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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. 

Porches' Aaron Maine Discusses Dark Muscle, Escapism, and the Obsolescence of the Encore

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment
Cover photo by Jessica Lehrman / Live shots by Andrea Calvetti

Cover photo by Jessica Lehrman / Live shots by Andrea Calvetti

"Do you believe in us? I'm scared about everything," Aaron Maine asked a tightly packed crowd in the narrow floor of Chicago's Subterranean dive. As he crooned he brandished cut flowers from a bouquet the openers left onstage like a child picking up an aspergillum, while others adorned his mic stand. A dedicated audience sang and danced along to songs about the protagonist's "loner hour," as if to answer they believed in Porches quite a bit despite - or because of - the aloofness they often exude.

Maine's New York-based project ushered in an era of change on their latest full-length, Pool. The group dropped the period from their name and signed to Domino Records. The subsequent new material unveiled a sharper production and more deliberate, danceable sound. Maine's girlfriend, Greta Kline - better known as Frankie Cosmos - left the band to pursue her own work. Maine went blond.

Transverso called Maine a few days after the show to talk about the tour and ask a few questions about the music and dark muscle he's brought along.

TRANSVERSO: How are you?

AARON MAINE: I’m good. We’re in Burlington now. Finally got more than five hours of sleep last night, so I’m feeling pretty fresh, and it’s beautiful here, so I’m feeling good.

Sometimes on Twitter before a show I see you asking for someone to host you. Is that what you did last night?

Yeah. It’s kind of funny; usually we’ll just stay with a friend if we have one in the city or get a hotel, but for whatever reason we just kind of reached out a few times on Twitter. It was sweet, [last night] they set up their living room with all these beds and we got in at 3 AM - we drove after the show in Montreal – and it was just nice to kinda chill there and wake up here where we’re playing and not have to drive today.

Have you ever gotten into any crazy situations doing that?

No. It’s funny, this is the first tour we’ve really done this, and last night was the second time. Some guy who we had never met offered his apartment in Boulder and that was kinda funny, being like, “Hello, thank you for having us.” We didn’t even play a show that night, we were just driving that day, but both people have been super hospitable and accommodating so it’s been fine. We got lucky. You can kind of tell, I guess, by looking at someone’s Twitter a little bit what to expect.

So you work under the names of several different characters. Am I speaking with Aaron Maine, Ronald Paris, Ricky Pepsi, or Ronnie Mystery?

Um, I guess I would say Aaron. Yeah. [Laughs] Or all of them.

A lot of your lyrics seem to grapple with a struggle between escapism and connection. You either “don’t want to be here” or you want to “be a part of it all.” You either want to be up in “The Cosmos” or “Underwater.” What can you tell us about that?

Wow, yeah, you just kinda nailed it, I guess. I don’t know, it’s just sort of… I feel like that’s kind of a big part of life; reacting to your surroundings and how they kind of inform how you’re feeling. I guess I just write about whatever I’m feeling that day. Or if some line pops into my head. I kinda like the theme of escapism. It’s like a constant thing, there’s always some kind of interaction happening between where you are and what’s going on around you and if you’re happy where you are or if you’re not and its seems like kind of an endless well of content. I guess it’s easier than writing about more specific situations. I guess I kind of feel like it allows me to inject some more abstract poetry, or like paint like a more abstract mood. So, yeah it’s just kind how I’m feeling most of the time. [Laughs]

Despite identifying with these alternative settings either in “The Cosmos” or “Underwater,” porches are pretty normal, down to Earth places to rest contently. Until you quietly removed it this year you even had a period at the end of your name which seemed to ground things even more. What’s the symbolism of that?

I don’t know. I’m not in love with the band name, Porches, to be honest, and I can’t really even remember what the thought process was of naming the project that. We probably just liked how it sounds. I grew up in the suburbs and I guess it probably came from just enjoying hanging out on the porch, which seems really conflicting with the way stuff is sounding now. I guess the way I see it it’s just a name.

And the period just seemed unnecessary, I guess, so we just started to not include it. It wasn’t that big of a decision. But yeah, it just seems to make sense to stick with [Porches]. Also, sort of why I’ve come up with all these other names like Ricky Pepsi and Ronald Paris within Porches is to kind of differentiate, even if it’s just for my own sake, the different chapters of the band and the sound and stuff. So while keeping the name I can kind of create what kind of feels like a clean slate by mentioning some other names for myself.

Is it strange seeing people sing and dance along to you singing about escapist things like your “loner hour”?

No, I really love that. I kind of planned on the juxtaposition of that more melancholic content adjacent to upbeat dance-ish songs. I feel like I don’t have that much control about what I’m drawn to write about lyrically, but I do feel like I can kind of choose what way to present that, and I just wanted to, especially with Pool, put some sort of thing out that people could definitely dance to and have a positive time during the live show, or, you know, even listening to it on the speakers and headphones. So it’s cool, it’s exciting. I feel like for a while the live show wasn’t like that, and it kind of demanded this other sort of attention from the audience to get on this weirder, maybe not depressing, but kind of angsty emotional level. We played a lot over the past five years and it takes a little time for the older fans to adjust to the new tempo and overall vibe of how the band sounds now, and it’s really exciting to see people kind of catching on and realizing it’s cool to dance and it’s encouraged, and slowly seeing the new direction catch on with the audiences. It’s really exciting.

Is it for that reason you usually avoid putting past material in the setlist, save for “Headsgiving” and maybe one or two more from Slow Dance in the Cosmos? Is it a conscious decision to move on, or do you just want to preserve the experience of the new material more in its entirety?

Yeah, I guess it’s a little bit of both. I think naturally I’m most excited about the most recent music that I’ve made, so it seems natural to me to kind of play most of that stuff. For a while there was a little more half-and-half - newer stuff and older stuff - and it felt like it kinda worked. There’s a way to kind of work the setlist to where we would start off with the newer kind of subtler arrangements and kind of ramp up to the older kind of like distorted rock songs. We’ve just been kind of learning the new tracks from Pool and that’s what were focusing on now, it’s what the press is focusing on now, so it feels good to play that stuff. And I like to throw in some older songs for, I guess myself and for the audience too, like stuff from Slow Dance. We actually learned "Daddies" and this is like the first tour that we’ve ever played that song live, and that’s an even older song, so it’s kind of fun to be able to pluck songs from different chapters from Porches, but I like playing the new stuff a lot.

I’ve seen a couple of your shows this cycle and “Shape” seems to be the only track off of Pool that you don’t play. Is there a reason for that? Personally, it’s one of my favorites.

