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You Are Accepted: From Majical Cloudz to ‘Dream Songs,’ Devon Welsh Loves More, Fears Less

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

“I remember how it ends / We survive,” crooned Devon Welsh at the close of his previous band’s final album. Majical Cloudz may have dissipated in 2016, but its Montreal-based frontman has done more than just survive - On his first proper solo release, Dream Songs, he thrives.

As gentle as he is unwaveringly earnest, Welsh’s signature style still remains. Projecting his uniquely evocative voice in a way that matches the intensity of his gaze, he casts sentiments of naked vulnerability over meditative minimalism. Few can land such simple candor with real weight, but on Dream Songs, Welsh has the patience to get it right.

Now free from both past partnerships and label obligations, Welsh is feeling freer. We hear the dark, pulsating ebb and flow of synth slowly start to be stripped away by the swirling of strings. Color is introduced, both metaphorically and literally. There is hope.

Whether selecting venues of open spaces or just stepping down to the floor, Welsh does not perform on a stage. Just as his lyrics bear the honesty of confessional consciousness, the breaking down of this final barrier makes the pleading in his poetry that much more piercing.

Transverso sat down with Welsh before one such live show at Chicago’s Constellation to discuss Dream Songs, and the making of a man ready to love more and fear less.

TRANSVERSO: You've just put your first official solo record out into the world and you created your own label to release it. What can you tell us about getting to this point and how it’s gone for you so far?

DEVON WELSH: It's hard to explain exactly why this is the case, but I kind of feel like after Majical Cloudz I went down to zero in terms of my sense of making music as a career. Even thinking about it, having any kind of relationship with that identity, I just dis-identified with it completely. So getting this album released has been this gradual uphill slope towards being like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this, I can make music and put it out and play shows.’

It's kind of been a big growing experience. It felt like I shed a skin at a certain point in my life, and making this album and everything around it was sort of a process of figuring out what music meant to me now, what it's purpose was, how it fit into my world, and how it would all work. There were challenges there and good things, and just getting the album released is a victory in and of itself. It feels really good as a personal landmark in my life.

I feel able to be present for reflecting on what people have to say about the music that I'm making, whereas maybe in the past it was not something that I, I don't know… I just have a different relationship with hearing people say, ‘Oh, I like your music, this is why it's valuable to me.’ I think I can appreciate it more. I think I can appreciate most of the parts of making and releasing music more now, and I've sort of figured out a way to not have [the things I didn’t like] involved as much. Self-releasing has been a big part of that, sort of setting the stakes for myself and setting the terms and feeling like when I sell a record I'm handing it to that person. It feels good.

You named your new label You Are Accepted, the name itself evoking a sense of comforting freedom. It sounds like setting out on your own has been very fulfilling thus far – Would you consider expanding to releasing other artist’s work in the future, or is part of why it's special that it's so personal to you?

I can't say what will happen in the future, but right now it seems like my understanding of the identity of it is I'll put my own stuff out or something that I'm involved in. I have this other project that I just make for fun with my friend Matthew Duffy called Belave, and maybe the next time we make something I could see how he feels about it. I’ve been talking with Nick [Schofield], who's playing in my band tonight, about making a spoken word / ambient album together, and maybe we would release it under that label as well. But I'm not sure, I'm just kind of taking it one step at a time.

One immediate signifier of this shift in your career is Dream Songs’ album art. Majical Cloudz’ records traditionally had starkly minimalist, colorless covers, and a lot of your portraits can seem intensely serious. Now we’re greeted by a candid shot of you, wearing red and smiling. Having read that you even refused Matador Records’ push to put you on the front of Are You Alone?, I’m curious what’s behind the way you choose to represent your music visually.

It’s just a different attitude about what the music is. The music has a different purpose. With Majical Cloudz there was a defined aesthetic that I thought was important to what the project was for me. It was not having me on the cover. Me and Matt [Otto] were both in the band – I didn't want just myself to be on the cover, and I didn't think it made sense for us to be on the cover, either. For whatever idiosyncratic reason I just felt that the identity of that project [called for] a text-based, textural thing be on the cover, and that there not be a lot of real color associated with it. Just black and white. I felt strongly that that was the association with that music. It was addressing painful things and subjects that were intense, and there was a sort of rawness to what I thought the identity of that project was. From the beginning it was kind of confrontational – my desire was to play shows and to really look people in the eye, and really give them this music that was about parts of my interior life and memories.

I felt that that aesthetic and set of intentions couldn’t fit making [Dream Songs]. It was about something totally different – I was writing it wanting there to be positivity and love and openness in my life, and I think the songs kind of reflect that. When someone picks up the album or listens to it or engages with the project, I want that feeling to be communicated. It should be freeing and positive. I don't want to send someone on a heavy trip like, ‘Oh, this is scary.’ I wanted [them to] pick up the record [and think] ‘Oh, it looks nice, it looks comforting. It feels inviting, it feels positive. I feel heard by this music or understood by this music.’ I wanted it to be lighter, and so I felt that that image kind of reflects that. I think it reflects where I was at when I was making the music, what I wanted my life to be like.

In between your old band and this first official solo album you released a collection of songs called Down the Mountain and a single, ‘Go Go.’ Both had space-related imagery, and you tweeted around that time, “I hope I'm alive to see close-up images of other habitable planets, or even any planets outside our solar system...” I thought that was interesting, especially because your music so beautifully balances being grounded but also ethereal at the same time. What about space attracts you?

[Laughs] Well, the Earthrise photo, you know that first picture where it's over the crest of the moon, but we see Earth, and it's really far away, this little tiny dot? That's just incredible. Anytime you can think about that it really takes a load off of our existence here on Earth and what it means, and it really puts it in a certain perspective.

Astronauts talk about this – they go back to Earth and they have this realization, like wow, we're all connected. We really need to be thinking about things in a way where we're all part of the same project. We're on Spaceship Earth,' and we really are just this fragile little thing in the middle of this incredibly vast, mysterious universe that we really don't know anything about, we haven't explored it. It's just this endless source of sublimity and beauty.

So I think I'm just interested in space for those reasons. It's really inspiring, it's beautiful, it's a broader context for understanding life that puts the emphasis on embracing the mystery of existence, which I think is just so quickly tangible. As soon as you think about space or you reflect on space at all you realize how mysterious everything of existence really is, and how important love is and embodying as much of a zoomed-out perspective on what we're doing here, what our purpose on this planet is. It renders any problems to seem utterly immaterial in comparison to the fact that we're on this spinning rock.

Maybe next time someone launches a car into space they should play your music instead.

[Laughs] Yeah, sure.

Another big shift evident in Dream Songs is a move away from the synthetic sounds of Majical Cloudz to more organic instrumentation, like string arrangements. What can you tell us about that?

Majical Cloudz, again, had a very defined aesthetic. It was something that I was interested in maintaining – we found this thing, this is how the project works, and I really like that aesthetic. But then, making music on under my own name for the first time, I had the feeling, ‘Oh, I can do whatever I want.’ This is what I wanted. I wanted to feel a bit freed from the confines of Majical Cloudz as a project. I didn't really want to just make a record that was repeating the choices of the Majical Cloudz records because it just seemed boring to me.

Also, I was writing songs on guitar more, just because I could. So rather than transcribe them and turn them into something else I just went with that, and built the songs around guitar. I'm working with Austin Tufts, and he’s a classically trained musician. I had the idea of wanting strings – I had for a long time wanted to have strings on a recording – and then he was able to get it done in a legitimate way. So yeah, why not? Let's try it.

In Majical Cloudz you were the vocalist/frontman in a duo, and in Belave you hold the opposite role in a different duo. Of course this solo record is still collaborative, but now you alone have complete control. Did that change in dynamic alter your process at all?

Well the first Majical Cloudz record was really me having control over that process. It was like, this is my idea and this is what I want to do. It wasn't as much of a collaboration as the Majical Cloudz records where Matt was bringing his energy to it and to the production sides of things. For example, some of the stuff on Impersonator uses the Logic preset synths that were in the demos of the tracks. We did a lot to transform them, but it's not the same as a collaboration like Belave, where I’ll make a thing, and then Duffy will just do whatever he's going to do, and then that's that. So it's like a 50/50 process.

