Hide and Seek
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."
One thing is certain: Lost in all these misunderstandings is the fact that the pAper chAse's recordings (all produced by Congleton, who's done the same for Baboon and Budapest One, among others) have, more often than not, been about songs rather than the way the band plays them. If listeners just pay attention--which is, admittedly, asking quite a bit these days--what they'll find isn't strange or bizarre or whatever. In many ways, the songs on Young Bodies or cntrl-alt-delete-u are more straightforward, more pure, than just about anything out there; think the sensibility of Tom Waits focused through a slightly different lens. On Hide the Kitchen Knives, released by Washington, D.C.-based Beatville Records in the United States and Southern UK overseas, that aspect of the band is purposely clearer than ever.
"I wanted everything to be more direct, and I wanted it to be more about the lyrics," Congleton says. "And everybody in the band, we were all there at that time, too. We all sort of gravitated to really respecting the whole singer-songwriter thing a little bit more and, like, who cares about baffling people with your playing ability? That's wonderful, and there is a definite place for that, and we still hold that in our hearts somewhere. But for the most part, we just kind of matured into the point that the more powerful thing is moving somebody with the song. I think that has to do with growing older and getting mature. The first 10 years of your life you learn which notes to play. The rest of your life you learn what notes not to play. And I'm pretty sure we'll always be considered a weird"--he leans forward, twists his face up some and says the word again, this time between air quotes--"band. But I would like for us to be respected as a band that actually could write songs that moved people at the same time."
"It's nice to have other people think that we're experimental and avant-garde," Armstrong says, continuing the train of thought. "But to us, they're just songs."
"I don't think I have ever come in there and said, 'This is gonna be so weird!'" Congleton adds, and they both laugh. "It's a lot more powerful--and this started happening with Young Bodies--going on tour and meeting these people that had never met us before, but were really excited because the album really meant something to them."
Recorded mostly in the room we're sitting in, Hide the Kitchen Knives should mean more things to more people because it revolves around an idea almost everyone can relate to in some way: relationships (with parents, brothers or sisters, wives and husbands, yourself, whoever) and their effects, both good and bad. Given the album's title and some of the imagery (baseball bats figure heavily into the proceedings), it's possible, if not probable, that many listeners will miss the point the first time through, that they'll assume, as Congleton says, "it must be this sort of grisly tale of murder and deceit." For example: "I'm Gonna Spend the Rest of My Life Lying" comes off, at first, as exactly the kind of tale Congleton refers to, with its ominous opening march of piano and sax and red-faced warnings ("You better mind your P's and Q's/You better thank your lucky stars"). But listen again, and you'll hear what Congleton was trying to say in the first place: It's really about losing yourself in your work, to the detriment of everything around you. "So did you think I'm very distant?" he sings. "It's good to know you feel the same."
That's just for a start; most of the songs on Hide the Kitchen Knives can be taken (at least) two ways. If the disc occasionally sounds desperate, it's because relationships sometimes are. If it sounds frightening and frightened, pissed off and pissed on, same goes. That's all part of interacting with other people at some point. Then again, so are hope and happiness and all the good stuff, and that has its place on Hide the Kitchen Knives as well. Sometimes, the album incorporates all of it at once: "Make no mistake/I just couldn't stop the hands/When you're happy and you're safe/You'll do anything to keep it that way," Congleton sings on "I Did a Terrible Thing," the record's opening salvo. Relationships bring with them every emotion, and so does Hide the Kitchen Knives.
"It's kind of about caring about people, actually," Congleton says, explaining the idea behind the album. (And all pAper chAse records are about something: Young Bodies focused on Congleton's panic attacks, while cntrl-alt-delete-u was, according to Congleton, "supposed to be a nerdy, fantasy concept album taken to the umpteenth degree, almost taken to the point of Styx," a commentary on our reliance on technology.) "The idea of the kitchen knife to me, I got the idea of it as, like, something very utilitarian that's in every house and it's a little thing and it doesn't mean anything, but something that little, a kitchen knife, could be used for something so dastardly. The idea is: All the little things count.
"I think it's sad, and I'm definitely guilty of this, but we put so much stock in in your life and what you meant to those people and what they meant to you, enlightenment and all that kind of stuff."
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