We're all going to die, and there's nothing you can do about it. So relax.
As grim as that sentiment may be, it's morbidly comforting when everyone around you is frantically forwarding e-mails about the latest swine flu casualty. It's also the theme of The Paper Chase's upcoming album, Someday This Could All Be Yours [Part 1], which will be released in the States on May 26 (but will be available for purchase at the band's Granada Theater show Saturday). Each of the CD's 10 songs refers to some kind of fatal calamity, from forest fire to the common cold. And while the band sounds as inimitably jittery, creepy and chaotic as ever, the music sounds downright celebratory. Almost, dare I say it, happy.
The first song, "If Nobody Moves Nobody Will Get Hurt (The Extinction)" sets the mood for the strange lyrical/musical contrast to come. "We'll spit-shine our shoes, and push down our cowlicks/And tailor our suits and suck in our stomachs/And try ignore that we're all aboard the Titanic" frontman John Congleton sings gleefully as strings swell exuberantly.
That contrast is intentional, of course. After 10 years of leading the acclaimed band and a production career with clients that include R. Kelly, Bono and Modest Mouse, Congleton knows what he's doing. But the juxtaposition between the music's grandiosity and the lyrics' darkness isn't meant to be wry or ironic. No, the celebration is sincere. Congleton makes that clear in a phone interview from San Francisco, where he is working on a record for Mount Vicious. He's explaining the difference between "natural disasters," the term attached to early buzz about the album, and "calamities," a more far-reaching word that more accurately describes the inevitable tragedies referenced in the band's latest.
"To me, it's just these hopeless situations," he says. "Situations that just exhibit how incredibly powerless we are to the powers that are around us. That's what's enchanting to me about the whole idea of it, was the idea of being powerless. For someone who, their whole life, has had trouble with just letting go of things, when you finally can let go, that's an amazing amount of peace. And it's really a relaxing feeling to just accept the fact that these things are going to happen, and there's really not much you can do about it. To me, that's really comforting, in this bizarre way."
The mixture of sweet and sour is nothing new for The Paper Chase. Despite the jagged chaos that characterizes his songs, Congleton says he's long had a soft spot for music that borders on sentimentality and beauty—as long as it's done in an authentic way.
"If you pick up on a slightly celebratory tone on the record, that's not exactly unintentional," he says. "I wanted the first song to feel like this glorious release that we're headed toward, this moment of realization. I don't think a lot of people see it like that, but that's the way I see it: this ridiculous march toward death, like, 'Here it comes, it's coming.' And everybody just accept it."
But whatever the cause of that march toward death, he says, this record is not meant to be a statement about man's destruction of the environment.
"Some people have chosen to take the spin that this is some sort of ecological commentary, and it certainly, certainly is not," he says. "There's not some sort of 'we need to save the world' agenda. If people want to save the environment, that's great, but it's not an environmental-based record."
Also, he reveals, the songs weren't originally intended for the band at all. Around the time of drummer Aryn Dalton's departure, bassist Bobby Weaver was on the verge of fatherhood. There was no major intra-band conflict, Congleton says, but the future of The Paper Chase was very much in the air at the time. Needing what he calls an "escape hatch," he started thinking about doing a solo project.
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"[The themed album] was an idea that I've had kicking around for so long that I can't really remember the genesis of it," he says. "Quite some time ago, Kill Rock Stars [the band's label] said at one point they wanted to put out a solo record of me, playing without the band. So I started to romanticize that idea. And it seemed to fall at a time when it looked like it was possible that the band would not be able to continue, or at least not in the capacity that we had done before."
But first, the band had touring commitments and needed a drummer to fill in for Dalton, who left on friendly terms, Congleton adds. The Deathray Davies' Jason Garner filled in and ended up providing such a boost of energy that the band decided to hang in for another record. For another two records, actually. There's some more recording and mixing left to do, but the band recorded songs for Someday This Could All Be Yours [Part 2] during the same sessions as those for Part 1. Whatever is left to record, along with touring the Midwest and East Coast and possibly Australia and Japan, should keep the band going at least until the planned 2010 Part 2 release. After that, who knows?
"We're planning to be a fairly busy, active band for the next...who knows how long," he says.
That should be comforting news to anyone worried about the band's future. Almost as comforting as the thought that we're all aboard the Titanic.