 With some of the Majical Cloudz stuff it was sort of like, here's the demo, here's the ideas, this is what I want to do with it. It felt similar to making Dream Songs, where I have the songs, I know what I want to do, but it's not 100 percent of the vision, and I'm working with somebody who's producing it. We can bounce ideas off each other and come to something that sounds good.

Lyrically, throughout your whole discography, I've noticed there's a reoccurrence of clown and comedian characters, and laughter being used in various contexts from performing to dying. Your music can be more on the serious side at times, so I’m intrigued by this apparent relationship between severity and levity, the musician and the jester.

Yeah, I think I can have a dark of humor. Also I think that it's important to laugh in the painful moments of life, and also just to laugh about as much as you can in life. I think it's a very healing, very important thing to do. I love comedy, and I love comedians and clowns. To me it's a symbol that I think represents something about life. The tragedy of life is not feasible without laughter, and it’s a way of overcoming anything. I think a clown is this figure that is kind of tragic, because they're the object of ridicule. People don't take them seriously, but also they bring people joy and, I don't know, something about that has always repeated to me. Something about a sad clown is a very potent image for me.

One of the most stunning aspects of your music is the honest vulnerability that you convey. The first single and the album as a whole open up with the line, ‘Things more powerful than you control the actions in your life.’ And, in announcing the record, you said you want to ‘love more,’ ‘surrender more,’ and fear less. Are there any particular things that you feel controlled by, or that you fear?

It’s more the idea that there are things in life that are out of your control. That’s a lesson that I have been slow to learn, or slow to accept. Someone that struggles with anxiety probably struggles with that piece of wisdom, which is like, ‘Hey, you can't control everything that happens in life, and you kind of need to just let it go.’ I guess that's sort of part of what that lyric means for me.

In terms of what I fear, it's about like fearing rejection from people, fearing that somebody doesn't like you, or you're not good enough, or you're going to fail, you're not going to be able to do it right. Those are the things that I fear. I don't fear monsters or other people or whatever. It's more just a fear of letting people down, letting yourself down, of what's going to happen, being unconfident moving through situations in life. That's what I meant when I said that I want to fear less.

And also just fear in terms of the opposite of love, I guess. You want to connect with people and you want to open yourself to people. You want to just live as much as possible in a space of being open, of being loving to people, of being kind. When you have something nice to say, communicate it. When you have love to give, give it. I think being afraid gets in the way of that. The fear of, ‘Oh, I don't know, I shouldn't. I feel self-conscious, I feel insecure.’ The fear makes you disconnected from other people.

Dream Songs is out now via You Are Accepted and you can buy it here. Photos by Andrea Calvetti

Heads Up: Warpaint on Making People Dance, Abandoning the Album, and Reaching Their Prime

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment
warpaint interview transverso.jpg

"You wouldn't know it but you're really in your prime," coos the opening line of Warpaint's latest release, 2016's Heads Up. That sentiment, along with the band's first single to chart in the US, "New Song," has lead the aptly named album as a bold statement from a group of artists now fully embracing the sort of tight, danceable pop they had only flirted with before.

Warpaint's meandering art rock has always been equal parts groovy and moody, though this third full length sees Emily Kokal (vocals, guitar), Theresa Wayman (guitar, vocals), Jenny Lee Lindberg (bass, vocals), and Stella Mozgawa (drums) hone their craft into its most accessible form yet. In the year following its release, Heads Up has gone on to result in, among other things, an opening slot on Depeche Mode's global Spirit tour, and even an awkward encounter with Shia LaBeouf, though the album was nearly never made at all.

Following their recent performances at Chicago's Lollapalooza and Subterranean (pictured below), Transverso spoke with Wayman over the phone to discuss this and more, catching her in a particularly zen moment immediately following a session with Depeche Mode's tour masseuse.

TRANSVERSO: What's it like touring with Depeche Mode?

THERESA WAYMAN: It [has been] incredibly fun, and it is such an honor to be opening for them. The reality of it didn't quite hit me until we got to that first venue – they have this whole world that they set up. They weren't one of my main influences growing up, so I have appreciated the magnitude of what was happening this whole time, but I didn’t quite get it as much as Jen, who has been heavily influenced by them.

With Heads Up being about a year old now, how has your perception of it and what you accomplished changed over the course of that time?

Well I'm still really proud of the album, and I think I'm I am even more proud of it than I was when it came out because I've got some distance and I realized some of the things that I was stressing over weren't as big a deal as I had thought at the time. It’s nice to have that experience, as opposed to [feeling] like something still isn't right. I just feel really at peace with that album. I like it a lot, and I don't listen to it that often. I don't really listen to any of our recorded music that much, but I feel like they’re some of our strongest songs, and I love playing them live.

I feel as though they walk the line of being accessible and yet their own unique thing. I think we have other songs and other albums that do that too, but as a whole I think we accomplish that more with this album and I appreciate that. That's pretty much been my goal with writing music for a while now; to kind of figure out how to perfectly be obscure yet understood. I don't know why I have that drive, but I do. I think some artists are completely okay with not being understood, that's not their objective. Other artists really want 100% to be in the mainstream and be understood. I just like finding the balance somewhere in between.

Heads Up does seem decidedly dancier, poppier and more accessible than your past work in some ways yet still does a great job of maintaining your kind of signature vibe and brooding quality. How much of that was you know a conscious will to adapt and how much of that is just a natural evolution?

It's just a natural evolution for me, personally. Like I was saying, I really feel a drive to be understood and not to be too left that only a small percentage of people understand it. I think that you can be unique and individual and still be understood if you work and find a perfect channel for that. So I guess that was a conscious effort to be that way. “New Song is quite a bit more accessible than anything [we had previously done], but even if you have a song that has a weird abstract kind of format, like “By Your Side” or “So Good,” I think it's great to still be vivid in the sounds and choices of guitar lines and bass lines and how long you're staying in a section. I wanted all that to be really succinct and really vivid even if there was an odd structure that you're playing off of.

I remember hearing you originally planned to release these songs as kind of a series of singles instead of as a full record. What changed that ultimately resulted in this album coming to be?

Well we started writing these songs with that in mind, but we weren't all on the same page about that, actually. It ended up being that certain people needed more time away to not be writing, [so] you didn't want the pressure of that. So some songs got written during that time, either individually or off in pairs, and then we just kind of kept them and didn't act on finishing them. Then we just decided we would just come together and do an album, and then that made more sense. But that idea is still out there and lingering for us, and I think that we might try to do that. We actually have already written a couple of songs over the summer, and we're going to continue while we’re on this tour.

We have a lot of downtime on the tour – well, more than normal – because of Depeche Mode. They have the luxury of being able to [take days off in between shows], which is not what we [usually] do, so we have some time to write together. We're just going to collect songs and see what happens, and maybe do some individual releases or an EP or two. I think we want to just create more content for ourselves and keep putting music out but not have to have it be this one big project, and just try a little bit of a different approach.

This album was produced by Jake Bercovici (Julian Casablancas + The Voidz), whom you also worked with on your debut EP, 2008’s Exquisite Corpse. Was this a sort of full circle moment?

Yeah, definitely. He's grown a lot since then and so have we. We co-produced it – a lot of this stuff was actually produced on our own in our own studios. Stella and I started “So Good” – the bass and original electronic drum beat [and] Jen’s guitar [were] originally all recorded at Stella’s house. We all have these kind of set-ups in our places and we've been using them, so that was our own production. Same with “New Song.” And then there were things added once we went into the studio and all of us decided to finish this album and finish the songs, so it really was a collaborative production.

But it was definitely full circle working with him and realizing that when you start with something that works for you why not stay with that thing, you know? That became really evident, it was like coming home. I think we're going to continue to do this because we already have too many minds in this project and too many opinions to really add another, let alone someone that we don't know. Then we [would] all have to establish our own relationships with that person, otherwise we're not going to feel comfortable, and you have to feel comfortable when you're making music. I don't think I would really want to invite some unknown person in this scenario, at the moment it's already strenuous enough with our relationships. That being said, it’s good for us to have someone who's objective and can kind of police us a little bit and keep us happy and in check and even, because our band is really about being an even collaboration.

I appreciate how your live sets still include a surprisingly large amount of songs from the Exquisite Corpse EP, as bands don’t often perform much from nearly decade-old debut releases. That being said, you seem to only play one track off of your first full album, 2010’s The Fool. How do you decide what makes it to the stage in 2017?

