Welcome to the first-ever In-time Interview. In this feature, I will be interviewing artists about their albums in real time as that album plays. Our conversations will hopefully move with the album, providing you – the loyal reader – with a unique perspective on a great work. For the first installment in this series, I asked Abram Shook, lead singer and songwriter for The Great Nostalgic, to talk about his group’s latest release, Hope We Live Like We Promised – one of my front-runners for record of the year in 2011. Last night, we sat down for a surprisingly fast-paced iChat interview as we each listened to this paean to “being normal and dealing with that shit” (as Abram describes it) on our respective soundsystems. What follows is a nearly unedited account of our conversation. Enjoy!
“Oyster and Pearl”
Carter: Alright, Abram, can you set the scene for what we’re about to experience?
Abram: Yeah. This is sort of an introduction to the record. I did this on our s/t debut with the song “Grace.” I like to set the stage…
Carter: What are you hoping to convey here?
Abram: A lot of the album is about trying to “make it” as a couple in a sort of mundane suburban life, so it just talks a lot about sticking together and sets up “Morning Light.”
Carter: Right – “Morning Light” is all about mundaneness, it seems, but it conveys a major life event – a divorce – as if it were reading the paper.
Abram: Exactly. It’s all about pretending.
Abram: Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t, but what makes us “human beings” feel the need to carry on when something is obviously not working, or not fulfilling? It could be work, or love, or the city you live in.
Carter: That doesn’t seem like a question that gets answered in this particular track…do you address that later in the album?
Abram: hmmm… I don’t think it ever gets answered, but it definitely gets addressed throughout.
Carter: Right – so instead you just kind of carry on with the mundane.
Abram: Yeah… I like that 🙂
Abram: A lot of this record came from walking my dog around the neighborhood.
Carter: Well, “Morning Light” and “Islands” both have fantastic hooks in them. Do you focus on that when writing?
Abram: I love hooks. I’m honestly always trying to write a great pop song.
Carter: Oh, and what do you write notes in the margins of in this chorus? I can’t make out the name of the book…
Abram: I wrote some notes in the margin of a copy of Rum Diaries (Hunter S. Thompson).
Carter: Ah, cool – are you a writer? You reference writing quite a bit in this record.
“The Great Unknown”
Abram: I’m more referencing the nostalgia of writing/dreaming big when you’re young, and then stumbling upon some of those early writings when you’re a bit older. And supposedly “wiser.”
Carter: So you’re using writing as a device to show coming of age type things?
Abram: Yeah, but more as a reflection. You could use photography, or songwriting, or really any art form. Just take a look back on anything you did 10 years ago and it really brings back a certain frame of reference… I’ve moved around and traveled a lot, so a lot of my memories are tied to different places and “eras” of my life.
Carter: Here in “The Great Unknown” you talk about raising children. You bring up wedding rings in “Islands” and later… Are these songs about the same characters? Is this a concept album?
Abram: These are two different people. “Great Unknown” is somewhat about my brother, but could apply to any sibling/single parent.
Carter: Interesting. I’ll come back to that [Ed. note: I didn’t.], but I also want to ask – though we’re on “Empty Hands” now – what are you trying to convey with “hope we live like we promised,” a refrain in “The Great Unknown?”
Abram: Well… Again… that concept has to do with friends or family or co-workers even… people that you stay up late with talking shit, or dreaming big, but then you end up in a different place with new people and you wonder, “How did I get here?”
Carter: My favorite Talking Heads line, “How did I get here?”
Abram: Big fan.
Carter: So the characters on this record – would you say they’re not living the way they wanted to? Is this album full of regret?
Abram: I think they’re discovering that they are indeed not living the way they want to, but they’re struggling with regret vs. acceptance. They’re discovering that there isn’t always a bigger picture for everyone. There’s just life… That sounds corny, but it’s true.
Carter: Amen to that. Here in “Portuguese Lessons,” you talk quite a bit about “coming clean” – that’s something you also reference in “Oyster and Pearl.” What’s the significance of that phrase for you?
Abram: Well, this is a concept that I put in the record to be open to people’s own interpretations.
Carter: But you say, “You know what I mean!” I don’t know what you mean!
Abram: Mostly, for me, its about coming clean to myself… Self-reflection, accepting the place that I’m at right here and now, and knowing that I don’t and won’t ever have control over everything.
Carter: So is this “water spinning” part a kind of baptism then?
Abram: No, just that I’m still spinnning… Some days I’m up, and some I’m down, sometimes I got it figured out and sometimes it all goes to shit.
Carter: So we’re here in the middle of what you called the “dark” third of the record – is that a sonic distinction, or a lyrical one?
Abram: Both… I think things start to turn more inward here in this part of the album.
Carter: Huh, I hadn’t noticed that, but I see it. Those first four songs are all about the externalities of children, family, etc.
Abram: There are a lot of references here to the past, or children, or innocence, or simplification.
Carter: So we start the album with present, and now we’re in past…sort of?
Abram: Yeah, to a degree… This is the “looking through the photo album” part of the record. 🙂
Carter: “Wilderness,” you’ve previously mentioned, has been the one that people gravitate toward as a single. Why do you think that is?
