Rolling Disclosure (Bar/None), following on the heels of their EPs, The Purposes of Music in General and Rock and Roll Just Can’t Recall, is the Paranoid Style’s debut full-length recording. They’ve been praised by Spin Magazine, received mentions in the latest year-end Pazz & Jop poll, and heralded by no less a personage than Robert Christgau, who has compared them favorably to Sleater-Kinney. Elizabeth Nelson Bracy and Timothy Bracy, the band’s principals, are also frequent contributors to The Weeklings and collaborators with your correspondent. (Full disclosure: I made a pretty insignificant contribution to one lyric on “Giving Up Early (On Tomorrow),” which is featured on the new record. Don’t hold it against them.)
Their music is typically driving, extremely hummable, and beneath the pile-up of jokes and puns in the lyrics, romantic to the core. Contra Christgau I’d argue that the band’s best parallel is Warren Zevon – like the late and lamented Mr. Bad Example, Beth and Tim have a lyrical knack for finding the downside to every kind of achievement, and the glory in every flop. Here’s a favorite passage from “Cathedral Lows” on Rolling Disclosure:
The band standing down at the brink of distinction
So other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?
All my will is gone
All my will is gone
TW: You’ve been working on Rolling Disclosure for quite awhile. I know some of the tunes have been held back for years. Why these songs for this album?
PS: Well, we’ve got a gazillion songs. We’ve got songs on songs, but I had a very specific idea of what I wanted this album to be sonically and thematically, and they fit together to kind of tell the story I wanted. Not that there is an actual narrative, but there is a cohesive thematic thrust, or at least I hope. And that’s also why I wanted to end with the Wreckless Eric cover “Duvet Fever”, partially because he is one of my very favorite songwriters, but also because to me the record is about waking up and facing the sort of spiritual and emotional rot of late period capitalism. It’s about waking up and getting through this world of crass illusion and all of the things we do to paper over that sadness. And Eric’s song to me is quite literally about how we try and sleep at night amidst all of these ludicrous exertions. So it made logical sense to me – the cycle begins again. That’s a long way around to saying I picked these songs and put them in this sequence because I had a deliberate approach in in mind.
TW: I love the thick second layer that all these songs possess. My favorite tune on the record, “Cathedral Lows,” is inescapably sorrowful, and frequently quite challenging. (Ahem: They say it’s a sin to live off other people’s sadness/ but how the fuck else can you maintain your status?) Repeated listens give you a lot to consider. But, you know, the music is also terrifically, almost diabolically fun. The word play is spectacular and the grooves are non-stop. Even the title, Rolling Disclosure, which simultaneously implies regrettable political revelation, rambling personal confession, and an intention to rock out, is a complete meal. How do you walk that line between heavy and light? Is it instinctual? Should I feel bad about having such a great time with these songs about collapse?
PS: No, you shouldn’t feel badly! I think there is something undeniably comic, even exhilarating in watching the underpinnings of our society fold in on themselves amidst the greed and bloat. Sort of like Slim Pickens riding that atom bomb in Dr. Strangelove — it’s terrible, but it’s still funny and exciting. That’s where I see our society right now. I wouldn’t have quite imagined it would happen this way, but I think of Donald Trump as being kind of the perfect avatar and logical point of conclusion following decades of unchecked corruption. He’s self-evidently a monster, but what kind of monster is worse than the faceless, avaricious corporate run juggernaut posing as a “two party system” for the last several decades? People have been lied to so much, exploited so long. They maybe think they need a bigger monster to slay the dragon that has oppressed them, and mislead them and taken their wages and their homes and neighborhoods and hoarded that wealth. They think maybe Trump is bad, but what could be worse? He would probably be worse, but I get that thinking. He’s irreverent and he really seems unimpressed with the whole charade. Anyway, the Paranoid Style is definitely intended to be fun. It’s a dark kind of fun for sure, but we definitely set out to entertain.
TW: I would hazard that, from an audio standpoint, this record is quite bit denser than your previous efforts. There are background choruses (“The Thrill is Back”), calls and responses (“The Ambassador’s Morning Lift”), and a wide range of keyboard tones (there’s an especially cool and sassy one on “Lola’s on a Leash,” for instance), as well as the traditional guitars, drums, etc. It feels like the product of a full band, not just the two of you. Is that the case, or have you tricked me with studio wizardry? Can you tell us about the process of building up to such a big sound? Who chipped in?
