Ever Since the Turn
The piano greets me before I even reach the main entrance to the Dallas apartment where I'm meeting the pAper chAse. I wait for the playing to pause before knocking...it's just polite.
The greeting is appropriate--that very instrument symbolizes the thread of transformation, and even maturation, that the Dallas band (originally a trio, now a quintet) has undergone for close to a decade. Declarative and rambunctious bass and percussion remain a key part of the pAper chAse sound, but raucous, guitar-driven recordings beginning with 1999's split EP Essays On: Frantic Desperation, Annihilation, and From Another Passerby have transitioned into "more keys, less axe" with each album, culminating in the band's latest national release, Now You Are One of Us.
Over the years they've shared bills with a mishmash of pop/rock acts, borrowed the vocal stylings of Centro-matic's Will Johnson for harmonies and endured countless tours. The pAper chAse has grown from playing Garland's Rack 'Em Billiards to a deal with Olympia, Washington's Kill Rock Stars label, and they've exposed diverse audiences to their music and gained a dedicated, cult-like fan base that stretches to Europe and beyond.
I'm coveting pianist Sean Kirkpatrick's mid-century houndstooth couch and playing "get the hand" with Bella, his calico, when singer-guitarist-songwriter-producer John Congleton enters. The skinny, wiry front man flops into a chair, and the transition from group small talk to talk of the band's evolution is almost seamless, not unlike the evolution itself; the pAper chAse began as Congleton, bassist Bobby Weaver and drummer Aryn Dalton. Then Matt Armstrong joined on keys and sampler before Kirkpatrick took his place four years ago, becoming an "accidentally" permanent member. "I figured it would be a fun gig, and I would do it for a while and then probably do something else," Kirkpatrick says. "The three of them had their own musical language going on--I had no idea how to communicate with it. It took some time to develop piano parts that effectively straddled the line between beauty and disaster."
In the beginning, it was Congleton that pushed Kirkpatrick to play outside his comfort zone. "Now [Sean] is making me think about dissonance and relationships and how things can eventually be consonant in a completely different way," Congleton says. "He's sort of returned the favor."
The initial angry assaults of a three-man militia led by a spitting, hanky-waving spastic haven't exactly vanished--rather, they've been upgraded to more challenging melodic discord performed by a gang of thoughtful hooligans (even though they're still led by a spitting, hanky-waving spastic). "The transitions that the band has gone through, as far as how songs are constructed, have been so gradual and glacial," Congleton says. 2000's Young Bodies Heal Quickly, an album that introduced his love for freakish blasts of piano, was actually written primarily on guitar, but six years later, ivory has taken the lead in the songwriting process. "I'm fixated on making sure the guitar never comes in and does something cliché, because in rock and roll, the best way to make something sound like everything else is with the guitar." He laughs. "I think the pAper chAse would sound much more like a normal band if I played power chords. It would probably sound pretty dreadful, actually."
Unlike the typical rock band, the pAper chAse has opted for a lesser-sung hero. In focusing on hammered strings instead of the usual six-string, the band's sound has become more akin to a score; the insane lead guitar lines haven't gone away, but the band now focuses on a better meld of instrumentation. Hell, they even added a cello. "Coming from a classical background, the pAper chAse music works quite a bit like something Beethoven would've written, you know?" cellist Kris Youmans offers, having quietly sauntered in during the conversation. Like a classical piece, the band's music has themes and progressions that "makes it stand out in a way and adds that little bit of something that I don't think people are used to hearing."
True enough--the band's predilection for terror-filled samples, ominous chord progressions, dissonance and disturbing subject matter doesn't make for simple band-to-band comparisons or radio-friendly material, especially given song titles like "We Know Where You Sleep" and "Wait Until I Get My Hands on You." "There are very rarely instances in our practice room where we say, 'OK, this part of the song should sound like this artist and this album,'" Kirkpatrick says. "It's more like we say, 'Part of this song should sound like a propeller on a helicopter that's got something trapped in it.'"
They are indeed a conglomerate of noises, sounds and tones that allude to but never imitate. Perhaps it's because Congleton and the band have embraced non-musical influences so readily. "The things that really affected me, affected me when I was a teenager or younger, you know? And most of those things weren't just music," Congleton says, reflecting on influences such as George Romero and The Exorcist. He found a common bond in his band mates from the beginning, Weaver being a horror movie fan as well: "Bobby maybe even recognized that aesthetic of the music...before I was recognizing it."
The elements Congleton loved in music were much like the scary films of his childhood that made him feel frightened and, as a result, exceptionally alive. He admits to being an "inspiration junkie," a lover of those moments that are life-affirming. "Then again, I'm sure my music would sound way different if my dad wasn't a ZZ Top fan too, you know?" he says, as the others laugh. "I think it's totally plausible that the pAper chAse would sound very different if I wasn't force-fed ZZ Top every day of my life for 10 years."
It's strange to hear this band pay homage to the kings of Texas boogie blues, but the sentiment is a reminder that, for all the weirdness, Congleton's music isn't necessarily obtuse. Now You Are One of Us may be the easiest pAper chAse album to sing along with--Congleton's vocals have aged well, evolving from screams and shrieks to true, confident singing, and damn if the band doesn't turn the semi-symphonic elements into some of the hardest rock the metroplex has ever seen--but the album's portentous pianos, ill-omened samples and hard-on for minor keys aren't going to appease the Clear Channel masses. "I understand that people don't get it," Congleton says. "And I understand I'm the reason that people don't get it. Be it my voice, be it the lyrics, be it the way I play guitar or the way I produce and record the albums. I understand that I am the reason that we fail."
The room erupts in laughter at this statement. What looks to be a self-deprecating, just-in-case bit of humility is actually more like a punch line, because as long as Congleton prolifically writes album after album, failure doesn't exist for these guys. "This is a way that I can really affect life," Congleton says. "I consider myself very lucky that I've been able to affect anyone's life in any capacity that's positive, even if the music isn't very positive. People really take the band very personally. I'm just glad that anybody connects with it."
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