New Releases by Joel of City States

Summertime is now in full effect here in Chicago, and I'm happy to say that I'm in the middle of an extended vacation from work—hope all is going similarly well in your little section of planet earth.

Though it's been a while since you've heard anything from me on the City States front, I've certainly been busy. You might recall that I released an experimental techno record in October under the name Avvenir, and just a month ago I released a new record under another name, Modal Voices.

That record, Uncertain Designs, rounds out the set of four debut releases I've been working on since 2014; read more about that Modal Voices album and some of the influences I took in while making it (including Steve Reich, Tim Hecker, Tortoise, and Oneohtrix Point Never), here:

I'm slowly starting to get moving on the sophomore City States record, but before that ever happens I have some additional releases from Avvenir and more later this year, so stay tuned. And if you're interested in more frequent updates on the work I'm doing outside of City States, then be sure to sign up for the Safety Records mailing list.

Until then, enjoy your summer, and if you enjoy the new Modal Voices LP, then be sure to tell your friends!

Joel / City States



A Busy 2015


Hope all of you are having a great start to 2015. Things have been busy for me—lots to mention here, so let's get started.

First, Safety Records, the label I started to put out Geography, has a new website. All of the albums I'll be making for the foreseeable future will be done by this label, so have a visit to the new site, and sign up for Safety Records mailing list to keep up with new music.

Pronouncement, album art

Also, I'm excited to announce the first of several non-City States projects I'll be releasing this year. Pronouncement is the debut album by Contretemps, an experimental electronic project I've been working on. People who enjoy the moments of abstraction on Geography will hopefully enjoy these tracks, however some of the songs I've been writing are pretty, well, noisy. Fans of Oneohtrix Point Never, Fennesz, Merzbow, or Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works II will probably appreciate Pronouncement. The album will be out digitally (via iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify) on Tuesday, March 24th. Here's a track from the album, "Telemusik."

This isn't all I've been up to, though. In fact, I anticipate releasing a lot more music before year's end, and not a single song is under the name City States.

Some of this new music started out years ago on a whim, here and there experiments designed to help me learn my way around Ableton Live when the band was just starting out. Later, around August 2012, I had a serious crisis of confidence while writing Geography, and continuing with some of these experiments helped divert my attention enough to get through that block. By fall of last year following the relese of Geography, these compositions had, much to my surprise, evolved into not one, but three partially formed LPs via three distinct projects: Contretemps, Modal Voices (whose first single I actually released in June of 2013), and an as-of-yet unnamed IDM/post-techno venture.

All of this is to say that in the last 6 months, I've probably been more confident and more prolific than I was in the first 6 years of City States. Moreover, I've sort of discovered that what I have to say as a musician is much more varied, and far more unusual than anything I've tried housing in the more traditional pop format. This does not mean that I will be packing in the City States name. However, I have found that the careers of musicians like Brian Eno, Jim O'Rourke, and Sufjan Stevans, whose discographies have oscillated between semi-traditional pop music and outer-limits experimentation, is something I want to emulate. I'm excited about this. And I hope you'll stay with me through it all until the next City States LP (which already has a working title).

So, to recap: sign up for the Safety Records mailing list. Be sure to check out Pronouncement this March. And anticipate at least one, if not two more full-length records by me before the end of the year.

Stay tuned. Thanks again,

Joel / City States



Joel's Favorite Records of 2014

Happy new year, everyone! With less than two hours left in 2014, here are my favorite records of 2014:

Jo Johnson — Weaving :: Lately it's been rather unusual for me to find a favorite album by an artist I've never heard of solely on the basis of a review. However I have to credit my discovery of Weaving to a writeup by Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne—whose comparisons to the likes of Klaus Schulze, William Basinski, and Selected Ambient Works II had me rushing to the iTunes store. The parallels made by Sherburne are well-suited: Johnson's subtle compositions made from synth arpeggios and looped drones are very much in line with early '70s synthesizer music, however her use of studio manipulation and digital effects help prevent Weaving's five songs from being a simple nod to the past.

Damon Albarn — Everyday Robots :: Fans of Blur tend to point toward Parklife, an album made more than 20 years ago, as a kind of early pinnacle and slow fade of Albarn's career. I think that's an unfortunate read on his back-catalog—partly because I think he's made more interesting if not better records than that one—but also because the progression of his career looks more to me like a sine wave than a mountain, marked by several peaks and troughs from one decade to the next.

Everyday Robots, the latest high point in Albarn's discography and his first solo LP in 25 years, manages expand upon the best things about Blur's last record, Think Tank, an album loved by seemingly no one but myself. What I appreciate here is that he's taken all of the melancholy from his first band's final recordings and stripped out the unnecessary dance club embellishments. What's left are twelve simple, artful tracks of longing and loss, all emotion laid bare with nowhere to hide.