PS: Well, we got mostly the same folks involved on this one – Bruce Bennett, Ken Flagg, William Matheny, Amy Posner, Lee Waters, and William brought this incredible guy Bud Carroll in. Lots of talent. Our friend Scott McCaughey from the Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows came in for a few tracks and really added a lot in terms of backing vocals and extra instrumentation. We’ve been fans of Scott’s for years and so it was a huge honor to have him play with us on this record. Brian Paulson did the recording and mixing and he takes a back seat to no one as an engineer, to my mind. This is a guy who has recorded some of the greatest music of the last twenty years, non-Paranoid Style category, so we’re lucky to work with him. So there was continuity in that respect, but I think we were conscious of wanting to expand the sound a bit, to bring in some different elements to the arrangements. We wanted it to be a buoyant sound, kinda frenetic even — Get Happy by Elvis Costello & The Attractions was one template — on the one hand it’s a race to get to the next idea, and on the other hand their is a ton happening musically. It’s not threadbare or slapdash. Also, we had a very compressed amount of studio time, so spontaneity and thinking on the fly is an absolute necessity, and sometimes that can inspire great ideas as well as great anxiety. I think you can hear both on the record.
TW: Will you be touring? What’s the lineup?
PS: Yeah, we’ll be making some rare public appearances with our friends in the band Wussy, who are probably my favorite contemporary band. Same lineup as the record, more or less. Our attitude about that sort of thing is that we’ll play out when and where it makes sense or if it sounds like a particularly fun opportunity, but we’re not just going to drive around indiscriminately playing any club that will have us. None of us particularly crave being on stage enough to bother with that, or at least I don’t. And despite a lot of conventional wisdom in the music biz, I’m not so sure that touring in volume is really the key to finding an audience. Maybe in some cases, but a lot of time it’s just hard work for nothing. We’ll hopefully do some radio and TV spots.
TW: There’s a song on the album called “Daniel in the Basement” that I keep listening to incessantly even though it gives me feelings of worry. (So they called you on the carpet/And they took you in the tar pit/And they cleaned off the stain/Plan for the best, and hope for the worst.) What is your favorite creepy rock song? “The Little Black Egg” by the Nightcrawlers is another fine example of the form.
PS: Jeez, so many. “You Can’t Be Too Strong” by Graham Parker, that’s a great song, but pretty chilling. Any number of Chuck Berry tributes to high school aged girls. But really, for my money, the most disturbing song in the tradition is “Splish Splash” by Bobby Darin. Have you ever looked at the lyrics to that friggin’ thing? It kind of takes place in three acts. It starts with a grown man bathing. Then the action becomes confused when he exits the bath only to find that a bunch of people have crept into his house and are partying. This is where it gets weird, because he proceeds to get back into the tub for reasons that he never explains. And then it just sort of ends with him dancing in his living room. I think about this song a lot and I’ve come to conclude that it’s pretty much one man’s descent into the sort of madness that you never really come back from.
TW: Please give the presidential candidates their rock and roll equivalents:
PS: I feel like Hills is sort of like Peter, Paul & Mary. She sort of sings the palatable version of the Sanders message for the kind of people who couldn’t stand Bob Dylan’s voice. The same way they made “Blowin’ In The Wind” an actual hit, they are like ‘When that cranky man said raise the minimum wage it just sounded weird! But when she said it, it sounded good!’ The wage hike is lower in this analogy, of course.
I think Trump’s kind of like Henry Rollins as a solo act. This was after Black Flag, when he would get on stage wearing only bicycle shorts and scream into a microphone, and it was such an arresting and baffling spectacle that it took a few spins before you realized he was saying absolutely nothing. It was just loud noise. Then it became irritating. I’m thinking this is what is likely to happen with Trump.
I’m thinking maybe Gary Johnson is the guy who sang that song “Signs”? Because he doesn’t want the government bureaucrats putting up a bunch of signs telling him what he can and can’t do. Fucking signs!
Dr. Jill Stein? G.G. Allin.
Rolling Disclosure is available from Bar/None Records on 7/15 http://www.bar-none.com/the-paranoid-style . Owen King is the author of Double Feature: A Novel and co-author of the graphic novel Intro to Alien Invasion.