When did you begin work on Transangelic Exodus?
I think we made two demos, like, December 28th and 30th 2016. But we kept pieces of the demos we did and they ended up on the final thing. So it really started at the dawn of 2017, and we worked on it into September. I think it was due at the end of August, actually. The same day I moved out of my house, and the same day I had to hand in the final draft of the book that I wrote. (Laughs) Madness.
Ah, so you’ve finished your book for the 33 1/3 series on Lou Reed’s Transformer?
Yes. It’s coming out in April.
Your last album felt like a breakthrough record. Looking from the outside in, it seemed like you were in the middle of whirlwind. What was it like being at the center of it all?
It was really quite crazy. So [with] me and all of my band mates, our instinct is to work harder than we need to. Just go to the limit, you know, like, “Oh, we’ll save money if we drive all night, so let’s just drive all night.” To a fault. At some point we had to be like, “We shouldn’t do that to ourselves. We’re endangering our endurance.” We just toured hard and slept in the cheapest place we could possibly find.
Also making [Perpetual Motion People], that record was the first one that felt like it wasn’t being released to a very tiny audience. You know, because our album Day Of The Dog came out and nobody cared, and that was true of all my albums basically. It was almost the last straw and I didn’t know if I wanted to keep doing it. Anyway, it just took a few months and then suddenly [Day Of The Dog] connected with some people in the UK so then it was like, “We should make another album, soon.” I think that had a distorting effect, almost. Like, suddenly there’s an audience listening, so what’s the next product? What’s the next thing? That almost ended up being a theme of [Perpetual Motion People]: just keep in motion and do not rest. So we didn’t even take a second to stop to think about what we should do, we were just like, “Let’s just keep being this band.” I think we did really good work on that album but it was a feeling of franticness, responding to a situation already in progress.
How did that experience inform your creative approach on Transangelic Exodus?
We were like, “Let’s take a year off to do this in an entirely different way.” I mean, all of the records I’ve ever made have been done pretty quick – in a month or so – and this one took eight months of recording. And I’m so glad we did it that way. It’s funny because I think even a couple of years earlier I would have had no patience for that. We took maybe two months to do Perpetual Motion People and I was like, “Come on! Finish this!” But at some point I think I developed some skills as a producer. With this album, the whole thing is a different approach. It’s a different kinda record: it’s not love letters to 20th century music anymore. We’re trying to step into the arena of music that sounds like it’s being made now.
Having eight months to experiment with songs, did you ever struggle with knowing when you’d hit on a winning idea?
Well, I would say every song is not the way that I originally played it. Our goal was not do our instinct. Usually I record myself playing a song as a demo, and we’d be like, “Ok, let’s listen to the way Ezra plays this song and find a way that a band would do that.” And that leads you to be like, “Well, I’m a bass player so I’ll play bass.” You just do your default thing, go with your first instinct. And that’s one way to do it but I felt like we wanted to take our first good idea and throw it away almost completely and replace it entirely with a better idea, see what that lets us discover and then get rid of that and do it again.
If you would listen to a collection of songs as written on guitar you would not come up with this album. (Laughs) Unless you spent eight months changing it and messing with it. We also had many more songs that we left behind. And despite all this time that went into it, there’s not layers and layers of instruments: most of the songs there are one or two things happening at once. It took us a long time to figure out what the most exciting thing was and only do that, let that really shine. Stop adding an extra guitar just because you can think of a guitar part, you know? A lot of the time was spent subtracting things.
Do you seek external opinions or do you keep it within the band?
It’s us five with almost no input from anyone else. I’m pretty protective of it while we’re doing it. I actually don’t trust people’s opinion who aren’t invested in it, or deeply part of it. And before we had anything, I went into this record knowing what the final thing should feel like. There’s an over-arching impression that the record leaves as a whole that I knew we had to nail, and I feel like we nailed it. And I’m just so happy about that.
Do you normally feel this satisfied with your work?