Abram: I think its got a pretty catchy format, hooks and an epic ending!!
Carter: That was pretty epic.
Abram: This song, “Ink Spots,” is also about not achieving the picture of what you thought your future would be when you were young. And then trying to figure out how to take the next step.
Carter: Yeah – “This ain’t Hollywood.”
Abram: The chorus is taken from a bit of history about my grandparents.
Carter: The “dance away your dreams” part? What’s the story there?
Abram: Long story, but my grandfather could’ve been a professional boxer, and my grandma a professional singer (record contract and all), but they gave it up to start a family ’cause that’s what you did back then. In that time people went out dancing a lot more. It was a release from their problems.
Carter: So it’s a kind of escapist move.
Abram: Yeah… You used to get dressed up for a night out on the town with your lady, just to escape all the “normalcy.”
Carter: I’ll come back to normalcy (hopefully) [Ed. note: I did.] but you mention 1993 twice on the record. What’s the significance of that year?
Abram: That was my high school/formative era!! I’m old 🙂 Sooo the 90’s hold a lot of meaning about where I’ve come from, and how I got to be who/where I am. I use a lot of personal references about my family or myself to get the core of these songs, but use the neighborhood to filter them into how things are these days….
Carter: What do you mean “neighborhood”?
Abram: Walking around my boring suburban neighborhood, thinking about what goes on inside other people’s houses, what other peoples’ daily lives are like.
Carter: Which is this little mini-song here.
Abram: Yeah. There’s always kids around playing. What I would give to have that freedom from responsibility again!
Carter: Yeah, seriously.
Carter: So here you have “Mohair Sweater,” and back in “Portuguese Lessons” you reference “Bennie and the Jets,” where he wears a “mohair suit.” I’m curious about the extent of intentionality in your cross-song references. (See also: “coming clean,” 1993, etc) Why do you connect them so much?
Abram: Hahah!! I like when people pick up on that little shit!! It’s fun to plant little nuggets like that throughout the record. It makes it exploratory… The records I like the most are the ones you can get lost in. Those are my favs.
Carter: So it’s like a scavenger hunt for your fans? Or an easter egg hunt?
Abram: For sure. I want people to listen more then once, you know? There are a lot of layers… It’s more like those picture thingies from Highlights magazines!!
Carter: You seem like you focus more on themes when you’re writing than almost anything else. I mean, as opposed to the specifics of each song, you try to convey grander things.
Abram: That’s actually where the name of the band came from, and to some extent even the vocal style.
Carter: Is your vocal style consciously chosen? I figured it was just how you sang.
(btw, love this song)
(those palm-muted chords!)
Abram: Well, now it is, but it kind of developed when I wrote my first album. I needed something deep or mysterious to convey some of the “grand” themes, so I created a character I called The Great Nostalgic. I always pictured him on one of those circus posters!! It was supposed to be the name of the first record, but I liked it so much that I decided to name the band after it.
Carter: Cool! So I want to ask about the drumming. Your drummer [Vincent Durcan] rarely plays straightforward rhythms – is that a part of the songwriting or is that just his own personal style?
Abram: That’s his style, but we work on things a lot. When we start out writing new stuff, it’s usually just him and I.
Carter: Oh, wow! Yeah, they definitely take a prominent role in defining the sound of each track.
Abram: He has a way of establishing the song’s “feel,” which can often go in a different way from where I had originally pictured it.
Carter: You talked about “escaping normalcy” earlier… Your characters don’t seem to do a great job of escaping normalcy. Are you fairly ambivalent on the subject?
Abram: Hmmm… Hard to say. I guess I strive to take things as they come. Btw, I wanted to reference “Spirit World” earlier and tell you that I took a lot of influence on that from one of my favorite bands, Love and Rockets.
Carter: I don’t know them as well…
Abram: A lot of people think the Cars, whom I also love, but that one came straight from L and R.
Carter: Yeah, those palm mutes, man! That’s “Just What I Needed!”
Abram: Haha… Love and Rockets is an amazing 80’s band – 70’s and 80’s, actually. I look to them a lot in the production of records. While it is more “synthy” than us, their album Earth Sun Moon is epic!
“Hustlers and Junkies”
Carter: So we’ve reached the last track of the album, and it’s clearly an album that is amazingly coherent sonically and lyrically. Can you make the case for the album’s importance in this bite-sized digital age? Why make such grandiose statements?
Abram: Well… album-making is a lost art, and so is album-listening… I don’t know the answer to that. It really depresses me.
Carter: Definitely – most of your fans may not hear your album the way you intended… As one chunk, I mean.
Abram: Yeah… it’s a lot to bite off in one sitting.
Carter: So singles are inferior?
Abram: Noooo!! Singles are awesome! In fact, we’re gonna be doing more singles this year. But they can’t convey a whole range of emotions or themes the way an album can.
Carter: Why did you choose “Hustlers and Junkies” to close out the record? I feel like the album closer is always such an important choice to make.
Abram: Well, I think its probably my favorite track…
Carter: I won’t tell the others.
Abram: I just really feel the “mood” of the song and lyrics. It’s a lot about isolation, plus I think it sort of brings it back around to the beginning of the record!