glass beach have a gift for making chaos sound carefully constructed. The Los Angeles band’s 2019 debut, the first glass beach album, was audaciously maximalist and wildly inventive in the way it both fused and revitalized elements of pop-punk, bedroom pop, and art rock; the effect was by turns playfully cartoonish, bizarre, haunting, and hyperreal. Its long-awaited follow-up, plastic death, is similarly ambitious yet even more deliberate and immersive – not only in stitching together disparate styles that move beyond their original identification as a “post-emo” group, but also in the juxtaposition of catchy hooks and labyrinthine arrangements, deceptively simple song structures and multi-part, polyrhythmic epics. Emotionally and thematically, too, frontperson J. McClendon’s shift toward abstraction allows them to examine the relationship between aggression and tenderness, nostalgia veering into mania, the self through society, in a way that – for all its historical, fictional, and philosophical references – doesn’t elude present reality so much as violently point at it. That it doesn’t completely fall apart is evidence that glass beach have no interest in recreating the past – a terrifying prospect – but rather destroying and breathing new life into it, a ceaseless cycle that seems like our only mode of survival.
We caught up with glass beach – J. McClendon, lead guitarist Layne Smith, bassist Jonas Newhouse, and drummer William White – to talk about every song on plastic death, which is out today. Read our track-by-track breakdown and listen to the album below.
The first thing we hear is a conversation, I think, about temporary art, between Layne and their roommate.
William White: My brother Chris lives with us, and it was between Layne and Chris.
You don’t have to talk about the bits that are inaudible, but how and when did you decide it should open the album?
Layne Smith: That was largely because the piano on that was primarily recorded by Jonas with their phone, and the phone just happened to pick up the conversation.
J McClendon: The conversation kind of happened to sync with the rhythm of the piano in an interesting way. But that was literally just a demo for Jonas being like, “Oh, here’s an idea for a song.” And then I think we just realized that we liked that specific recording of it a lot, and it became the seed for that song. And because the song floated out of it like that, it only made sense for it to start the album. I think what you’re getting at in the conversation kind of ties to a lot of the themes of the album, but it’s so obfuscated, which I think is great.
J, you’ve said that your songwriting approach generally went from being narrative–driven to something more abstract, and this is the first taste of that. What made you lean in that direction for this album?
JM: Yeah, I think it came from wanting to get closer to emotional truth in writing rather than literal truth. There’s bits of abstraction in stuff I had done before, but I often find myself getting into dead ends with songwriting, and I want to pivot hard in the opposite direction. I felt like I was getting so specific that the emotions were a little less direct. With this album, it was much more of an approach of just what feels right, what captures the right emotion. It’s more of a “show, don’t tell,” I guess. I think this album has varying levels of abstraction; ‘coelacanth’ has a lot of literal imagery in it, it’s really evoking World War I trenches, these destroyed countryside villages, and also this concept of social ostracism, with the gallows and all that. We really wanted to make ‘coelacanth’ almost a parody of ‘[classic j dies and goes to hell] part 1’ off of the first album, and it follows a lot of the same beats. But if you compare it side by side, it’s almost saying the opposite at every one of those beats. ‘part 1’ was about the good side of community, and this is very much a song about about the bad side of that, about mob mentality and ostracization.
In general, you draw from a lot of deep-sea imagery, which the track title alludes to, but it’s not something you delve into or use as a metaphor in the lyrics.
JM: The title for this song came very late. It was called ‘Philip Glass’ for a long time because it was inspired by Philip Glass. If anything, the title has more to do with the album as a whole and with us being this sort of extinct creature that came back [laughs]. I like it when the title doesn’t have all that much to do with the lyrics, but there is sort of a connection in that it can pull you in a different direction, it can show it in a different light. I like juxtaposition a lot – very extreme juxtaposition of disconnected things.
It’s also one of the most rhythmically complex tracks on the album. William, what was it like to play with that?
WW: I never excel at playing in different time signatures, but ‘coelacanth’ is probably one of the hardest songs for me to play, just because it is not very intuitive. Especially the beginning is so hard, and the B section, where I’m playing in 4/4, kind of, but then we’re doing 5/4, and then somebody is doing something else on top of that. It’s really exciting, though – it’s probably my favorite song to play when we were recording it.