Eno & Hyde — Someday World :: In spite of the attention piled upon the other excellent Eno & Hyde collaboration of 2014, I actually prefer Someday World as the better of the two releases. The excellent hooks and off-kilter arrangements remind me a little bit of Eno's early-'90s collaboration with John Cale, which might point to the only thing working against Someday World: it does sound a little bit dated. And yet, it also contains some of the best melodies put to record this year, including one from a favorite song of 2014,"Daddy's Car."

Godflesh — A World Lit Only By Fire :: When I was sixteen I spent almost an entire winter listening to nothing but Godflesh, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Swans, so my excitement over the existence of A World Lit Only By Fire is tinted with more than a little bit of nostalgia. Godflesh's decade plus of inactivity seems to have diminished little of their viciousness; in fact, this might be their toughest-sounding record since 1991's Slavestate EP, if not their debut (which is probably the most similar-sounding record in their catalog).

Plaid — Reachy Prints :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) Of all the great albums that Warp Records released this year (including Aphex Twin's excellent Syro and Clark's self-titled LP), this one might be my favorite. This record sounds weirder and more melodic than past efforts, and also feels like the most human record they're ever made.

Aphex Twin — Syro :: I can't imagine there being a fan of '90s electronic music who wasn't absolutely floored by the out-of-nowhere release of Syro. Personally, his 1994 landmark Selected Ambient Works II is about as important of an album as I can imagine, and given the fact that Richard D. James seemed to have retired the Aphex Twin moniker for good made Syro's quick announcement and subsequent release all the more shocking.

What we're left with after picking our jaws up off the floor is one of the most focused albums of RDJ's career. James seems to bargaining on the notion that playing to expectations without pushing the envelope too hard is the safest way to make a comeback, and to that end Syro's straightforward beats can play a bit like Aphex-by-numbers. But this solid collection of techno tracks, which emphasizes melody in a way that's jazzier and proggier than almost anything he's done before, still feels like a new variation on his core body of work.

Run The Jewels — Run the Jewels 2 :: For the second year in a row, Killer Mike and El-P craft an absolute stunner. RTJ2 manages to tread the line between peculiarity and accessibility to a wonderful effect, tinting the boom-bap of early '80s hip hop with hints of oddball sci-fi, electroclash, and '90s techno; the result is one of the most thoughtful, funny, and strange hip hop albums I've heard in ages.

Beck — Morning Phase :: It's unfortunate that so much that's been written about Morning Phase has to do with its parallels with 2002's Sea Change, not because the similarity isn't accurate, but because it set up unreasonable expectations for Hansen's latest album to deliver upon. The bad news here is that it doesn't and probably couldn't live up to Sea Change's near-perfect balance of melancholy orchestral folk and retro-future studio trickery. However, I've still managed to listen to Morning Phase more than just about anything else I bought in 2014, and have found its simple melodies strangely captivating and surprisingly comforting.

To Rococo Rot — Instrument :: One of my all-time favorite groups, TRR sadly just announced their split after a near 20-year run. Though I'm disappointed that I'll no longer be hearing records from these guys, I'm glad that Instrument saw the light of day. It's one of their most distinctive records in that it's the first to prominently feature vocals (from the legendary no-wave guitarist and songwriter Arto Lindsay); it also feels a lot more natural, making greater use of live drums than on their last few.

I sort of feel like To Rococo Rot fell under a lot of people's radar in the U.S., which is a shame—their hybrid take on post-rock and techno would surely appeal to anyone who loves Tortoise, or Battles, or The Notwist—but at least we got 8 excellent records out of them before they called it quits.

Golden Retriever — Seer :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) I spent about two weeks listening to nothing but this album back in April, a duo whose strange combination of saxophone and analog synthesizer bring to mind Terry Riley, John Zorn and early Kraftwerk. Though the melodies on this record are excellent, however it's the long, drawn out moments of abstraction that I find most breathtaking.

St Vincent – St Vincent :: With her fourth, self-titled release, Annie Clark makes her most accessible record yet, dialing up the hooks and pairing back the more progressive moments of her first three recordings. There's something to be missed of St. Vincent's move away from the sideways orchestral pop of Actor (perhaps my favorite album of the last decade). But Clark's wonderfully bizarre guitar work on her fourth album—which simultaneously conjures the avant-jazz abstractions of Marc Ribot and the trebly, razor-sharp post-punk of Big Black—is a welcome twist for a batch of such tuneful songs.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) I think it's safe for me to say that Wild Beasts are probably my favorite band of the last 5 years, and their latest doesn't disappoint. Here they've streamlined the melodies even further from 2011's Smother, making for an album that's more ominous than somber. And as much as I love Hayden Thorpe's theatrical croon, drummer Chris Talbot is their secret weapon; it takes a lot of guts to play drums as minimally as he does, and I think his restraint is a big part of why this album is so spectacular.