Yeah, it’s one of my favorites too, we just haven’t gotten around to arranging it. It’s kind of like a trickier one to pull off live ‘cause it is so sparse and relies so much on production in the studio, but yeah, that will happen eventually. I really do like that song a lot and I think it would be cool to play it live.

I read the Pool track “Glow” was an evolution of a demo from years ago, and on Slow Dance in the Cosmos you had a track called “After Glow.” What’s the connection there? Is the latter a sort of sequel?

No, they were actually written pretty far apart. Most of the stuff on Pool, like “Glow” and “Mood,” I wrote those all around the same time, which was a while ago. Maybe like two years or something, which is kind of crazy to think about. But yeah, I was conscious of calling it “After Glow,” and they’re not really related, but I think you could kind of make them related if you wanted to think about it that way. I like the idea of some sort of weird continuity or reoccurring theme between albums or within albums, so there’s that.

I noticed you haven’t been playing encores. Is that a regular thing?

I’ve always had a really hard time with the concept of encores and the fact that as a band you might come to expect it. You even write, like you decide what songs you’re gonna play for an encore, if there is one, and it just seems like a sort of goofy showy thing; leaving the stage and waiting for the audience to call for you to come back. So last tour in the Spring I always felt like so awkward after and never wanted to do it. So it’s not like we we’re not doing encores, but I’ve just been saying “This is where we would end the set and I hope that you guys want to hear the rest of the set, but if it’s cool with you we’ll just play like three more songs - it would be great to just stay up here and finish out the set.” That’s kind of been the best situation for us so far, to just stay up there and play a 15, 16-song set and eliminate that weird encore thing. It seems like a joke.

Do you think the encore will become obsolete then and start to go away?

I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it. It just seems like textbook now. I imagine in the past it used to be you wouldn’t expect that, and if it did happen it would be a really special thing, and you would come back out. I just don’t like how calculated it’s become, and it seems kind of flashy to expect it. I mean, I’m down if people do it, that’s all cool, but it always made me feel a little strange. So I’m glad that we figured out a way to kind of ask if they mind if we play a few more songs. I did do one last night, for some reason they will usually put on a song right after the last song to signify that the set is in fact over, but there was no song, and people were really yelling for an encore. So I did go back out and play a solo song which was fun and that felt better ‘cause I hadn’t planned on it and I had kind of told everyone that this was the set. But they really did insist, so that felt right.

How has it been touring without Greta for the first time this record?

Probably what anyone would imagine; it’s difficult to be away from her for long periods of time. She’s been touring this year with her new album, and luckily we have the same booking agent and most off the tours have overlapped for the most part, so where it could really get tricky and we could be away for four months at a time, it’s been like, I don’t know, two-ish at the most. So yeah, it’s hard, but it’s good that she’s doing the same thing and we both understand how it works. It’s kind of difficult to communicate and I guess it makes it a little bit easier to not take it personally if it’s hard to get on the phone or something. At the same time I think it’s been nice ‘cause towards the end when we were playing in each other’s bands it just got so hectic. We’d practice together with those bands each week and then we’d tour together and live together and that was a lot. It was fun, but I think it’s also nice to be able to both feel like we’re out there doing our own thing and looking after ourselves, and learning how to look after yourself is an important part of being in a relationship too. So it’s not perfect, but it’s got its perks and it’s got its downsides.

Is there a story behind the basketball imagery on the cover of Pool and in the “Be Apart” music video?

Sadly there’s not. There’s not much of a story behind the basketball. We just did some press photos with a friend up in the town I grew up in at a friend's pool. I actually had all the artwork kind of planned out and in the template and ready to go, and then I was editing the photos and kind of stumbled across that little cropped image of my hand with the basketball, and it just kind of spoke to me. I just kind of liked the deflated ball. It’s kind of like [The Creation of Adam,] the painting on the ceiling the Sistine Chapel where the hands are kind of out pointed at each other. I thought it had that kind of, I don’t know… you don’t really know whether the ball is drifting away or drifting towards the hand. And so I guess after that I decided on that. It just kind of made sense to put that imagery in the “Be Apart” music video, and I always enjoyed the way basketballs look in strange contexts. Actually, now I’m remembering, I always loved drawing them as a kid. It was fun to draw, so that’s really it; it’s just surface aesthetically pleasing to me.

You painted the cover for Slow Dance in the Cosmos, right?

Yeah, I studied painting at college for three years and would still consider myself as somewhat of a visual artist. I don’t think you can kind of decide not to be that, but yeah, I’ve always made drawings and paintings and stuff and enjoyed doing that a lot. It’s cool to have one part of the music be the visuals and I can kind of express that side of my creativity through that vehicle.

You’ve also created almost an entire clothing line's worth of Dark Muscle merch and have a strong sense of fashion as well. Is this an extension of your visually artistic expression?

Yeah, definitely. I really like the merch aspect of stuff and I’ve been getting more interested in clothes recently, so yeah, it feels really kind of perfect to have a vessel to make stuff under and a platform to sell it on. I’ve never really liked band t-shirts or merch so much; I’ll appreciate it for the graphics but I’ll never really wear a straight up band t-shirt. So I like the idea of either trying to like erase [Porches] completely the from the merch, or either have it be very subtle, and kind make stuff that I would like to wear. I also think its kind of fun to feel like you’re maybe in on something, like you know you’re wearing a Porches shirt but other people might wonder, “What is Dark Muscle?" I guess it’s just more fun for me that way. I get to play around with the idea of what merch for band supposed to be.

People often frown upon wearing a band t-shirt to see that band perform, but you could wear a Dark Muscle shirt to a Porches show and it would be fine.

Yeah, I like that.

You’ve also named your LLC Dark Muscle and used the term to describe your genre as well. What’s the story behind the name?

Dark Muscle just came from, I can't remember if I read it somewhere or if I just thought of it, but it’s a line in “Braid,” “I’ve got a dark muscle too,” and it’s just referring to your heart. I guess I like the idea of just thinking of it as a muscle inside of you that’s obviously dark, just kind of just thought it sounded nice. [I] thought it was funny to have the LLC be called that, and it’s just kind of developed from there. I don’t know if it’s a slogan or a brand.

Pool is out now via Domino Records. You can buy it here.

Diane Coffee's Shaun Fleming Learns He Has a Spotify Page and Explains Why 'Everybody's A Good Dog'

Music InterviewSean McHughComment

Panache and personality are two things that Shaun Fleming has in spades. Following earlier stints as a Disney voice actor and Foxygen drummer, his near three year run as Diane Coffee has seen him and his Good Dogs cover a lot of ground and challenge a lot of conceptions. Fleming is a performer at his core, but his approach to the consciousness should be noted as well - a beguiling sort of romanticism with a hint of jocularity - he's a new age amalgamation of David Bowie, Kevin Barnes, Prince, and Meatloaf, but with his own psychedelic sensibilities. Diane Coffee's live sets precede the band's reputation (arguably one of the best live bands on the tour circuit), and Transverso spoke with Fleming before he embarked upon yet another journey of "a lot of peace, a lot of love, a lot of happiness, and a lot of costume changes" this summer tour.

