By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
John Congleton and Matt Armstrong, otherwise known as one half of the pAper chAse, sit in a tiny, cluttered recording studio, otherwise known as one of the rooms in Congleton's house in a quiet neighborhood in northeast Dallas. The spoils of Congleton's successful eBay bids are thumbtacked to most of the walls or sit on many of the flat surfaces. And not just in the studio: The entire house is somewhat of a museum to questionable pop culture. The prize that stands out the most--in the studio, at least--is an autographed 8 x 10 of Conrad Bain, Philip Drummond (or Mr. D, if you will) from Diff'rent Strokes. It's like one of those Jesus paintings that always seems to be looking at you no matter where you happen to be in a room, so you can't help but stare back.
At the moment, Congleton and Armstrong are huddled together, Congleton manning a MiniDisc recorder plugged into the studio's control board, and Roky Erickson's "Burn the Flames"--from the soundtrack to 1985's Return of the Living Dead--fills the room. (The album itself hangs in a plastic sleeve on the wall across from them, another one of Congleton's exhibits.) It's a song that tries hard for creepy, but falls short and lands somewhere around camp and kitsch instead, tripped up by a mountain of sound effects and Erickson's awkward impression of, apparently, Vincent Price. Congleton keeps scanning back through the recording, replaying Erickson's theatrically deranged cackle over and over, and he and Armstrong laugh just as hard each time they hear it.
Then it's on to Mac Davis' "Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me" (which Armstrong admits is, hey, not that bad) and Buckner & Garcia's novelty hit "Pac-Man Fever" and an instrumental that sounds like the theme to a forgotten game show. Finally, the Oak Ridge Boys' syrupy "Thank God for Kids." "Here's where the bass comes in," Congleton says, gesturing to the speakers behind him. "That's the cum shot."
Congleton has been playing Armstrong (a longtime friend of the group who joined the pAper chAse last year) a mix-tape of songs that will be used as setup music, something to play between bands while the pAper chAse prepares to take the stage. He's planning to use the compilation of songs on the group's upcoming tour. It's a three-week trip debuting their new album, Hide the Kitchen Knives, that will take them through the Midwest and down the East Coast before depositing the band--which also includes bassist Bobby Weaver and drummer Aryn Dalton, along with Congleton on guitar and vocals and Armstrong on piano and samples--back in Texas for a gig in Austin on August 7. "Can you imagine this playing at stage volume?" Armstrong asks, laughing.
They're not trying to make a point right now, but they do anyway. Later, Armstrong realizes what it is: "Usually what we consider weird is what you heard earlier."
It's an important distinction because what's considered weird by many people (too many, really) is, well, the pAper chAse. That's what some have said of the group's past two releases, 2000's Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know and last year's EP, cntrl-alt-delete-u, at any rate. Why? Because they don't stick to the approved blueprint, because their music isn't always easily digestible, because they don't try to sound like anyone else, because they prefer piano over guitars, because, because, because. Whatever. So they don't make music that sounds as though it were produced on an assembly line or in a boardroom. So they tend to walk a tightrope over people's heads rather than trip and fall over a bar that's so low it's practically buried. So they prefer to be themselves instead of, the way Congleton puts it, "A fax of a fax of a fax." So what? If that's not the point of making music, then it should be.
Admittedly and unashamedly, it's not exactly Buds-and-bud fare: Even though the group employs a standard setup, it gets as much blood out of that sugar cube as possible. (And they plan to get even more: Congleton talks about writing an album using no guitar at all, and another disc devoid of cymbals.) It sounds like rock at times--razor-wire guitars ripping at your clothes, bass and drums hitting you square in the chest, vocals swinging for the fences--yet it's so much more. Again, as it should be. But the "so much more" part? That's where people start hitting the thesaurus to find synonyms for "weird." Which is a shame. You know what's really weird? Papa Roach. Or maybe Apex Theory or TRUSTcompany or pretty much anyone on OzzFest--or MTV, for that matter. Try getting someone to explain that to you sometime. Congleton, however, couldn't care less. Most of the time.
"I'm sort of blissfully ignorant as to what the pundits and nose-pickers have to say," Congleton says, though some of them have been quite kind. Alternative Press, for one, named the pAper chAse one of its 100 bands to watch a year or so ago. "The bad reviews do not faze me in the slightest. The only time they ever bother me is whenever it's blatantly obvious that they didn't listen to the album, and I just see them taking quotes from the bio. That's so lame. You have no business working in the arts, and you should be removed immediately. If you're not here to try to actually understand something, get out of town. How could you ever act like something that I spent two years of my life compiling, you understand in 30 seconds? How dare you even make that presumption? I feel very violent about that. Happened a lot with Young Bodies Heal Quickly. I remember one review, they were making fun of the fact that it said inside of the album, 'This may be the last album you ever buy,' that we were claiming that this was the end-all be-all to rock and roll and we were amazing. That's absolutely not what that meant," he says, smacking his hand against his thigh for emphasis. "All that meant was that's how uncertain life is."