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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."

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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!

Joel