TRANSVERSO: How are you enjoying the last day before kicking off your tour in Lexington tomorrow?

SHAUN FLEMING: I’m doing alright man, [it's] nice hanging out in the backyard. I’m in Bloomington, Indiana. We actually have a couple days off, so I’m just hanging out at home - I’ve been living here for close to three years now.

How do you like it?

I love it man! I really, really love it. It's definitely a lot different than New York/LA, and all of those other places. But it’s a great spot, it's really cool.

I’ve heard it’s a great spot, there’s a lot of cool music up there – yourself included.

Yeah man!

So Diane Coffee is a singular name, but you play with a backing band – I think you’ve referred to them as The Good Dogs.

Oh yeah, yeah. They’re my Good Dogs.

So do they make Diane Coffee a full-blown solo act that happens to have a backing band, or do you consider it to be more of a collective entity?

Um, Yes. [Laughs] It’s a little bit of both, you know? Diane Coffee – the name is kind of a way to put a label on a feeling. It's that feeling that I get – and a lot of people get – when I’m performing. Its that performance element. It's that same kind of person and you're at a show – maybe you’re quiet at home, but then you’re in that element where that sort of voodoo comes over you and you just start singing at the top of your lungs, moving and grooving. Its that, and it just so happens that [Diane Coffee] is the name I’ve given it. It's something that I’ve definitely embodied, but its also The Good Dogs, we’re all for Diane Coffee, and the audience at a show, they’re Diane Coffee, we’re all Diane Coffee.

Do you ever have shows where people come up to you after a set having expected someone other than who you are?

I mean, not so much any more. There were a lot of people who came when we first started playing that came and were like “Oh, my friend told me to come and see this band and I thought it was going to be some female lounge singer,” but, not so much any more. I mean, band names aren’t really that important – at least to me – they’re usually all pretty bad, including mine. I mean, even The Beatles – that’s just a stupid pun – it's like it doesn’t matter, because they’re made fantastic music, and that at the end of the day is what I think is the most important thing. I mean [The Beatles] could have gotten away with anything at this point. But so not that much any more because we’ve been around long enough to where we’ve gained enough of a reputation that people come in knowing the whole deal.

What can you tell me about Harem Scare ‘Em?

Whoa… Whoa dude! Good on you! Good on you doing your research! [Laughs] Harem Scare ‘Em, that’s my very first – I’ll call it a band, but we were like a cover band. We had one or two originals that we tried, but they were just really, really bad, so we just decided to not do that. So it was high school, and we had a talent show coming up, and we were all like “Hey, we all play music, let’s play the show!” But I could barely play the guitar, so I was just front man vibes. We did [The Beatles'] “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and we won the talent show. Our principal was like this old hippie, and he was like [imitating voice] “Yeah, we’d love have you do a whole concert of this stuff!” So we were like “Oh god! Okay!” So we learned like an hour of all sorts of – pretty much, we were like a Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix cover band – so many things. We did like a 27-minute Beatles medley, which was insane and quite an accomplishment at the time. So we did that, and it was fun, and we were like “the high school band” and it's continued on, and whenever we’re all in town together today we’ll just go to a bar and book a show as Harem Scare ‘Em and do like three hours of covers. It's great, man. I love those guys. Actually, the guitar player’s dad, is the one who arranged all the strings for [Everybody’s a Good Dog]. Steve Hansen is his name. It was great man. It was really cool to work with him, and just kind of have more family connections. I mean, it’s a family album [laughs]. Yeah, so that’s Harem Scare ‘Em – those guys are all great, and they’re just some of the best musicians I’ve ever met.

I noticed on your Spotify profile you only follow three artists – Isaac Hayes, The Isley Brothers, and The Miracles…

I have a Spotify profile!?

You do! And it says that you just follow Isaac Hayes, The Isely Brothers, and The Miracles.

That sounds about right.

Would you count those three as inspirations in some way to how Diane Coffee came about?

Well, I mean yeah, but I’d also count countless others. I mean, I’m influenced by everything that I hear, even if I don’t like it. It's like that would be something that I wouldn’t do, and that’s the only way I would be influenced by that. [Laughs] I mean those guys are definitely… I don’t know why. I don’t really use Spotify all that much, mainly just because my phone is kind of broken – my headphone jack is broken on my phone. I’ve been like listening to CDs in my car, which is cool. So I don’t really use Spotify, and I never really got into it that much, but I know I had to make one for some little promos for Spotify, so I had to have one. We’re kind of veering off point, but yeah, definitely those guys are influences, but I think some bigger influences for this project would be people like Sam Cooke, Diana Ross, people like Prince and Meatloaf and Bowie and The Beatles; these big people who have these really big stage shows and were very flamboyant and broad. I mean, I come from a heavy theatrical background, like a lot of musical theatre and stage shows and I did a lot of improv comedy, so I like a lot of that in performance – theatrics – and that’s something I really wanted at the start of this project. It's just sort of me in general too, it's not like its something that I can just stop doing.

So your stage presence - which is unparalleled in a lot of ways – is that inherent then? Almost kind of conditioned to be theatrical?

Yeah, I don’t know if its been conditioned… that’s the age old question like “Are you born this way or did you come up and figure it out?” I’ve always been wanting to put on little shows and get dressed up and put on my mom’s clothes and all that. Then I sort of came out of my shell in high school, as far as performing in public and I joined a lot of theatre classes and all that. So I don’t know if its always been that way. Wanting to perform and be flamboyant like that has always kind of been something has been a part of my life that I’ve never really gotten to have just free reign and kind of do whatever I really wanted to do until now. [Laughs] I want to make it as big as I can with the means that I have at this point.

Moving from the live set to the recorded and production side of your music – between your two records, My Friend Fish seems to explore darker musical tones through a lighter narrative lens while Everybody’s a Good Dog almost does the opposite, in the sense that it tackles more complex narrative themes but with a happier disposition. Is that a product of having more time to figure out what Diane Coffee is?