Here are some other records I enjoyed:
Xiu Xiu - Angel Guts, Red Classroom
Clark - Clark
The Notwist - Close To The Glass
Sisyphus - Sisyphus
Warpaint - Warpaint
The Antlers - Familiars
Fujiya & Miyagi - Artificial Sweeteners
Fennesz - Becs
Spoon - They Want My Soul
TV On The Radio - Seeds
Thee Oh Sees - Drop



Covers EP! Relief And Scale Out Today.

Hey Friends:

City States' final release of the year is out today! Relief And Scale, a 4-song covers EP, is available for streaming and free download right here on our website. It was a great year overall, so I want to extend a sincere thank you to anyone and everyone who listened to our music, bought the LP, attended our shows, or otherwise offered support. I really appreciate it.

Of the four songs I covered for the EP, I perhaps had the most fun with the Modest Mouse song, "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine." Aside from the timeliness of this cover, given the recent reissue of MM's Lonesome Crowded West LP, the story behind its selection is actually kind of great, and worth telling.

One of the contributors to the Indiegogo campaign for our Geography LP—the person who selected the track—is a friend of mine with whom I shared a college radio show at Bloomington Illinois' WESN. Our show was a lot of fun: we spent lots of airtime playing bands we'd never heard before, and subsequently debating the merits of those songs right after playing them on the air. Modest Mouse was one of these bands.

As we both remember it, during one of our shows we turned on a track from Lonesome Crowded and disliked it so intensely that we shut it off midway through, proceeding to complain about the awfulness of Isaac Brock's voice for the next several minutes. We were far from professional in our approach, but like I said, it was big fun.

Fast forward to today: Modest Mouse is now one of my friend's favorite bands, and he thought it would be really interesting to highlight the beginning of our friendship by selecting "Teeth." I agree: though I initially felt a little intimidated by the song's length, its sprawl, and the utter strangeness of Brock's vocal delivery, I eventually found my way by almost completely deconstructing the rhythmic structure and lyric sheet. It's nearly unrecognizable until the final moments of the cover—which repurposes the original chorus as an outro—but I'd like to think that it succeeds highlighting the charms of covering someone else's music, which, I think, is to make it your own.

Once again, thank you for listening, and if you have friends who are fans of Modest Mouse, Hum, Nick Drake, or Split Enz, then please do share this link. And stay tuned in the coming months, as I have a few non-City States releases ready for 2015. All the best,

Joel / City States



Modest Mouse Cover and EP

Hey Friends:

If someone had told me back in January that I would be covering a 7-minute Modest Mouse song by year's end, and that this cover would be one of the best things I made in 2014, I would have called that person crazy.

But here I am, excited to announce one final release of the year—a four-song EP from City States called Relief And Scale—available for free download Tuesday December 2nd. Featuring interpretations of songs by Modest Mouse, Split Enz, Hum, and Nick Drake, the individual selections were made by contributors to the Geography Indiegogo campaign from earlier this year. There's a wide range of styles represented here, and I think they turned out great, if I do say so myself. Tracklist:

1. Teeth Like God's Shoeshine (Modest Mouse)
2. One Step Ahead (Split Enz)
3. Little Dipper (Hum)
4. Northern Sky (Nick Drake)

Stay tuned in the coming months—I'll be announcing some non-City States side project releases for next year, and I can't wait to tell you about them. Until then,

Joel / City States



Map Ref 06: Willing

Long before I started writing music as City States, I thought of myself not as a songwriter or musician, but more narrowly as a bass player. The bass was the first instrument I ever purchased—a black 4-string Ibanez Soundgear, which I still own—and almost everything I learned as a teenager about playing in a band was filtered through the lens of that instrument. As you can imagine, I took a shine to groups who prominently featured the 4-string, starting with Flea's work in the Red Hot Chili Peppers; later I developed a fascination with Holger Czukay's odd whole-note minimalism via Can, as well as the jagged art-funk of Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth.

And I loved the band UI.