JM: I mentioned Philip Glass as an influence on this, but I’m really big on Steve Reich, and he has this thing he likes to do of superimposing different subdivisions being played on different instruments at the same time. [laughs] I might get into the music theory weeds here, I’ll try to make it simple: you have somebody playing a thing that’s like 3 groups of 6/4, and then somebody else is playing a thing that’s six groups of 3/4 or whatever, and just looping these different polyrhythms. Rather than the music constantly changing, it’s more like you can change where you shift your focus to it, and that adds this movement and complexity while it’s in stasis. That’s what we were trying to achieve with the B section, every single one of us is basically interpreting it as a different time signature, which I think just sounds amazing.
WW: I do a lot of intuitive drumming, so someone will show me the riff or chords or rhythm of a song, and instead of being like, “OK, this is in that time signature, so I’m going to do something like this,” I usually just start playing along with it. That’s how all the drum parts came out of pretty much every song, unless J had an idea going into it and wanted me to play something like that or close to it.
LS: My part in that B section, most of it is supposed to be in segments of 7/4, until the second half of it, which trips up a little bit to sync up with everything.
JM: Three groups of 7/4 on top of seven groups of 3/4, that’s the idea.
To me, the feeling of the song comes down to a kind of paralyzing social anxiety. It must have been an interesting idea to play with, musically – this person who wants to run like a machine but is unable to escape their humanity, no matter how sick of it they are.
JM: Yeah, that’s definitely getting at it. It’s really about the dehumanization that capitalism imposes, chasing success like some kind of ruthless animal. A big inspiration for that was American Psycho. It’s painting that character as who we’re trying to be – not who I’m trying to be, but who who we are expected to try to be in certain ways. So much of the instrumental of the song came out of that idea of dehumanization, turning mechanical: the guitar riff is one chord, the drums are just relentless like a fucking assembly line. Layne, you have like a guitar you play on that that’s one note, but in a bunch of different octaves.
LS: In the verse, there’s a part where I hit the same note three times, and you might not be able to tell, but each one of those is on a different spot in the front board. But the thing that you were mentioning is the tapping riff that I do in the second half of the bridge, where it’s just four notes across different octaves.
JM: I mean, the lyrics came out of the instrumental because I had the riff first, and immediately it felt like something that was mechanical, something that was very cold. I mentioned a lot about the character stuff in it, but a lot of it is a personal thing for me, as a lot of it is – being a professional musician and being torn between wanting to create art and wanting to sell stuff [laughs]. How, even though I hate it, I keep feeling myself drawn to this competitive mindset, comparing numbers and shit like that, which is so shallow and evil. Probably the best out of all of these songs that I think we’ve married the the music and the lyrical themes, honestly.
What about the horn section?
WW: When you showed me the horn part for the first time, that blew me away. It’s so dissonant and interesting, it’s not the way that you expect people to write horn parts for a song.
JM: That’s what I like to do, yeah [laughs]. Anytime we’re going to go out of our way to pay somebody else to record parts on an instrument that we can’t play on a song, I really feel like I have to legitimize it by having it, for one thing, do something only that instrument can do, and for another thing, do something truly unique with it. I wanted to use the horns in a really violent way on that. It’s growing from a lot of, like, Charles Mingus big band stuff and gets into these dissonant, polytonal chords. It’s very aggressive and violent, but also very cartoony, which I like a lot.
3. slip under the door
Some of the chaos that’s contained in ‘motions’ really flares out on ‘slip under the door’, which has some of the the heaviest and most furious performances on the album. What was it like laying it down?
JM: It didn’t have any of the aggressive stuff at first. It started with just the quiet verse and chorus.
WW: An early pitch for me was that I was so obsessed with the riff on piano, that no matter what form the song went through, I kept being like, “It can get really loud or whatever, but we can always come back to just the piano doing that, really soft.” That song is about as far as we can go with playing with dynamics, where almost the purpose of parts of the instrumental is being like, “How quickly can we transfer from the loudest on the record to the quietest on the record?”
JM: The quiet/loud thing is, like, in my DNA, because I’ve listened to so much Nirvana and Pixies and shit like that when I was growing up. That’s just always been how you do a song in my mind: you have a quiet part and you have a loud part. With this album, we really tried to go hard in both directions at the same time.
WW: When did it get funky? Because I think of Jonas’ bass part…
Jonas Newhouse: That was somewhat in the middle of the process.
