"I made a mistake today" starts 'Weightless,' a 17-year-old song re-recorded more recently for 'Boduvt,' the album from Agents of Venus released earlier this year. The words are sung by Allen Towbin in a sort of ethereal way over a progressive sort of guitar arpeggio that hails from a happy-enough G major chord yet still sounds ominous. The overall effect is to suggest a very bad mistake indeed; even after several listens, even knowing where the lyrics are actually going, it is still difficult to hear Towbin sing that line without imagining the song unfolding like a musical version of Taxi Driver.
But that's not the direction in which 'Weightless' goes; that would be too easy for Phil Ristaino, my good friend and favorite lyricist of all time. Instead, the song continues thusly:
I made a mistake today
And gave my whole life away
To shoulder the burden of your trust
I don't care you think I'm wrong
I'd rather be left alone
Sifting the sand for light in dust
'Boduvt' is a big beast of a record, my favorite released this year, with a wide mix of pop and rock styles, expert playing by gifted musicians on inspired songwriting, and always the lyrics, which are never what the seem except for how they so often seem to be brilliant. Phil has begun posting them over at the site, when you can also hear most of the album. (Pro tip: A good introductory sampler would include Fall Off the Earth, Stereo, The Post Relevant Movement, and, of course, Weightless.) Phil was kind enough to write a few billion words for me about the making of the album and just what the hell he means on it.
* * *
Q: 'Weightless' is 17 years old. Was there any debate about re-recording it and putting it on the album, or was it universally popular?
PR: As far as I remember, there was debate about what version of Weightless to put on the album, but probably not much debate (at least between Allen and I) about actually putting it on the album. When we started the project 7 years ago, (2003, I think) we would write a song every once in a while, slowly amassing a potential collection of tunes over time. Weightless was a great song that Allen had written, (with help from myself, Mike Parillo the drummer, and I think Homey (Derrick Ogden) the bass player). It was post-Doctor Dolittle, meaning we were seniors in college and living in the same house together, but the old band had sort of broken down and wasn't going to be a viable thing in the future. Allen was recording this song on a cassette 4-track recorder (remember those?) and I don't know how it happened, but I ended up writing lyrics for it and singing on it with him. I even used an old piece of poetry as spoken text in one section of the song, sort of as a background voice. We were real into King Crimson around then, so I think this was a form of homage to the 80s version of that band (at least, for me). I think it was then re-recorded in the studio at Skidmore College, complete with this really cool, very heavy progressive rock composed musical part near the end of the song. Everyone we knew who heard it really dug it, but it was a sort of underground thing, in that it wasn't a band in particular that was recording it, it was more of a little recording project unto itself. I remember really digging that version.
At some point years later in the '90s, Allen and Mike were in another band together, along with another guitar player from Skidmore named Johnny Medalis, and they re-wrote Weightless to suit that band. The song was totally re-composed, if that's a word, and new verse lyrics were created. Mostly by Allen, I don't know if I helped at all, but I do remember reading Allen's new lyrics at some point in time. I am least familiar with that version of the song. I think anyone who knows that song is least familiar with that version.
Eventually that band broke up and Weightless was once again in limbo. When Allen and I started up the AoV project, Weightless was once again put on the table as a potential tune, especially since we had both participated in the writing of the original. We knew Mike and maybe Homey were going to record with us, so it made sense to use the song. The conversation probably went like this:
Allen: We should record Weightless.
Me: Yeah. We have to record Weightless.
Me: We have to record Weightless
Allen: Definitely, but we have to change its structure to make it more "pop" (meaning verse/chorus/verse/chorus no crazy avante garde jam in the middle and no poetry readings).
Me: Ok Ok.
I was a fan of keeping the heavy progressive rock part, but Allen was over it, so we went about writing it as a more straightforward song. I think Mike may not have wanted to change the song, I don't know, but it seems he came around. I re-wrote the lyrics, keeping a line or two from Allen's second version, but for the most part re-writing them all. Allen seemed to really know what he wanted to do with the music -- the part that builds after the cosmic guitar solo with the words "Do you know which side you're on?" he proposed -- and I figured out bringing that line back from the second verse, cause I find in rock when you reference something you already introduced lyrically in the song, it gives it more weight (no pun intended) and unifies the themes of the tune, even if those themes seem to be abstract. But I'm pretty sure Allen would have come up with that part and then I would have figured out what to do with it lyrically after I heard it. We were both interested in some kind of real kickass outro, and I think the idea of the main guitar line going on with Mike just freaking out over it at the end was part of the plan all along, sort of like the end of Steely Dan "Aja." (Allen is a big SD afficionado, I think they really inform his songwriting and the way he wanted to approach writing the AoV songs, especially.)
Probably the most controversial changes were mine, meaning that I completely changed the verses lyrically and changed up most of the chorus lyrically. Which meant I really changed up the meaning of the song, in many ways. I was never attached to any other form the song had taken on, so it was easy for me to go in and re-write it. Songs where Allen was singing lead were generally harder for me to approach as a lyricist, however, since he was a bit of a gentle taskmaster in getting the lyrics to work exactly how he wanted them to, and his aesthetic about how to sing vocals is a bit different from mine, so I was constantly trying to restrain myself -- he was always having me simplify the lyrics until eventually I figured out that was what he wanted and started to do it on my own. Often Allen would come up with a vocal melody for his verses or choruses and I'd strive to fit words into those melodies to his liking. I haven't written a ton of lyrics for someone else to sing, so it was definitely a challenge, but a good learning experience. Again, this version of the lyrics for the song reflects the Steely Dan aesthetic, if I can use those three words in sequence with you, and that aesthetic is this: The singer is singing about something very specific, with lots of details, but you (the listener) may be damned if you could ever really say what exactly the song is about. It's one of those songs you have to investigate, and hopefully you will use the lyrics to draw parallels to your own life and make a deeper connection to the song because somehow it represents you as well as me. I would be happy to explain the lyrics if you so desire.
What I've been hearing lately from those people that knew the original version of the song is that they were resistant to the new version, but after a few listens realized that it, too, was dope and were able to really enjoy it.
Q: Please go ahead and make with the lyrical explanation. You can see above that the topic fascinates me.
PR: Ok. The deal with Boduvt, in general, is that there is this theme running through the album, partially accidentally, partially intended, of mythology, taken partially from the Joseph Campbell school of thought that all cultures have mythologies, they are built on them, because the cultures use the mythologies to build their traditions upon them, these traditions become customs and laws, celebrations and funerals, interpretations of life and whatever comes after life. But Campbell says no matter what the details of each mythology is, within it is a structure that is repeated in each culture. The search for the father, for instance, is a repeated theme in many cultures' mythologies. Campbell posits that if we were to create a single mythology for the entire world, a single story of our beginning, there would be a unified culture and world peace. I'm inclined to think he is on to something.
With that said, Weightless is absolutely a song with mythological resonance. For whatever reason we wrote it all those years ago, the most important theme within the song is that of "becoming weightless when Atlas lets go of the world." What does that mean? Well, I'll tell you what I think it means.
Atlas according to Greek legend is a titan, who preceded the Greek gods, and he bears the weight of the earth on his back, literally. I believe the story goes that he somehow gives birth to a bunch of the major gods, like Zeus. (Also known as Jupiter to the Romans, let's call him Odin to the Norse myths, etc. etc. -- just as an aside, isn't it interesting that Odin is depicted as a god missing an eye, and the planet Jupiter is known for is giant eye-shaped storm -- coincidence? No, it is not a coincidence.) Atlas is also thought to have been a king of Atlantis, the legendary lost city and/or continent that surely was real (in my opinion) and predated known historical civilization. Supposedly Atlantis was destroyed during cataclysmic Earth changes/world war (probably both), so it becomes this idea of the idealized city/civilization that rose to a pinnacle of human potential and then was horribly wiped out/destroyed itself (probably both). Some even think the idea of the ego, that thing in your mind that tells you that you are separate from everyone else and that you should fear death, was created in the human soul or psyche due to this horrible Earth-wide cataclysm. Thus creating the Adamic fallen state the Old Testament mentions. So where does this leave us? Here, in this world, living our lives of quiet desperation, profoundly lost amid a sea of large and small threats to our mortality while being daily confused as to why we are here and what the purpose of life and humanity is. We must constantly overcompensate for myriad oppressive factors of existing, we must struggle to survive, we feel alone, we feel misunderstood, to varying degrees. We feel lost or separate. In order to survive, we must bear this weight, or so we think, we must bear the 'weight of the world,' an idea Atlas's task makes clear through mythology.
But what if it wasn't true? What if it was just a state of mind we adapted, but now are confronted with leaving behind? What if Atlas was allowed to take a holiday, so to speak? What if he let go of the world? What would happen? Destruction? Freedom? Both? The ... gasp ... unknown?
I find that as a society we are sort of made to police each other, to toe the line, so we can justify to each other our pain, our burdens, which justify our reason to be here. What if we dropped all the fabric of society that we felt didn't represent who we think we truly are? What would happen if you stopped paying taxes? Stopped following the speed limit? Stopped going to work in the morning? What if you let go completely and trusted the unknown to provide for you and just magically manifest whatever you needed to allow you to survive and thrive? What if the only justification needed for humanity to exist was simply that we actually do exist?