As it turns out, I stumbled upon the group when I was fifteen or sixteen for somewhat non-musical reasons: I came across Sidelong on the shelf of a local record store and recognized the wonderfully peculiar art of Melinda Beck, whose work I knew from Quicksand's excellent 2nd LP, Manic Compression. Thinking that I discovered another band with a similar aesthetic to Walter Schreifels and company, I bought the CD, only to take it home and find that it wasn't remotely close to the post-hardcore I has anticipated. Instead I was astounded to hear a band with not one, but two bass guitarists, an array of synthesizers, and not a single power chord to be found anywhere.

Sidelong's emphasis on rhythm over riffage echoes throughout Geography, particularly on the dueling bass motif and dub-infected drum treatments of "Willing." Though the verses remind me most of Talking Heads—especially in those twinkling keyboard arpeggios, a not-so-subtle nod to Jerry Harrison's synthesizers from "Once In A Lifetime"—it's hard for me to listen to this song and not be reminded of the influence that Ui had on how I think about the bass. And if I had to choose a song from our debut that will offer a point of departure for our second record, I think that this would be the one.

It also contains my favorite lyrics on the LP. After a trio of songs that deal more pointedly with the passing of my father, the album's theme of death and loss stretches into murkier territory: that we live in a world which is destined to break down, and that the landscapes we see around us are simply not going to last forever. That notion—one which is reinforced by this song's caustic, Tim Hecker-inspired coda—is peppered throughout the record, but I'm not sure I say it better than in "Willing"'s final line: "tied to the ocean floor in long exile / are landmarks erased from view / and homes sunken for suspended lives."



Map Ref 05: Uncharted Waters

This is a tough song for me to write about: not because of its lyrical content (which is, admittedly, fairly personal), but because I have no fucking clue as to how the track ended up where it did.

To put it another way—"Uncharted Waters" went through lots of iterations. I mean lots. At different points over my two years of writing, I made demos for "Uncharted"  which resembled "Idioteque" by Radiohead, "Sporting Life" by Sea & Cake, "We've Been Had" by the Walkmen, and "Pilot" by the Notwist. After I arrived at the rough arrangement that's on the record, I tried the song with live drums all the way through, then only in part of the song. I added acoustic guitar, then took the guitars out. I recorded the vocals at 128bpm, then at 120, then at 131.

You get the idea.

"Uncharted Waters" was a slog until the very end. About 9 months into writing the record I reached something of a breaking point and had a sincere crisis of confidence, which nearly led me to stop working altogether. This happened during a writing session at the house of my collaborator and friend Steve, who advised me, rightfully, to step back for a while and take a break (an event which I discuss at length during a podcast interview with Nicholas Young of The Machine). His specifically suggested that I try working on some other kind of creative endeavor to free up my mind.

So I did exactly that.

The result of this time away from writing Geography actually turned into another record altogether. During that 2-week period I had fun toying with a Korg R3 and Ableton Live, making abstract, rhythmless sound experiments inspired by Merzbow and Sam Prekop's excellent Old Punch Card. The results of those sessions are going to be released next year under the name Contretemps, the second full-length offering from my label Safety Records.

But back to "Uncharted Waters." The recommendation to take some time off worked, and not too long after that I found the arrangement that is on the record. It's one of my favorites from Geography, too, so perhaps it was worth the heartache.


With regard to most of the other tracks from the LP, I can tell you *exactly* which songs I was listening to as reference points. Not here: "Uncharted" reminds me most of Eno's Another Green World—and though I listened to this album throughout the making of Geography, it wasn't necessarily used as a specific template. I will say that my liberal use of EBow here (as well as on other songs) is very much inspired by Archer Prewitt's solo work, as well as his guitar playing in Sea & Cake. The drums weren't actively inspired by Radiohead's "There There," however after hearing Mike play through the drum pattern on a live kit, I realized that I was unintentionally referencing this track.

The only active reference was for the drumless breakdown—taking place about two-thirds through the song's runtime—which borrows heavily from the gauzy, corroded textures of Fennesz' Black Sea. It's a beautiful and sometimes harrowing album, one which seems to perfectly capture the feeling of being lost at sea.




Map Ref 04: (For Dad)

The Downward Spiral was the first record I had ever heard that incorporated an instrumental piece on a record primarily comprised of songs with vocals. That LP's title track was also my introduction to ambient music—even though I didn't have a term for it as a 13 year old, I found myself fascinated with its subtle, melodic textures, its strangeness, and the contrast it offered to the much harsher tracks surrounding it; it was, and still is, my favorite selection from NIN's second full length.