Yeah! Wow! Man, I really like the way you put that! That’s great! I’ve always kind of thought of these two records in the same way. You know, I don’t know if its intentional with that first record – I was kind of in a dark place, just being sick and in new surroundings, just being alone; so that’s kind of how that all came about. But lyrically its still pretty light. But with My Friend Fish I didn’t really know that I was doing a record. It was really quick, and it was more like I was just making songs to kill time. But with [Everybody’s a Good Dog] I got more time to keep thinking about the structure, though for me, [lyrics] are the very, very last thing I do. I always write the lyrics like the day before I put them down.

So, I mean, it's kind of weird – for me I don’t really go into it with an idea, I just kind of go into it with a feeling of the song, and the melody will kind of tell me what the song is about. Then I might kind of have a phrase that’s floating in my head and the whole thing will come from that one little phrase. I just think knowing that I was putting out this record, I wanted to just take a little more time and reflect a little bit more, and figure some more of what you said, more complex narratives. It's kind of hard to say why exactly that happened that way, too. It was just sort of the place I was when this record came out.

That makes total sense. On the same kick – I’ve always been interested in what the process is when someone is laying out the tracklist for a record, particularly the first and final tracks as possible “statements.” Did that notion come to mind when choosing “Spring Breathes” to open Everybody’s a Good Dog and then closing it with “Not That Easy?”

You know, I do like to spend a whole lot of time picking out the order of how these songs are going to appear on the record, but “Spring Breathes” sort of came to me… It's funny, it's like the only song that this has ever really happened to, it actually came to me – that whole intro - it came to me in a dream. I woke up, and I have the funniest voice memo recording of me kind of stumbling through in the middle of the night where I was trying to sing what was going on in my head and like how the song was going to go like [whispering] “Oh yeah, and then it's going to change and it's going to really fast, and then at this point its going to Latin sounding,” you know, [laughs] it was really weird. So I knew that that song – just because of all the changes and just how it was structured – it wouldn’t really fit anywhere else in the record. It kind of had to be first or be last, and that song is definitely kind of about starting over again, and kind of asking yourself these questions about whether or not you’re – in this case its about falling love, again, and whether or not you are in the right place to have another relationship, especially given your career or anything else that may be in your life. And that was kind of the same thing with “Not That Easy,” which was kind of accepting that you are always going to be coming home, and you’re going to have an atypical relationship. So in that way, those two made sense as the very beginning and very end of this huge journey for the record to come that kind of understanding.

It seems like a positive prospect at the beginning – it doesn’t necessarily become negative – but it's certainly more spectral gazing in a sense at the end.

Yeah, for sure. I mean there are bunch of songs that… The record is loosely – there are a few tracks that maybe have slightly differing themes, but for the most part, this record is kind of about examining me personally. My love life, my relationships, entangled with my career, and both things I don’t want to live without. So it's very hard, because they both take up an incredible amount of time and energy, and I don’t want to sacrifice any time on either. You know what I mean?

Oh yeah, absolutely.

And it's something that everyone – it doesn’t matter if they’re doing something else – experiences; there’s almost always going to be something they really love that does the same thing. I’d love to say that I would give everything up for either thing, but its just not true.

I’m sure that’s far more relevant than you could possibly fathom.

[Laughs] I think a lot of people go through that, be it artists, or anyone whose maybe got a hobby that takes up a lot of their time.

I wholeheartedly agree. As far as bookending tacks are concerned – “Hymn” and “Green” on My Friend Fish is one of my favorite beginning/ending pairings on a record.

Thanks man! [Laughing/fake yelling] You’re damn right! You’re damn right!

So with the theatrical inspirations for your live set – you’re a very snappy dresser on stage.

Thank you.

Of course. I assume the background in theatre plays some sort of role in that facet of your live set?

Oh yeah, sure! As far as all the theatrics on stage, I’ve been working a lot with my partner, Melinda Danielson – she goes by Nature’s Whether. She pretty much designs all those costumes. She’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades. You know it sounds kind of bad to say “well she’s just an artist,” you know what I mean? But its true, she does a lot of sort of performance art stuff and then she also does design work for me, and I work very closely with her when we’re coming up with themes for these shows. Like this last one, where I was in this gold costume – and we finally retired that one – but that was all about battling with the masculine and feminine archetypes and halfway through you shed and open up. She pretty much put that whole thing together. So that’s something that we can both do together, and how we both sort of share our artwork. We can both be working, but also have a fun time when we get together. I love what she does. So it's really, really fun to be able to work with someone you love, or with family.

I bet. I’d figure it probably helps further solidify the relationships, in a sense.

Yeah! I don’t know if you knew this, but we did this tour with of Montreal, and David [Barnes, Kevin Barnes’ brother] does all of the costuming and stuff; he’s kind of in charge of that whole world. It's like Kevin’s music and David is art.

Right. Yeah, I saw you guys on that tour.

Yeah man, that was so great. Those guys are so much fun. I love them to death. So that’s really cool that they’re both able to do that – it's like a family affair. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with Melinda.

Awesome. I don’t want to try and pull any spoilers or anything – but what can people expect this time around in terms of thematic elements?

You know, this time around – it's still really in the early stages – we wanted to try and get one more thing for summer, but its been hard because we’ve been out on the road so much, so its hard to find time to work something completely new. But the idea behind this new one is that we’re kind of sailors exploring the ethos and we crash land on this crazy island, and we start to learn. It's about acceptance and being able to understand someone else’s culture or ideals and be able to really dive headfirst into that. It's basically like walking in someone else’s shoes. So it's kind of like a journey of discovery and acceptance [laughs] that’s kind of the long and short of it, but still trying to work it out.

Down to the eleventh hour it sounds like.

Yeah, it's like when you’re trying to work out a new song on the road – the only time you have to really practice is like the 10 minutes you have during sound check – so it's like you’re just “I’m going to keep doing this. Maybe it's not ready yet, but I’m going to keep running through it. No we have to fix that, we’ll have to do it tomorrow.” So you’re kind of adding more as you go along, and hopefully it really pans out, but its fun. We ran a version of it just the other night, and it was pretty fun. It gets the audience interaction and it's pretty cool. Its going to be this sort of ever-evolving show; it keeps us on our toes.

So what should we expect from the tour this summer?

It's going to be a journey. A lot of peace, a lot of love, a lot of happiness, and a lot of costume changes.

Everybody's A Good Dog is out now via Western Vinyl. See Diane Coffee tour dates here.

Still Whistling Through the Darkness: Peter Bjorn and John On Reaching 'Breakin' Point'

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

Bands are often boxed into having narrow calling cards despite their best efforts, whether it be a niche genre or a particular magnum opus from 2006 unfairly labeled as a one-hit wonder. But five years after their last LP, Gimme Some, gave us 300% of a normal thumbs up in the form of guitar-driven power pop, and a full decade after their ubiquitous hit, "Young Folks," whistled its way into hearts and sync licenses everywhere, Peter Bjorn and John's seventh album, Breakin' Point, offers something altogether different.