I made a mistake today
And gave my whole life away
To shoulder the burden of your trust
I don't care you think I'm wrong
I'd rather be left alone
Sifting the sand for light in dust
This first verse sets up the scenario: My (meaning anyone's as well as mine, but mine too) mistake was toeing the line for the other, meaning I've
subjugated my truth to earn your trust, because you (whoever you are) believe something different from me and maybe my belief contradicts your belief and creates anxiety around your reality, simply because someone else sees life differently and chooses differently. How do we reconcile these differences and, more importantly, do we have to? So therefore, I've chosen my own path and I don't care if you don't agree, I'm going to look for something better amidst the rubble -- the light in the dust.
Should I die for what is gone?
hanging on broken imagination
bear the heavy veil of freedom
defy gravity or sleep on as
Here, I'm justifying my choice. Should I follow a path I know is irrelevant to me? "Broken imagination" I like especially, since to me it's the idea of someone who has mistaken the truth of our existence in their own mind and now wants me to follow it -- their imagination is fractured or ruined, and now they want me to toe the line to satisfy their rule system. I think this is also where "heavy veil of freedom" comes in, cause it seems to me, at least in this country, that we are constantly told that we are free, but freedom isn't free (what the hell kind of logic is that, freedom, by definition, is free) but as far as I can see, you are only as free as you think you are, or as free as whoever is making and enforcing the rules wants you to be. Freedom doesn't need rules, that's again what freedom is. So our 'freedom' has a veil to it, a false mask, a weight. Should I stay asleep to the truth, as far as I see it, that as extensions of an infinite universe we, too, should be infinite, and therefore, potentially, maybe even literally, be weightless?
Thus the chorus:
Slaves chained to diamonds
carbon holding pearls
names heal the ages of facelessness
we become weightless when Atlas lets go of the world
This is the dichotomy of our existence: infinite and finite, gods and mortals, good and evil: We are carbon-based mortals holding the pearls of wisdom within us; which part of us will we listen to? The "names healing facelessness" is a little nebulous, I admit, but I think it's sort of like identifying the problem or problems within the psyche so we can heal them -- you need to recognize what's wrong so you can fix it. Also, if you put a name or a face on an individual, they stop being anonymous, they become more real to others, they are humanized, and once they are humanized, maybe you wouldn't want to kill them, steal from them, hurt them, destroy their civilizations, etc. etc. So if Atlas releases these expectations and rules, we all do, cause he's the king, he's the mythological model, and he is in each of us, driving us on to bear these burdens.
Nothing in sight forever
so Atlas shrugs and forgets the endeavor
wanders straight into the new sun
billions all tied together
a shift to the side and the old wreck goes over
left to rebuild or ruin
So here is our Titan, abandoning his post. The result seems to be completely devastating. This is the problem around changing oneself. If you do, will your whole world fall apart around you? Atlas has found his new sun, his better path, but he's leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. The "billions all tied together." Any move too far in one direction or the other may well be completely devastating to the whole world at this point in our history. If you look around, it seems we are reaping the whirlwind of our decisions as a species, what with all the pollution, war, starvation, etc. etc. If we let all our bad habits go, will there be anything left of us as people, and as a society? Will it all just fall to shit? And is this bad?
Do you know which side you're on?
Brittle leaves torn in a windstorm
either choice a weight is borne
defy gravity carry me beyond the ...
So here is the big question. "Do you know which side you're on?" On a physical level, there is the left and right, liberal and conservative, east and west, black and white. Which side have you chosen? Have you chosen? Take a minute to reflect. Either side is going to hell once Atlas has abandoned his post. Internally, this could be which side of your brain you favor, reason or intuition, control or love? All of it is "brittle leaves," meaning, in the context of the world, we are fragile little ants, could be dead in a second: A bridge collapses, an earthquake, a flood, a war. We've seen this time and time again. This leads to one of my favorite lines, "either choice a weight is borne." Gotta love the double meanings. That is what good rock lyrics are all about. The weight is created through choice, but maybe choice also makes us weightless, the weight is "borne" aloft, we are free. That is my choice, so I'm saying, help with my choice, help me become weightless, carry me beyond the slaves, God, or whoever you are that makes us go. Carry me above the false choice of one or the other, help me see the unity, the oneness, the peace and completion that we all know we can be but few actually find.
This brings us through another chorus, with my voice added low in the mix, so now our movement is building, more voices crying out for true freedom. This leads us to Allen's amazing solo, just spectacular. It soars AND it feels so heavy and sad. It gives me goosebumps. This is what good art does, it shows the contradiction in every word, every gesture, it demonstrates the meaning of life, in a way, by showing that we are gods AND mortals, we are big AND small, we live AND die. This is the holographic idea of life, instead of the hierarchical idea we seem to live: The whole of life is represented in every individual aspect of life. Nothing is greater than everything else because it's all contained in each molecule, each leaf, each human soul.
Wonderfully enough, this leads us to the repeated question: "Do you know which side you're on?" I'm really trying to take us home, here, cause I think the depth of feeling this song creates leads us to being able to confront this important question. The question is: Are you ready to release your need to choose a side? Are you ready to stop fearing the other? Are you willing to let go of your need to control the future and the past? Can you be here in the mystery without freaking out? Can you just be here? I feel like, by asking the question repeatedly, and then asking if you "know how to carry me beyond," it's like saying, can we leave the bullshit behind us once and for all and move forward into a world that has peace and love as its primary goal? And I'm asking this of everyone. The political leaders. The crooks. The cops. The dentists. The whores. The rich. The poor and oppressed. All of us. 'Cause, as far as I can see, Atlas is really and truly in the process of letting this world go. Are we ready to go along for the ride, or are we like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangeglove, riding the A bomb down into hell, hollering and a-whoopin it up along the way. What's it going to be, World? What do you want?
I realize that there may be contradictions in the themes in this song, but I really can't help it, I have to put forth contradictions. Its the only way we can move past the mind and into the heart, 'cause the mind only seems to want to separate everything, and we see that that isn't the answer anymore. So maybe we need to let go of the mind (Atlas's burden) and see life through the heart (a new sun). Just sayin.
The thing that really blows my mind is that this song and its theme was originally conceived 17 years ago, so there is some part of me (and Allen and Mike and Homey) that needed to begin to explore this concept and let it gestate over time until it was appropriate to the times at hand to be revealed, as it were, to whoever wants to experience it now. And it fits with the rest of the record, and caps it really nicely, I think. I am very proud to have gotten to be a part of this tune.
Q: That kind of puts 'Weightless' with '33,' 'The Reason,' and 'Political Criminal,' which thematically form the three sides and base of a pyramid standing up out of the record and make pretty plain your worldview, or view of life in today's U.S., at least.
PR: Yeah, both '33' and PC have a political bent to them, though you can see me trying to work out the equation. I'm not just blaming the leaders for our world's predicament, I'm trying to put my finger on the movement of society itself and my place (or lack thereof) in it. PC is sort of an open letter to the political structure, saying that I know they are scamming us, and that a world of more and more rules makes criminals of us all. '33' is sort of the bottoming out, if you will, where I'm acknowledging that I feel like I have essentially failed in my mission to "be something," but I'm also saying that the direction the world is moving in makes it real hard to 'succeed' at this point. It makes it difficult to believe, too. There's only so long you can stare down the barrel of the gun until you feel like that's all that's left for you. The Bush administration really piled it on us for a while there, but I was already struggling with these feelings of inadequacy in the midst of the huge, relentless machine that is American culture in the '90s. Maybe I've always just felt overwhelmed by it all. 'Weightless' then kind of caps it by saying, "Look, I'm not the only one, we're all in this boat together, and it's just ... about ... to sink." So I'm going to reach out for a life preserver, to extend the metaphor, but that life preserver isn't going to come from the system that sunk the ship. It has to come from something more, higher, more loving, something with a larger perspective and deeper understanding of the mystery of this life.
The boat analogy that pops up in 'Weightless' is great, too, because I'm using it as a metaphor for the earth itself. The earth as a whole is sort of my muse for this record, seeing us from this larger perspective, and you'll see references to the Earth all over the record. So when the idea of 'Boduvt' came up, meaning, according to Felix the 4-year-old, "a round boat," it perfectly encapsulated several of the themes I was shooting for with this record. In this case, it represents the earth. A round boat. It's perfect. There are a lot of happy accidents like that surrounding the making of this record. It feels very much fated in that way.
Taking this one step further, people in the consciousness movement often say that the planet Venus represents the "soul of the Earth" in some way. Don't ask me how, I don't understand it yet. Maybe it's a higher dimensional version of our planet somehow. So, if I'm going to run with this analogy, I would say that to be an agent of Venus would be to be an agent of the next higher dimensional version of the Earth. The 5th-dimensional version, which is what the whole 2012 message seems to be about. That there will be a split between the old Earth that will fall and the new Earth that will rise into the 5th dimension, and this happens just about now, i.e., 2012. Now's the time to choose which one you want to be on, the one that rises above all our ridiculousness and into a world of peace, love and fulfillment, or one that sinks beneath the weight of our greed, hate, and stupidity. Do you know which side you're on?