WW: I had a moment where I was just getting into dub reggae really heavily, and I love the offbeat basslines and the tape delay and all the effects and syncopated grooves. I was basically trying to do our janky version of that [laughs].
JN: I think this was the song we spent the most time getting nitty-gritty on.
JM: It took the longest time to figure out the full structure.
WW: As far as the actual question, the hardest part about the production was J’s demo sounded harder than the actual recordings we were doing. For a long time, my drum part did not satisfy the hits, the harshness–
JM: I mean, my demo was pretty electronic. It was very pure, clean sounds, compressed to shit.
WW: So it was hard to get a drum part together that matched how much impact a programmed drum sound can have, but we landed on it eventually.
LS: This is a song where I fucking love the ending. You could mistake it for a scary moment in the Silent Hill soundtrack. It’s a full band, we just completely destroyed it with saturation and other stuff.
JM: Doing the screaming for this was kind of a challenge, too. I’ve done a bit of screaming here and there before, but I never had any technique. It was just genuine screams [laughs]. Screaming as a vocal technique is very fake a lot of the time, and learning that fake, controlled scream – aka the kind of scream that lets you use your vocal cords in your thirties – it really took a lot of practice for me. I think this is one of the most transparently violent songs on the album and it really needed that kind of energy. A lot of this album thematically deals with violence a lot, and this song is kind of the intersection of the themes of power and the body and violence. I like that it ends on a question; it doesn’t really tell you what to think.
4. guitar song
Talking about dynamics, this is the most extreme transition between songs, and I’m curious if ‘slip under the door’ and ‘guitar song’ were made in reaction to each other in any way.
JM: The transition here sums up a lot of the intent of the album. I think those two songs represent the different extremes of the album, and putting them side by side in a way where it almost tastes a little weird – that is really how I wanted it to hit. The inspiration for that was revisiting Abbey Road, the Beatles album. The sequencing on that album is immaculate, but it is so odd. the moment that really stood out to me is ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ having this huge, loud outro, one of the heaviest things the Beatles ever did, and then just cutting off, and then it’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’. I revisited that album at some point in the middle of making our album, and I just was amazed at how bold of a move that was and how it really brought something out of both songs, having them rub up against each other that. We played with the tracklisting a whole lot with this album, but ‘guitar song’ did not feel true to me unless it came after ‘slip under the door’. It felt too pretty to sound sincere unless it had come out of that noise.
JN: I think those two being back to back and ‘coelacanth’ being the opener were the two staples of the sequencing. Everything else kind of jumped around until we were settled.
WW: ‘guitar song’ was a late song.
JN: ‘guitar song’ was an accident.
WW: It was an accident of us jamming in your room, Jonas. We have a recording of the moment it happened because I was just recording stuff for documentary purposes, so I think it’s one of the only times we ever actually caught the inception of a song. J’s intention was to make the riff something you could learn for the first time that you learn a song on the guitar.
JM: I wanted to write the next ‘Smoke on the Water’, the next ‘Come as You Are’.
WW: It kind of fell into almost like a ‘Good Riddance’ by Green Day, but that song’s actually deceptively hard to play well. And so is ‘guitar song’.
JM: While the verse riff is extremely simple – anybody who can put one finger on the fretboard can probably play it – the chorus is one of the hardest finger-picking things I’ve written [laughs].
The way that the song is both self-consciously and deceptively simple also plays into the lyrics.
JM: The line “What we want will bore us/ All verse-chorus,” saying “red light, green light” right as the song stops and then starts again – it gets very self-referential there. To me, ‘guitar song’ in the title is a joke, for one thing, but also it refers to the song that’s mentioned in the second verse of it, and I like the song being a reflection of a reflection of a thing that does not exist; it is a song heard in a fictional dream in a song
JN: This is not a guitar song, it’s just a tribute.
JM: [laughs] Yeah. It deals with dreams, with surrealism, but it also with the idea of a copy of a copy of a copy, that simulacrum, which is a repeated motif in this album.
5. rare animal
What made you want to fold the disappearance of DB Cooper into the song?
