The Cult of the Paper Chase

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Jonathan Reiss | August 3, 2009

Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/superlative_conspiracy/2517736127/in/photostream/">night_beat</a>

Photo by night_beat

“Please for god sakes lets get on with it, we’ve lived as no other people have lived and loved. You’ve had as much of this world as you are going to get. Let’s just be done with it! Let’s just be done with the agony of it.”

These were the first words that came out of the Mercury Lounge’s amps when the Paper Chase played in early July. It was the voice of the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana urging those around him not to resist his mass suicide plan, to drink his cyanide-laced cherry Kool Aid. Jones gave a forty minute long sermon while all around him people drank the poison and shot it down their children’s throats with syringes. It was the first of many sound clips carefully implemented into the band’s stage show to put the audience into Paper Chase front man John Congleton’s world, the one that is about to end.

Paper Chase albums aren’t just records, they are musical stories with soundscapes so dramatic, complex and moving that they don’t require visuals. Their new album “Someday All of This Could Be Yours” is part one of a double concept album where every song is a different apocalypse scenario. The tracks on the album have titles such as “The Common Cold (the epidemic),” (which comes across as oddly prophetic in light of the swine-flu outbreak), and “This Is a Rape (the flood.)” What followed the Jim Jones clip was an ebullition of a sound, including scathing guitar, haunting bass and a drummer pounding hard as fuck. Singer and lead guitar player Congleton moves around on stage like no other rock and roll performer.

A short and skinny blonde haired Texan, Congleton hops and spazzes about on stage, flailing limbs and wielding his guitar around like a madman, giving new meaning to the metaphor of a guitar as an axe. He moves so wildly, it’s amazing that he's able to pull off the complicated, Unwound-esque riffs that flow throughout the bands’ songs. In the course of the show, Congleton hangs himself with the chord of his microphone, clutches his skinny frame for dear life and gently places his palm on the heads of audience members like a cult leader, or a yoga instructor. His voice twangs with a Texas drawl that can be whiney yet melodic, dissonant and powerful and always with a slight William Burroughs-like drone beneath it all.

Congleton is one of the most interesting front men in rock and roll to watch and perhaps the only one who seems to truly not give a damn what he looks like on stage. Meanwhile, the tall bearded bassist rocks back and forth from foot to foot, oddly still with his fingers climbing up and down the neck of the bass. The keybordist pounds at his keys and programs a cacophony of sound bites and effects while singing in a way that matches Congleton’s voice, like there’s a creepy doppelganger present.

Every moment is the end of that Twilight Zone episode where you find out that it was all in your head; the sound is all about confronting your fears and reveling in them. The Paper Chase is not punk or indie rock, and they are certainly not emo. They are the musical manifestation of fear and insanity and I was fortunate enough to grab John Congleton for a few questions after the show.

Congleton is perhaps better known in “the biz” as a producer, having worked with bands like Modest Mouse, the Roots and The Polyphonic Spree. But as the maestro of his own frightening music, it seemed like he would be a frightening and imposing presence and perhaps difficult to interview. At past Paper Chase shows, for instance, Congleton has been known to angrily rebuff audience’s cries for “one more song,” with a staunch, “no!” before leaving the stage.

How come you don’t play encores?

I think that the whole making people cheer for more music, it just seems silly to me. All my life it’s been like, “Okay the band's going to walk off stage. How triumphant.” And then [with mock surprise], “Oh are they going to come back?” And they start to walk back on and, “Oh, everyone is so excited. Oh, jeez are they going to play another song?” It’s just one of those rock and roll clichés that I want to avoid.

You’ve collaborated as a producer with a lot of pretty-well-known artists. Was anyone particularly hard to work with?

You know, I don’t think anyone has been super hard to work with. Everybody has their own challenges. Some people just seem really effortless or easy to work with because they’re just easily satisfied. But that doesn’t mean that they’re easier to work with, because you got to push those peoples and be like, “Aww, you can do better…” Sometimes those are more difficult because you want to keep the people from resenting you. You don’t want them to be like, “Oh god he’s making me do it again?” So you’ve got to just tow that line. There’s only been two albums that I’ve ever done that I absolutely did not enjoy and it felt like work and those were both people that I knew personally and I was doing it as a favor and I was working for free.

Regarding the Paper Chase, fear seems to be a really common thread throughout your albums. What are you most scared of right now.

To be honest I’m not really as scared a person as I used to be.

Has the Paper Chase had anything to do with that?

Sure, man. Music and art is always therapy, right?

Another theme throughout the records has been hands. References to hands have been ubiquitous throughout the Paper Chase’s lyrics and song titles. What’s the deal with the hands?

I don’t know man. There’s certain patterns you get locked into as a writer. I think I just like the idea of hands being separate and out of control. It’s always something I’ve been attracted to, like compulsion. The idea that the hands are compelled to do something that your brain can’t control.

The Paper Chase make music that is categorically different that anything around right now. Are there any other bands playing now that you feel in line with creatively or that you think are also making music that’s very different?

There’s a lot of them. A lot of the bands I really like are bands that I’ve worked with. Some of the bands I think are really doing something special are ones I wanted to work with and through the course of me telling someone, “God I’d love to work with that band,” we end up working together. I think St. Vincent is doing something really bizarre and really interesting. Just the amalgamation of weird woodwinds, noisy rock and roll and then her with this very, very anti-rock n roll voice over it, is really a strange amalgamation to me.

I know you did a Nick Cave cover on the split you did with Xiu Xiu, do you do any other covers?

We did a Roger Waters song, that’s it.

I want to ask you about Punk Rock…

Hell yeah!

I think that the punk scene really embraces you guys, even though you sound nothing like your average punk band. Still, more than any other, that seems to be the scene you guys are most a part of. As a band, do you ascribe to the punk ethos?

Fuck yeah. Absolutely, it’s what I grew up on. I love the music and I still definitely listen to a lot of punk rock. I mean, I really enjoy that ethos, and I think that people pick up on that.

How do you feel about file-sharing?

It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s just that simple. I think that it’s great that a lot of people can hear to a lot of music easily, but I think it’s awful that people can hear a lot of music easily.

If you weren’t in a band, do you think there is any chance you’d be downloading music?

Nope. [Puts up two fingers scouts honor style.] I’ve never, ever downloaded music for free in my entire life. Never done it.

Tell me about me about being on Kill Rock Stars. How did it come about, are you happy about it?

I love the legacy of Kill Rock Stars… Basically, Slim Moon liked the band and emailed me about being on a compilation and we just started talking a little bit and through the course of that I ended up telling him that we were without a label at that point and he pretty much just said, “Do you wanna be on Kill Rock Stars?” And I said, “Yes I do.” And we’ve been on ever since.

As it turned out there was nothing particularly imposing or intimidating about Congleton. He was rather small and thin wearing baggy jeans with a V-neck shirt. He spoke softly with a thick Texas accent that sounded more gentile than rugged. Yet, when I thanked him, he reached out his hand and shook mine with a solid and firm swinging grasp. It was as if his hand had a life all its own. Just then, I thought of another question for him, but knew better than to ask for an encore. As he walked away I knew for sure that audiences, punk rock and otherwise, would be drinking his Kool Aid for a long time to come.

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