That's not to say you have to even believe or care about what I might be thinking to enjoy the record. I don't think you do. But this is sort of more where I'm coming from, as a macro perspective.
'The Reason,' which I missed here, is really about having to do what you have to do to survive, and is any of it really necessary? Money is a theme I revisit often in music, cause I'm so perplexed by it. What is this stuff for? I didn't come to this planet to make money, I came here to make music, art, movies, love, fun, friends. But if you don't try to make money, you probably won't have too much of any of the other stuff. So the question is, is the pursuit of money part of the game of coming to this world at this time? Is this part of the illusion we have chosen to deal with? Is it a test for us, a rule or a means of control? Is this one of the things we have agreed to deal with in one way or another simply because we've chosen to 'be?' You can see I have lots of questions. Hopefully I'm offering some answers in there somewhere.
Q: The lyrics of those four songs read like an indictment of the politico-economical framework of the country and where they've led us, an indictment that includes both leaders and followers. 'The Reason' in particular seems to pass judgment on the latter. Yet you've always been a lot less "This is wrong" and a lot more "This is wrong for me." Am I right that I detect a bit of a shift here?
PR: Well, yes, I admit I don't really believe in the system we are forced to follow. It is anti-human, in my mind. It is designed with population control in mind. It is the full manifestation of the ego run rampant: paranoia, fear of the other in any manifestation, the need to control everything because it knows it can't really control much of anything. This is what happens when there is no heart to a society. I think money is a way of controlling the population, because we aren't allowed to just use the resources freely given to us by this planet, and we aren't really encouraged to use them wisely. War is promoted as problem solving. Competition is taken as a given, a dog-eat-dog world. We are isolated from each other, in our minds, and made to be fearful. We are raised to be functional parts of the industrial matrix. If we can't fit into the matrix, we are further isolated. Drugs are promoted as the answer to disease, yet are made illegal simultaneously. Even the leaders it seems we elect are only really allowed to come from certain lines of humanity, and many are actually related to each other. It seems we have free elections, but the Bush regime proved that those elections can be manipulated, and was probably designed to show us that our system is false and make us lose faith in that system, 'cause the dudes behind the curtain are done with this version of society and ready for the next version. There is a occult ruling class, hiding and flaunting their hidden knowledge in plain sight, lying to us every day through the controlled media. Don't kid yourself.
But I'm not just blaming them, because that, too, is a powerless state of mind. It goes back to that line from 'Weightless': the "broken imagination." This is all of us, failing to imagine a better way together. This is me, failing to harness my own power of thought and manifest my own true path. This is me, failing to "believe." In fact, the power system seems to be inevitable to anyone who is unwilling to take full responsibility for everything that happens in their life. Either you claim all your own power or you create a space for some psychotic person who is out of balance and wants to control more than their own destiny to step into that void and do the power harnessing for you. If energy is neither created nor destroyed, then it is always here, trying to maintain a balance to the universe, and sort of filling in the cracks, so to speak. So if the people, the 'victims' in this instance, are unwilling to claim their own true sovereignty as the inheritors of the unlimited reality of the truth of the universe, then the 'universe' is going to find those crazy people who want their power and your power and give it all to them, 'cause someone's got to deal with it, it's just there (the power, in this example). We each need to become our truest, fullest selves in order to really inhabit our 'puzzle piece,' so to speak, to fill the space we were truly created to occupy. This is a movement, not a static event. So things are always changing and readjusting to try to find a stasis, so this journey for us is a lifelong thing of striving to be our truest selves. And, of course, you can find contradiction for anything I just wrote.
But just to pedal back a bit. I'm not just blaming those in "power" (or maybe more accurately, those striving to maintain a large level of control). In 'Political Criminal,' I say "Two sides, the same disgrace. We wear each other's faces. I'd try to take your place but I hate what you do." Meaning, I know they (the politicians, in this case) are really me, too. They are the other side of the power equation. I'm tempted to overthrow their rule book, but I know it'll just turn me into them, and that's really not how I want to spend my life, trying to overthrow the government. Its the darker side of 'Hero with 1000 Eyes,' where I say, "Every life you're living is my life," meaning you are the version of me that does what you do, just as I am the version of you that does what I do, but this is in a more positive way, an acknowledgment that we are truly one if we simply understand the truth of it, if we see ourselves in everyone and try to take the perspective of each other, not be just merely 'selfish' in the truest sense of having a singular self.
As an indictment, well, I've never really set out to indict anybody. I'm just saying, this is what I seem to see happening. This is the conclusion I've come to at the point I co-wrote these songs. I want it to change, and it has to change. But I don't really blame anyone, you know? Shit happens. Here we are. What are we going to do about it? Can we do anything? What if this is just the way of things and we just have to sit back and enjoy the ride? It's pretty overwhelming to contemplate actually changing it all consciously. It's a real jungle out there, and if there's one thing I've learned, trying to control it all is really the biggest mistake we can make. It's the mistake we keep making. We can't control it all. It's too big. I can barely control myself from day to day. I've needed to develop faith that there is a reason I'm here to witness this all, and find ways to relax into the process of revelation from day to day and let the universe bring what I desire into my life at 'random' moments in time, to not know and trust that not knowing is ok. And when I say faith, this isn't a religious thing. It's more of a conversation with the aspects of the universe that are invisible to me but seem to be affecting the visible world. If reality manifests from the unknown to the known, then what's going on over there in the unknown part? They must know something I don't, 'cause all this manifestation is coming from there (wherever there is), so I need to start having a conversation with 'over there' if I want to see something different manifesting over here.
Q: Was your work on the album a reaction to anything/-one? Were you deep
into any writer/thinker/mindframe or affected by any events in
particular? The Bush administration and decline in the political
discourse seemed obvious, even before you mentioned him.
PR: If my mind could be into only one thing, I think it might be how to become God, meaning how to become unlimited, enlightened, better, maybe superhuman somehow. Or maybe love, how to find a true love. Or success, how to succeed in this world, what is success, victory. Or maybe it would be how to bring about peace. Or maybe escape, how to escape the traps this world seems to place, how to find the coolest diversions to alter my consciousness. Or music, how to turn all of life into something as cool as music.
But as you can see, my mind doesn't exactly focus on one thing.
I would say that this album was written amidst a long period of what I could only call premonition. This meaning: During the '90s, I had many profound experiences that led me to believe the world was heading towards a major change on all levels and I would get to be involved somehow. I came to realize that a big part of this change would be a lot of death and destruction. I've always walked with a certain level of nihilistic fever, in a way, where for much of my life I felt like I was essentially doomed. I know now this is really just a psychological/spiritual positioning, or simply put, a state of mind. As I pursued trying to essentially change or lose this state of 'doomedness,' I learned that my worries were not totally unwarranted. But simultaneously, I also learned to let go of all this fear I was carrying around with me and begin to just be here and enjoy being alive. Simply put, I learned that I could find a place inside myself where I could stop worrying. I think this album has been written during that transformation.
I've looked rather deeply into understanding the mystery schools, the western enlightenment schools, the eastern traditions a bit, the Kabbalist and Masonic thought, extraterrestrial theories and communications, forms of and ideas around meditations, crystal skulls, wormholes, Egypt, Atlantis and Lemuria, channeled information, the future, time travel, psychic abilities, the true history of Christ, world mysteries, the illumined masters, angels, near-death and out-of-body experience, conspiracy, lizard people, experimental alternative energy, mythology, end times, 2012, whatever struck my fancy that day. The occult, in a nutshell. The occult, of course, representing those things that are kept secret. Why are they secret? There are millions of reasons. But now they are all available to us. I believe this point, that they are now widely available to us, is incredibly significant. Why now? Why now?
Along with all this research, meditation, effort towards change, I found myself adrift in a life that I could not figure out how to properly improve. Try as I might, I couldn't seem to get things to move in any direction that felt very satisfactory, and that seemed to represent real progress. I deeply wanted to create a life that would represent what I imagined my true potential could be, but I really seemed to be incapable of creating it. I could see the mountaintop, but I could only sort of circle it from far away. Despite my best efforts, I seemed to be in a waiting pattern. In limbo.
An excellent example of this was the making of the record itself. I initiated this project with Allen as a project that could be made in between projects. This was going to be the album I made between my last band and my next band. Allen was insistent that the project would never turn into a proper live band, so I resolved that I would put a couple years into writing some really quality music with one of my best buddies and then sort of have that one under my belt, have a well made record to share and use it to promote myself to potential new bands, as a calling card to attract quality players and songwriters who really wanted to play out and build a body of original, epic, crazy creative stuff. It was an going to be a rebound girlfriend, if you catch my drift.
But for some reason, this project just kind of hung in there, and Allen and I slowly amassed material and just worked it and reworked it seemingly endlessly. We would have long breaks in between recording sessions. So I was left waiting, often for many many months at a time, to finish this transitional project. Many months turned into many years, and I did a ton of other stuff in the meantime, but all the while, this project kept hanging in there, slowly changing and improving. Little by little. Step by step. It always had a priority for me, and I knew for some reason I had to see it through. I don't give up easy, even though I do give up often. Usually giving up for me involves trying another tactic or attacking from another vantage point at the same or a similar problem in hopes of arriving in the same goal of being my idealized version of myself. I had lots of failures both inside this project and in my life during these 7 years. I had to learn to keep going, to be understanding, to keep giving, to be patient.