JM: The idea of taking this story, this airplane hijacking – this guy does a bomb threat on a plane, gets a bunch of money, and then just disappears – and framing it as almost this beautiful, heroic story, to me, really spoke to what a lot of the rest of the song is getting at. Which is this narrative of youth, mental illness, being a child and getting dragged between all these different situations where you don’t grasp what’s happening and then retreating into yourself. That’s the parallel that’s being drawn there; the aspect of DB Cooper having no clear motivations, doing nothing good, and then disappearing.
JN: Learning the songs live, it’s hard to process lyrics that J has written as we’re doing it unless I’m reading into it. So I didn’t know that part of it until we were on tour and we were at our Airbnb in this farm with Home Is Where, standing in this pit, and I just overheard Brandon [MacDonald] from Home Is Where and Brandon talking about DB Cooper as it relates to the song. I was like, “Oh, that’s what you’re saying.” It was cool, one, just getting to know the song better myself, but also seeing these songwriters meeting in understanding about it.
JM: I think we go through this a lot because I change my lyrics about them and I’m very private about them until they’re done.
WW: I didn’t know about DB Cooper until you put it in the song. That was my introduction to the mythos.
JM: I’m just obsessed with unsolved mysteries. I do not remember where I got the idea to include that aspect of it, but it really was just about framing this very non-heroic story as some kind of heroic myth, and then drawing the parallel to disappearing into yourself. The song calls attention to it being a metaphor – “Don’t get lost in the metaphor,” or “in a metaphor.” Jonas is laughing because I just said the line wrong, and I gave everybody a lot of shit for getting that line wrong. [laughs] I told you I was gonna kill you…
LS: Said it with a knife in their hand…
JN: That’s a joke, none of that happened. Except we did have a hard time in the backing vocals saying “a” and not “the.”
The song revisits this theme of circularity that’s explored earlier on the album, but with more familiar, modern imagery.
JM: I think that circularity is a big part of it. There’s a repeated motif in it, “I know it’s not gonna last,” and some people might hear that and out of context think it’s a pessimistic thing or whatever, but I think it’s an an incredibly optimistic song. So much of our culture right now is very nostalgia-oriented – looking at movies, it’s all reboots, remakes, sequels – everything is really looking backward, and I have seen that kind of mentality lead people down very dark paths. I mean, nostalgia is core to fascism, and to resist that you have to resist that pull of nostalgia, that imagined past where everything is better – it’s fiction. You have to embrace the fact that things change, that things die. That’s really where I was coming from with this song. This is not gonna last, but that’s a good thing. And going into the bridge of it, it’s really pointing to change and death and life and rebirth as something that is natural.
This ties into the title of the album, because plastic death came from me from me thinking about how man-made materials, like plastics, are an attempt to create something static. And that’s exactly why it’s a problem. Natural materials like wood and dirt decay over time, but plastic – nothing eats it, nothing really rots it. It just sticks around and it gets into our blood, it gets into animals. And that’s why it’s so destructive, because we’ve tried to create something that is still instead of something that is constantly changing.
Is it a stretch to connect the conversation at the start of the album about temporary vs. lasting art and the title of this song, which references how, when a whale’s corpse sinks to the bottom of the ocean, it creates an ecosystem that can last for decades?
JM: I think music, all art, is on the shoulders of giants; it’s built on what’s done before. It’s transformation. We’re doing our own weird transformation of rock music, which was its own weird transformation of the blues – which, who knows where that comes from, because most of the people who invented the blues were not treated as human beings when they were doing that. Every single new development in art is, just like the worms feeding off a whale’s corpse, on the bones of what came before.
I wanted to ask about the drum programming on the song, which sounds weirdly drum ‘n’ bass-inspired.
JM: That’s an amen break. For people who don’t know, it is a very famous drum sample that is the core of like five different genres – drum ‘n’ bass, jungle, breakcore, and at the same time integral to hip-hop music. It ties into what we’re talking about with transformation – the amen break is I think the most sampled piece of music, and sampling obviously ties into this culture of transforming, of taking the bones of something old and building it into something new. I did not think about this, but I’ll say I did [laughs]. A lot of the drum programming on that was really me trying to do Aphex Twin, especially some of his more drum ‘n’ bass stuff on the album Drukqs. There’s some techniques that I steal straight from him, like super fast stutters and switching to triplet time.
This is a pretty hooky song and the melody almost undercuts the weight of the lyrics at first, until we get to that cathartic finale, where you sing one of the most potent lines on the album: “You hold my head/ Every single day/ But these days I fear the love in everything.”
