With a CD called The Drunken Dance of Modern Man In Love, and a nickname of "the Stephen King of Indie Pop," Chris Robley caught our attention. He kept our attention with his moody yet intriguing music. His bio says that he writes songs out of pure obsession and intrigue with the dark side of human relationships. So we wanted to delve a little deeper into those themes with Chris and some of the songs on the CD. We were planning on just doing a Chris Robley week with one song featured a day but he did such an incredible job with the five song stories that we couldn't wait until the new year to publish them. Here is Chris with the inside track on his five favorite tracks from The Drunken Dance of Modern Man In Love.
This sad little number is a favorite of mine because I was able to almost entirely recreate the sound and mood I had in my mind when I first wrote it (a comparative description would read something like "Randy Newman lyrics with a Burt Bacharach melody performed by Harvest-era Neil Young). There is always some distance between intent and reality when it comes to the recording process. Some songs benefit from this distance. Some suffer. But rarely do they resemble the original idea in any recognizable way. So I'm proud that in this case I closed the distance near entirely.
I remember being stuck in some awful traffic on the I-405 bridge in Portland for about 30 minutes and coming up with the lyrics while staring at the Willamette River below. I don't know what that has to do with the lyrics other than it being a vivid memory. But anyways. The story is basically a person addressing an abusive father on his death bed. The narrator's grief is a bit shielded by some protective ambivalence. They keep noticing the commonplace, everyday, mundane nature of this final farewell, and how it would be so much more heightened and romantic were they characters in a book by Faulkner.
I put the acoustic guitar and vocals down first on 24 track tape, with Adam Selzer
engineering at Type Foundry. Then I had Arthur Parker come in to play standup bass. Then drums. This is actually my favorite drum part on the whole album, played superbly, subtly, and softly by John Stewart. Adam and I worked with John to strip away Everything from the drum part except the barest essentials so it has that ultra-dry snare and kick sound from the early 70's.
Steve Keeley and Amanda Lawrence (of Loch Lomond) played the string arrangement
(which we later looped in reverse to open the album). Paul Brainard played about 6
tracks of pedal steel which we left going all at once, drenched in reverb, to begin and end the song. I finished it off with a few spare touches of Wurlitzer and harmonica. Of course, no self-respecting Harvest homage would fly without harmonica!
The first time I ever kept a first vocal take in its entirety. Granted, the melody is lower and easy to sing. But still, I'm giving myself credit here. It was also one of the only times where a complete lyric came on so suddenly that I felt as if I were taking dictation. I woke up late one night, went out to the living room, and started scribbling fast. Besides some minor revisions, the words, imagery, and rhyme scheme is exactly what came spilling out.
The national flower of Germany belongs to the genus Centaurea. This is a song about that liminal twilight at the end of a war, where peace is coming over the horizon but no one can feel it yet. Things grow twisted from the rubble and ruin, growing, but most likely laying the foundation for the next conflict, too. The lyrics are specifically about WWII and the music is a kind of Mariachi/Tom Waits hybrid, so when someone told me this song made them feel like they were in Spain in 1936 I can't complain that they were too far off.
I played guitars, timpanis, crash symbols, and sang all the vocals. Arthur Parker played upright bass. Steve Keeley played the eerie tremolo fiddles that dance in the background. Benny Morrison dusted off his clarinet for some sweet Parisian lines. Mike Danner played accordion. Adam Selzer played castanets. And most importantly, James Gregg came in to play trumpet dressed in his very best Desert-Rock shoes.
The Love I Fake
This song inspired a music journalist in San Francisco to start a whole iTunes mix for songs about prostitutes. I think The Love I Fake and Roxanne are the only ones in there so far. Feel free to leave your suggestions in the box. So why a song about a prostitute?
Sometimes I'll just come up with these little mental problems in my head that need
solving, and it could be anything that sets it off. It might have been a movie or a
discussion or an undigested bit of mustard that made me go pondering. Start with the question, develop the answer.
Everyone at some low point in their life needs to feel empowered amidst the chaos, and how could a prostitute feel empowered given the daily horrors? And the answer I came up with was by possessing or cultivating a kind of superior air about her and by making fun of the dude in her head while it's all going down. Quiet condescension. So hopefully the listener starts off feeling sorry for the girl, but ends up feeling sorry for the pathetic guys she emasculates with her barbed tongue.
Recording-wise, I brought in the usual cast of characters for this tune: Mike Danner
on accordion and honkey-tonk piano, Benny Morrison on clarinet and Barritone sax.
Steve Keeley on fiddle. Arthur Parker on upright and fuzz bass. John Stewart on
I like how the feel keeps morphing in this song, too. The barroom vamp section is a
nod to klezmer. The verses are some kind of slow western swing. The pre-chorus ramps
into a 50's rock-motif and then launches into a chorus that always reminded me of Weezer. Then at the end I did my best Nilsson vocal-outro. After all, one can never
have enough Nilsson.
A Vague Notion of Nothing Much
A cruel, cruel song. I always seem to have one tune on every album from the perspective of a despicable misogynist. This is a soon-to-be father who knows he won't be sticking around much longer, while a lesbian couple next door pines for their own child. I think I got that line "A vague notion of nothing much" in my head first, apropos of nothing. And then rather than the song being about an idea, which would be the obvious continuation of a "notion", it became about a person... or baby. "The baby in your belly is a vague notion of nothing much."
Then I thought, God!, what a terrible thing to say. But it'd be even more terrible if it were the father talking to the mother. So I guess I think of these things first and then wonder how I can make them the most potently cruel. My friends think I should start a contest for folks who'd be willing to write new songs based on mine to save my sad characters. It happened once. Maybe someone will eventually save the deadbeat dad in "Vague Notion" and they'll end up a happy family one day. Or maybe just a functional family would be okay.
You'd never know it from listening, but I was really inspired by Animal Collective on this song (particularly the claps and stomps). Then work in a little Neutral Milk Hotel, Byrds, and Beach Boys and I think that is close to the mark. The mildly dissonant acapella section at the end is a real bitch to pull off live, believe me. It's kind of like the raga Spinal Tap sings at Elvis' tomb.
Little Love Affairs
This is the closest thing to a "title track" since its got the album name (The Drunken Dance of Modern Man in Love) in the lyric. On a side note, I always think its cool when albums are named after lyrics instead of song titles. My Aim is True, for example.
Anyways, its a tune that charts the topography and limits of fidelity in an age of great unmet expectations. Up front, its probably the poppiest song on the album, although I like that its structured musically like a palindrome. ABCBA That is my small, silent revolution against the constraints of catchiness and form.
I love the compressed and distressed acoustic guitar sound that John Vanderslice (and Neutral Milk Hotel before him) have trademarked and used that a bit on this recording. The drums had this really interesting room mic on them that we went with (instead of the close mics) because it had a giant, but distant sound. It seemed suggestive of something thunderous without actually being so obvious and sprawling.
Benny Morrison played some Savoy Truffle Barritone sax parts and Paul Brainard played pedal steel. After listening to the song a couple times, Brainard went into the next room and played it note for note on the piano, chords, melody, everything. Its not prog-rock, but its not the blues either. He's a gifted one. Bastard.
The high pitched percussion on the chorus is me banging on glass with two metal knives. It sounds like a gentle tinkling, but there was jagged bits of glass debris all over the studio floor and in my hair.