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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



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."

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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!