JM: It really cuts through all the metaphors. We did an interview recently where I said that was one of the darkest songs on the album, and I think I still agree just because of its lyrical directness, but also the way that the music almost obfuscates it; that’s something that I’ve always enjoyed. Lyrically, it was really a nature vs. nurture kind of thing for me. One alternate title that I wanted to use for it was ‘bite the hand’, but that is a boygenius song [laughs]. A lot of the inspiration came from this pet rat that I had that was super aggressive genetically, and how he could never be kept with any other rats. Rats are social creatures, they live in packs, so for one to be alone is really not good for them. But he just had this inherent aggression, and I found that the more that we tried to handle him and deal with his aggression, the more it felt like some kind of self-perpetuating cycle. I think it ties to cycles of abuse in people, too, in generations of families. That’s where the title ‘puppy’ ties into it, because it’s really about taking ownership of somebody else.
The opening line – “We made great plans every single day/ We were alive with hate/ We were quiet company” – I like the framing of hate in it as something that creates vigor [laughs]. I feel like when I was when I was younger, I used to have a lot more hate in my heart, and that was actually an incredibly good motivator as an artist, to hear pop songs and be like, “This is fucking awful.” I feel like maybe I have less of a capacity for that because I’ve become a more empathetic person, but it can feel like losing a bit of liveliness.
LS: This might be my favorite drum mix on the album. We were like, “Let’s just put a fuckton of room sound on this.” When we were first listening to it, it sounded too much.
JM: We had the drums less in your face and less roomy, and then we came back to it. I like having the snare that big; it adds this aggression that kind of undercuts the poppiness of it in a way that I think gives a more complete picture of what we’re trying to get across.
9. the killer
It’s a beautiful song, and the violin almost gives it this stately elegance, but it’s also got these dark, buzzing undertones. How did you go about arranging it?
JM: It started from that acoustic guitar part that I had written, and it’s in a really odd tuning that has a bunch of open notes that kind of drone. It had this very reverent, old-world folksy vibe to it that I thought was really interesting, and I had just that for the longest time. I think the first thing that we figured out was the drums.
WW: Yeah, because when you showed it to me the first time I really knew what I wanted to try to do with it. I knew I wanted to use mallets, and I knew I wanted to do a sparse, almost orchestral thing with it.
JM: I figured this out way after the fact, but it really reminds me of the Velvet Underground, a song like ‘Venus in Furs’. You’ve got a guitar with open strings droning, you’ve got super sparse drums with this hypnotic rhythm and this orchestral comping, and you’ve got violin peddling one note – or viola in the Velvet Underground. The outro is a little different, but where it starts really reminds me of ‘Venus in Furs’, specifically your drumming really reminds me of Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground. You think Meg White is underrated as a drummer for being too simple; she’s on another fucking level. I generally think she’s one of the best rock drummers, and there’s so many songs where it’s just kick drum or snare or something. It takes a lot of confidence to do something that simple, and I think what you did here is similarly excellent in how sparse it is.
WW: Thank you. And then on the B section, I go into a 16note shuffle [laughs].
JM: There’s this video that I saw that is a compilation of Wendy Williams on her show talking about her obsessive fear of the killer. Like, “If you go in there, that’s where the killer lives,” or “Don’t walk alone at night, the killer will get you.” What was so captivating to me is that it’s the kind of stuff that people say a lot about just being cautious, but her specific framing of it as this one entity, the killer, just made me think, “Who is this character?” Another thing we tied it to is the movie Halloween, the first one, where Michael Myers is just credited as as “The Shape.” It’s not about Michael Myers, it’s about the killer; the anxieties of suburban America given this human form, that’s what the killer is. And that’s where the inspiration for this song came from, is trying to write about this character.
Speaking of juxtaposition, in the story of the song, there’s this fox that’s caught in a bear trap, and this character, who is this ruthless killer, suddenly killing it as an act of generosity – I thought that was interesting. And then to describe the act in such a tender way, with these beautiful swelling strings, there’s such a wrongness to it.
10. The CIA
JM: This is something I haven’t seen as much recently, but I remember a lot of people loved to joke about having some kind of personal relationship with the NSA agent that’s looking at their webcam.
WW: The meme of someone in a costume waving to their webcam, being like, “Hi, CIA agent.”
