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Walkmen

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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 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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Purchase Geography on MP3

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To Remember: Part I

Just before moving in with my girlfriend at the end of last month, I put the finishing touches on a song that’s very important to me. “To Remember” is song about my father’s guitar, which is to say that it’s also about my father, and about the relationship that I had with him. I’m not ready to share the song just yet, however since it’s themes are so integral to the work that I’ve been doing, I thought that it might be healthy for me to open up about how and why I wrote it.

Some backstory: about a year ago, my dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was 58. As one might expect, the last 14 months have been fairly confusing and at times really difficult, but as always I relied on music as a way to help me through the rough days. And given the fact that I was already knee-deep into the album I have been making when he died, the writing process very quickly absorbed many of my feelings about his passing. 

What makes my particular method of healing all the more complicated is the fact that music was always the central device that connected me with my father. Admittedly, my relationship with my dad was not exceptionally close, but music drew us together in ways that helped us understand one another. 

***

When I was a teenager, my father gave me his guitar—a cream-colored 1962 Fender Jaguar with a tortoise shell pick guard, which had belonged to my dad since he was 14. As a boy I’d only seen it on the handful of occasions when he took it out from under his bed, its classic look and sound fascinating to my young mind. By the time I was old enough to play it, Kurt Cobain had further extended the model’s mythology by playing right-handed Jaguars upside down (as a lefty, I do the same thing).

At the time, I’m not sure that I could have claimed total ownership over the instrument—my brother and I had effectively acquired it on a semi-permanent loan—however I felt an increasingly strong sense of confidence over the music I made with that guitar. I have a vivid memory of writing one of my first songs with the Jaguar: I must have been fifteen, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom next to a washing machine-shaped amplifier, laboring over a riff that mimicked Jawbox’s “Chinese Fork Tie.” I can still play that melody today. It’s not bad.

After graduating college I was lucky to bring the Jaguar with me to Chicago. Given the fact that I was almost entirely broke, the physical possessions I could call mine were few and far between, save for a rapidly expanding CD collection, and my two guitars. As time passed, I continued to write songs on it—”Negative Space”, an early song by a band I once played in called the Modern Temper, was crafted with the instrument.

Most of my early years were spent at a considerable distance from my father—in hindsight, I think that he might have struggled with how to relate to my sensitive disposition; perhaps he just didn’t have a lot of patience for kids and teenagers—but by the time I had grown into adulthood, things had become easier for the two of us. Our conversations, once awkward, had turned affectionate and cheerful. In our semi regular-yet-brief phone calls, he often told me how proud he was of me—how much he liked the new song I just released to the public, or how cool he thought it was that my music had been played on a radio station he once listened to when he had lived in Chicago. On the rare occasion that he visited, my dad would set up his laptop on my apartment’s coffee table and pick out CDs from my shelf until he had stacks of them waiting to be burned to his computer drive. Ever the classic rock fan, he and I found plenty of common ground in revivalist groups like The Walkmen, The White Stripes, and Spoon.

A couple of years ago, my father asked for his Jaguar back. As his career had lightened up a bit and responsibilities softened, my dad had slowly felt the desire to re-introduce his teenage fascination with the electric guitar into his life. I gladly returned it to him, and in response he continued to provide me with updates on the latest Rolling Stones song he was learning, or how he had finally honed in on the best sounding flat-wound strings.

The last time I was alone with my dad was on the day after Christmas, 2011. I had intended to sneak away for an hour while visiting my parents’ house to work on a song, and about 10 minutes later, my dad had quietly shuffled upstairs to see what I was up to. With a gentle knock at the spare room’s door, he asked if he could listen in. 

Sitting down in a chair adjacent to me, my father lifted his Jaguar off of its stand and placed it in his lap, and asked me to replay the guitar riff I had been rehearsing before he had arrived. I obliged, running through a simple finger-picked phrase made of descending chords while he watched intently. We talked for a while, discussing the Gastr Del Sol and Wilco albums which had influenced my most recent batch of songs, and about how he had always tried, unsuccessfully, to master the finger-picking style I was using. I don’t exactly recall how that encounter had ended, but I remember feeling both surprised and glad that he had joined me in a moment that I expected to be a solitary one.

***

There are plenty of ways to remember people after they’re gone: through the stories we tell, the objects we hold dear to us, through our behaviors, interests, and values. I remember my father most vividly through the songs he used listen to: the family vacations set to Paul Simon’s “Graceland”; the blaring, repeated plays of “Money For Nothing” that filled our garage on nights and weekends; hearing John Fogerty’s “Old Man Down The Road” as we drove in my dad’s wood-paneled station wagon through small-town Illinois.

The love of music that my dad helped instill in me is so deeply a part of who I am that I simply can’t imagine what my life would be like without it. And in that sense, the songs that I write—even the ones that aren’t about him—are about him. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the time that we had together than to share with the world the thing that made us closer.

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