Hey, I’m doing well thanks. It’s been a surprisingly busy few weeks, but I’m excited and feeling much more at ease in balancing work/life/music. I’m watching less television, which may not be the worst thing for me.
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Issue At Track Level”?
It’s the second oldest song on the new EP, but it’s the song that established the musical direction for this project. I think it’s because I wasn’t trying to write for a particular audience, which was something I was extremely guilty of in the past. I used to write songs as though I was writing for fans of The National, and eventually felt disingenuous for that. I wasn’t thinking about an audience when I wrote this, or even a finished project. I played with chord shapes, chopped them up, reversed them, and enhanced mistakes with as many effects as I could use.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
I’ve dealt with panic attacks for much of my life, but I hadn’t really begun to understand where they were coming from or what they were in response to. When I started writing what would become this record, I experienced what felt like a cluster of attacks in a very short period of time. I wanted to force myself to understand why.
Lyrically, I focused on one very real, very irrational fear of mine: the idea of being shoved onto the subway line by someone who isn’t even aware of what they just did. That person just continues walking, and shoving through people to get to their next point. I wrote (with a limited understanding of the by-stander effect) about people looking on in terror, thinking they are about to witness something awful happen but would do nothing. Somebody else will help, someone better equipped.
How was the filming process and experience behind the video?
It was a weird experience. It was a really humid evening, and that mask was pretty hard to breathe in. I think it helped the effect and Elias, the director, was good about stopping when I needed a rest. We filmed for about 2-2.5/h, and I think I jogged for about ⅔ of the time. I felt pretty out of shape after filming. That feeling of it hinging on me and the fear of looking stupid was still quite strong during the filming.
Elias is an old friend of mine. He’s made a few web-series for which I wrote some music and we’ve played in a band together for a few years. He and I developed a solid creative trust through these various projects that even though “I want you to run around in a park in a gorilla mask for 2 hours” is such a strange suggestion, I knew he could put together something quite interesting. When he sent me the finished project, I was excited with his work. There’s this hypnotic quality that’s accentuated when the camera shakes slow motion.
When I first wrote the song, my friend Michelle (who helped produce the song with Séan) and I spent a long time talking about filming a dog having a wonderful day on the beach. Her dog is an adorable, excitable shitzu-poodle named Fatsumo and I had a hard time thinking of any other ideas for the song. I wanted people to scroll through Instagram, see a puppy, and turn on the sound to a frightening surprise. I’m especially happy that in the final video we happened upon a golden retriever who was not camera shy in the slightest.
The single comes off your new album Retroactive Rock Record – what’s the story behind the title?
I think there’s a fine line for finding a good title—on one side is a burdensome pretentiousness and the other is overwhelming stupidity. There may be a very good title somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Maybe one that’s not too on the nose or that needs to be in the lyrics of one of the songs, but still manages to capture something substantive about the work. There’s a cold, almost legislative sound to the title, but I felt like it worked for the overall mood.
I think the title may have been an unintentional play on “Forgiveness Rock Record” by Broken Social Scene. But I wasn’t in the headspace of writing about relationships, connection, or absolution. I felt like a lot of rock and rock adjacent music in the Toronto scene hinged heavily on older ideas—like structures found in classic rock, folk rock, jangle pop, pop punk, and hardcore. I don’t have a problem with those styles, but I couldn’t fit what I was writing comfortably into those genres. I think in order to progress as an artist, I needed to go back and look at the form (which I do adhere to) and find a way to work around it, bend it to work for me.
How was the recording and writing process?
It was quite long, maybe 2 years. A lot of the original demos of each song are still in the final tracks, because Séan and I wanted to focus on what we could do with the equipment we had. Séan and I have been recording together since high school. We’ve been friends since the third grade. I really appreciate his ability to drive a song, and recognize what needs to be done. But on this record, he really jumped into experimentation and how he could manipulate the effect the music. If anyone enjoys this record, the major reason would be Séan’s work.
The writing process was fairly changed from song to song. It was pretty rare that I’d start a song on a guitar, strumming chords. On one song, I must have recorded 15 minutes of cajon playing before cutting it down to roughly a 2 bar loop. I wrote the rest of that song around that loop. I think my writing style is to overdo an idea to the point of frustration, leave it for a few days, and listen back to decide if there’s anything worth salvaging. I’m trying to remember how I started the final track. I think I had a guitar loop that I slowed to an extreme degree and a bass loop that wasn’t played in proper time, and then built the song around those two elements. I must have tried 3 or 4 different melodies before I found one that worked.