JM: I mean, you take the line “We love the CIA” – it’s deeply, deeply ironic, I think that’s obvious.
WW: When we released the single, McKinley Dixon shared the song and was just like, “The what?” [laughter] He was very in on it, so I think it was obvious.
JM: Most people, I would hope, don’t, like, love the CIA – or if they were aware of much of what the CIA has done to the rest of the world they wouldn’t. But are we not complicit in it? Don’t our actions kind of say that we love the CIA? And that also tying into this idea of the political being personal; this relationship of surveillance being framed in the song more as this personal relationship between two people until it’s said that it’s about the CIA.
JN: It immediately feels kind of scary to me. It’s a very poppy, catchy hook, but it feels poppy by way of, like, ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears, where it has this menace. Even if you don’t look into the song deeper than the title and initial vibe – it’s called the CIA, it starts, and you feel ambiently afraid. I feel like that gets to the baseline of the message, at least.
JM: I just love thinking about the absurdity of somebody writing a song like this in earnest [laughs]. It’s this song from this parallel nightmare world, which is also a reflection of our own world, in a way.
WW: Rhythmically, where we came to with the drum part that follows the song all the way through – to me, that feels like a shock for the audience every time it comes around, because I don’t really change what I do too much. You would think a rhythm or drum section in a poppy, almost disco-type song wouldn’t draw so much attention at the top of every measure, it would just give a groove and feed into the background, but it’s just like, “Listen here!”
JM: The outro, where we do the super dissonant chord hits with that rhythm, that was the first heavy thing we wrote for the album. ‘The CIA’ was the first song we wrote for the album, and it was really our first forray into this more post-hardcore, metal kind of sound.
LS: It’s also kind of funny because a big influence on the heavier section was the Dillinger Escape Plan, and my favorite album from them that kind of played into it is One of Us Is the Killer [laughter].
JM: That whole part of the song really felt like – there’s this violent undercurrent to the song up to that point, but we really tried to play it straight as more of a pop song, and then there’s this part where it just takes over and the song sort of destroys itself. Which is maybe one of my favorite ways to end a song; just destroying it from the inside.
Compared to the tracks that follow, this is a relatively concise song that ties together a lot of the lyrical themes of the LP.
JM: I think ‘200’ touches on a lot of the same stuff as ‘The CIA’. One of the big inspirations for ‘200’ was the concept of cargo cults. Basically, in World War II, the Pacific theater – when the US was fighting Japan, they would stop by all these smaller Pacific Islands, and when they would stay there, they would give a lot of the local people gifts of food and technology, stuff that would immediately improve their lives significantly, and then they left and never came back. Meanwhile, these people came to really treasure a lot of the technology and the food and all the stuff that they were gifted by the army, so they started to develop these religious rituals around military imagery and military practice. They would march the same way that they do and they would make prop guns and stuff. Basically, they saw it as some kind of divine intervention, and they were praying to this God of the US military in hopes of receiving further gifts. Tying into the CIA and how that deals with the US imperial core and the Global South, I think that is such a telling example of that sort of dynamic of the power that is wielded there. I wouldn’t say the whole song is directly about that, but that inspired a lot of the imagery, especially earlier in the song. And then “I feel sold for entertainment/ Entertainment as riot control” tying into the theme of exploitation.
JN: I ended up playing this with my electric 5-string, but I wrote it to be as much like an upright bass part as possible because I really miss playing that and wish I had one around to get good at again.
JM: It was really us trying to do a small ensemble jazz performance.
LS: The production for this was really interesting because we wanted it to literally feel like a jazz club, almost. One of my favorite aspects of it was entering this sort of jazz club, dreamy space and having these moments right after the chorus and in the bridge and outro where it almost feels like the walls are shaking every time one of those low notes hit – until the bridge, where it feels almost like the entire space explodes almost and becomes something completely different. And then ending with the room re-constructing; at the end, the entire feeling was supposed to be like someone is walking out of the jazz club.
JM: You lose the high end and it sounds more distant and more muffled at the very end.
This could have been a chaotic 10-minute song that’s all over the place, but it feels very carefully planned. How was the process of mapping it out?