In the following years, NIN profiles and interviews with Reznor pointed me to Godflesh and, as a result, Justin Broadrick's side project Final, not to mention COIL, Autechre, and Aphex Twin (whose Selected Ambient Works II is, as I recall, the first fully instrumental album I ever purchased). The Downward Spiral and subsequent albums I discovered in its wake turned me on to the idea that music could push against the existing context of pop music and not necessarily require lyrics. It's about as important of a turn as I can think of in the evolution of my musical taste, and I owe Trent Reznor a sincere debt of gratitude, all over a penultimate album track which I suspect many NIN fans mistakenly skip right over.

Since then, I've found that most of my favorite records contain beatless interludes—Kid A, Sufjan Stevens' Michigan, and Another Green World are three that come to mind—and I'm fairly convinced that every City States album I make from here on out will contain a song of this type. "(For Dad)" is a first for me, a vocal-less track that flows in both structure and theme from the song that precedes it. Its droning organs muted glitches are very much inspired by the softer moments on Oval's Systemisch (an all-time favorite of mine).  And though I hesitate to define it specifically as a dirge, it is most certainly designed to serve as a coda for "To Remember", whose lyrics were inspired by the eulogy I gave at my father's memorial service.

Finishing this and releasing this song has actually given me a confidence in making instrumental music that I hadn't quite anticipated—so much so, that next year I plan on releasing two non-City States LPs. The first is from a project called Contretemps, which is a bit more abstract and noise-oriented, in the vein of Oneohtrix Point Never, Merzbow, and Sam Prekop's Old Punch Card. The second project, Modal Voices, is more structured, sounding a bit like Tim Hecker with hints of Terry Riley and Steve Reich mixed in for good measure. More on those projects in the coming months. Stay tuned.





Map Ref 03: To Remember

A couple of days ago I was reading a 2002 interview with one of my favorite directors, Gone Girl's David Fincher, who somewhat surprisingly revealed that if he "could be anyone, it would be Brad Pitt." It was surprising to me to read that one of Hollywood's finest filmmakers might not be perfectly comfortable in his own skin—that he might sometimes lament the qualities that he thinks he lacks but wishes he embodied—and it got me wondering who I would want to be if I were any songwriter in music.

And I think that my answer is Ben Gibbard.

To be clear, I don't want to live Gibbard's life, or sing like he does (which, I admit, I already kind of do) and I don't fantasize about fronting Death Cab For Cutie. Rather, I aspire to have the kind of storytelling ability that he demonstrates in his songs; the ease with which he shapes simple events into nuanced, evocative, relatable narratives is, well, brilliant. And it should come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to Geography that his influence can be heard all over the record I made.

"To Remember" demonstrates this influence perhaps more than any other in City States' catalog. Thematic devices aside, it probably sounds more like a DCFC track than any other I've written**, and I will fully admit to having listened to lots of Transatlanticism while working on the arrangement. As for the song's subject: I've devoted a lot of time in previous blog entries and interviews discussing the story behind "To Remember", so I don't want to spend this post belaboring the theme of my father's death. However, I don't know that I've ever been as forthright in my emotions via City States as I am here, and the songs on Death Cab's first four albums, for better or worse, really helped give me the confidence to push forward with that.

I'm not without reservation in doing so. Sometimes I listen to "To Remember" and cringe a little, its sentimentality grating on the more measured aspects of my songwriting tastes; I certainly struggled with this issue while writing the lyrics, but I specifically recall having a "to hell with it" moment where I decided that the risk of looking foolish wasn't greater than the song's thematic importance to the album as a whole, or its personal meaning for me.

Which leads me to another quote I recently read from Fincher about embracing the imperfections of one's work: “I never fall in love with anything. I really don’t, I am not joking. ‘Do the best you can, try to live it down’, that’s my motto."

Do the best you can, try to live it down. After finishing this record, I can certainly relate.

**Much to my chagrin, lots of people hear traces of the Postal Service on "To Remember"; while I do indeed recognize this song's parallel with many cuts from Give Up, I have generally made a pointed effort to avoid danceable, disco-oriented beats that many people think of when imagining what electronic music sounds like. Much moreso than the Postal Service, the electro-pop influence people are hearing was far more influenced by The Notwist, 13 & God, and R.E.M.'s album Up than from Gibbard and Tamborello's collaboration.



City States Now On Pandora

Hey there:

It's been quiet here for a couple of weeks—I'm preparing for a move—but I just wanted to write a quick note to say that City States is now on Pandora:

Exciting news, indeed! Next week I will be starting back up again with my Map Ref postings on influences for each song from Geography (you can read the first two in that series here and here). And stay tuned for more news on a covers EP I'll be releasing next month. Talk soon,




Map Ref 02: Endless Sunlight

Every musician has a concert experience in his or her past that seemed to jumpstart their desire to write and perform, a show that, when looking back, perfectly encapsulates the range of emotions that go into songwriting. Mine was seeing the Dismemberment Plan for the first time at Chicago's Fireside Bowl back in April of 1999.