I felt the same way about Day Of The Dog. I just had a concept of my perfect rock’n’roll record and where I knew how it should feel from the start; let’s do a record like this, and it turned out that way. And you know, I think records turn out better when you go in with those really strong cravings, like, it’s got to turn out like this. But then again it’s just my taste. I don’t mean to knock Perpetual Motion People. I actually think that album became about being unfocused and a mess of a human being, and a bunch of conflicting identities. My albums all turn out to be more meta than I realize.
Can you tell us the story behind “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill”?
It has to be one of the saddest lyrics to me. It’s just brutal. That’s one of the things on the record that is from life. There are only a couple of songs that could be called straight confessional songs, and that one is confessional. It’s about the experience of dressing feminine in secret and feeling unable to leave the house – the frantic, spiralling problem of not being able to breathe either way. Either you’re caged in a gender not your own, or you are afraid to face the world because you feel like you appear as a monster to other people. I don’t know, I love the way it came out musically. It’s very tense and the sadness of it is buried in this very tense exuberance.
The overarching concept of the album is about an angel on the run, which ties in with ideas of migrants and refugees. Can you tell us how is it to live in Trump’s America, and how – if at all – it has inspired this album?
Yeah, it has. I mean, well before Brexit or the US election I had a mounting sense of paranoia. I think that America was starting to notice a decay of what passes for an acceptable person to be on the public stage, or of acceptable things to say. (Pause) I can just feel vulnerable people getting more vulnerable and you can’t tell how paranoid to be, so I was feeling more and more afraid of my country’s future.
I got a lot of Holocaust education when I was young and there was always the implicit question: what would you do if this was happening to your society? If there was an authoritarian regime rising, and certain people were threatened, would you protect them? Or if you were the one threatened, would you leave home? A couple of my grandparents survived the Holocaust by leaving home. So even at a young age I was like, “I’m ready to get out of here if I need to, if things go south.” It might be inherited trauma? And so the fact the President seems to pretty clearly be a Nazi sympathizer is just aggravating every childhood nightmare. So it caused me to make a record about paranoia and people stigmatized for their bodies.
I’m reluctant to explain too much behind the choice of an angel or whatever, because essentially it’s a dream that I had. It’s not a dream that I had at night, but the song “Suck The Blood From My Wound” just showed up in my life almost fully-formed. It wasn’t a crafted thing – I found it in my brain, well before the election or Brexit.
I think it’s also me being more and more out as a queer person. Now I’m more visible I feel more vulnerable. A lot of times people are like, “Oh, isn’t it great that we can have these queer celebrities – transwomen on TV – aren’t we a progressive society?” And it’s good, but also being more visible makes you more vulnerable. Like, the people who aren’t on TV get murdered. And so it’s like, nobody has ever attacked me, but then you hear someone say something to you on the street and I can see how my safe world could get unsafe suddenly. So it’s all combined into this story.
Can you tell us more about the narrative?
I don’t think there’s any story to the record. I took out any progressing narrative. It’s a setting. It’s set in a car, being pursued, me and my angel companion. That’s basically all you need to know. I mean I wrote a lot of back story and mythology and ended up realising you really don’t need any of that. It’s emotionally alive. I didn’t have any of that story in my mind when I wrote “Suck The Blood From My Wound” – it just showed up as the angel with bandaged wings, escaping from the hospital.
How helpful was the record in helping you work through those feelings of fear and paranoia?
People ask me about catharsis and working through stuff with songs and I don’t think any of it is therapeutic at all. I don’t think it helps. I don’t know, it’s like a journal entry. I don’t think writing in a journal soothes me at all but you’ve got it on paper and you can be like, “That’s what I’m feeling.” It doesn’t get rid of the feeling. Though I’m sure some people feel differently about that. But it is satisfying to feel like I expressed it.
I think the album is an exercise in empathy. To spend time living in a car, being pursued, it’s an exercise an empathy with vulnerable people. Amidst various emotional reactions, political reactions, political opinions I find myself returning again and again to the fact I just care about solidarity with the vulnerable, with the poor, with people who have no place to go. That’s what guides me politically. I don’t feel this tribalism with the left or the right. I’m going to go to the people that seem to stand the most in solidarity with the vulnerable. And that doesn’t seem to be the proudly callous son of a Wall Street tycoon who’s in power now.