You’re releasing the record on the Detroit Princess Riverboat; it looks palatial (five stories and chandeliers!). Have you been on it before?
I’d never been on it before it was decided as the place for the show. It’s probably too new on the scene to be a Detroit institution, but they have Motown Nights and Prince Tribute Parties that I have heard are off the chain. The riverboat does remind people of the old Boblo Boat that used to ferry people to Boblo Island. It was an amusement park that was between Canada and us on the Detroit River. They had roller coasters and things like that. So I’ll be nostalgic for those childhood memories while I’m pounding drinks on the deck. I believe Boblo Island is all condos now. Sad.
Here Is The Thing opens with “Airhorn age, age of horn blowing” – that’s the second reference to horns in as many songs (A Private Understanding: “Don’t wanna hear those foul trumpets anymore”). Why are they a recurring symbol for you?
Yeah, I like the image of trumpets being used as a warning call or heralding some new dark age. Trumpets can sound regal or parp like sick bowels. They are famously used on the game show The Price Is Right as a musical cue for abject failure, which is nice. Airhorns are just the idiots’ version of a trumpet, I guess. If somebody were to compose a march for our current president I’m sure it would incorporate a mass of airhorns.
The Hum prompted me to look up its namesake. Can people in Detroit hear it?
I’m not sure – I think the residents of Windsor, Ontario get the brunt of it. Zug Island, the industrial wasteland from which the hum supposedly emits, is close to the Detroit Wastewater and Sewerage Plant that my dad worked at. He’d come home smelling like he worked in the blast furnaces of Hell – sulfuric and rank. It’s a smell I got used to and I enjoyed visiting him at work. It was easy to imagine a place like Zug Island being home to something otherworldly, so it’s great to think in my middle age that it actually might be true.
There are some very subtle strings within The Chuckler, right towards the end. Strings are a kind of shorthand for drama sometimes, but you’ve mixed them so quietly. Why is that?
Well, the strings are prominent through the first part of the album and then come back in force near the end. We were drawn to how bands like The Raincoats used violins. When you’re making an album, you try to avoid shorthand. You have the opportunity to stretch musical and lyrical ideas over several songs, sides, and minutes. They’re mixed quieter on Chuckler than on the previous songs because it made sense to us. They’re used less in a less subtle manner on Here Is The Thing for instance.
On Male Plague, the line “Everybody knows it’s gonna kill you some day” is this awesomely weird paradox, because it’s such a dark remark but the melody is like a kid’s sing-a-long. Did the lyrics and rhythm come first, or the guitar line melody?
The music always comes first. The words have to fit the mood of the music as I see it. Writing lyrics is fun that way because it allows you to approach the work with a framework already there. You can juxtapose words and moods, focus on the rhyme scheme, ignore the scheme, repeat words for affect, hide personal stories in feedback, make shit up. Having said that, I don’t think I’m a particularly disciplined lyricist. I’ll try and jam in too many words and consonants if I think I can get away with it. I’m sure in the case of Male Plague I had that line and was going to have it as my last line no matter what. “It only fits if I sing-song it? Fine by me!”
What are the thoughts that you liken to the Night-Blooming Cereus – are they hopeful thoughts that can’t help blossoming, even though there’s death and darkness all around?
Night-Blooming Cereus is about a lot of different things. Another case of jamming as many different takes on a theme as the song could hold without popping. The basic premise is that, sometimes, things of great importance (whether that’s cultural, personal, political, emotional, etc.) have to exist out on the shadow border. Great ideas or movements don’t often come from within or are universally accepted. Finding out about a flower that bloomed at night, instead of under the eye of the sun, was the catalyst for the lyrics. Knowing that the music started as an experiment where the guitar and drums (our two greatest assets, I believe) would be sidelined for the majority of the song, also helped point me in the direction of singing about lesser things having a purpose. It’s all high falutin thinking, but that’s the joy of being in the band – you go through all this and have a song at the end.
Relatives In Descent is out September 29 via Domino.