People tend to highlight the playful aspects of the Plan—the dancing, the cheeky onstage banter, the back and forth, yeah—as a leading driver of the band's greatness. Though I witnessed and felt much joy at the show that evening, and still feel it every time I put on one of their records, it's not the emotion that pulled me so firmly into their orbit. I have a vivid recollection of Travis Morrison onstage that night, during their performance of "The City": eyes wide with mania, glaring at the paneled ceiling, arms outstretched and belting out a wail of a "GOOD! BYYYYYYYYYYYYE!" in the song's final refrain. I saw in him an elation that was bleeding into panic, rage, desperation. Reflecting back on the show fills me with nostalgia, but it also makes me a little uneasy—there are still days where I know too well the turmoil I saw on Morrison's face.

That raw expression of distress later turned inward on their fourth album, Change, which showed a softer, wearier, lonelier version of the Plan (coincidentally, it is being reissued by Partisan records in November). Navigating an internalized universe of Emergency & I's distant panic, their final statement before a seven-year absence still weighs heavily on me as a songwriter, its subtle charms pumping through the very heart of the record I wrote.

It's no coincidence that Geography contains exactly one rager just as Change shows its teeth only with "Time Bomb": back when I started writing, I decided that I wanted to follow this structural template, allowing the record to burn brightly for just one song, and letting the remaining tracks the room to move at a more introspective pace (the other album that does this, perhaps better than any other, is The Walkmen's Bows & Arrows). In what is almost certainly the angriest song I've ever recorded, "Endless Sunlight" confronts something bigger and more exasperating than the theme of personal loss that runs through the LP—the notion that everything we know of this world will be gone some day; that we'll all die, that someday after we're all gone, the earth will die as the sun still shines, and there's nothing that any of us can do about it.

The hope we find in the face of that reality is, of course, is something we have to discover for ourselves: most of us find it in memories, in relationships, in music. And therein lies the strange brilliance, and the paradox of the Dismemberment Plan—they shined a light on a world painted with dread and loss, harnessed it, and found a way to transform that anxiety into something dazzling and hopeful, an affirmation of life in the face of death's absoluteness.

I run every day. Aside from music and love and friendship, running is as close as I can get to that feeling of affirmation. Every day my running path takes me right down Fullerton Avenue across the street from the Fireside Bowl, and every day I think about the panic, the joy, the transformation of the show I saw when I was 19 years old. So, to Travis, Eric, Joe, and Jason: if you're reading this, THANK YOU.

Read the First Map Ref Blog post: on the influence of Stereolab, Spoon, and LCD Soundsystem via "False Start."

Purchase Geography on Vinyl

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Blank Expressions / Transistor

Today Kriss Stress of Notes & Bolts created an incredible illustration of me for his Blank Expressions series. Lyrics are from "Endless Sunlight," which I will be posting about for the Map Ref blog posts in the next few days. People of the Chicago music community: if you'd like to have your portrait rendered, send your photo along with some lyrics to notesandboltszine @ DO IT.

Check out and follow his Facebook page here!

Tomorrow: I play an in-store at Transistor in Lakeview with Rainbo Video. Haven't played there since 2009, and really excited to be back. Starts at 7:30. BYOB. Free (though donations are encouraged)...



Map Ref 01: False Start

Hey Friends:

As mentioned in my last blog post, I'm going to be spending some time in the next few weeks working through a song-by-song breakdown of Geography, referencing favorite songs that influenced the making of the record. Personally, I love when artists talk process—discussing the origins of a lyric, or what he or she may have been listening to at the time of a track's conception—so I thought it might be fun to write about about how my record came to be. And since Geography's aesthetic theme is rooted in maps, I'm naming this post series accordingly with a not-so-subtle nod to my favorite Wire song. Here we go!

"False Start," the opening track to Geography, is one of the oldest songs from the record, demoed back in 2011 when I was working on our Resolution EP; in fact, I believe that the first two songs I wrote were the opening and closing tracks ("State of the Union" dates back to 2008), and I knew early on that "False Start" and "State" would start and end the record's sequence.

That heartbeat bass pulse, which underpins the entire track, is a straight-up pull from Spoon's "Small Stakes." I've long thought that this is one of the best album openers of all time—gripping and emotive despite the spareness of its design. Spoon's bluesy moments don't really resonate with me as a songwriter, however their commitment to making strange production choices have provided a lot of inspiration to me over the last ten years.