Well there are many factors that go into picking them. One is we know there are certain songs that our audience likes more, so we pick those. We try to keep a pretty balanced set in terms of grabbing, like, two on average from each album, including the EP. Sometimes it gets weighted in another direction if, say, we know that somebody has really requested to hear “Stars,” but we also still want to play “Elephants” and “Beetles” as well. Then we'll have a debate about it, and every now and then it will just end up that we are playing three of those EP songs because somebody wants to hear “Stars.”

It's not usually weighted towards EP, per se, but we always play EP songs. And that's actually been happening a lot more recently, too, because we didn't for a while. We played “Elephants” pretty much our entire career as a live band, but “Stars” we didn't play for years. “Beetles” we didn't play for years. Those are the main ones. So then we started playing “Krimson,” and we just found a way to start the set with “Heads Up,” and then mashing up into “Krimson,” and so then that’s another EP song added. It works as a great start to the set, and then if you want to play “Beetles” and “Elephants” then you’ll have three songs again. So there are so many factors that go into it. So yeah, I think it's been heavier on EP lately, but it hasn't always been like that.

Has the live aspect of your music affected the writing or recording at all? Are you ever surprised by how a song is received live? I hear you’re starting to get mosh pits now.

Well the reason we made this album more dancey is because we like playing songs live that people dance to, and that we can dance to while we're playing them. I think that's one of my favorite things to do, so I would continue to want to make songs that have a pretty a good groove. We've had a couple of mosh pits. They always happen at the weirdest times. Or crowd surfing, [we’ve had’ people crowd surfing to “Undertow,” or one time it was “Set Your Arms Down,” this really heroin-y slow song. [Laughs] I never understand why or how when our fans start moshing, but it can get pretty rowdy sometimes.

In San Diego there was a fight and somebody got punched. We have some fans in the front row that get there early and stake out their spots, so if somebody comes and tries to take that spot that's not really a good scene. One time we were in Austin and Shia LaBeouf came to our show, and he made his way up towards the front, but he didn't realize that the people up there weren't just going to let him in. I don't even know if they knew who he was, but they were not happy, and so he kind of pushed out. That was another one of the tense moments that's funny.

That's hilarious. Did you recognize him from the stage at the time or did you find out after?

I didn't at first because he was wearing a hat and stuff. Then I saw the commotion and I was like ‘What's going on?’ It took me a couple of looks to see that it was him. I try not to get involved unless something really goes wrong because I don't want to stop the show.

Whenever I attend your shows they seem pretty peaceful. At Bonnaroo 2014 I remember there was a guy in the front row who wouldn't stop throwing roses at you.

Yeah, I remember that. [Laughs] That's nice, I don't mind that. People like to throw bras, too. That’s happened so many times.

I really enjoy playing live and I think one of the most important objectives to playing live show for a band is to make them dance and have a good time and maybe even do a mosh pit and stage dive. The shows that I've been to that I've enjoyed the most, that's what's happening. Like Little dragon or Thee Oh Sees – I mean Thee Oh Sees just play nonstop. They go on, they just rule the whole time, and then they get off the stage. They don't do an encore, and the people, they’re just out of their minds. And that's the point. I don't really think that live music should be too heavy. I think it should be a physical body experience where you're just really enjoying yourself. I also enjoy going to The Fonda Theatre in L.A. where there's a balcony and you have seats and you just sit and just soak up something, maybe a little music that isn't just about dancing and getting wild. So there's other aspects, but I think for the most part I just love making people dance. I want to do that more and more.

During “So Good,” which I think is one of the strongest tracks on the new record, you and Jenny trade instruments onstage. Did you trade places in writing and recording that one as well?

Yeah, I basically had written that song on guitar. It was just generic chords, just to facilitate the melody, and I didn’t want them to be in the song. I wanted to turn it into a dance song, so I knew what kind of beat I wanted to have on there, and I gave Stella a general idea of what I was thinking and she programmed a beat. I had an idea for a bass line so I just did it instead of waiting and giving it to Jen, and she's happy to switch and she likes to play guitar. So it worked out perfectly and I we just gave her the song. She came over I recorded her guitar. And then Emily put some on later when we were all in the studio finishing the album and making the album. That was earlier, during the days of working on releasing singles, and that was that was when that song came about.

And “New Song” as well, Jen recorded that day. I actually recorded the drums on [“New Song”] because she just needed something to play to. I recorded a little loop and then she edited [it] and made it tighter and wrote the bass line to it. It was weird, because “New Song” was written when we had the singles ideas in mind, and then Emily kind of came up with her melody for it at some point, and then that song was completely forgotten about, pretty much shelved, because there were too many different ideas about which direction it should go. So we kind of set it aside, and then Jake ended up hearing it later in the actual recording process and and was like, ‘What are you guys thinking? This song so cool, you have to do this song.’ So that's funny, because it seems we really wanted a song like that on our album, and really we weren't even going in that direction so much, and it's just kind of happened.

Heads Up’s opening line is “You wouldn't know it but you're really in your prime.” I'm always amused by how every press release for every album for every band always claims it’s the artist's best work ever, but obviously that can't always be true. Sometimes you may not realize when you're in your prime, or other times you may think you are but you're not. If Warpaint ended today, would there be a certain record or a track that you would look back on and be especially proud of, and if so, did you know it would come to hold that sort of significance at the time?

Well, [opening track] “Whiteout” is a great example, I think. I am extremely proud of that song. I didn't write that lyric, Emily did, but I like that collaboration, the way that that song came about. I love the song itself. I think it's a mature song that sounds great, [it’s] got great harmonies on it. I think we're all sort of, in a way, at our best in that song, in my opinion. I don't always toot my own horn about out music – there’s stuff that I don't like, there's stuff that I feel like falls short. But I feel good about that song. Even when that song was happening I felt that way, and sometimes I think you just know when you hit something that you feel good about. Sometimes you don't realize that there is this inbuilt charm in something that you've written, because at the time you might think that there's something wrong with it, and then you hear it a few years later and you [realize] oh, that thing that I thought was wrong actually made that song special. So I think it can happen either way. With this album I do feel as though I knew while we were making it that I was proud of it. There are still things I want to work on, but I don't question this one as much as I do the other stuff.

So yeah, I do think we're in our prime. I really do, actually. I think that we've paid a lot of dues, and we're a band that's growing slowly and getting better slowly. I think we're all, a little bit, late bloomers, and we've been at it for a while. I think we genuinely love to make art and music, and all those things are positive things, they’re good things. We’re not in it just for fame or money, we’re just doing what we do, and we're just getting better and better at it. So I think that we deserve to be able to know that we are kind of in our prime at this point.

What Now: Sylvan Esso on Radio, Politics, and Beating the Sophomore Slump

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

What now? It's the question posed by many a sophomore record, and Sylvan Esso's new LP of the same name has the challenge of meeting the extremely high bar set by the North Carolina duo's self-titled debut in 2014.

As the first two tracks slowly blink open their glitchy, vulnerable eyes to the crackle and spasm of both vinyl and CD skipping, Amelia Meath coaxes "I was gonna write a song for you / Gonna sing it out loud," in What Now's opening breaths. To add to the mystique, each of the ten tracks were released a week early via ten separate vinyl singles hidden in record stores across the world. Then streamed on their site for a single day, the songs came to contextually mimic the fleeting, digital reality they already explore sonically.

While Meath is spinning lyrics ranging from delaying ones own death for unexpected love to a knowing diss track that sets the radio model in its blisteringly clever crosshairs, Nick Sanborn weaves them within electropop soundscapes that seem to carry unspoken contemplativeness of their own. There are only two intersecting parts, yet they combine in crisp, impeccably moveable depth.

"Do you got the moves? / To make it stick, yeah / To get the clicks, yeah," Meath challenges on lead single "Radio." Not only do they have the moves, but if you have the pleasure of seeing Sylvan Esso perform you'll find them as organic as the vocals, never made rigid or polished despite the synthetic texture of the music they're set to.

Transverso called up Sylvan Esso to discuss What Now, radio, and North Carolina politics.

TRANSVERSO: Your new single "Radio" is a really clever commentary on the music industry and radio model. Did you find yourself becoming disillusioned after your debut?

AMELIA MEATH: Not really, mostly because we knew what we were getting into in general. There was like a sense of deepening of feeling, like all of a sudden we were in a new system, but everyone knows what the music industry is like. You know what you’re getting into. You’re selling a product and the product is your feelings, so you turn it into a song.