JM: It started from what I consider the chorus section: “I couldn’t even hear you on the phone…” I had that originally with very different chords, it changed a lot, and honestly, it just kind of expanded out from that. There were a couple of ideas that could have been different songs, but they had enough in common that I was really interested in trying to gel them together. I think we’ve always had this borderline prog-rock approach to our music; I always say I like to stay on the threshold of pop and avant-garde, and this is maybe the most we start to go into more prog-rock territory, just given the song length.
WW: But even the chorus, it’s one of the catchier choruses.
JM: Obviously, there’s inspiration from stuff like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Paranoid Android’ – more of a classical or operatic structure rather than a pop or rock structure. We were talking about songs that destroy themselves at the end; this one destroys itself in the middle.
We also talked about screaming before, but the vocals here are so intricate and dynamic in how they go from one extreme to the other. Do you remember tracking them?
JM: Everything on this album was recorded either in our practice space or in our house. We were all living in the same house at the time of recording this, and a good bit of the vocals were recorded in my closet [laughs]. I am a relentless perfectionist, especially with my vocals, so there would be days where I would go in and do the same thing maybe 200 times. It took a long, long time for the vocals to come together on this one because it goes so many different places. Probably the quietest and some of the loudest vocals on the album are just on this song, and it hits every step in between those two.
LS: I love how aggressive you get after that instrumental.
JM: It’s really a thematic climax for the album, too. I like the line “There’s no mystique/ Even in death just a cheap pastiche,” and then you have the title drop there, which gives it a greater context. A lot of this song is really abstract, but you have the chorus which refers to some kind of emergency, some body has been found, somebody has just died. I really wanted the song to flow like some kind of manic, obsessive thought spiral: starting in this very surreal, dreamlike place, getting into something that’s real, and then getting so deep into it but so far away at the same time. There’s a stream of consciousness that unravels.
13. abyss angel
This is named after another deep-sea creature, in this case a fictional one that’s depicted on the album cover.
JM: The album sort of exists in this deep ocean environment, and the abyss angel is this creature that is the light that thrives in the darkness. So much of this was very introspective for me. Carl Jung has the idea of the animus or anima, which is a side of yourself that exists deep within your subconscious. The idea is that everybody has a part of themselves that they heavily repress, and a lot of the time it’s stuff that is probably better repress, like violent impulses. That’s probably a good thing to repress, but it gets wrapped up in a lot of very beautiful stuff that I think is integral to oneself. The idea that Jung had regarding this is that we need to look into our own shadow self and let that become a part of our conscious self, to be a more full version of our self. I think the abyss angel is sort of an an animus or anima, and the deep sea is the unconscious. It’s one way of looking at it, at least.
The song also circles back to the idea of the family nexus that’s mentioned in the opening track. What drew you to that?
JM: That comes from RD Laing, who was this psychiatrist who had a particular interest in schizophrenia and what causes schizophrenia. His theory was this concept of a family nexus, which is basically the version of reality that a group of people agree on, which could be applied to a family, could be applied to a relationship or friendships or social groups, or even on a broader scale, the things that are considered reasonable to believe, like an entire country. And the idea was that schizophrenia starts from a breaking from this version of reality. I just thought of the concept as being so interesting, the idea of reality as something socially constructed and the friction that can come from your own truth resisting the reality that is imposed on you from the people in your life or the society you live in, which ties into a lot of the queer themes of the album. Power exerts itself on every level, all the way to your own body and mind – tying back to ‘slip under the door’.
What inspired the final section of the song?
JM: A huge influence on that was very early Animal Collective, their first album, Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished. That is one of those albums that captures something emotionally that I have not heard in anything else; it feels like a recounting of a dream you had when you were like three and parts of it that were deeply, existentially terrifying in a way that makes no logical sense. I was really trying to tap into that, and what it was on a technical level is I set up a room mic in our studio and I recorded like 20 different tracks of me playing different piano parts, singing, playing guitar all on top of each other, very loosely following this four chord structure but all with the mic in the same place, very far away from everything that was being performed, and then just blended all of those together. I love how many voices there are that are just under the surface there; everything feels so detached and so abstract, despite coming from this very grounded situation of one mic in a room.
JN: I do a similar thing to a part in ‘coelacanth’ on the ending of the song, where I do a straight marching rhythm that kind of plays against the rest of the rhythm, so it ends up sounding really rhythmically distant.
JM: Yeah, I definitely recommend in that full band section just listening to the drums and bass, because the interplay there is so locked-in and so complex. Layne, you do a bunch of different parts on guitar there.