Earlier demos maintained that "Small Stakes" minimalism throughout, featuring only vocals, bass pulse, and some synthesizer run through a timed delay, however once I knew what the theme of the record was going to be about, I realized that some additional melody might be needed. That's where the piano came in. As a side note: all but two songs from Geography contain piano—an instrument which was featured only sparingly in earlier City States songs—and my use of it throughout the LP really did help bring out the emotion I wanted to convey.

But back to "False Start:" that persistent 8th note piano phrasing, running in parallel with the bass pulse, is borrowed from LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends," which, in my opinion, may be the finest song written in the last 15 years. This isn't the first time I've tried to mimic James Murphy's crowning achievement: on Resolution I attempted, unsuccessfully, to make a similar move with the EP's closer, "Reverse Slow Motion." Could one suggest that the former song naturally flows into the latter? Perhaps. I do think that "False Start" is more successful.

About two weeks before going in for mixing at Soma, I knew that the song still needed something more—movement? progression?—and that's when I added the extra drum machines, synth arpeggios, and live drums that slowly fade in throughout the song's second half. During the last 6 months of writing and recording I listened to Stereolab and Tortoise (two bands I've written about before) maybe more than any other groups, and when "Olv 26" popped up in an iTunes playlist one day, I heard a stylistic parallel that made a lot of sense to me. Strangely, those electro-snare inclusions remind me a bit of Hot Chip, but once the live drums and arpeggios fade in, I hear an awful lot of Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Those final edits, for me, make the song, and I'm glad I decided to make some last-minute additions.

Next time, I'll talk Dismemberment Plan, Walkmen, and the death of the universe with "Endless Sunlight." Thanks for reading!



Next Show, Covers EP, and More

Hey Friends:

Things have been busy in my world, so I thought I might provide a quick update. But first, a recap: the first City States / Empty Bottle show in over a year went great—it was only my second time performing solo, and I felt a little more comfortable this time around. As always, the people at the Bottle were super nice.

Would you believe me if I told you that I had to exit said show early because I needed to be awake at 5:45 the next morning for the Chicago Triathlon? It's true: in the span of 12 hours, I performed a 40-minute set, swam 750 meters, biked 15 miles, and ran 3.5. Could I have over-extended myself? Probably. I will say this: the swim was a big wake-up, a legitimately terrifying open-water slog for which I had not adequately prepared. However, I made it out of the water alive (and, surprisingly ended up placing 327th out of 2100—HURRAY!)

Next show is at Transistor in Lakeview on the 19th of September, a Friday. Steve and I played their Andersonville location about 4 years ago, which was lots of fun, so I'm happy to be headed back to their store. Show starts at 7:30.

Also: more music. I'm finishing up a handful of cover songs selected back in April by contributors to my Indiegogo campaign. I'm keeping quiet on what songs they chose, but I will reveal that I'm working on tracks from a '70s British folk singer, an '80s new wave band from New Zealand, and a midwestern American indie rock group from the '90s. Expect those songs to be out before the end of the year. Next year I'll be releasing some electronic music offerings, too.

In the coming weeks, I'm also going to be doing some posting about influences for particular tracks from Geography. A while back i was asked by CHIRP Radio's Kyle Whelliston to put together a short set of music that influenced my songwriting. I happily obliged, and had so much fun with it that I'd like to run with the concept on this blog.

Whew, that's a lot. Thanks for reading!




Shows, Chicago!

Hey Friends:

I'm playing two shows coming up: this upcoming Saturday August 24th at The Empty Bottle, with Chicago's Dumpster Babies and Penicillin Baby. Doors open at 8:30. $5.

Next Month: Friday, September 19 at the excellent art/music shop Transistor: City States, with Rainbow Video. Show starts at 7:30. Free admission (though donations are highly encouraged).

On a sort of related note: I'm also running the Chicago Triathlon next Sunday (the morning after the Bottle show—YIKES!). Send me a note if you're going to be there—it would be great to meet some people and hang out before the race...





Indiegogo Haiku

A couple of months back, when I was trying to figure out what kinds of perks I should add to my Indiegogo campaign, I remembered an article I read that mentioned haiku. I thought that writing poems for my supporters would be a lot of fun, and as it turns out, this perk wound up being the most popular of the entire campaign.

Each funder was able to select the subject of his or her campaign, however in a few cases I chose the subject myself. Now that I've finished up all of the haiku and sent them out, I thought it might be fun to share them:

Subject: Alinea
Can food be designed?
Dunno, man. Sounds rather odd!
But then: Grant Achatz.

Subject: Chicago
On an endless grid
Ashland to Damen, Western
Many worlds take shape.

Subject: Digital Music Streaming
When music gets played
Through the interwebs, do the
Tubes make any sound?