NICK SANBORN: The product is your feelings - that should've been the name of the record! [Laughs] I think that song, there is a lot there, because it's not just getting mad at the commercial radio market and all the nonsense that comes with that, which it is, but it's also kind of acknowledging our place in that. You know we're just as complicit as anybody else.

AM: Yeah exactly, and also acknowledging our participation and excitement around those ideas that I'm talking about.

I really appreciate the irony of the track fitting into that radio-friendly 3:30 timeframe you reference but also being decidedly FCC unclean.

NS: [Laughs] Thank you very much!

AM: You know the funny part about that is it's actually pretty clean. I say "dick." You can't say "sucking dick," but we had to bleep out [when] I say "folk girl" in it and people keep thinking I’m saying "fuck girl," which is also like a cool, new thing to say instead of "fuck boy." But we had to bleep it.

NS: [Laughs] Yeah we had to make a bleeped version...

AM: ...for radio so it sounds much dirtier than it actually is, which I kind of like.

You currently have "H.S.K.T." airing in an AT&T commercial. With many describing advertising as the new terrestrial radio, is that an idea you agree with?  

NS: It's interesting, I haven’t heard that before.

AM: I haven’t heard that either. That’s interesting. That’s a cool idea. I don’t think that’s true though, because it’s not like they say "This song is 'H.S.K.T.' by Sylvan Esso" at the beginning or the end. If they did then that would be true.

NS: Right. But in the era of Shazam I guess it's weird. I think, more than anything, what radio used to do (and still does way better than a lot of people think it still does) has just spread out into so many more types of media. People just choosing to just take music in or to take creative, you know... Oh god, I don’t want to say the word "content..."

AM: Ooo do it! Do it! Say it!

NS: They’re taking in content...

AM: Yeahhhh!

NS: just all kinds of different ways. So the idea that somebody would call advertising the new terrestrial radio, that’s really interesting to me. But I'm not sure that it is, it's just a different, it's just another great equalizer, you know? That’s the thing I think we are really kind of missing right now, that there is no Johnny Carson, you know? There’s no one cultural touchstone that we all share anymore, and even the ones we do all share I think we perceive them in decidedly different ways. So it’s interesting, I haven’t thought of advertising like that. It’s interesting. That’s a good… I’m going to think about that for a long time once this call is over. 

Did you guys tackle this record any differently then your debut? Did you fear a sophomore slump at all?

NS: Of course. I mean, we did the thing that I’m sure any other band whose first record is somewhat successful does. Which is, you know, you kind of have a little very selfish meltdown.

AM: Or a very long drawn out one that last many months.

NS: [Laughs] Yeah, maybe not so little.

AM: You know, like a torrential rain. [Laughs]

NS: Yeah, and you know that is the same as anybody else, we were absolutely kind of crippled by our own worry about ruining it or whatever the fuck we could be worried about. For a while I think the real shift for us happened when we kinda realized, well, we kept trying to do [things the same way. We were] like, "How did we do this last time? What did we do last time?"

AM: Which just doesn’t work. You can’t. We just figured out that you couldn’t force it.

NS: We just figured out that we were different people.

AM: Totally, and also if you try to do the same thing you did last time then you don’t make something new.

NS: Yeah, and I think the real thing for us was [realizing] we are just very different people then the people who made the last record so there is no way we can do that again. And then you realize that kind of the two major reactions that you can have to that problem, or that people tend to have, is that they make the same record again, or that they make something purposefully weirdly different, and those are both kind of flawed reactions in opposite directions. So the only thing you can actually do is just figure out what kind of music you make now, and who you are now, and what you need to say now, and the minute we did that it all got kind of a lot easier and we stopped worrying about it so much.

AM: Yeah.

This is also your debut on Loma Vista. How has that transition worked out?

AM: It’s all pretty cerebral. The transition was just us talking to a bunch of different labels and us being like, "Okay, you can borrow our record for 25 years!"

NS: [Laughs] Yeah it’s a weird thing. I mean, it's weird to talk about it because I don’t want to downplay how helpful they’ve been, because they’ve definitely been fantastic so far and a great help in kind of executing the thing that we want to do. That’s on one half of it, and the other half it's kind of like, this is your first time with your cookies being sold at Starbucks, you know? It's tough to encapsulate all those differences without putting too much weight on them.

So you already sold out of some vinyl colors for What Now and you also sold out a lot of shows. I know it's still early, but do you feel the reception has been what you thought it would be?

AM: It’s bigger than I thought. Or it’s bigger than it has every been before, which is exciting. I am excited to go out on tour and actually see what it’s like, because that’s really the only time you really get it, is when you’re in front of people.

NS: I’m really ready for the record to be out.

AM: Oh my god, me too.

NS: It’s so cool that we sold way more copies of our record than we had planned on. That’s obviously a huge victory for us and we are just so grateful to our fans and everyone who bought it. But it also just still feels preemptive. Maybe that’s like the Midwesterner in me, but it feels like, okay, great, but they could all still hate it when they get it, you never know!

AM: I love that that’s part of your reality.

NS: Of course, I don’t understand how it isn’t part of your reality! But yeah, it has been way bigger than expected or that we had planned for for sure and we feel insane about that. I think anytime you kind of leave for a little while and stop playing shows and stop, whatever, tweeting, I don't know...

AM: I never stopped tweeting!

NS: [Laughs] You know anytime you kind of take a little time to not do things publicly, I think we worried like everybody else is that you’re going to come back and nobody is there anymore. So it is immensely reassuring that not only do people still give a shit, but there are more of them now than there were then.

AM: Yeah, that’s nice.

I saw your SXSW set and the new material seemed to integrate really well. How has the process of adding a new album to your performance been so far?

AM: Yeah, yeah it was fun.

NS: Really fun. It’s interesting because it's not totally in the exact same vein - there's a few more moving parts in a lot of it. It's kind of been cool trying to figure out how exactly it wants to live in the live set, you know? Which I am really excited about, because we are kind of expanding parts of our rig and how the show is going to be for the shows coming up starting in May. I’m just excited to figure out what space they're going to live in once we’ve played them 100 times.

I don’t know if you still have it on there, but when I saw you at SXSW you had "F THE NC GOP" written across your gear. I assume this is response to the discriminatory bathroom bills in North Carolina, right?

NS: Amidst many other things! We can talk about [former NC Governor] Pat McCrory's power grab in his final week in office to take power away from Roy Cooper’s incoming administration. We could talk about their unyielding gerrymandering of all of the congressional districts...

AM: Yeah, North Carolina is no longer legally a democracy.

NS: Oh yeah, we can talk about how we fell below the necessary requirements for a true democracy! [Laughs] We could talk about their continuing assault on voting rights.

AM: Yeah, and not to mention this bullshit fake-out fixer-upper of [bathroom bill] HB2.

NS: Oh god, that’s the fucking newest. And the NCAA caving on that, oh god.

AM: Heartbreak hotel.

NS: It’s just nonstop, and there are so many pieces of it. It's like a lot of politics right now, where everyday you wake up and they’ve done something new that would’ve been the most outraging thing of an entire administration before, and now it's like every morning.

AM: Fuck 'em.

NS: Sometimes when you only have a limited about of space physically you just got to get to the point. [Laughs]

To what degree if any do you feel artists are obligated to use their platform to address political and social issues?

AM: I don’t think that anybody is obligated to do anything because it's art, you know, you can do whatever you want. But if you have a platform, personally, I have a platform, and I intend to use it because that’s my prerogative. I think a lot of times, particularly as a women, people like to say a lot of things that women have to do when they’re performers to be a good role model, and I think it's all just rude and another way of trying to control people.

NS: We're actually an interesting case because we are almost entirely uninterested in making overtly political music. That isn’t to say that the music doesn’t touch on the emotional realities of living in a political world, that is certainly a big current, I would say, but I would be shocked if there was a day I woke up and thought to make a song about a particular bill or person seemed like the right idea. That’s just not our vibe, but at the same time we are very active with the band's kind of voice and our personal voices.

What is your favorite track from What Now and why?

AM: My favorite song is always the last one that we wrote, so in this case it's probably "Song," which you can tell we wrote so close to the end we didn’t give it a name.

NS: [Laughs] Yeah usually we have these kind of fake names for songs.