I had to learn to be patient.
Even in the midst of what seemed like certain annihilation. I had to be patient.
This feels like what I have ended up coming away from this project, maybe as a central theme that I studied by living it. I'm 40 now. I started this thing when I was about 33. Most of my thirties seemed to pass me by like a whisper. I thought this was going to be the time where I really got to live to my fullest potential. But I just couldn't make it all work for me, barely any of it, really. So I had to learn to let go. I can see now that this process of letting go IS the enlightenment process. And it's really not very dramatic, in a way, because drama comes from holding on to things, making them really really important, life-and-death shit. But letting go is like a whisper. It's small and quiet and kind. It's loving because it's so gentle, in some way, like Santa Claus, who leaves you presents while you're sleeping. Dig that as a metaphor. Saint Nick is a dude who creeps down your chimney in the middle of the night, like anti-smoke, and leaves you gifts, all for the price of a cookie. Nice dude.
At any rate, I think you might be able to look at the album as a whole as a record made by the fellas from Waiting for Godot; they never quite get anywhere, but the waiting is sublime. But at the end of this waiting period, for me, is the understanding of the arrival of the divine feminine, the female Christ, if you will. A lady buddha. It's like all the bluster and falderol has to be drained out of you so that you might become quiet enough to hear the little voice inside you that knows the mind of the universe itself, the life force that makes things, material, matter, the mater, the mother. She is always there if you want to hear her. But you have to slow down and listen.
Q: Speaking of your being 33 when the project started: '33' changed some; an earlier iteration that sounded album-ready had a lot of different choices and a different feel to it -- more whimsical and fun, where the album version is more matched to the content of the lyrics. How common was that on a project that was recorded over seven years?
PR: Fairly common, actually. We started off the project with no other musicians, and I think in 2006 or '07 we brought in Mike and Homey to play drums and bass, respectively, and that really radically changed the feel of half the album.
When we started writing the tunes, we were talking about creating a more hip hop-influenced album. Really, I thought we would be shooting for something closer to Beck's Midnite Vultures album, which Allen and I both really love. (I personally think it's his best one.) I was deep into hip hop at this point -- rock and roll had really lost me, all I wanted was rhymes and beats and cool keyboard sounds. Allen seemed to be down with the Midnite Vultures feel, but I think he'd actually been producing lots of hip hop projects and was sort of sick of it. I don't know, but I think this might be his first full-length rock album, really. I know he's recorded many of his own projects before this one, but I think this might be his first official full-on rock record where he's written and produced all the material. It seemed like, even though he was insistent on not having a band, he was jonesing for a real rock experience. So after a few years of writing tunes with programmed beats, he got the bee in his bonnet to bring in Mike and Homey and really turn 'Boduvt' into a rock record. Maybe that was always his plan, I dunno.
I was still keen on the programmed beats thing, and as you can see, there are still a fair amount of songs on the record with 'artificial' drum tracks. And of course, I was down with bringing in 2 & 1/2. (That's Mike and Homey's nickname as a rhythm section from the old Dr. Dolittle days, cause Homey is the size of 2 men and Mike is the size of 1/2 a man.) So once they came in and we recorded the basic bass and drum tracks over the course of a weekend, we now had a whole new series of songs to contend with, and they changed. Mike's feels on '33,' 'Political Criminal,' even 'Fall off the Earth,' are really much more rock than what we had going, and it really intensified those songs, gave them more gravity, to their advantage, I think. We even put had Mike just do different fills and rhythms on top of the programmed beats for 'Hero with 1000 Eyes,' and that totally changed the sound of the song. We kept the programmed stuff in there, but now suddenly 'Hero' is a rock tune, like a U2 song or something. I would love to do a few remixes of 'Hero,' I think that song could be approached in about 15 different ways and still work.
What I am bummed about losing, in terms of 33, was that great beginning with Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover from 'Back to the Future,' where he approaches her in the diner with a little notepad in his hand and tells her she's his density. I reference it later in the song, and actually, the reference was there before the spoken word stuff. I thought it was great, just funny and weird and it timed out perfectly into the beginning of the first verse. But by the time we had re-recorded the tune, it was one of those things we had to let go of, mainly cause it probably costs a fortune to license the audio from that movie, and probably partly because I think maybe Allen thought it was silly, you'd have to ask him, don't quote me on that -- or, at least, quote me saying 'don't quote me.' But using samples like that was part of the feel to the album I really wanted, like in the way P.E. or the Beasties really used to incorporate spoken recordings from film or tv or what have you straight into the tunes and it's not only perfectly placed, it's musical. That whole vibe sort of went out the window with the election to move more towards a rock record. And really, when you have a guitar player and singer like Allen, isn't it your obligation to maketh with the rocketh? Let me answer that for you: It is.
Overall, I've never been a part of a project that really labored over every little detail in every song the way this one did. There are dozens of versions of each song -- really, we documented the progression of the tunes pretty well, and the dozen versions are usually the development of a single version. Allen has this incredible drive as a producer to be constantly upgrading his knowledge, programs, and techniques so that each new development makes the tune that much clearer, [makes it] sound that much fuller, isolate[s] each sound and place[s] them in the right spot more perfectly. It was wild to watch him do his producer shtick. Some sessions I really felt like I was there just to keep him company while his brain feverishly communicated with his Pro Tools system. And yes, that communication frequently involved many, many explicatives.
Another cool aspect of '33' itself was how it turned into this sort of Radiohead song with a sense of humor. Between the two of us, we'd figure out the dynamics of the tune, where the guitars should be heavier, when the backup vocals should come in, when the tune should sound etheric and when it's a guitar army. Allen was really willing to listen to a lot of my musical ideas, and I'd say I have a strength at composing, sort of knowing what should go where when, even though I couldn't tell you if a song's in "A" or "Z." Or "V," I guess. But I did have perspective when Allen would get to zoomed into the details, and vice versa. Eventually '33' took on the epic quality it needed to get its point across, I think. It's sort of Radiohead meets Jellyfish with some Jimi Hendrix-type guitar soloing in there at the end. And I still think the song is kind of funny, but it's the funny joke you make after your house has just been hit by a tornado and you're standing in the rubble saying "where's my ashtray" when you know damn well your entire house is now an ashtray.
What I do find amazing is that even though say, 'Cobalt Silver' was mostly recorded 6 years ago and 'Alchemical Dependency' was finished last year, all the tunes seem like they belong together. I mean, stylistically, we are all over the board on this record. But somehow, and I really think this again is to Allen's credit as a freaking amazing producer, the album seems to flow nicely, and you can have AD going right into 'Political Criminal' and it works perfectly, somehow. 'Weightless' into 'The Post Relevant Movement'? Sure, why not. Here you go! Chew on that. This reinforces my idea that you can do anything with music and find a way to make it work. Shit, the Beatles were really stylistically diverse in their songwriting approach, and they had three different dudes writing tunes, yet somehow their records sound like they were carved out of the rock of eternity, fully formed and perfect. And that's the beauty of the same people creating the vibe together: eventually, no matter what they do, the songs all sound like, well, them, and they belong together.
Q: What were some of the other conscious decisions you guys made in terms of making this record?
PR: Deciding this was a rock record was certainly one of the most important decisions we made. The decision to keep at this record, when we really could have given up on it at any point in time, was a big decision. I actually decided to move away from NYC partially to sort of force Allen's hand, so he would have to finish the record. That was a major decision for me. There was one awesome metal song we wrote, Magic Pumpkin Room, that really kicked much ass, with Homey and Mike really killing it, but ultimately it was a little too metal for the rest of the record. A bummer, to be sure. I wish we could have finished it and put it out as a single, but it just didn't happen, not enough time to really deal with it. It was a monster. I will probably find a way to complete it someday. I consciously decided to hang back and try to fit my songwriting/lyric writing styles into something that would suit Allen's agenda and aesthetic for the first half of the project, and then Allen sort of came around to my way of thinking for the second half of the project and embraced my crazy, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-and-the-other-two-sinks-underneath-it leanings. There was a lot of give and take, and we learned to trust each other. We really hadn't been making art together on almost any level for the bulk of our friendship. We consciously decided to make music that could be commercial -- something that could actually be used for commercials, movies, tv shows, licensing, etc. etc. I would sort of sabotage that every once in a while with a well placed 'fuck' or 'bust a nut,' but I would have done a lot crazier things lyrically or vocally if Allen didn't keep me in check. It really was a very collaborative experience. I don't think this album is what either of us was actually shooting for, but it kind of defined itself, in a way, and that is much cooler, really. We are the Hall and Oates of the Grunge Generation.
Q: You've said that Allen was very demanding regarding the lyrics. What can you tell me about that? And how did the reverse work -- how were you able to shape the music, both macro and micro?