Subject: The Ocean
Twisting blue-green waves
Conceal our very eyes from
A vast world below

Subject: My Friend Anna's Cat
Tan and black and tan
With a soft purr and cuddle
Purple claws recede

Subject: Pangolins
Curled up in a ball,
Sleeping away the sunshine;
Scales unfurl by night.

Subject: My 1st Apartment (for a friend with whom I shared the apartment)
Nine friends, Wrigleyville
Like one more year of college
But with an el train.

Subject: Recording at Soma Studios
With synths stacked on walls
With drum kits in window wells
Rhythms come alive

Subject: Bucktown's The Map Room
Beer taps line the bar
For miles, it seems, drafts endless.
Bliss till hunger hits.

Subject: Art (for my friend's daughter)
Oil paints and markers
We paint beards on every face
In rainbow colors

Subject: Love
In just an instant
A simple, perfect feeling
Fills a universe

Subject: My Friend Joe's Two Cats
Tom Tom and Wafer
They stare sharply, and wonder
Why you won't feed them

Subject: Italian Opera
Alto, soprano
In a language so foreign
Song invites us all

In the coming weeks, I'll be providing more details about the next round of Indiegogo campaign perks I'll be working on: cover songs!

Haiku about cats

Haiku about cats



Reviews, Press, Release Show

Hey everyone:

It's been a few weeks since the release of Geography, and things are going great. First things first, our release show is this week—we're playing The Burlington in Logan Square this Friday 06.13. Joining us that evening are the excellent band Many Places, who will be releasing their new EP Plurals. Show starts at 9pm. $5 at the door.

Second: CHIRP Radio Chicago has been super supportive of the new album—for the 5th week in a row, we are listed on CHIRP's weekly charts (we were the #4 most played album this past week!) Thanks to anyone who listened in or requested us, and an extra special thanks to all the DJs who chose to play our music. Really. Thank you.

Also, reviews and press are coming in via Backseat Mafia, Highway 81 Revisited, Ravedeaf, and Musical Shuttle.

Last and certainly not least: a couple weeks ago I spoke with Jesse Menendez at Vocalo (sister station to Chicago's WBEZ) about the new record and it's themes of loss and hope. That interview was just posted to Vocalo's soundcloud. Listen here:

Thanks for reading/listening, and hope to see you at the show on Friday!

Joel / City States



Geography Now Available


Hey Friends:

This is the week! City States' debut album, Geography, is now available on vinyl and high-quality MP3 via Chicago's Safety Records. Thanks to everyone who has listened, purchased, or otherwise supported the effort in the last two years. I really appreciate it.

Stream the album via Spotify or Soundcloud.

Special thanks to three people: Steve Lund, for spending many hours editing, collaborating, directing, and influencing (sometimes at his own peril)—though he has implied at points that this project is my baby, so to speak, there is no doubt in my mind that without his input I would have made a much different (and arguably a much less successful) record. Mike Burmeister, whose spectacular drumming skills grace 6 of the 10 tracks on Geography. And last but certainly not least, my girlfriend Michelle Kaffko, who supported me unwaveringly through numerous setbacks, frustrations, and difficulties while I made this record. Thank you.

On a related note for fans of independent radio: the album recently went into rotation at Chicago's CHIRP Radio, and this week Geography charted at #2 on their weekly playlist! Help us keep the momentum going: listen in at, and request "False Start" or "Uncharted Waters" —the two highest-charting songs—by emailing

Once again, many thanks for listening. In the meantime, share this album with your friends, and stay tuned for more news on shows, reviews, etc. All the best,

Joel / City States



City States On Indiegogo: Pre-Order Geography

Hey Friends:

The release date for City States' debut LP is set: Geography will be available to the public on Tuesday, May 13th via a new Chicago label called Safety Records. I'm really proud of this album after all of the time and energy I've put into it over the last two years, however there is one final step to go before the release of the LP, and I need your help.

Photoshop render of the LP (not the actual product)

Photoshop render of the LP (not the actual product)

We are looking to raise $3000 to cover the cost of manufacturing and distributing a limited run of 12" vinyl LPs, and to reach that goal, City States has set up a campaign on Indiegogo. Since the release date is so close, this campaign is a lot like a pre-order: if you're excited to hear the record, and would like to purchase Geography on 140-gram, 12" vinyl for $20 (or $10 for high-quality mp3), now's your chance. And you can have the album in your hands by the middle of next month!

Pre-order the record and donate here:

Thanks so much for reading, and if you're so inclined, tell your friends about us on Facebook and Twitter—word of mouth is still the best way for us to reach new fans. All the best,

Joel / City States