I use the Google Keep app to store single sentences that I might use for lyrics later. Often, I’ll pull lines from there, chart them out on paper, and edit until I believe I have a coherent idea on the page. I think if someone ever stole my phone, they’d find this app full of non-sequiturs scattered around grocery lists and reminders – they’d probably be at least somewhat confused.
What role does Toronto play in your music?
I don’t think Toronto plays an obvious role. I’m not specifically referring to anything I consciously know to be of Toronto alone. Drake’s a lot better at that.
I think the effects of living in a major metropolitan city like Toronto play into the anxiety that fueled the record. When I started writing, I was working three jobs to afford rent, pay my student loans, and do my share in supporting my relationship. I don’t think that’s rare to a single city. People move to large cities because there are more chances to find work, and a lot of the chances tend to be minimum wage or tipped work. Work that’s not enough to afford to live close to, and it’s not enough to rent outside of the city, buy a car, pay for parking, gas, insurance, etc. on top of everything else.
For all of that difficulty, I love Toronto. There is so much on offer that I have not been able to find in other places I’ve lived. I have a sense of community with my neighbourhood. I still have access to transit and healthcare. It’s home.
What were some of the emotions you get to explore on this record?
I’ve kept this record pretty focused on my experiences in the midst of panic attacks. There’s the rising tension of knowing something is not quite right – it could be a sense of unease in your stomach or a recurring twitch in your eye. You can’t quite figure out what’s causing that feeling— expenses, work, exhaustion, Trump (or Ford here), or fearing the future.
There’s this bizarre fusion of hyper-focus and overwhelmingness that I’ve felt during the prolonged experience. It’s in noticing that stomachache, and noticing all of the possible causes for the stomachache and just piling up them around me until the floor gives in. It’s internally alienating. I would catastrophize and assume that people see the internal torment, because it’s so obvious to me, and are acting in either malice or indifference. When I finally come down from the highest part of it, I’m exhausted and just need a place to sit. I think I’ve unintentionally provided a sentence for each of the songs on this record.
Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
The overall sound was partially a response to the times I’ve heard “happiness is a choice.” I found those comments to be horrifically unempathetic and smug. I wanted to present the anxious and depressive parts of my brain in the most direct way, as if to ask that person “Do you still think this is a fucking choice?” It’s a defensive response, and somewhat petty, but it’s honest.
The creation process for Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs” was very inspiring. I loved the idea of writing music for the record, without considering how I’m going to play this live. That can come later. I wanted a direct and specific experience on the record that wouldn’t be easily repeated by crooning over an acoustic guitar. I’m an awful crooner anyway.
I was also listening to “To Pimp a Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar, “Skeleton Tree” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and “Vulnicura” by Bjork a lot during the creation process. They’re incredibly direct records. That poem that builds through the Lamar record really got to me, especially as it wraps into the final piece. The song “Stonemilker” is lovely on first listen, but utterly shattering when you take in the source, and it made for a compelling Song Exploder episode. “Skeleton Tree” and its accompanying film really pushed me to address and work through decades of trauma I hadn’t acknowledged until I started. The song “Magneto” guts me, especially that freetime chorus. Each of those records, and more since (thinking Sharon Van Etten’s and Thundercat’s most recent releases) really communicate the artists in the most direct way. They don’t hide behind metaphor but use it to enhance the experience.
Any plans to hit the road?
It’s a slow process, because I’m learning how to reinterpret the songs for a live act, but I plan to be performing more in the new year. I’m researching which venues and festivals would be interested in my work. Then I’ll email everybody else, because I wouldn’t want to misjudge someone.
At the moment I’ve a show celebrating the release here in Toronto on October 24 at Today/Tonight. It’s a great little bar in my neighbourhood that might prefer if I play with an acoustic.
What else is happening next in Output 1:1:1’s world?
I’ve been working on material for a follow up for sometime. It’s somewhat different from this record, which excites me. There are a few piano-led parts, and interesting soundscapes that have been fun to play with. It’s inspired in part by David Bowie’s “Low” and Thom Yorke’s “Suspiria” soundtrack. I plan to have it finished by the end of 2020.
I’ve started working with musicians to build a live act. More than simply relieving me of a few harmonic roles, I’m very excited for the energy that’s been brought to the rehearsal space. It’s surprisingly fun to play this material.