PR: Allen seemed to have a different sense of what is proper lyrically than I did. That seems only natural, everybody has their own personal aesthetic. When he does write lyrics, he actually writes pretty good ones. All the lyrics for 'Stereo' are straight-up Allen. I love them:
There's a real relation you don't understand
Mythic box of complication opens in your hand
and as I wade through dissatisfaction
I know you lie.
Now, granted, those aren't simple lyrics. That's a sophisticated approach he's taking, and I especially like that he's relating TV to Pandora's box. It's great, and it's a real one-two punch thematically to go from 'Stereo' to 'Hero,' both referencing mythology, and with 'Stereo' saying "it's a clever scenario when you become your own hero" and then we describe being the hero in 'Hero with 1000 Eyes.' 'Stereo' was a song written by Allen and Mike in their late-'90s band, but just really worked thematically with our record.
But if you want to see the difference between me and him, check out the number of words in his lyrics compared to one of my songs. I am a word whore. 'Stereo' has 2 verses and a repeated chorus, and the verses are pretty terse and to the point. Compare that to an Allen-sung song where I wrote most of the lyrics, like 'Fall Off the Earth': It's verse part 1, verse part 2, pre-chorus, chorus, 2x and then that third part that references the title of the song. But the pre-chorus is really pretty wordy:
"Now everybody sings the songs they wrote for you to me
since you threw away the comfort of my company
serenaded by a dead-end symphony
and searching for a guarantee
guarantee to the mystery"
That's just the chorus, but damn it's wordy, yeah? And I'm also singing extra stuff behind Allen's lead. And that was me trying to simplify. Allen would often, for the songs he was singing lead on, introduce a vocal melody to me and send me off to write words for it. I would ask him questions about what he was trying to say with the song. Then I'd try to write lines that felt less like me and more like him. That was the hardest part, my biggest point of resistance. I am used to writing lyrics that sound like me, that represent my personality, my perspective, my sense of humor. (That's a big one.) Inside of that, I tend to go wherever I want to, I like to vary it up, I like to throw off expectations inside of the lyrics that I've already built within the song, tell jokes, multiple meanings inside of a line, really whatever, and I tend to make wandering melodic lines that entertain me.
Allen had a very specific melody in mind for FOTE. I would come back with lyrics and he'd really know when it worked for his melody and when it didn't. I must have rewritten those chorus lyrics a few times until they congealed into what you hear on the record today. But again, it really was collaborative. In fact, 'Fall Off the Earth' is a story that combines his experiences with mine and turns it into a song about losing a single girl, but its really about a combination of experiences both he and I had separately in relation to 2 different girls over the course of a few years in New York City. Here's the story:
Allen had a difficult breakup with a serious girlfriend and then saw her walking down the street with her new boyfriend and it really freaked him out. I was actually walking with him when he saw her. So you have:
"Paralyzed when you walked by (Allen came up with this line, it was his initial idea when writing this song)
We were talking about you that day (which is true)
Careless coincidence left me behind
While your next victim lead you away" (what we were witnessing)
The chorus (now everybody sings the songs they wrote for you to me) is about an open mic night that I went to where I ran into someone I knew from the past who had written a song for an ex-girlfriend of mine and played it at the open mic night -- so he was singing a song he wrote for her to me, which you have to admit is pretty strange.
The second verse is about an experience I had:
I was in a diner (stoned, no less) and my ex-girlfriend (the same one from the chorus) walked into the diner as the song "Going to the Chapel" was playing -- it was weird, it all happened in slow motion (again, I was high) -- but the rub here is that I had recently learned that she was getting married, so this event really just cemented that knowledge. It was like the spirit world really wanted me to know that she was getting married. But the running theme here is these weird coincidences with ex-girlfriends.
So the real thing we are dealing with, in terms of 'Fall Off the Earth,' is letting go of a lost love, and how the universe seems to conspire to give you these weird coincidences to help you understand that the love is really gone, it's over. These coincidences become the "Dead End Symphony" (which is what I originally wanted to call the song) -- it's the spirit world talking to you, telling you that this is a lost cause, a dead end. Let it go. Again, a running theme in the enlightenment process, letting go.
The point I'm trying to make here, in terms of lyrics, is that Allen's approach in shaping words to fit his melodies until they felt right was the right approach, because what we ended up with for FOTE specifically and for the album in general were songs that felt very deliberate, more straightforward than maybe I would normally approach something on my own, but still retained levels of mystery or depth upon repeated listens and analysis. At least, that's my hope for the listener's experience. I was forced into a slightly more detached writing style, which is not so comfortable for me, cause I like to really invest myself in the lyrics emotionally so that they feel real when I sing them. But I couldn't really do that completely with half the songs, cause they weren't really about me. So then, how do I write something good while being sort of detached from it? How do I put aside my needs for the sake of the song?
Again, more letting go necessary here.
Another interesting story (to me), in relation to me writing words to Allen's music, is 'Hero.' In this song, Allen had composed the main part of that song for a commercial, in another key, I think. His music wasn't used for the commercial, so it just goes into his library as something to use potentially for some project in the future. Completely separately, I had written some verses and a chorus for 'Hero,' which was one of those songs that just sort of showed up on my doorstep in a fever, so to speak, like I figured out a good chunk of it lyrically/melodically all at once. I even wrote those lyrics as simple as possible, because I was intending it to be for AoV, and I knew Allen was responding to simpler stuff. When I heard Allen's composition, I realized that my verse and chorus fit almost perfectly inside his piece. Seriously, it was as if we had written the song together, which I assure you we didn't. They fit almost perfectly. When I sang the lyrics to Allen, he really responded to them immediately. So I knew I was onto something. That song, the actual writing of it, was fated. Which made sense, since it was pointing towards an awareness of a greater reality and the interconnectedness of our consciousness. It was like we had both tapped into the greater mythological mind and came out with two halves of the same song. Pretty cool, right?
Lastly, I would point to 'Her Favorite Song' as another good example of how Allen's "strictness" worked in the song's favor. I certainly went through many rewrites of the lyrics for this tune, simplifying every time, with Allen still saying "no that's not it" after each rewrite. So I simplified to point where the lines for a verse are two or three words each, and the chorus was pretty traditional, a legit pop tune. I would almost never do this on my own. But now, when I listen to that song, I can't imagine it being any other way. It's nearly perfect to me. It's a true pop song, but it's still a funny, interesting story with a great chorus and lots of little Jellyfish-esque flourishes all over the tune. It satisfies many of my songwriting needs and Allen's while being maybe a song that neither of us would have written separately, and is based on true events from both our lives (though embellished with fiction). If Allen hadn't insisted on simplifying, that song would not have worked as well as I think it does. You may disagree, that's fine, but I'm psyched about it.
I think in this same way, musically Allen would hit these compositional roadblocks and have to ask me where I thought the songs should go. Sometimes I have melodic ideas that I can sing for him and he responds to them. If he likes them, he might incorporate it into the music with a keyboard line or a beat or something. Sometimes he would ask me for advice and I'd literally have nothing, and we'd both listen to him noodling on guitar until one of us heard something we liked and we develop from there. Funnily enough, by the end of the record, I would be suggesting entire lines in his guitar solos, and sometimes he'd go for it. Like I'd sing a line that could be a part of his solo, and either he'd duplicate it and it would get on the record or he'd incorporate a couple notes and it would help him get to the other side of the solo. And there were just as many, if not more, of my musical suggestions that he'd disregard, just like I would wave him off if thought he was off-course either musically or lyrically.
I think eventually he learned to trust my instincts. I would push for more guitars, bring the bass up in the mix, let's do this counterpattern with backing vocals, let's throw in crowd noises here, etc., and very often he'd give it a go. He was game for a lot of my ideas, like having the record skip in the middle of 'Her Favorite Song.' I could sing how it should work and he would actually be able to make it happen! It was crazy, I think I really put him through his paces as a producer, and Allen would almost always try to make what I wanted to happen happen if it was something I was really insistent on. Shit, I got him to write 'The Post Relevant Movement.' I don't think anyone in their right mind would go near that idea. And Allen composed the crap out of that tune. I mean, I had a million ideas for that song, but he was the dude smart enough to say that we should sing the lyrics. I had written those words as a rap a long time ago, and it was always going to be a rap, but Allen kept insisting we sing it, like barbershop sort of, and he was right. It was exactly what that song needed. That song is a good example of the two of us just firing off ideas with a willingness to incorporate whatever is necessary and still make it work. Again, an example of something neither of us could have come up on our own. And if you notice, at the end of the song, there are sounds taken from 'Cobalt Silver' and 'Her Favorite Song,' so it sort of connects the last songs with some of the earlier songs and brings the album full-circle.
Q: You and Allen trade lead singing roles, backing each other up on some songs, backing yourselves up on others. How were decisions made regarding who would sing what?
PR: It all depended on who was singing what and when. I don't think there was really a plan, per se. The first song we wrote was 'Cobalt Silver,' with both of us singing lead, in a way like Simon and Garfunkel. The next song was FOTE, which was clearly going to be Allen singing lead. As that song developed, I began to tell him my ideas for backups, and he dug it, so I laid down what one might call a plethora of backups. I also came up with the vocal melody for the end of the song, I think, but then Allen sort of Allenized it and I came up with harmonies for his Allenization. Then he threw down the gauntlet with that awesome "fall off the eaaaaarrrrrrrrtthh" ending with that nice falsetto at the end of the song. So we would really build on each others ideas vocally.