AM: And then we [come up with] the real names and we just didn’t for that one.

NS: Well we tried a lot of different names. They were all terrible.

AM: We tried a lot of different names and they didn’t work. I don’t know though, this one is horrible.

NS: But it’s more true.

AM: I am really proud of that song, I like it a lot, I like the ideas it talks about. I like that it's love song to songs in general.

What's an example for an alternate placeholder title for one of your past songs?

AM: We called one "Zelda."

NS: "Rewind" was called "Zelda."

AM: Just because one of the parts of it sounds like a peaceful level of [video game The Legend of] Zelda. [Hums melody]

NS: Yeah that opening, my sample voice in those chords, we immediately felt like that was a Zelda level, so that is what the track had become called. Most of the other ones are pretty direct; "Radio" is obviously "Radio," "Sound" is obviously "Sound," "The Glow," and "Kick Jump [Twist" were also the same.] Oh, "Just Dancing" was called the very inventive title "15" forever.

AM: 'Cause it was the 15th thing.

NS: If I don’t know what a thing is about yet I number it, this is really exciting. [Laughs] We almost called that one "15," but we didn't, thank goodness.

So what would be your favorite track?

NS: I think my favorite one is the first one. I think "Sound" is my favorite song. I’m just really proud of every piece of that. That came together in like an afternoon, and the minute we wrote it we knew it was the first song on the record. I feel like every sound in that song has purpose and meaning to me, and I feel like it’s the most enmeshed the two of us can be in a recording. That is like a really the prefect union of the two of us, both how it is written and everything. I am really proud of it.

What Now is out now via Loma Vista, and you can buy it here. Read our other interview with Nick Sanborn about his solo project Made of Oak here.

Whatever It Is in Control: Yoni Wolf of WHY? On Privacy and Positivity Through 'Moh Lhean' and Beyond

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

WHY?, the brainchild of Yoni Wolf, is more than just a vaguely posed question. A near perfect reversal of YHWH, the Hebrew Bible's transliterated name of a God too sacred to speak, it's also a vessel for Wolf's unique rap rock hybrid through which not much if anything has been off limits at all.

Deftly intertwining naked, confessional shock and ceaselessly nimble lyricism, Wolf's output is occasionally just short of sensationalist and often brilliant. It's a stream of consciousness if stream of consciousness had meticulously perfected off-kilter flow, with not even the most deadpan of deliveries betraying a true poeticism not commonly realized.

For his sixth LP under the WHY? moniker, Moh Lhean, Wolf returned to his home studio of the same name for the first time since the project's 2003 debut, Oaklandazulasylum. 14 years later it's more of a family affair, as what was once a solo catharsis now finds Wolf joined by his brother Josiah and Josiah's wife Liz, among others. Five albums later, the resulting recordings are far less lo-fi as well, layering the mystery of their album title with some of WHY?'s most melodic and textured tracks. The overall feeling is noticeably calmer and less cynical for the most part - Moh Lhean finds Wolf ever so slightly more zen in his philosophizing.

"While I'm alive I'll feel alive / And what's next I guess I'll know when I've gotten there," Wolf decreed on his 2008 magnum opus Alopecia. Despite bouts of illness and isolation he is still very much alive, and Moh Lhean finds him seemingly closer to coming to terms with the rest. “One thing, there is no other / Only this, there is no other... / Just layers of this one thing,” reasons opener and lead single "This Ole King."

Transverso caught up with Wolf on the phone to discuss Moh Lhean, health, hands, and surprisingly, Wrestlemania.

TRANSVERSO: Following last year's Testarossa tour with Geti you’re now back on the road with WHY?. How has it been so far? Is there a different dynamic touring with family?

YONI WOLF: Well Geti's adopted family in a way as well, we're close friends and we’ve spent a lot of time around each other over the last 10 or 8 years or whatever we've known each other. It's great rolling with my brother and playing with him is great too, as well as the other guys. It's a family vibe, but it always kind of is on tour, you know? You’re close to people, it's an intimate thing that you do. You’re always in intimate close quarters whether you’re in a van or a bus or whatever, you’re sort of around people all the time.

The press release for your new record hints that Moh Lhean was sort of born out of a “severe health scare” that you endured recently. How has your health influenced your music and are you doing better now?

I wouldn’t say that that’s accurate, the record was not born out of a severe health scare, but I have had some health problems, a lot of health problems in the last 12 years or something like that. I am stable right now, but struggling always to figure it out. It’s been an influence on the last two albums, this health stuff, definitely. The album Mumps, Etc that came out in 2012 [was] a lot and I think this one is to an extent - not as much as that one is but it’s a part of my life so it’s something I deal with. I’m sure it seeps in, you know?

One of the most interesting aspects of the new record texturally is the background chatter and vocal samples. A lot of these are your doctors, right? Were they aware they were being recorded?

The vocal samples like at the end of “Proactive Evolution”? Yeah, a couple of them are. I think they were not necessarily aware. I think one of them was and one of them wasn’t. I don’t think they would care. Maybe they would, I don’t know.

You’ve spoken about how personal this record is and how you don’t want to explain the album title, for example. How do you balance the privacy of your music with doing press?

I don’t know. I mean, I think you just talk about what you’re comfortable talking about. I’m just trying to kind of play it by ear in the moment [and] think about what feels okay to talk about what’s not right to talk about, you know? I’m pretty open, I’m fine.

Some were surprised by that interview you did on a conservative radio show a few months ago. How did that come about?

It came about because the guy’s assistant or guest coordinator or whatever booker guy hit me up on Facebook, I think, and asked me if I would be on the show. I looked at the link and I was like, well, this is interesting, this is different from what I’ve done, hell yeah, let’s do it. [Laughs] So that’s how it happened. I think the booker was a fan.

It had some awkward moments. Was it what you expected or do you regret it?

Oh no, I didn’t regret it at all, I thought it was fascinating, I enjoyed it a great deal. I mean, as far as press goes that’s like best case scenario, that you can get into something weird and interesting like that from a different perspective from where you come from. I grew up steeped in more or less Evangelical Christianity - Messianic Judaism was definitely the Jewish flair - but I’d say, moralistically, Evangelical Christianity, and so I was used his whole spiel and everything. I’ve heard that since I was growing up, [the] sort of the stuff he was saying. Anyway I enjoyed it.

Moh Lhean leaked a month before release. What was you reaction to that?

Oh I don’t know, somebody told me that at some point. It was like, oh well, you know, that’s how it goes. It’s inevitable, so no sweat.

It's interesting you say that because you touch on the issue of acceptance on “One Mississippi,” singing “I’ve got to submit to whatever it is in control.” As far as Moh Lhean and this time in your life are concerned, what have you found to be in control? 

The kids on Reddit. [Laughs] I don’t know. I mean, I wish I knew.

Throughout your body of work there's this reoccurring motif of hands. Depictions of them, either your own or from fans, have repeatedly been present in your cover art, and Moh Lhean carries on this tradition. “Easy” has a line “I lost my only hand in Chicago” and “One Mississippi” then touches on it being a phantom limb. You also have a song “These Hands” and “Gnashville” says “Sometimes I claim to know a guy but I can't tell you what his hands look like,” which I’ve always especially liked. What is it about hands that so fascinates you?

It’s about control. I mean, I don’t know, I go on instinct, so if I’m writing about that it’s not something I think out. But, if I was to go back and analyze it most of the time I would say it has to do with control. Either that or maybe it has to do with creation, you know, the creative process, but that’s just me analyzing it after the fact. I don’t think about that while I’m writing instinctually.

Moh Lhean's cover could be interpreted as a waving hand or an arm of a drowning man reaching above the waves. What was your aim there?

Yeah, I guess in my mind I think of it as kind of like when Hulk Hogan gets knocked down a bunch of times and then at some point he’s had enough of it and his arm goes up and it starts shaking and starts sort of pointing up in the air and slowly but surely his whole body stands up and then he body slams whoever is trying to attack him as though he’s impervious to their punches for a while. So that’s sort of the start of that, if you’re familiar with that. You’re gonna have to do some research for this article and go watch Wrestlemania V from 1986 or whatever, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

I’m actually not a wrestling fan right now, my friend Mike Eagle is like huge into wrestling right now, but I was as a kid. We used to watch it every Saturday morning, and then the Wrestlemanias once a year or whatever on Saturday night, we would watch those. So yeah, I’m just familiar with the classic people from the ‘80s: Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, Ultimate Warrior.