Their first full-length released on the band's own label, INGRID, but polished by a veritable all-star team of outside producers, it's a pure pop collection of 12 singles that simultaneously signifies both increasing independence and their most controlled and collaborative effort to date. It's 41 minutes of danceable relief from some of the negative themes lyricized - such as dealing with The Man and modern music industry woe - made all the more special considering its creators only had two hours of sunlight back home in which to play it.

On a recent warm summer night, Peter Bjorn and John continued the first steps of an American tour in support of Breakin' Point as the headlining act at a modest food festival in the streets of Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. Several delays (the preceding band's grand piano didn't exit the stage without an apparent fight, nor did the Swedes' monitors play nicely) and a hard curfew saw the easy-going trio abruptly cut off after 40 minutes, leaving throwback set closer "Objects Of My Affection" sadly unperformed, but even that did little to mar what was a classically exuberant PB&J show now also aided by new touring members and that special kind of excitement that can only come after a hiatus as long as theirs.

Transverso sat down with guitarist and lead vocalist, Peter Morén, and percussionist, John Eriksson, following their set to discuss Breakin' Point, illegitimate sons, and why they keep on whistling even after all these years.

TRANSVERSO: So tell us about this Breakin’ Point tour.

JOHN ERIKSSON: This specific tour is the first feeling of how the songs are taken by the audience [that] has heard the whole album, and it’s very different from all other tours because we’re bringing all our families in a hippie bus. There’s one family bus and one crew bus; I think the family bus, that’s where the party is! [Laughs]

How has bringing your families along affected tour life?

PETER MORÉN: We just started, so we’ll see. All day is gonna be taking care of kids.

How has leaving your old label and releasing Breakin’ Point on your own startup, INGRID, changed your process? Do you feel you have more freedom now?

MORÉN: Not really. We didn’t know it was going to be on INGRID, really, but we started the label in between the records so it felt pretty natural eventually, but I don’t think it affected the record.

ERIKSSON: Pontus [Winnberg] from Miike Snow - they are also in the INGRID label - actually co-produced two of the songs. I think that might not have happened if we didn’t have that label with [them]. We worked in the INGRID studios in Stockholm for a week and the week after Miike Snow did their new album, so meeting Pontus was a natural thing to collaborate. We might play on their record and Pontus worked with us, so that’s the good thing about INGRID: collaborations and stuff.

And it wasn’t just Pontus; you enlisted a lot of outside producers for this album including Paul Epworth (Paul McCartney, U2, Florence And The Machine) and Patrick Berger (Robyn, Icona Pop), which you don’t normally do. Has that outside influence in the studio made it more difficult for you to translate the record to your live show?


MORÉN: It was hard doing the record. It took a long time, but when we finally got the record done and started rehearsing live it felt pretty natural to do the arrangements. That’s partly why we wrote in those [new touring members]. We usually only play the three of us so this is like an upgrading or something. [Laughs]

ERIKSSON: Its PB&J Big Band... PB&J Plus Two.

I was thinking, because of your band name you can’t ever really change members.

MORÉN: [Laughs] It would have to be the same name.

How many bassists are there named Björn?

ERIKSSON: There was a guitar player named Björn Ulvaeus in ABBA, the old Swedish band. He played the bass too. Yeah, we met [him] at the airport a couple of weeks ago. He didn’t say so much, but he might be able to fill in. [Laughs]

I read that ABBA’s been such a huge influence on you you once jokingly claimed to be their illegitimate sons.

ERIKSSON: [Laughs] Oh yeah!

You’ve been around a while now yourselves, is there another band you’ve influenced that could be your illegitimate sons?

MORÉN: [Laughs] Ooh, good question…

ERIKSSON: There was a Swedish guy [Peter] actually did some work with, I thought he was your son, he seemed to like the same stuff you did. He was a Swedish hairdresser, that guy.

MORÉN: [Laughs] What? A Hairdresser?

ERIKSSON: Yeah! His name was Mikael… Mike? Mikey? Michael? I don’t know. [Laughs]

MORÉN: Someone I played with?


I know Paul McCartney is another big influence of yours, and it was his birthday yesterday. I know it's kind of an impossible question, but I was curious if you might have a favorite song of his.

MORÉN: Ooh, that’s interesting. It’s funny, because yesterday we were playing Nashville and Ringo Starr was playing [there too] on Paul’s birthday. It’s kind of hard, I’ve almost heard them all. Let me think… I actually did a Spotify playlist with 150 Paul McCartney songs, it’s actually pretty good.

ERIKSSON: [Laughs] For who?

MORÉN: For anyone who wants it! [Laughs] And I didn’t even count the classical records or experimental electronic records, I just did the pop records. But that’s a good playlist actually, I recommend it, I’ll send it to you! [Laughs] There’s a pretty little song I’ll pick today called “I’m Carrying.” It’s on the London Town record. That’s George Harrison’s favorite Paul McCartney song, so I pick that today, and tomorrow it’ll be something else.

ERIKSSON: You’ll have to update your website.

You critique the music industry in “Pretty Dumb Pretty Lame,” specifically the entitlement of some artists. Is there anything specific that inspired that subject?

MORÉN: It began with this thing where artists moan about how hard it is being an artist. Like, okay, skip it then! [Laughs] I don’t get [it], like things should be great if people come and see you play, otherwise you should skip it. I don’t see the point in being an artist if you don’t enjoy it, because no one forced you to be come an artist. There's a lot of shit in this industry for sure, it’s kind of quite fucked up, so there's a lot to critique. [Laughs]

You're successful artists who seem to enjoy what you do now, but I know Peter was studying to be a librarian before the band took off. That made me wonder: if you weren’t Peter Bjorn and John, what would you be doing instead?

MORÉN: I had some [jobs] before: I did some teaching, I worked in a bookshop. It would always be jobs because you had to pay rent, it wouldn’t be passion. I enjoy studying film, so I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Maybe I would write something like music reviews, that’s fun.

ERIKSSON: Luckily I had an old music career - I don’t want to call it career because it’s a hobby still, music - but I played classical percussion in a classical ensemble, so if PB&J hadn't happened I would still be doing that, I think. I’m happy I was drawn out of that because I did it for a long time, but now if I could choose I wouldn’t go back to that. I’ve been thinking about that… as Peter said I like movies too, but you know how hard it is to make an album, then to make a movie it’s like 20x the troubles with every detail, so I wouldn’t go into film. So same as Peter; just writing words. That would be fun because then it’s quiet and you can do it anywhere. That must be a very good job to be a writer, I must say, as you are. If Björn was here he would answer he wants to be a tennis pro, I’m sure.