Usually, if someone was singing lead, the other dude would tend to sing backup harmonies, 'The Reason' being a good example of that. Allen is matching my lead line-for-line with a harmony. I had the ideas for the clever little backup lines in the second verse, and I also had a lot of suggestions for the harmonies in general, and then would leave Allen alone to find it. He came up with all the harmonies in that section before the last chorus where I sing about all the things I would have done had I known what I know now. In fact, I think it was his idea to create a vocal part in that song that was reminiscent of the end of Foo Fighters' 'Monkey Wrench,' y'know, the "one last thing before I quit ..." part. I took that idea and extended it, so it turned into this long litany of regrets. It was a noble idea, I think. 'Stereo' was Allen all the way on lead, and I tried to hang back as much as I could with the harmonies, 'cause I thought his voice was enough for much of the verses. All the harmonies were me on that one. 'Hero' is more the opposite, where Allen sings both the high and low harmonies around my vocal lead in the chorus, an Allen vocal sandwich, if you will, and it's the same on the chorus of 'Her Favorite Song,' for the chorus: me singing lead and Allen singing above and below me. 'Hero' is cool cause sometimes he'd leave me to flesh out a harmony idea, and sometimes he'd introduce one, sometimes we'd both sing backups together. It seems random, but probably more to do with who had what idea. 'Her Favorite Song' seems very organized: me on lead and backups on the first verse, Allen on lead and backups in the second verse. We harmonize together on the chorus and through the bridge, then into this cool doo wop section, with Allen doing the higher harmonies and me doing the bass vocal under my lead vocal, then back into the second half of the third verse with Allen singing the higher harmony to my lead, I guess, and then chorus and Allen leading us out with his improvisation and my high backups and the occasional chorus vocal thrown in there at the end.
In a couple tunes the vocals have a more distinct split. 'Watershaker' is almost all Allen, and I just show up as the guest rapper. I pretty much decided to stay out of most of that one, cause he'd already come up with this great wall of vocals for the chorus and I really would have just mucked it up. Then we flip that with 'Alchemical Dependency,' where I'm doing all the rapping and Allen is the dude that sings the hook and that cool stuff at the end of the third verse. Allen had already written the vocal hook for that song when I got my hands on it, but didn't really have words to it, and I got in there and made it a silly rap song. I dig that tune though, it's pretty catchy.
'33' and 'Weightless,' the initial vocal melodies were introduced by Allen, but I would get in there and change them up as I wrote lyrics. In '33' I came up with the background vocals singing that other line behind the main chorus. I probably introduced a lot of the more Jellyfishy alternate lyric background melodies in that song. If you listen carefully to '33,' you may notice Allen and I switching places vocally in the middle of the choruses, where he goes from low to high and I go from high to low. There's a lot of clever vocal shit all over '33.'
Allen really wanted to sing both harmonies on the chorus of 'Weightless,' so he went for that and I eventually get introduced into the second and third choruses with a low and then high harmony. So each chorus on 'Weightless' has a new voice on it, helping to build the intensity of the song. Allen pulled off some really etheric solo voice work at the end of that song.
He was also was very instrumental in composing the vocal melodies for 'The Post Relevant Movement,' cause he had the vision that that song should be sung, not rapped, and then we probably built off of each other's ideas line by line as that song progressed. We switch up vocal duties a lot on that song, and by the end of the third verse we've switched positions, from me doing the low harmonies and him higher to him lower and me higher -- we do this right in the middle of the verse, which you could say is unusual. I came up with the chorus melody for that song and then Allen immediately figured out his part, which is really brilliant cause he is finishing my phrases in the chorus, and it allows us to each sing less words and extend longer notes while still saying what I wanted to say lyricwise in the chorus, all the while creating a cool Indian-type three-part harmony. Allen is so brilliant with harmonies, his harmonies on the choruses of PRM, 'Hero,' and HFS are exactly what I would want without me knowing that's what I wanted. I think we each think about melodies and harmonies just similar enough yet just different enough to actually enhance what the other guy is singing in inventive ways without detracting from the leads.
And that's Allen's voice singing those cool sped-up Indian type vocals at the end of PRM. I can't really pull off the vocal soloing like my boy can.
I guess in general, main vocals and harmonies would be developed with an acoustic guitar and us singing together to see what worked. Once someone laid down a lead on a recording, we would just come up with ideas until it sounded right. Whoever had the best idea won, and often we'd suggest notes to sing to each other if something wasn't working. Fortunately, Allen likes singing as much as I do, so he went for going overboard with the vocals more often than I thought he would.
To maybe answer your question slightly more directly, I think because I was writing most of the lyrics, I would tend to have a lot of influence over the direction of the vocals. But in terms of who sang leads, it was usually due to who wanted the song more. I really wanted to sing 'Hero,' and I'm certain Allen was going to be the lead vocalist on 'Weightless,' that tune is his magnum opus. In terms of how it all panned out on the album, who sang what seemed to just balance itself out organically, wouldn't you say? How does it seem from a listener's perspective?
Q: I would definitely use the word evolve, which would be a tribute to the sequencing, if who was singing what was a factor in that at all. I
don't know that I could recreate it song by song, but I remember first
thinking, on my first listen through the disc, that you were kind of
the Flavor Flav of the pair. But it's not more than three songs in
before it's clear you'll be showcased too (and not in a 'Cold Lampin'
with Flav' sort of way, lest you be tempted to take that reference the
wrong way). It's not always clear without your cheat sheet above, the
division of backups and harmonies, but it is clear often enough to get
within hailing distance behind the idea behind your collaboration.
What songs on the album stand out in some way for you, and in what
ways? For example, Water Shaker might stand out because it's different
musically, or some song might stand out because you feel you were
particularly effective communicating what you wanted lyrically.
PR: To me? I think a vague answer is that each song stands out to me in its own way, because in my opinion we succeeded in making an album that is stylistically diverse, so each song in relation to the others gets its own little personality, making each one stand out.
To be more specific:
'Her Favorite Song' stands out to me for several reasons:
It's a simple song that tells a simple story, and the story seems to make linear sense, in a way, and yet, despite (or perhaps because of) its simplicity, this is the one of the most singable tunes on the album, and I love love love listening to it. I get off on having made a real pop song that isn't stupid. And I really dig having been able to incorporate all the little audio illustrations into the tune (like the crowd noises, the record skipping, the little bloopy submarine noises, the doo wop section, Allen's little guitar army in his verse, etc). That stuff made me really happy, it's really a bit of my Jellyfish fantasy to incorporate those kind of things that can only really happen in the studio -- the Beatles did a bit of that, ELO, Zappa. But we did that and still (again, in my opinion) managed to keep it a pop song, with a modern feel and programmed beats! I dare say this is the most Phil/Allenish collabo, because it has those Jellyfish-esque flourishes (Phil) and a very Steely Dan-ish bridge (Allen) -- if you listen closely, Allen's strummy guitar [break] in the bridge is straight out of the Steely Dan playbook. I love the chorus, and I love the way the guitars build in the final chorus. I love Allen's extended, ridiculous vocal flourish at the end of his verse. I love that Allen's higher harmony in the third verse sounds like me singing, and that maybe I sound like him in that verse. I really dig the spacey tempo in the doo wop section, and the way that section sort of hearkens the song back to an old fashioned Fifties pop tune, signifying that this song is in the tradition of over fifty years of straightforward rock and roll. And I love that it is a song about playing a song, but not the song you are actually listening to. It's about playing someone else's song. So it's nostalgic and eternal, because "her favorite song" could be any song that a girl might love over the past half-century or more. But by calling it 'Her Favorite Song,' we are perhaps designating that this song on our album will hopefully become 'her favorite song." And, lyrically, I got to vent about the time wasted being a dj in a crappy bar, about girls I didn't get to sleep with, and about having to wait to actually make the song itself due to our tortoise-like recording process, and turn all those 'minuses' into a 'plus,' that being the song itself. It's really a celebration of everything I love about pop tunes. That song just makes me happy, and hopefully it makes other people jump up and down with glee when they hear it.