One of your lines that has resonated with me most over your entire discography is “Preemptive nostalgia of the possible but doubtful” from “Paper Hearts.” Five years after that track was released is there something that was doubtful then that you’ve since accomplished and can now feel nostalgia for?

I don’t know, that’s an interesting question. I have a lady friend now, thats something that I wouldn’t have thought at that time maybe that I would have, you know? That was a very lonesome time. So yeah, that’s something, I guess. Something big.

Is it a struggle to revisit those older songs from darker times in your life through current live sets?

In general, yeah, a lot of older songs I don’t like to do so I sort of pick and choose which ones feel okay to do and which ones I don’t want to revisit. It’s an issue [but] I wouldn’t say anything’s like permanently off limits, it’s just whether I feel like doing it or not if it’s gonna feel like it drags me down. Anything that has sort of a negativity to it or a pessimism to it. I mean, I do some songs like that, we’ve been doing “The Vowels Pt. 2,” I would say that’s a pretty dark track, but it’s kind of fun to do. I can’t say how it affects me one way or another doing it night after night.

I’m phasing into more positive material, I think, with Moh Lhean, and I’m not saying in the future I want to make all praise and worship music, but Moh Lhean definitely has that connotation and that feeling. I think that that’s good to have, some of those positive vibes going in the shows, because when you sing something night after night it affects you, you know? It affects you physically, it affects you psychologically and emotionally. I’m trying to phase into positivity into my life, so I think the music has to reflect that, and I think Moh Lhean is a good step. 

Austra Talks 'Future Politics' and Daring to Reject Our Dystopian Fate

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

Beyond the dancefloor beat and pulse of Austra's electronic grooves and the operatic siren calls vocalist Katie Stelmanis guides them with, Future Politics has something to say.

For the project's third LP, released the same day Donald Trump took the oath of office, Stelmanis decamped first to Montreal and then Mexico, filling the isolation that solitude paired with a language barrier creates with radical literature like Alex Williams and Nick Srnice's #AccelerateManifesto, which asserts the possibility of globalization and technology ushering in a paradise so advanced that society no longer requires labor or capital at all.

It's no coincidence then that Stelmanis felt compelled to pen tracks like "Utopia" and the album's eponymous single, stunning manifestos of her own, uniquely distilling self-aware disillusionment in MIDI keyboard and impeccable production. Adjacent to songs dealing the with the more traditional themes of love and depression, Austra seamlessly blends the vulnerable and personal with a daring big picture - for Stelmanis there is little need to discern between the dystopias of internal demons or societal ills, and Future Politics bravely aims to, if not remedy, at least acknowledge both with a hopeful catharsis.

Transverso spoke with Stelmanis about her inspirations for Future Politics as well as the relationships between the organic and synthetic, art and politics, and more.

TRANSVERSO: So you began with what was essentially a solo effort on your debut Feel It Break (2011), transitioned into more of a collaborative band dynamic for Olympia (2013), and now it seems you’re back to doing most everything yourself again on Future Politics. Was this a sort of full circle for you?

KATIE STELMANIS: I don’t necessarily see it as a circle, it’s more of a constant process and development. I don’t think I’ll ever make a record in the same way twice, and this record by circumstance, where we all were geographically, and also I suppose spending five years on the road with my band and collaborating with people, I kind of felt like I needed a break and needed to be independent again. I also needed to force myself to relearn and become a better producer and songwriter, which meant doing a lot more of it myself.

Your live show has also evolved from a sort of dance party to more of a band performance, and you've said you experimented with trying to create background music for this record. What purpose do you see your art taking on, ultimately?

I feel like I wasn’t really able to define its purpose. It's sort of defined itself through the climate in which I’ve put out this record and the way people are responding to the way it feels at our shows. I think that I essentially wrote songs about feeling sad and disenfranchised with the world around us and the record came out at a moment where kind of everybody is feeling like that, so the shows have ended up being almost this cathartic experience. At least for me and maybe for some people in the audience as well, just because we're able to kind of bring people together, and I think in this collective sadness people are able to feel that they are not alone. But the show itself, we do a lot of new stuff, but then we also like remix a lot of old stuff, so we have a nice variation of some more emo moments and some full on rave moments, and I like to perform both of those things. I like to have dance parties as well, still. [Laughs]

One track that really stands out to me is “Deep Thought." I admit it fooled me at first - it’s a harp instrumental that's actually made entirely through a MIDI keyboard, right? I'm intrigued by the relationship between the synthetic and organic in your work.

Yeah, the original title of the track was "Computers Have Feelings Too," and I'm kind of mad that I ended up changing the name! [Laughs] But whatever, it is what it is. I’ve always kind of had this relationship with technology because I started making music in a climate in Canada where nobody was making electronic music at all. I was literally the only one that I knew doing it, and the Canadian music scene at the time was all about Arcade Fire and sort of indie rock and folk music, and it still is for the most part, but I was constantly being told that I would sound better with acoustic instruments or I should be using real violins or real pianos. And for me it was just so confusing, 'cause I was having the same emotional response to the synthesized instruments, and it was like why does it have to be an acoustic instrument in order for it to be real? As long as it elicits an emotional response then it shouldn't really matter where it's coming from.

Future Politics juxtaposes this overarching theme of a utopia brought about by technological advancements with a track about "Gaia" and returning to natural roots. On a broader scale, what is your perspective of the relationship between technology and nature?

I think that technology really has the potential to really complement nature and work alongside nature if its being used in the right way, but unfortunately I don’t think right now the power of technology is being harnessed in the best way at all. We’re wasting all our energy for small short term gain because everything is just based on finance, but I think that if that weren’t the case the potential for technology could be pretty amazing, and so that's really what I’m excited about. I’m excited about the ideas of where we could be technologically if money were no object.

What is the music industry like in this futuristic, utopian society that has moved beyond capitalism?

I don’t know, that's a good question. I just think music would be extremely cool and exciting 'cause now I find the music industry can kind of hinder artists because you ultimately just have to sell something. But if there's no need to sell anything then I think you can be a lot more creative. They say that streaming culture has allowed artists to become more experimental because it's less about having a single on the radio and selling records.

In the "Utopia" music video there is what seems to be some sort of Amazon Echo parody called Rainforest that has a sort of power over the character and environment depicted. What can you tell us about that?

Yeah, pretty much. Originally we wanted to create a scene in the future that, to me, is where we are probably headed. At least in Toronto, for example, there are more condos built per capita in the last 10 years than in any other city in North America. It's like Toronto is being taken over by this bland wash of glass and tall buildings, and it just feels very impersonal and lonely and sad. So we wanted to try to create a universe that is the future but at the same time we wanted to address the fact that its also what we’re kind of living in now, which is why we wanted to use both familiar and unfamiliar technology. And it's interesting, when talking about what future technology would look like you often resort to what future technology looked like to people in the '60s or '70s, you know? They’d always be talking to people on TV screens or they’d have these monitors or computers that they would talk to and it's like we have all that now. So it's just really interesting how with the technology that gets imagined in the sci-fi world becomes the technology that actually exists like 30 years later.

Many have misinterpreted the device's presence to be product placement. Did you anticipate that confusion?

Yeah, we definitely thought it would happen, and at first when we made the video the label kind of freaked out and was like 'What are doing? You can’t have that in the video!' or whatever, but I definitely think it doesn’t take too much effort to think about it a little bit harder and figure it out. [Laughs]

In the "Future Politics" music video I noticed there are several characters struck by nosebleeds, which reminded me of the scene in "Lose It" in which you get a nosebleed as well, and "Utopia" even begins with drops of blood on some stairs. Is there a certain significance to this ailment?

To be honest, no, not at all. [Laughs] For the blood in "Lose It" thats entirely from the brain of M Blash, the director, and I would say the same for the "Future Politics" video, that's entirely from the brain of Allie Avital. So I don’t know if somehow the music that I make has inspired blood dripping visually so directors always want to do that in my videos, but there's definitely not some greater connection that I am aware of. Maybe somebody else will analyze it and figure it out.

So Future Politics came out on Inauguration Day, thrusting its release amongst often contentious debate about what obligation, if any, artists have to address social issues. What are your thoughts on this?

