By David Haynes
In the past year, we’ve all returned back to the bedroom in our own ways. Some of us are re-playing N64 games and eating Doritos. Some of us are finally writing the next great American novel that’s been in the back of our mind for years. But for Atlanta musician Parker Paul, the recent return to the indoors has prompted a stunning collection of acoustic-pop songs called Total Comfort Trenches.
Like any good pop record, Paul’s focus here is melody. But, like early Liz Phair, Elliott Smith, or Phil Elverum, Paul focuses on the darker side of pop. The melodies are haunting, as if they were once happy songs turned into somber affairs. From the opening moments of the first song, “centipede,” it’s clear that the artist intends to shower us with earworm hooks. As an arpeggiating guitar provides the backdrop accentuated by subtle synth leads, there is a simplicity and a sincerity to Paul’s repeated refrain of “make it look cool.” As the album continues, Paul channels Either/Or era Elliott Smith on “scentworm.” The minor key musing builds until it ultimately breaks into a cavalcade of detuned synthesizers, a fitting end to a song about the dangers of “chasing your goals.”
While the tone of the album is darker, there is still a playful attitude to these songs. Titles like “daybuzz lightyear,” “caramel cookie,” and “captain k’nuckles” imply not only a playful side to this artist’s writing, but also the effects of nearly a year of living in relative isolation. The songwriter is returning to those memories that feel familiar. That feel like home. In particular, “caramel cookie” is one of the grooviest songs on this record. Complete with phasers and light percussion, Paul manifes to create a song that feels like childhood without feeling childish. Paul sings, “Pick teams for silly games / Team captain skips your name / Sometimes it feels okay to lose.” If this doesn’t tap into your memory of neighborhood kickball or red rover, I don’t know what will.
Towards the latter half of the album, Paul begins referencing more modern bedroom pop. Artists such as Mac DeMarco, Japanese Breakfast, or Steve Lacy come to mind, but Paul does a great job of citing influence without stooping to mimicry. The penultimate “ink trophy” almost has an early R&B vibe, with the shakers and organ. The final song, “Destroy,” also has a more modern sound, bridging the gap between Paul’s 90s inclinations and the lo-fi sounds of today. With an unassuming electric piano progression and yet another near-perfect melody, Paul’s unique approach to pop songwriting feels effortless.
Paul describes the sound of Total Comfort Trenches as “pop music reimagined & translated through an acoustic guitar, shy & subdued vocals, and a wall of thrift-store synths that tastefully teeter between too vintage and not vintage enough in a way that I hope comes off as charming.” The artist is indeed incredibly self-aware. Sounding like thrifting with your old pals or getting stoned and watching the cartoons of yesteryear, Total Comfort Trenches is a must listen for the increasingly isolated social landscape in which we find ourselves.
– I really love the phrase you picked for the title. Could you talk more
about what “total comfort trenches” means to you?
I’m always sort of jotting down anything that might make for a good
song/album/project name, as many musicians do. I’m not sure exactly
what set of circumstances led me to coming up with that name, but I did
end up using it as a lyric in a song called “right now” from my previous
record. I guess what it means to me is how overindulging in an
isolationist mindset, while comforting, can become harmful to life in
I’m a natural introvert, probably always will be, and introversion when left
unchecked can often feel like a trench you can’t escape from, like a
literal WW1-style trench. It’s like you need get out and move forward, but
you might get hit by a speeding bullet, so you decide to just live in the
trench forever. But it’s like, when everyone around you inevitably leaves
the trench, you’ll be the last one left and for a little while you might take
comfort in thinking to yourself “There’s no one here, but at least I didn’t
get shot” until a flash flood forces you above the surface, or a live
grenade falls into your lap & you jump out.
At that point it’s no longer introversion that keeps you static, it’s fear. I
feel like my brain can’t differentiate the two sometimes, because I often
find myself struggling to shake my isolationist tendencies and in this line
of work I can only imagine it works against me in a lot of ways. So yeah,
I find total comfort in reclusion, but it begins to feel like I’m just living in a
hole in the ground while the world exists above me.
– Did you record the songs in a relatively short period of time, or was it a more open, long-term recording process?
I’d say it was definitely more long-term than other records. The first song
I wrote for it, “I could eat people”, was written in August of 2019, from
that point I spent about a year writing and recording from home
whenever I could find the time. The writing process was also sparse
enough that it gave me time to design visualizers for each track. By the
time I began putting out singles in January 2020, I was actually only
halfway done with the record, and I basically didn’t stop writing until July
of that year.
– How do you think the pandemic affected these songs in particular?
What’s funny is just before the pandemic hit I had already been living as
a complete homebody for the last 5 months, so when the government
finally told everyone to stay inside, for me it was just business as usual.
It’s interesting to spend months writing from the POV of someone
struggling with feeling isolated, then 5 months later the whole country is
forced to stay inside. Maybe my sound got more upbeat after realizing I
wasn’t the odd one out anymore? I don’t know.
There is one song called “daybuzz lightyear” that I wrote just after getting
laid off from a job due to Covid-19, that’s really the only song I can think
of that’s directly tied to some sulky pandemic-induced state of mental
anguish. Other than that, my creative process was relatively unchanged
since I was recording everything in an apartment I had locked myself in
for a year.
– What’s it like to be a bedroom pop artist in Atlanta?
If I’m speaking on what it’s like in relation to the fact that I live in the hiphop capital of the universe, it’s probably like playing anything other than
Grunge in post-Nirvana Seattle in 1996. It’s like “You might write some
cool stuff but no industry heads are flocking to your city looking for your
sound”. Maybe that brings some uniqueness to what I do, but yes most
of the artists here, to a mainstream audience at least, are overshadowed
by the Trap genre. If there’s any possibility that one day this city’s insane
genre diversity will finally be showcased on a world stage, I’d put my
money on Punk Black being the people behind it. I would absolutely love
to see that happen not just because people like to mischaracterize ATL
as being a one-sound city, but also because POC continue to be hugely
under-represented in alternative/experimental genres across the board.
In terms of smaller & more local scenes, it’s probably the same as
anywhere else; People are more excited to see actual bands than
‘person with acoustic guitar’, and you don’t really fit on a lot of bills
unless it’s like “solo artist night” in someone’s basement somewhere,
which does happen (or ‘did’ anyway). But there are a lot of local solo
acts coming out of the pandemic, and we tend to congregate and lift
each other up in local scenes, so I’m looking forward to seeing what
comes out of that.
– What’s next after Total Comfort Trenches?
My guess would be trying to get better recording equipment & writing
music for other projects while I take a break from writing for this one;
That’s usually what I end up doing after I release a record.
I’d love to form a new band in addition to this project, so we’ll see if that
ever comes to light.