'The Post Relevant Movement' stands out to me because its really a spiritual song to me, and the lyrics were kicking around in my notebook/computer for years and years, with the intention of turning it into a song someday, but never knowing when that someday would be. And not only did we turn it into some kind of strange amalgam of Outkast's 'Hey Ya' and something off of Beck's 'Midnite Vultures' (which was what I was shooting for with the album to begin with), but it turned out to be a much more interesting song musically than I had ever imagined, much in part to Allen's brilliant production work and versatility as a songwriter. That was a song where Allen recognized that this was a Zappa tune, meaning it was complex and strange and funny and deep and crazy all at once. He got what I was going for and he embraced it. I think the result of the tune is something I haven't quite heard before, which is also an objective of mine. We are innovating. And the chorus: "I have seen windows to dreams feeding a glowing machine breathing underneath it all" is actually about my out-of-body experience where I had a seizure and left my body and found myself floating in front of a giant whirlpool of stars spinning in on itself and consuming two-dimensional rectangles. A voice said to me "these are dreams" (presumably in reference to the rectangles) and the noise this whirlpool made was like a hundred thousand machines working backwards underwater. Allen and I tried to recreate the sound at the end of the song, probably not successfully. But even the attempt makes for a cool way to end a crazy-ass song like PRM. So the tune is actually about trying to identify this transcendant experience, and how attempting to identify it creates a million metaphors, because this whirlpool is actually the place from where ideas arise, so it's almost formless, and allowing any and all form to arise from it. Also, since the sound or vibration of the whirlpool was so dominant in my experience, it seemed appropriate to try to illustrate the experience through sound, through song. Lyrically, it's a chance to explore a ton of ideas in one tune, and just be a little zany, if I can use that word with you. I have to admit that I love funny music, and I love bands like Fishbone, who can write really funny lyrics and yet still make meaningful music. Never underestimate the power of a funny tune. Finally, in terms of the themes of the album, with all its apocalyptic symbolism and end times scenario, The PRM is a perfect way to end the record because it is trying to explain a place that is beyond time, so it is sort of a victory lap after all the pondering and posturing and deep thoughts have been abandoned. It's what happens after you become 'Weightless,' which, we both know, is the song right before it.
'Alchemical Dependency' stands out for me because of the third verse, which I think feels right, it has an urgency to it, it sounds like I imagined it would, it bangs. The chorus bangs too. And I got to say "celebrity porn is like heroin to me." Again, it's an opportunity to make light out of something that could be potentially serious, that being addiction. But as I've stated before, 'Alchemical Dependency' is first and foremost about an addiction to change, which is life, really. Being addicted to being alive. I think that's a pretty neat idea. The symbols on the album cover are alchemical symbols. Alchemy is the ancient process of changing our perception of ourselves -- turning lead to gold is really just a metaphor for the enlightenment process, gold being a symbol for the soul, so it's sort of about turning the flesh to the soul. Becoming God, knowing yourself to be whole, loving, happy, one, an extension of the creative force in the flesh.
Really, there are alchemical ideas all over every song in the record. And I'll let you in on a secret; the record is designed to be a tool for enlightenment. It's a magic spell. An initiator. Hopefully something about the lyrics, music, and art combine to inspire the listener to become interested in the enlightenment process and take up the torch, so to speak. So the Boduvt metaphor becomes once again significant: the 'round boat,' the spaceship is there to lift you up, to raise your vibration. Hopefully it inspires an internal process that is literally enlightening.
'Hero' stands out because of what I described before, how the song was separately written by Allen and myself and came together to be one song, so it was really a song that was "fated" to be. Maybe Venus herself inspired it. You might want to ask her. But everything about that song works for me: Allen's guitar work is really inspiring, I love his theme in the chorus. I like again that the song incorporates a synthesis of programmed beats and live drums. I love the central musical theme Allen created, which is a keyboard line doubled and offset by a sixteenth of a beat from each other, so you have this trippy stereo pattern running throughout the entire tune. I like that this might be a song from another planet or that it might be sung by a robot. All the spacey soundscapes going on in this tune really heighten the intensity of the song, it's like a seven-minute build. And the weird vocal thing at the beginning and end is me singing "these are dreams" backwards and then reversed to be forwards, so it ties into the themes of the album and refers back to the PRM out-of-body experience, as well as creating a symmetrical feeling to the tune, this kind of geometrical perfection. I'm not saying that the song is perfect, but it implies this higher-level geometry.
I think 'Fall Off the Earth' stands out simply because Allen's voice is so perfect on that one. And how it gently leads the listener into the whole album with that cool fade-in. I've already spoken about its thematic and lyrical significance. Allen's guitar solo on that tune also blows my mind. When I listen to it, it kind of reminds me of every awesome classic rock guitar solo distilled and branded with a hot iron onto the belly of this tune. It also really reminds me of a Jason Falkner solo, maybe from the first Jellyfish album or Falkner's first two solo records. Just a huge thunderous magnitude to it. I would love to hear him do that solo live someday.
'Cobalt Silver' stands out for me because it is one of the clearest songs we wrote. Really well produced, very much less is more. Every musical idea feels very sound. I think our voices work very well together on this tune. It's clear and pretty, good beat, another very singable pop tune with a complex lyrical idea behind it, and it really encapsulates the album themes well, a good intro into the record.
'Stereo' stands out to me because it again is a very well written rock tune with an anthemic guitar solo and excellent vocal delivery by Mr Towbin. It's kind of a companion piece to 'Hero' and 'Fall Off the Earth.' Very clear musical ideas presented here. The guitar solo into the final chorus really builds to a powerful crescendo. It's a big rock tune and stomps around doing what big rock tunes do.
Lastly and perhaps most obviously, I think 'Weightless' stands out because it really is this kind of King Crimson-esque masterpiece. Allen's arppeggiated guitar line throughout the tune is beautiful and hypnotic, Mike's playing on that one is really incredible, and like 'Stereo,' his drums and Homey's bass really stand out and create the necessary depth and space needed to make this song BIG. Both songs ('Stereo' and 'Weightless') are excellent examples of perfect rhythm section performances. They make those songs rock, but they are rock in the way Zeppelin is rock, Soundgarden is rock, that lumbering giant or Godzilla deliberately stomping its way across the countryside, flattening telephone poles and mountaintops, unfazed and constant. Homey's fretless work on both these tunes kicks my ass. He does these slides that sound like a whale crying. The sense of dynamics on 'Weightless' is so important, and I think the musicians on these two songs really understand that and take us for a journey. There needs to be a sense of importance to a great rock tune, of gravity, and the listener needs to feel like they've been changed somehow by listening to a song. I think the playing on both songs is sensitive then moving then monstrous. And especially on 'Weightless,' there is this genuine sense of longing to that tune, both with the vocals/lyrics and the music. The music seems to build on itself almost line by line. Mike's ride and high hat playing is so delicate at times. Every chorus introduces a new voice so that its larger than the last one. There's a rising-and-falling, dreamlike quality to the whole song. And the end with Mikey and Allen going off is just freaking sweet, it reminds me a bit of something from Mahavishnu Orchestra or something. Lots of ground covered by 'Weightless.' To sound like Jack Black for a minute, these songs really understand the power of rock.
Two other little things that stand out for me, lyrically:
1. The rap in 'Watershaker' is essentially about a Sumerian blood-drinking ritual that was supposed to create immortality in the imbiber. Watershaking in this instance is about drinking menstral blood of a queen, which was thought to have life-extending qualities. So that was sort of a clever little bit of weirdness I slipped in there. I don't think I even really understood totally that's what I was writing about when I wrote it. That's not what the whole song is about, the song is using water as a metaphor for energy (the spirit) and renewal. That's why the Age of Aquarius has some sort of significance -- the water bearer is pouring out water, but it's the spirit, not actual water. If everything is made of energy, then spirit for us would be like a fish in the ocean: We are completely surrounded by it to the point that it is invisible to us. Allen, as a little side note, is an Aquarius, making him the appropriate watershaker to sing the song. I don't put too much stock in astrology, but it is significant to me, and again, has mythological properties to it, as many of the myths or symbols are actually signifiers referencing astrological bodies in the sky. I do think this Sumerian blood-drinking thing might be where the idea of the Holy Grail comes from. The womb being the grail, the blood being the "wine." The idea of a royal lineage that has existed through the ages being significant because their bloodline literally was thought to hold the secrets of immortality when consumed ritually. Yet another connection to Venus and the big V ...
2. The second verse of "The Reason" is noteworthy in that I found a way to reference 6 Beatles songs in two lines, along with an XTC song that reminds me of a Beatles song:
"I'll melt the mirrors till my fire's smoke and sand
I'll earn enough for us if you trust me to be your man (8 days a week)
I'll work a hard day's night, the paperback rains help (I need somebody)
to feed the heaven's underneath my frozen over (hello hello hello)"
So you have 'Earn Enough for Us' (XTC) and then 'Eight Days a Week,' 'Hard Day's Night,' 'Paperback Writer,' 'Rain,' 'Help,' and 'Hello Goodbye.'
Q: You also snuck 'I Wanna Be Your Man' in that verse, if only subconsciously.
What are some of your favorite moments on the album? Parillo's work at the end of Weightless is dynamite, for example, as you noted.
PR: Moments that stand out:
1. Allen creates this really trippy keyboard line in 'Cobalt Silver.' I think he introduces it in the second half of the first chorus, then brings it back the beginning of the second chorus, and it stays throughout the third chorus/end of song. It has this sort of tumbling feeling to it, hypnotic, and there is probably some kind of filter or volume control making the dynamic of it fluctuate as it plays. So you have this clean but hypnotic-sounding keyboard line playing off of the reggae style guitar chunking in the chorus, and it creates this very bizarre feel that totally sort of unhinges you as a listener. Cause that song is very predictable, in a way, if only in that the beat is real consistent, the verses are probably all the same length, choruses vary slightly but you're more or less promised to get a similar experience in each part of the song. But that keyboard line really throws it all off somehow, even though it too is consistent. I think that keyboard line is what really makes the whole song stick together, but it is also the x factor that sort of throws the listener off balance simultaneously.