I would say in desperate times, which I believe we’re in now, I think it's very important for artists to at least contribute to the conversation someway, being in a position of power. To be in a position of power and not have some sort of opinion or statement or some sort of responsibility for your power, I think it's kind of not okay. But it's also just [about] what is your significance as an artist? If you’re not sort of commenting on the world that you live in when people look back on the art that happened in 2017 are they going to be thinking about the new pop single about lipstick or are they going to be thinking about the artists who were commenting on the political climate? It's sort of about where you fit in history and your role in helping to document that history.

There is also a sort of parallel discussion of how a Trump administration may or may not spur on a generation of great art. What do you make of that?

I don’t think its a positive argument to make, that Trump will result in great art, because it just kind of discredits all the tragedy that a Trump presidency is going to cause for so many people, so I don’t necessarily want to say that. I made a record that, to me, a lot of the songs weren’t any different from any love song or any song about a breakup, I was writing music in response to how I was feeling about things I was reading about or things I was experiencing in the world. And the things that I were reading about are problems in society itself, and so I think because the songs were sort of approached from this very personal and emotional perspective that people are able to respond to it and relate to it in a context of the current Trump presidency. Playing "Future Politics" would absolutely not have the same significance in the US three months ago at all, but it's ended up being quite cathartic to play that song here and especially this week because it means something a lot bigger than it was ever intended to.

You’ve said in the past that you think musically first and that lyrics are usually an afterthought or serve only to sound melodic vocally, but you also seem to have a lot of meaning condensed into these tracks. How do you grapple with having so much to say and fitting it into the confines of a composition?

It's kind of always different. With a lot of the songs on the record the lyrics came really really quickly and they came right at the start and they helped shape the song itself. I would say that about a song like "Gaia," for example; I think I may have written the lyrics for that song first. And then other songs I'll sing them but I'll have like one long line that when I’m just sort of jamming out the lyrics or jamming out the vocal melody I'll just say something that I kind of stick to, and then that’ll shape the entire song. That would’ve been a track like "We Were Alive." I probably said 'We were alive' when I was singing it and decided to use it, to just put it in a different context. There was a lot more emphasis on the lyric writing on this record for sure than there ever has been before, but I guess sometimes it's a very difficult process, and sometimes it happens really quickly, but it's never really the same twice.

In regards to your vocals does your classical training and operatic style have any unique effect either positive or negative on being in a contemporary touring band?

Well definitely my job is much less intensive than it would be if I were still singing opera. I can sing the type of music that I do and I’ve kind of managed to lock myself in a groove of being able to do that, but the amount of endurance to since opera is just a completely different reality to what I’m doing now. I don’t warm up at all, I don't really even try, I just get up there and sing, and I think that I’m just lucky in that I know how to sing in such a way that it doesn’t damage my voice, so I’ve never had any major problems on the road. I guess I kind of learned how to ride a bike the correct way, you know? I developed these good habits when I was young such that I’ve been able to somehow translate them into what I’m doing now. I’m sure one day my voice will be shot, but I’ve been lucky so far, so I should knock on wood. [Laughs]

I read that there were some internal struggles regarding your choice of cover art for Olympia. For Future Politics you have a really striking image of Luis Barragán’s architecture in Mexico. Was this more of unanimous decision?

To be honest there was alternate art for Future Politics that I wanted to use but nobody was super stoked on it so they offered to fund another photo shoot. So I was like okay, we’ll take the photos and decide what we like better, and the Luis Barragán photos ended up being a million times better, so that was an easy decision. But even in the original art I had this idea of wanting to put a character on the front cover. I decided that the character's name was Revolution Rhonda, and she was going to be sent from the future to save us from our dystopian fate.

Future Politics is out now via Domino. You can buy it here, stream it here, and see tour dates here.

Wild Beasts on English Expression, Carnal Desire, and How 'Boy King' Reconciles the Two

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment
Photos by Andrea Calvetti (Above, from left to right: Tom Fleming, Ben Little, Chris Talbot, Hayden Thorpe)

Photos by Andrea Calvetti (Above, from left to right: Tom Fleming, Ben Little, Chris Talbot, Hayden Thorpe)

"After five records there had to be an element of 'what the fuck?'" reads the press release that announced Wild Beast's latest offering, Boy King. The art rock four-piece hailing from Kendal, UK delivers that sentiment in spades on an album that sheds all that is calculated and coy for unabashed, knowing virility.

The day after the United States elected its own boy king, Transverso Media sat down with Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming, the vocalists and multi-instrumentalists who share frontman duties, to discuss English expression, carnal desire, and coming full circle in their combination of the two.

TRANSVERSO MEDIA: On “2BU,” one of Boy King’s best tracks, Tom sings “Now I’m the kind of man / Who wants to watch the world burn.” Have you been enjoying politics lately? 

TOM FLEMING: This whole record is a bleak response to a bleak time, really. I think that song in particular is about class envy in the UK, and a kind of destructive, masculine rage leading to absolutely nothing, which I think is a big thing on the record. [Before playing "2BU"] I actually shouted out in San Francisco, the last show we did, “This is for you guys, I want to bully the bully," but [I thought] that might be the last opportunity I got to do so, and it turns out it was, because [Trump] won. He’s not too bullied anymore, is he? [Laughs]

As a touring band from the UK, have you been affected by any of the political changes lately, from US visa policy updates to Brexit?

FLEMING: Well, nothing yet, ’cause [Brexit is] yet to happen, but it’s possible. We’ve lived our whole adulthood as free European citizens with essentially free movement and freedom to operate both physically and financially in other countries, and [could] live there if we pleased, and that might be under threat. So yeah, I guess in terms of impact it’s more psychological, but I think there certainly are a few parallels; If you look at a map of the US it looks very much like the Brexit map. It’s the same kind of resentment of political classes in our country that have led to most of the things in the country as well, and obviously in the States there are more international ramifications than the UK, but it’s still a dark time.

You often mention the English tendencies towards being apologetic with less emotional projection. American audiences, especially hearing Boy King, may not understand this background. Can you elaborate on that?

HAYDEN THORPE: I guess the album for a British band is quite forward. It’s quite unapologetic. It’s perception to a British person might be arrogance, but I think essentially it’s a broken heart record. There [are] two ways of responding to a broken heart, and in some circumstances that’s either to recoil in pain, or to kind of approach that broken heart with aggression and to kind of confront the world and to kind of express that pain in a bit more of a kind of an outward manner, and that’s kind of, in many ways, quite un-British. And the circumstances of us going to Texas at that time and where we were at in our lives and where I was at in my life and as people it was a pretty healthy dose of Americana, I think. I find it very nourishing and engaging being here how people act with one another; It’s so, for me, invigorating. In Britain you have a conversation with someone and in five minutes you will know their kind of class, their schooling, their financial position, and I guess maybe there [are] different codes in America for it, but certainly the expression of individuality here seems to be very much different in a way that being an outsider is nice, you know? I do think the healthier kind of America is very good to outsiders. Nerdiness and geekiness isn’t a thing in Britain, it gets beaten out of you at a young age.

FLEMING: [Laughs] I like to think our record is a pretty good typifying of that kind of pervy repression of the UK. There's a sort of calm surface, and what seems like a conservative outlook can actually be quite an odd place just beneath the surface, and it feels from the outside that America is much more of "This is what it is, fuck you!" which is fine, but the more I come here the more I realize I’m not from here. Even though it's familiar to me in certain ways it's definitely very, very different.

So is there a noticeably different reception to the record and the live show on different sides of the pond, then?

THORPE: Again it comes down to expression. British expression is sort of stiff upper lip; you don’t want to cruise too far outside the shallow waters ‘cause you might be seen as weird, you know? We made a career out of being weirdos, so we’ve always kind of ventured out into those waters, but you get the sense that here people are just a bit more vocal, both metaphorically and in speech.

FLEMING: [To] an American audience it takes the British audience maybe five minutes to get there to the same spot, the way America always turns up. And that’s not to denounce the British audience, it’s been amazing to us and it’s definitely our people as it were, but it’s just a completely different way of projecting.

THORPE: I’m kind of hesitant to talk in huge sweeping statements here because when we talk about America we’re talking about a thousand Americas, as is plainly apparent, and when we’re talking about Britain we're talking about many microscopic Britains that can really differ from town to town. Towns from coast to coast are a sort of ancient formation of towns; you can go eight miles and have a completely different accent, completely different food, and have a completely different way of being. We sense that ourselves, we play shows in the south of England and in the north of England it’s different, then you go to Scotland and it’s completely different again.