In the past you’ve discussed the juxtaposition of light and dark present in both Swedish culture and the pop genre. Can you elaborate on how that inspires your creative vision?

MORÉN: It’s not something we discuss or decide about, it’s just something that happens quite naturally. It’s been like that on almost all the records, but I realized there are some very positive songs as well here and there. But if you take like a whole catalog and divide it down theres a lot of more depressed lyrics or slightly negative. I like that juxtaposition, but, for me anyway, it’s not planned like I think I should write negative lyrics to positive music.

ERIKSSON: It’s a natural Swedish melancholy always in every laughter. [Laughs]

MORÉN: [Laughs] It’s a long tradition in pop music. It’s quite common actually even in stuff you don’t think about, like even early Beatles songs that are happy are like, “I’m a loser,” “Help!” It’s all shit. Lyrics are really depressing.

ERIKSSON: It’s dark; during winter season where we come from up north it’s like two hours a day you might see the sun. Apart from that it’s just total darkness. So maybe that should affect you in some way, but also it might be a reason why there are so many musicians; you have to be indoors when it’s too cold to be outside [so] you either become a hockey player or a musician. If you live in Brazil you can be outside all day, you can be good at football.

MORÉN: For us at least, and a lot of Swedes, I think, the way we were brought up in really small villages [in] the middle of nowhere there wasn’t a lot to do. There were a lot of people doing sports and [we weren’t] into that, so when I got into music I did a lot of it myself. I learned to play guitar by myself and just listened to records and write songs to keep myself amused. Then of course when you grow up and move to Stockholm there are a lot of things happening, but I think sometimes you try to get back to that vibe of being bored to be able to create music. [Laughs]

ERIKSSON: All our friends, all my classmates were playing hockey except me. I found music, and same for Peter and Björn too. So it’s interesting that we three met [because we] started off not finding any bandmates because we lived in this small city up in the north of Sweden. But then you end up in Stockholm and you form a band that’s now playing in Chicago! It’s pretty weird and amazing. [Laughs] 

Breakin’ Point features a decent amount of whistling, but in the press release you made a point to say it shouldn’t be seen as a big deal. Have you felt pressured or hesitant about including whistling in your songs since “Young Folks”?

MORÉN: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know if it was discussed on any previous records but there was some whistling on the instrumental record called Seaside Rock, but no one noticed. There is whistling on [Writer’s Block track “Amsterdam”], too.

ERIKSSON: And on “Objects Of My Affection” and the B-side “Ancient Curse.” We whistled the whole summer.

MORÉN: And on this record we whistled on “Nostalgic Intellect” as well, but it’s together with the organs so it doesn’t sound as much. I think even on this new one we were kind of hesitating, which is why I said it wasn’t a big thing. It is something you do naturally; I always see people [doing it]. You just whistle stuff, you know? So on that song “Breakin’ Point” we had the piano melody already recorded, but then I was recording my voice and I started whistling, and someone said we should keep that and turn it up. But we were hesitating, actually. [Laughs]

ERIKSSON: Yeah, it’s like you did a magic trick at a party; you can’t do it at the next party or people with think you're cheesy or something. [Laughs] Peter had a supergroup called Tutankamon for a while, and you did a song with whistling and it was kind of not so far from “Young Folks.” You played it in a jeans store and did that whistling and I thought, for me, it didn’t fit. Like, Peter shouldn’t whistle, that felt bad.

You can't whistle with other bands!

ERIKSSON: Yeah, I felt betrayed actually! [Laughs]

Read our review of Breakin' Point here.

Sylvan Esso's Nick Sanborn on Solo Project Made of Oak, "The Triangle," and Leaving Breadcrumbs

Music InterviewSean McHughComment

It wouldn't be off base to say that Nick Sanborn is best known as one half of the euphonious brain trust that is Sylvan Esso, but being Sylvan Esso's chief instrumentalist to Amelia Meath's head lyricist is not indicative of Sanborn's entire body of work. He's been an active constituent of the vaunted North Carolina "Triangle" for going on half a decade now, having aligned with acts like Megafaun as well as continuing to expand his long standing solo project, Made of Oak.

Wholly thoughtful and incredibly amiable, Sanborn spoke with Transverso about Made of Oak's 2015 debut EP, Penumbra, the various perspectives an act like Made of Oak allows him to explore, and the wellspring of musical collaboration found in Durham and the surrounding North Carolina area. 

TRANSVERSO: You just played in Bloomington, how was that?

SANBORN: Surprisingly great, considering I’ve never been there before with this project, and it was a Wednesday, and it was raining. [Laughs] It was great. It was kind of serendipitous coincidence that happened that my friend, Nate Brener’s band, Naytronix, happened to be in town on tour. We were crossing paths like ships in the night, and he ended up being able to open the show, so it turned what could have been a cold, weird night into a deep, old friends hang. We all went back to his mom’s house afterwards [Laughs], it was great. It was really, really cool.

So what are your thoughts going into the Spring/Summer tour? It sounds like Bloomington was a pretty solid start.

Oh yeah, it's great. With this project, the stakes are so low, and the people who tend to come to the shows have an extremely open mind about what they’re expecting or not expecting – so what the most exciting part to me is about these shows is that they feel very free and open, and can kind of go anywhere. That’s been the main theme for me, and also I’m just back to playing the venues I’m used to. Sylvan [Esso]’s been doing great, and I’m really grateful for that – that’s obviously been a huge change in my life. You know, I’ve toured clubs like the Bishop [in Bloomington, IN] last night for twelve years before any of that happened. This is like, I’m back in the shitty greenroom, where I belong.

Is that a familiar nostalgia?

Well it's more that it feels like my wheelhouse. These are kind of the clubs that I’ve always played in, and you know the last two years have been awesome, playing for way more people, but that’s the aberration – that’s the outlier. Shows like last night are more of the norm for me. So it's kind of good to be back to that.

Being in a more familiar territory, do you feel as if you approach your Made of Oak shows differently from your other projects? Does it make it feel any more organic?