2. Allen saved an old phone message I left for him from the Nineties, where I leave him an unbelievably long series of #s as the phone # at which to call me back. This was sometime in the mid-to-late Nineties. Way before we decided to make the record. So it's a nice artifact of our friendship, and seemed appropriate to go onto the album. But what I think is cool about it is the way we recorded this track (Dr. Dan Dogenstein, Medical Dog). We were probably just fucking around, riffing on what Allen should say for his part of the answering machine message -- we decided to do the outgoing message to create the context for the message I then leave. So Allen records himself leaving the outgoing message, and you can hear me correcting him at the end and us cracking up before the beep happens. The weird part, the part I actually think is notable, is that for some reason, Allen is recording us (with a live mic in the room) listening to the outgoing message (the part before the beep) and you can hear us cracking up listening to ourselves trying to do the outgoing message (where you can also hear us cracking up) which then leads to the oldest part of the message, the one I left over 12 years ago. So there's like 3 layers of nonsense going on, and I think it creates this strange effect of a kind of fractal joke, if you will -- you, as the listener, are listening to someone listening to someone listening to someone leaving a message. I don't think any of that was actually intentional. It's just one of those weird things. Does that make sense?
3. In 'The Post Relevant Movement,' there are lots of little details to enjoy. Some notable ones:
a. Homey's crazy slap funk shit at the end of verse two
b. Allen and my voices sped up laughing, along with canned applause and several of my voices taken from the beginning of 'Her Favorite Song' and plunked into the space in the music on PRM between the words "repeat a clear pause" and "applause, thanks!" We've also taken sounds from 'Her Favorite Song,' all the vocal and sound effects used at the very beginning of 'Cobalt Silver,' and lots of slowed-down water and machine sounds and combined them at the end of 'The PRM' to create the swirling whirlpool effect I was hoping for to close out the song. The intention was to recreate the sound I heard when I had an out-of-body experience that is the actual subject matter for PRM, as the chorus states: "I have seen windows to dreams feeding a glowing machine breathing underneath it all." In my out-of-body experience, I saw a huge glowing whirlpool made of stars, and it made this crazy loud machine-like breathing sound. I wanted to recreate it at the end of the song. I don't think we were truly able to mimic the sound I seem to think I heard, but I like what we made as purely a sound collage and a cool way to end a tune, and I like that we managed to incorporate parts of other songs on the album into it. It serves as a nice little thematic review of the record, sort of bringing things full-circle.
c. Allen created this great harmonic effect at the end of the song by repeating parts of my sung phrase of the chorus and harmonizing that with part of his repeating sung phrase from the chorus. It creates this very neat repeating harmony that is slightly subliminal because there's so much going on in that part of the song, but if you really listen for it, its a really brilliant idea.
d. During the last verse of the song, Allen and I switch places in terms of who's singing the higher and lower harmonies. Normally in PRM, since I'm singing lead, I tend to have the lower harmony. But at this point in the verse, Allen and I switch places, with him taking the lower harmony and me the upper one, and it seems to really change the feel of the verse, sort of focuses it, and Allen creates more space instrumentally at that point, too, so it's this really nice dynamic that's created, a strong finish to the last verse. As that part of that verse goes on, a delay is added to our voices, and the delay effect rises slowly as we sing, so the end of the verse gets trippier and trippier as we approach the end of the tune with all its Indian-inspired hypnotic full-tilt sprinting towards the finish line of the song and the album.
4. Homey's playing on 'Weightless' is very Tony Levin-inspired, in my opinion. Lots of nice fretless note dips, definitely using less-is-more to great effect, I think. The mark of a smart bass player, tastefully choosing to play longer notes in comparison to all the busyness of Allen's arpeggiated guitar lines.
5. I just love the piano in 'Fall Off the Earth.' I love the way that song starts with piano, voices, and the guitar swell. It's such a cool way to enter into the album. Allen also plays some wonderful, melodic basslines on this song. Allen's bass part writing on the whole album is pretty fresh, in general. He wrote the bass parts in FOTE, CS, Hero, HFS, AD, and parts of 'The PRM.'
6. I totally dig how heavy 'The Reason' gets at the end.
7. Allen's super trippy lead guitar sound on 'Stereo'
8. The higher "I will find our way hooooommme" harmonies in the bridge of 'Hero' came out like I was hoping they would.
9. 'Her Favorite Song,' I was really pleased with the record skipping part. Somehow I was able to figure out how to interject two little harmony segments from the chorus and make them work melodically in the verse, and when I explained what I was hearing to Allen, he totally got it and it just worked perfectly. I also think that's a pretty good pop bridge in that tune. I feel like that song stands up as a whole, fleshed-out idea. It's a pretty simple idea, but so much work went into making it sound like what I would call "accessible." There's a ton of thought that went into that song, I don't think there is a second of song wasted on that one. I also managed to work in the words "soda jerk" into a verse. That's probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
10. Getting Allen to immitate our friend Emiliano from college on 'Alchemical Dependancy' was cool -- "uuhh, we should go out for coffee sometime." It's a sort of nonsensical bit, but it's one of those things that hopefully people hear and crack up over and wonder what the hell it's there for. I'm also proud of the way the third verse sort of heightens the stakes of the song. The first two verses are pretty silly or slight, lyrically, though I'm trying to throw out some interesting turns of phrase. But really, those verses are just set up for the third verse, where it gets a little more serious, and I think it's cool to trick the listener into "getting into it" by the third verse of the song. Sometimes I feel like songwriting is a little like sleight-of-hand magic tricks, where you set up expectations and then maybe break them just long enough to make the eventual payoff really pay off.
Q: I agree with your observation about the bridge of HFS. I want to say it's even sort of Motown. I also never noticed Honey's dips in Weightless before you brought his work on that song to my attention. They're awfully good. Should have seen that one coming.
Your lyrics are regularly fraught with sufficient gravity that there's this phenomenon that crops up, when one is married to the right song. Such a song will musically highlight (usually in part by isolating, although sometimes merely with a dramatic passage) a particularly effective line or verse and create some kind of unholy synergy between the two that gives the lyric even more weight. The most obvious example from this album is from 'Cobalt Silver,' where you guys have highlighted Allen singing the lines "Know me in your heart as I feel you in my mind ... I feel you in my mind"; the effects on his vocal, its coming at the climax of the song, the way the music drops out and isolates the vocal, and the line itself combine in a magical way. That must be an incredibly rewarding feeling to hear something like that come together, having created it.
PR: We are the modern makers of mighty marvel magic! Seriously tho ...
There are moment that give me chills on this record. That's one of them, when in the right frame of mind, it feels a little like the universe is talking to you in the music. I think it works especially there because we really change it up in that verse, subvert a lot of the instrumentation and regular patterns. That verse starts with just spacey keys, I think, and then we created this effect simply enough by putting a copy of the vocals on a separate track, heavily effecting them, and then offsetting those vocals from the main vocal line by placing them a second in front of the main line, but lower in the mix. So there's this effect of deja vu, really (one of my all time favorite Monty Python sketches). It gets so spacey that you start to feel like you are just a lightbody floating over time itself, displaced by the front echo, the deja vu. So when you get to Allen alone, it's one more subversion of the duo vocals -- we sing in tandem for the whole tune -- and then we have Allen subvert a basic but very personal idea of knowing your lover in the heart and feeling them in the mind, obviously the opposite of what you'd expect. And it's those two final subversions that sort of twist the whole tune up into a nice little zen koan of sorts, and it causes the listener to be transported. Yes, it is cool to get to do that.
I guess this leads me to something I just generally want to point out, that because we are exploring mythic themes throughout the album, and the way the title of the record and the band name came from just being immersed in the project and/or just chillin and it sort of appears ping **** oh, here's a little 3-year-old writing the album name on Allen's window. The band name, the way that was chosen, it was near the end of us throwing out band names for years and it never materializing, never sticking, and then once I threw out Agents of Venus, Homey called us that in a return email, as if it had been chosen by the god Atlas himself (I always pictured making a drawing of Homey as Atlas, walking away from an earth that's been dropped onto the ground, partially smashed), and once I considered it as the real name, I realized the subject matter was multidimensional, it had so many different meanings and relevances. The fact that it took us 7 years to make it, it was really like making some kind of fine wine -- we will sell no album before its time -- something about the album at times takes on this sort of cosmic relevance. Which is what I personally am really after, and I bet Allen is keen on it. And I look at this record as having the strength at times to really resonate with the times, strangely enough. Which gives me this feeling that it was mean to happen this way, and it was meant for this time right now. That's really what I'm trying to say. This record really feels like right now to me. What's happening in our world now. And that feels like success, somehow. Like we built a sculpture in time, and it was supposed to be finished now and heard now. I think that might be what you are feeling when those moments in the songs happen. This is something an artist hopes for, to make something that seems to be relevant. I'm not bragging, I'm sure this sounds like bragging, but I'm just trying to say that I feel fulfilled to have made this, this is one of the reasons I make music, because of how deeply I love it, how deeply it has transported me throughout my entire life, and I want to be part of that continuum, and this record makes me feel in some small way that I am. Music is the best.