FLEMING: It does vary from town to town, and in Scotland, Glasgow is very different than Edinburgh, for example, and they’re like 30 miles apart.

One really unique place you've been is Texas, when you went to record Boy King with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Walkmen, Modest Mouse, Spoon). Is it true he keeps a Grammy in his toilet?

FLEMING: He does, yeah. Knowing him I don’t think it’s an obtuse move, I think thats just where he has the space. He just works so hard all the time that he doesn’t really have the time to reflect on past glories. Obviously I think he’s done rather well as a result, he made a great record, so why not? But yeah, it’s true. 

THORPE: Yeah, I’d always beware of the gold disk in the work space. You don’t need that visual prompt.

FLEMING: Yeah, it’s fine to be proud of it, but you don’t need it where you work.

I hear a bit of St. Vincent in “Alpha Female”’s guitar. Is that his influence?

THORPE: Sure, I think by osmosis, for sure. She is a guitar hero in the classic sense, she’s sort of audacious and quite gifted in a quite visionary way, so absolutely. Actually we’re quite taken by the fact that we were using the guitar as a macho object but were inheriting so much from this woman playing; theres a natural shape to that especially with songs like “Alpha Female,” these sort of sickening slick lines. We’re talking about tools and machines here, that’s what we inherited. When you boil guitars down it comes down to electronics, and we kind of shared some of the same circuit boards, I guess.

Between “Tough Guy” and “Alpha Female” there are two incredibly exciting guitar solos that are highlights of the record, and they take on a sort of dueling quality back to back. Was that an intentional juxtaposition?

FLEMING: There is something in that, yeah. “Alpha Female” is maybe a bit more genuine, whereas “Tough Guy” is a bit more embittered. Like we were talking about it’s about taking that pain and shoving it deep, deep down and not showing any of it, and I think that’s sort of what “Tough Guy” is doing, whereas “Alpha Female” is a bit more positive. But yeah, certainly there’s always a play on gender going on in the record, and I hope people notice that the display of machismo is supposed to look like a performance, and not a very convincing one at that. And so the foreground of the guitars is very deliberate; let’s use them to play with that trope, let’s demonstrate that A) we can do that and B) that we know what we're doing with it.

Get My Bang” is about American consumerism, not sex per se, but as a single on an album as sexual as Boy King many are going to miss that. Is the interchangeability of these themes a statement in itself?

THORPE: It wasn’t so much American consumerism so much as just consumerism in general, in terms of we have Black Friday now in Britain. We inherited it off of you, but we took it gladly. It’s more about the sense of gratification and the unashamed lengths you will go to to seek that gratification, and in a suppressed society where, for good reason, you can’t kind of be cavemen and -women, it expresses itself in other pores. I just remember watching the Black Friday footage head in hands; people beating each other up for a flat screen TV, this is what western civilization has come to this end for? I just felt you are either not having enough sex or you’re not doing enough exercise, something has got to give here! [Laughs] That is not a healthy way, and I guess humans are bad at finding healthy ways of kind of getting out these carnal sensations ‘cause we’ve kind of been told the lot of them are sinful or unforgivable, and I guess that song is about stripping yourself of that inhibition and saying, “Fuck it, this is how I get off!” And that’s a song about self-interest, which is healthy and good for people to follow those self interests sometimes. For god’s sake, you need to release, you know?

Creating a record does seem marginally better than beating the shit out of someone in a Walmart.

FLEMING: [Laughs] Hopefully!

THORPE: I feel very privileged that we get a safe space where we can sort of act these things out. I mean, the stage is a fucking boxing ring; you come off and you do have s a kind of transcendental sensation. You feel bigger and mightier than you actually are, and therein lies a lot of the historical problems that musicians face with how am I supposed to quantify being, feeling like that guy, and shrinking to normal size again. There’s always a kind of navigation. 

Do you worry some people might completely miss the point of this record similar to how "All The King's Men" was misinterpreted at times?

FLEMING: Potentially. I think it’s been a bit more divisive than we appreciated. I think some things have been taken at face value which weren’t intended, but I think ultimately if you leave ambiguity in you have to trust people to get it, and I think it would be a big mistake to let the tail wag the dog, in that respect. Not to sound arrogant, but I think that, generally speaking, you trust people to sort out what’s what.

THORPE: I think it has in some sense but that’s okay, that’s sort of our job. You gotta hold your nerve at the borderland, and how else do you get the kick you get from doing what we do without that sort of sense of risk and danger?

FLEMING: There is a narrative that is fueled by the sort of self-reflecting echo chamber of social media that every artist has to think the same, that every artist has to be super right thinking [and] intersectional, and it can’t possible true. I think we’ve got a pretty impeccable track record in that regard, but people are very quick to jump on if they think something is kind of out of line. But there is a kind of satire going on.

THORPE: Well it’s a satire, but at the same time its a very heartfelt record, and that’s the only thing I can go back on. It’s my full heart, it’s not me trying to be clever, it’s not me trying to outthink someone, or trying to outsmart someone, it’s a heartfelt, true record. That’s the ultimate spine of it, and if anyone doesn’t feel that in their heart, then thats cool. I mean, I can’t make someone feel that in their heart. The analogy I always think of is when the plane is going down, you put the oxygen mask on yourself first; it’s like no, this is my medication, this is what I need for this sensation, this is my crisis, this is my oxygen mask, and if people don’t feel that that sort of suits their crisis or their place that’s totally cool. But I think one thing that it shocked people on that they maybe need to grow up with a little is that nice boys and girls like to do nasty things, you know? That’s just a fact of human nature, and I’m sorry if that’s a shock for you, I’m sorry if you have to find it out through us, but I tell you what, the internet is probably a far harder school than we are. [Laughs]

It’s interesting how in some ways there’s a sort of full circle in those lyrical themes from Limbo, Panto to Boy King, but the ways in which they’re conveyed and the music they’re set to have changed drastically.

FLEMING: I’m so glad you noticed the similarities between Limbo, Panto and this one. Some of the lyrics on Limbo, Panto could be on this one, which we didn’t really notice, and then we listened back and were like, “Oh yeah, that’s just the first record.” I think certainly the change in instrumentation and presentation has kind of been following our curiosity; we’ve had half an eye on what’s going on around us and half an eye on what we were going to do anyway, so we tried to incorporate stuff that without just kind of following trends and trying to hit every box that people expect us to do. 

THORPE: When we made this record first time round Limbo, Panto could’ve been this record, it’s just that we decided to turn left, and eventually we circumnavigated the abyss and came back to that point again. But I think we had to go that way round to inherit the craft and the deftness to pull this off, if you can say we pulled it off, and we obviously think we have, but…

FLEMING: [Laughs] That’s for you to decide.

THORPE: …to kind of keep the plates spinning that we’ve been spinning has taken a kind of an apprenticeship.

Obviously it’s still early days, but in moving forward do you think you’ll follow up Boy King with yet another left turn to continue reinventing, or do you find yourselves wanting to explore this direction a little longer? 

THORPE: It kind of feels like talking about breakfast with a mouth full of steak for dinner; there’s a sense of having to digest and metabolize what you’ve made. I think we have in some ways reinvented a method for ourselves. 

FLEMING: It always happens by accident, that sort of thing; we just realized the last couple weeks of recording, "Oh, we should’ve done this all along!" But, then of course, it would never be as good if you hadn’t, like [Thorpe] said, completed the apprenticeship.

THORPE: But every record anyone makes is a completely remarkable feat of human endeavor, you know? It takes a huge amount of things to align and to come together to get this shit into something kind of passable, so we're just kind of enjoying the fact that we’ve made something which we feel is kind of speaks for us in a life affirming way. I guess you’re looking to do something thats kind of life affirming, and taking this record out feels that way, which is how it should.

Boy King is out now via Domino. Read our review here.

Edward Sharpe Is Dead: Alex Ebert on The Magnetic Zeros' Pursuit of Failure, Identity, and Unrealism

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

Despite the much bemoaned departure of band co-founder Jade Castrinos following their last full-length, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros still had 10 different musicians packed on the tiny stage at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music in an intricate intertwining of instruments and personality. It was not immediately clear, however, if their eponymous, messianic leader himself would appear, as his name was crossed off the bill.