadows again.”
Like I said in the beginning, I was really surprised that you agreed to this interview as you hardly ever do any. How come you agreed to this?
– Well, like I said before I’m aware that there are these holes in my story instead being filled with things that aren’t necessarily true and as much as I don’t like to step out of the shadows I felt like at this point I should be doing that. Plus I don’t play live or tour so it’s important for me to reach out in some way to people in different parts of the world. Scandinavia is a part of the world that I’ve always been completely obsessed with. Also potentially this album needs a bit more of an explanation than the previous ones. I don’t intend to do very many interviews but maybe it’s important for me to discuss this album a little bit before I disappear into the shadows again.
You mentioned Scandinavia. Have you been here?
– No, I’ve never been. I’ve always had a fascination since I was a child, probably because over there, there’s such a great sense of folklore and I’ve always had a huge admiration for that and mythic tradition. Also, there seems to be this bizarre ability in Scandinavians to write amazing songs. A natural melodic kind of genius. I’ve always enjoyed the music and the art like John Bauer. But I’ve never visited, which probably goes down to my fear of flying and travelling, but one day I hope to. Maybe you’ll find me in a log cabin out there whittling wood! Give me snowy forests any day!
– Are there any more songs you wanted to talk about? It’s interesting to see what songs that may impose any questions.
Well, “Alright” was your first single and obviously I’ve heard that more than the others, then “The Pugilist” is the second. It sounds like you want to fight something?
– I’m glad you mention that, I’ve met so many people who don’t know what that word means. I’ve always enjoyed that word, essentially it’s just someone who’s paid to fight. I felt like that could be a strange way of describing my job, whether it’s fighting with myself or fighting my demons. It’s a song that is about this job and why I do it. It’s always seemed strange to me that so many people have this compulsion to make things, to create art about themselves. Writing the song I started singing this line “Don’t forget me” over and over again and then realized it’s the best way to describe it. A manic, obsessive feeling of not wanting to be forgotten and instead wanting to leave something from yourself to feel important. It came from fighting those feelings and getting paid for it.
“Alright” was written quite long ago, wasn’t it?
– Yes, it was written just after Birthdays was finished.
It feels like it has a theme similar to Birthdays to it.
– Yes, I put it first on the album as a way of saying goodbye to that songwriter, that kid. I felt like I had to do that in order to write the rest of the record. So it makes sense to have it first, as you say it’s slightly more in that world I used to write in. The song itself is about that even if anything will end you’ll be okay and you’ll get on. It’s a love song in one aspect but also about changing and becoming an adult. It’s sad but it’s okay.
“Old Lovers In Dressing Rooms” sounds pretty autobiographical, like you have actually been visited by someone from earlier in your life.
– I can’t say that it specifically mentions one instance. Things like that have happened and do happen to us who are out there when you’re playing shows and when you’re out and about. It’s very strange when you have written songs about people, whether it’s a friend or lover or anything, then you haven’t seen them for a while and the next time you see them they’ve been hearing these songs about them and it creates a strange but kind of beautiful relationship. You can have these encounters and it’s a kind of talking point.
What is the line “They say your record deal is over now” about?
– I’ve gone through some different phases in my career and that line talks about the idea that a lot of people know so much about you. You see someone and you haven’t seen them for ages and ask them if they go to the university or where they are working and they know so many details about my career! It creates this strange kind of dialogue where one person knows exactly what you’ve been up to but you have no idea of what they’ve been up to and who they are now.
– There’s also a line which a lot of my friends who are artists understand instantly, but a lot of people might not get it: “there’s people that you have to meet”. If you’re having a bad moment you feel very alone and then inevitably somebody comes and says “there’s someone you have to come and meet”, important people. I think a lot of artists know that feeling quite well.
Do you want people to feel like they are the subject matter of your songs?
– It’s an interesting thing, I’ve always wondered that. I’m trying my best to not think of you guys when I’m writing a song, because if I let the listener get into my head… I don’t want to start writing for them ‘cause sometimes you can smell that from a song. Someone’s trying to write a song that they think you might like and I’m not sure it always works out. However there’s no limits to how specific about my life I can be. People will always be able to relate to it and make it their own which I think is amazing. It means that I’m free and I can talk about very specific instances in my life.
People make the songs their own and read their own things into them?
– Yes. I can mention literally a time and place where that person has never been and it shows how universal human experiences actually are. There are very few things that no one can relate to at all. As a composer you can use three chords and play it to ten people and they feel exactly the same. Amazing.
”Often when people ask me about songs I feel like ‘I can’t talk about that!’ but at the same time I’ve already talked about it in the song, which is a really strange contradiction”
“10am Gare du Nord” was the No. 1 song of 2013 on my website Songs for Whoever, it’s so beautiful. At the time I requested that you’d share the story behind the song but I was told by your management that you didn’t feel comfortable discussing the intimacy of it.
– Oh, thank you! No, I’m still not entirely comfortable with it. Quite often with songs like that I feel that I’ve sung the song and said all that stuff about how I feel. Then when people ask me about it I feel like “I can’t talk about that!” but at the same time I’ve already talked about it in the song, which is a really strange contradiction!
You’ve already reached the limit of the subject in the lyrics, you mean?
– Yes. There are a lot of artists that I listen to who write beautiful, obscure lyrics which you have no idea what they mean and I wish I could write a bit more like that, but there is something really powerful about stating the fact, what has happened and how I feel. My songs are pretty explicit, that song in particular. But again, I don’t want too much context because some people have told me the song is about unrequited love and others say it’s about requited love and that’s really nice. I wouldn’t want to turn anyone’s impressions around.
To me, that song shows the same vulnerability as when Jeff Buckley performs and Leonard Cohen’s way of describing things with words.
– I couldn’t possibly agree on that! Those two are absolute brilliant minds, so that’s an incredibly kind thing to say. I think Jeff Buckley set the standard for conveying emotion in a song and as you say, Leonard Cohen can describe a simple, universal feeling in a unique way. I’d like to be able to come anywhere close to their ability to do that.
Foto: BBC (arkivbild)
Av Tommy Juto för Kulturbloggen.
NAO på Way Out West
Lördag 13 augusti
Av alla artister som bokats till årets Way Out West gladde ingen mig så mycket som när NAO blev klar, i mitt tycke ett av de mest spännande namnen inom alt-R&B just nu. På förhand kändes det lite svårbedömt hur stor publik hon skulle locka, många hördes samspråka om vem den där NAO är, men när brittiskan går på är Dungen faktiskt rätt packad med folk som vill höra fräsch, modern soul med inslag av rå funk.
Hon blir nästan överväldigad över den stora uppslutningen, som om hon inte räknat med att hon nått ut i så stor utsträckning här. Förvisso kom debutalbumet så sent som för två veckor sedan, men det föregicks av några EP:s och singlar som fastslog att det här är en artist att räkna med. Sångmässigt påminner hon om Janet Jackson och Kelela, den sistnämnda försvann som bekant ur festivalens line-up lika fort som hon tillkom.
Hennes taktfasta låtar rycker igång dansnerverna hos många och i ett försök att få allas händer att vaja i takt med beatsen hoppar hon ner från scenen tills hon dråpligt nog inser att hon inte kommer upp igen och får ta ett varv backstage för att sedan inför breda leenden leta sig bakvägen tillbaka upp. Kompet kommer från gitarrist, basist och trummis kompletterat av förinspelade syntslingor och körsång, vilket givetvis hade varit trevligare med äkta vara men man kan inte få allt.
NAO håller på att leta sig in i folks medvetande på riktigt och när till och med balladerna får folk att vilja dansa är man onekligen något på spåren.