LS: I did try to do some arpeggiation that felt like moments like ‘slip under the door’ or ‘guitar song’; there’s some harmonics where it’s mirroring what I do in ‘coelacanth’; there’s a little bit of shredding. I finally got to do something called selective picking, which was really cool.
JM: You were really breaking out every technique you did on the album here. I remember now you were talking about trying to sum up all of your guitar playing there, it being this big recapitulation of everything.
LS: It was like trying to draw our paint from memory; I wasn’t listening to the other songs. I was like, I could sit here and go back and meticulously construct things from listening to every song, but I like the idea of, “I’ve gone through this entire experience, what does my brain think of this experience right now? What if I had to communicate that in one song of guitar playing?”
JM: I think we had every other song finished before we even started recording most of the stuff on this. I had that first section before the drums kick in – I had that pretty much as it was for a really long time. And it was one of those things that I wrote that was very personal for me in a way where I was like, “I don’t know if this is the kind of thing I want to put on a record.” And it was that feeling that made me sure that I should, this discomfort with it. We didn’t do much to dress it up in mixing, we made sure everything was heard. We didn’t really do a lot of doubling. There’s no reverb on that first part. It is probably the most plain and straight presentation of the music on the whole album. It made the most sense to end with something very raw and direct when so much of the album up to that point is so complicated, so multi-layered, and so obfuscated.
JN: It comes full circle, too, because the album starts with a raw recording of a voice memo.
JM: True. I talked about songs that destroy themselves – this one does that, too, but much more gracefully, I’d say. It’s just a straight noise piece at the end. I sampled some marimba playing by our friend Tommy [Pedrini], who played marimba on the first track and ‘whalefall’, but I got some loose notes and resampled them. There’s a lot going on; what one of my favorite things in it is there’s a laugh track in it at one point after this line, “I wanna hurt you so bad/ When you lay there on the ground, I’ll laugh,” and that’s the last lyric of that section after this whole part about forgiveness.
WW: This is the last song that I got introduced to, and I don’t have a lot of time with the songs in their completed forms before – well, kind of none of us do.
JM: I just hate showing people my music. It physically hurts to be in the same room as somebody listening to a song that I made.
WW: We were pretty much wrapping up recording drums for the whole album, and I think I played along to the song for the first time while in the session to record the song.
JM: You heavily improvised on it, and Jonas played along to what you improvised, and that made it sound so coordinated.
WW: The only time I’ve ever heard the song is when we were re-listening to the masters to approve them. I’m planning on going back and re-listening to it once it’s out; I don’t like listening to it when nobody else is hearing it.
JM: It’s still too close for me. My brain has not left the mode of, this is something that I’m trying to criticize and pick apart to make better, and I can’t turn that off.
WW: I get to listen to it as an audience member, and because I have such little time with my drum parts, when I listen to the record it doesn’t sound like me drumming.
JM: We come to this a lot because I think a lot of the time you all have more appreciation for stuff I write than I do. I will be so willing to scrap stuff, and it will always be somebody else who’s like, “No, that’s good.” It is a blessing and a curse, because being not self-critical is a slippery slope, for sure, but it’s so easy for it to paralyze you.
LS: I don’t know if it’s because of my perspective on time or if it’s just a weird thing about my brain, but every time a song from this album comes on, whether I’m just passing through Twitter or whatever or I listen to it intentionally, I’m just like, “Fuck yeah, we made that!”
JM: See, I just got to that point with the first album.
JN: Well, I’m glad you did, J, because the first album was really good too.
WW: I’m looking forward to five years from now when you can listen to the second album.
JM: I can listen to it sometimes. It’s something that’s on and off but I don’t have control over, I guess.
WW: The final thing I’ll say about ‘abyss angel’ – for a final track on the record, there was a conversation where we were wondering if we were going to do a big explosive thing like ‘orchids’ again or if it would be a comedown that stays soft the whole time. You have ‘commatose’ being this climax, and this being the resolution to the album. I just think it’s funny that it ends up being both again.
JM: I think the ending is one of the parts of the album I’m most proud of.
WW: It feels extremely sentimental, and it’s really wonderful.
JM: Yeah. I think it’s one of those moments where it was like, “I’m just gonna shut up and let the music do the talking.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.