No, not really. I think that just the energy of a smaller club is way different from a bigger club. They’re two totally different types of show. I think if I was playing the exact same set that I played last night that was like, ten times larger, it would feel way different, and I would react different, and I would play different stuff. You kind of just go with the energy that the crowd has, and I think in a smaller room there’s a really wonderful, intimate, energetic thing that happens when you can look up, and I can make eye contact with every single person that came to the show. It's just a different thing. You feel like you’re a part of the crowd. I guess that’s the biggest difference, I feel like when I’m in a small club, there’s no big difference between the performer and the audience, whereas the moment it gets bigger there’s this moment, when it reaches this critical mass where when the audience hits it, they feel like one giant person, you know? [Laughs] You’re kind of trying to make an individual connection, but its just kind of this mass of people, and it's either going well or its going terribly, and that’s kind of your litmus. That’s the biggest difference. I’m not sure if that makes a change in how I’d approach putting the set together, but I think energetically is where you really feel it.

I would imagine with your EP, Penumbra, already being more sonically dense, a smaller space might be a little easier to embody the record’s spirit.

Yeah. [Pauses] I think that… well, you know what? I think its tough to say. I think this material feels a lot more niche to me, definitely. So in that way its makes the most sense in a small room. But yeah, you might be right, there’s kind of a lot going on, so the minute it does get bigger you might lose something. I’m not sure though. Its tough to say, having never done it.

So what have the months following Penumbra’s release looked like for you? Were you pleased with its reception? Do you even bother with stuff like that?

Yeah? Um. Yeah, “question mark.” I guess. [Laughs] I try to not read anyone who writes anything about it, or who writes about any music made by me. Because, there’s no good that can come of that, you either get your ego stroked and then you become addicted to having your ego stroked, or somebody doesn’t get it and tells you you’re terrible, then the part inside you that tells you, “You’re terrible,” all the time is like, “See! You’re terrible!” So there’s no good that could possibly come of that.

What about with your live shows?

The shows have been great! We did a tour kind of right after it came out, and we went on tour with this band Tushka. And with Tushka, the coolest part of the tour was my buddies – Phil and Will – only put out one song out and they just put out one video, and I had just released an eighteen minute EP. So nobody coming to the show where you usually do forty-five minutes, they all know that they can’t expect… They’re going to hear a ton of stuff that they’ve never heard. Like everyone knows that going in. So that just made this great environment where the shows, both sets every night, felt like they could go anywhere. That has been a really cool part of the reception, I think. The people that are into it seem like they want to come and listen, and figure out what’s happening, and hear something they haven’t heard before. So no one’s waiting to hear “some hit,” its like what track is even playing is beside the point. So I think that’s my favorite thing, that that crowd exists.

There are some particularly unique song titles for Penumbra, or at least from an outsider’s perspective – I’m sure for you they make total sense.

Well that’s kind of the nice of being an instrumental artist, I’m not using lyrics, but I still feel like I wrote something that’s from a very specific time in my life. So you kind of leave these breadcrumbs that make sense to you. I just love it when you can imbue that kind of material with intent. Like when you look at something and think, “Oh, this is an intentional choice. This person chose these things. Why did they do that?” I love that moment, where as an audience member, you have to ask yourself why something happens, because whether you come to what the artist thought, it gives you this kind of structure to hang your own story on. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. I know that "penumbra" means "the outer region of a shadow being cast..."

Dude! You are the first person who interviewed me that’s looked up what it meant. That is awesome!

Well it sounds like you’re trying to have some fun with the language of the titles because there are no lyrics. So it almost seems like you’re presenting an over-arching theme without having to spoon-feed it to listeners.

Yeah, well that’s another thing, I think there’s this kind of teeter-totter of “overtness.” I was reading this negative review of a season of Mad Men – I’m so sorry, I’m going to tangent you out here.

No need to apologize, it’s a great show.

[Laughs] Perfect. So I think it was about season five, and the reviewer’s problem was that the metaphors were too “on the nose.” That was the season where one episode there was a toothache, and [the reviewer felt] like it was too surface, and that it didn’t take much thinking to figure out what they were trying to do. Where as before in the show, you had to really think about what questions it was making you ask, and you had to suss out the meaning of each shot, even. And then [the reviewer] compared that problem with when you hear a joke, which is, the thing that makes a joke funny to us is that our brain has to kind of “jump the gap.” Its when you make the connection, which is why when you explain a joke to somebody, it isn’t funny, because of the fact their brain didn’t do that. So learning-wise, we only ever learn the lessons when we actually have to make the leap ourselves. Like that’s the only reason that actually happens. Its like when you’re a kid and you do dumb shit over and over and over again, and your parents tell you you shouldn’t be doing this, but you have to screw it up to actually grow up and learn the lesson, you know what I mean? [Laughs] So I think about that a lot with music; you could really spell it out for somebody, but then it's not interesting. Its like you rob the listener of the opportunity to make their own connections and learn their own lessons, and relate it to something. You’re taking that really important part of interacting with a piece of art away from them. So I think about that a lot – how can you present them with enough proof of content, and enough of those “breadcrumbs.” Its kind of like this promise you make to the listener, like “I put something here. You aren’t wasting your time. Its here. You might find it, or you might find something else. You can trust me.” I think about that a lot – that line of making it too opaque or too clear, which is kind of an interesting tightrope you can walk there.

That’s fantastic. So you’re basically utilizing your experience to allow the listener to heighten their own.

 Right. Well I’m not much of a lyricist, and I don’t really love singing on records. [Laughs] So I have one opportunity to do the thing a lyricist would do, kind of. I have that tiny bit of real estate to kind of give [the listener] a hint of context.

Speaking of lyrics on a Made of Oak track – what can you tell me about your collaboration with Well$ and Professor Toon on the “Side Rides” remix?

That all just came about from doing that [“Side Rides”] video. I had that concept for that video, and kind of talked through my idea of what I wanted it to feel like, and they were both way into it. I just thought when we shot it, that they were going to come and freestyle, because for the music video, we wouldn’t actually hear it. But both of them showed up to the shoot with written verses, like they wanted to be doing the same thing in every spot, and they were just super pro about it. So then over the course of that two-day shoot, me and all of the other people there just kind of got obsessed with the idea of eventually releasing a totally different version of the song that would showcase them instead of showcasing the track. It just took us forever to actually do it. It was interesting, I think when the video came out, there was this misunderstanding that I had made a decision to mute the vocals or something, which was a real bummer to me. It just missed the point really heavily, and I just thought “Oh, bummer.” But when it came out, everyone was like “Oh cool, where’s the vocals?” Which was ironically the initial, kind of snotty joke of an idea that I had - a reference of how people think of instrumental music. It kind of weirdly up like the snake ate its tail [Laughs], because the irony was everyone was writing about – at least everyone who took that angle on it – “how interesting” or “how stupid, he muted the vocals,” but the thing was, we didn’t even have the vocals recorded. That wasn’t even a thought, until after we actually made the video. [Laughs] So yeah, it took like months for us to get it done, because its three really busy dudes’ schedules; we’re all playing all the time. But yeah, it was great when it finally came together.

Do you like being able to collaborate with other artists from “The Triangle” in North Carolina, and kind of help maintain a healthy music scene out of the area?

Oh absolutely! That’s like one of the first things that drew me to the area in the first place. That’s actually like the main thing that drew me to [Durham, NC], because I moved there four years ago to play with this band, Megafaun. So it was like a no-brainer to move there, because the music scene is so diverse and rich, you can do almost anything and people will show up and pay to see it. So the level and the volume of talent there is, its like this weird secret; [Laughs] it's crazy. But yeah, the hip-hop scene is nuts there right now, like Well$ and Professor Toon are obviously two of my favorites, but there’s like so many young dudes coming up that are really cool. This dude Ace Henderson just put out an amazing mixtape, they’re all over the place. And then there’s this other cool thing that’s started popping up is bedroom producers have started to emerge. I think that making electronic music has kind of made other people be like, “Oh, I’m not the only one that does this here. I can show up at stuff,” so that scene has gotten really cool. It's all the same group of 200 people, so if there’s constant intermingling, then everybody is really excited to work with everybody else, but it makes for a lot of weird output.

It's a cool, otherworldly collaboration, it sounds like.

Yeah, that’s the thing, I think especially in hip-hop, how that scene works is either by total chance or “Hey, why don’t you send this guy a packet of like twenty beats;” one is happenstance and the other is kind of depressing. [Laughs] That’s the cool thing about The Triangle, you’re around everyone all the time where legitimate collaborations happen, and you can work together and you can take the time to make something cool, which sounds like a low bar, but it actually doesn’t happen. So its only in places like that - well there are crews and scenes that are really good about that - but its cool to see it in action. To take something further than just sending a guy your beat. Its nice to really make something together, it's really cool.

So do you think that microcosm within The Triangle, and more specifically, Durham could be viewed as the “catalyst” for some of the area’s civic growth? Do you think it has a direct impact on the proverbial, “revitalization” of Durham?  

Air quotes revitalization is the perfect way to put that. [Laughs] It's tough right now, there’s a lot of tension right now, and I think the correlation between the creative scene of people and developers is that developers tend to capitalize on places that are very rich in creative people. It's kind of been the thing since the dawn of real estate development [Laughs] more or less. So that’s the only real correlation I see there – any time a place has cool shit going on, people tend to build condos there. But, I think culturally, the interesting thing is that there’s just a lot more people in the area, and that means inherently, there’s a lot more creative people, or people who want to make music, or go to shows. So that has been really great and welcomed, and it’s a crazy scene of a lot of very different kinds of people there, and that makes for some really awesome chance happenings. But yeah, I’m not sure I’d credit it or correlate them more than that. I think we could have a whole other conversation about the successes and failures of the Durham City Council [Laughs], whether that went right and where its going wrong. And again, its tough for me to even talk about, I mean I’m a white guy in my thirties whose only lived there for four years. I’m not sure its really my thing to talk about.

I was just curious. I had noticed some similarities in the developmental struggles amongst fast growing secondary markets like Durham or Nashville in that regard.

Oh absolutely. I mean, it's not just a “your city versus out city” thing. It’s a ton of places right now, and its all at so many different level. In Durham right now, they’re trying to make it a startup town, like enticing startups to move here and stuff. So I think the biggest conversation I see, at least in regard to other cities that have been startup targeted as startup hubs is “Well how do we not make it turn into San Francisco?” It's everywhere, man.

What has Made of Oak allowed you to do that past and other projects – The Rosebuds, Megafaun, Sylvan Esso – haven’t been able to? Or is it all focused on getting out and playing for people?

Well it's definitely that. Everything has the same end result, its “Let’s all do something or make something, let’s communicate something.” It's like “There’s so many of us and we’re all going to die, so let’s just try to connect for a second.” I think bands are all different because bands are all different groups of people, its just like a conversation over dinner – every conversation between two, to four, to ten people will have this different dynamic, so a different thing will come out of it. I think if you’re being honest as a band – like if you didn’t get together before you made music and said “Let’s make this kind of music,” which I think is a silly thing to do – if you’re doing that, every band feel totally different, and feel different when you play it, and feel different when you write it, and feel different to an audience member. So in that way, the nice part about the Made of Oak stuff, I don’t feel like there’s any potential for it to get fenced in to sounding any one way; its just however I’m feeling at that time in my life. So in that way, the biggest difference is both the burden and the freedom of not having to compromise or split the direction or inspiration with anybody else. But outside of that, that is both freeing and limiting. I think when I first started doing the shows, the band I had been in, Headlights, had broken up, and I was kind of in this zone of “I need to take control of my creative life,” I can’t be dependent upon someone else to write songs, to book a tour, and somebody else to do something. I just have to stop being a fucking baby and just do it. So really, that’s kind of the other big difference, unlike my other projects, this is the only one born out of a desire to grow up.

I was up at Eaux Claires this past summer, and I know you’re from Wisconsin, so I was just curious about how that experience was for you to play a festival like Eaux Claires, because it felt different from most other festivals in my mind.

Didn’t it though? It’s a little weird getting asked just about Eaux Claires, because I don’t want to come across as hyperbolic, but no joke, we talk about this all the time – that is the only festival I would recommend that a music fan go to. I’d recommend other musicians go to it. Every other festival I go to, and I have a great time working them, but at some point that weekend I thought “I can’t imagine how anyone would pay go to this,” [Laughs] which sounds terrible, but Eaux Claires is the one that genuinely feels like it’s a celebration of music. It feels like that’s actually what it is, in every way, playing it felt that way, being backstage felt that way, walking out in the crowd to watch the shows felt that way, everyone in the audience felt like that was their purpose. No one was trying to wear some crazy thing to get their photo on a fucking blog or something; it’s the opposite of all that other shit. I think out of that comes genuine no bullshit, no pretense moments, and collaboration, because that’s the only environment where that can happen and not feel forced. I did an improv set with Chris Rosneau there last time, just off the cuff. Like two days earlier, we were like, “Oh, we should do this, so let’s see if we can do it.” And now we’re coming back this year to do that as an actual thing. That would never happen at any other festival. Imagine going to the organizer of Coachella two days beforehand and being like “Hey, can me and another guy in another band do a noise set on this day at this time?” and them being okay with it. That just doesn’t happen.  And then [at Eaux Claires] they’re like, “Hey, that was great. You should come back and do that next year.” I’m excited about this year. I really hope it continues, because if it can stay – I hate to use the word “pure” – but if it can stay “pure,” and focused on its precision and not lose the plot, then it stands to become this incredibly important thing. 

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.