Interview with John Congleton

Interview with John Congleton. The producer, known for working with ST. Vincent, The War on Drugs

John Congleton is the man behind all of your favourite records of the last ten years. Working with everyone from St. Vincent to Modest Mouse to the War On Drugs, Congleton has displayed his masterful producing prowess time and time again. Formerly the frontman of alternative-rock band The Paper Chase, John Congleton is preparing to release his first album of his own music in over four years with his new band The Nighty Nite. The new album Until the Horror Goes was a deeply personal project for the producer, and will be released on April 1st. We reached John Congleton at his Dallas studio:

Northern Transmissions: Why was this the right time for you to put out an album yourself?

John Congleton: This is coming on the heels of my longest period artistically of not releasing music in my adult life, so the time for me was just sort of long overdue. I had to kind of get away from music for a while just to see if I still liked doing it. I was in a band for a long time where we consistently toured and put out records, and after all that I sort of needed to basically just stop for a bit and find out if it was something I still wanted to do. There was also a period of time where I just wasn’t really writing much. As far as timing goes, there is no right time; it just happened that it all came together now and coalesced into this group of songs. For me, it’s just one small fragment of music that I’ve been doing. It’s not a big statement that I’ve been building to make, it’s one of many statements that I plan to make in my lifetime hopefully.

NT: Was the making of this album very different from your Paper Chase work? Were you in the studio alone this time rather than with a full band?

JC: I was pretty much alone. I had friends record on it, but for the most part it was pretty much made in a vacuum. A lot of the Paper Chase stuff towards the end was certainly more just me solitarily and less of a typical band dynamic, so it wasn’t night and day different, but I’m sort of more comfortable in the studio than I am outside the studio. For me, being alone in the studio working on music is a pretty normal state of being. It didn’t feel awkward to me doing it this way.

NT: Producers are able to inspire and get the most out of their artists. You’ve worked with St. Vincent, Swans, many others. I was wondering if any of the artists you’ve produced recently had the reverse effect and inspired the music on this album?

JC: Oh, I’m inspired by everything. I’m certainly inspired by the artists I work with because I get to work with some of my favourites. The band Suuns put out one of my favourite records of 2013, and working with them on their upcoming new album was very much an organic sort of thing how it came about. I was just a guy who went to their shows, I just liked their band, and at some point they realized who I was and they got excited to work with me, which I was more than happy to do. Working with anybody inspires me because I get to see a different way of making and approaching music. It’s always inspiring when I work with people who are creative. I’ve always thought that inspiration and enthusiasm is very contagious.

NT: The Paper Chase was around for such a long time, are you expecting the Nighty Nite to be a one-off project, or a band with legs that you’ll revisit several times over?

JC: Well you never know what’s going to happen in life. I would like very much to put out a record again quickly, mainly because I have the material and also because I’ve been inactive for about four years artistically. I’ve been working for others and producing a lot, but in terms of selfishly making music, that’s something I haven’t been doing much lately and it’s an itch I wanted to scratch. Now I’m scratching it and might want to scratch it a little bit more.

NT: Do you feel like that itch has been satisfied so far? I’m guessing a lot of this project is self-gratifying as well. You have a successful career as a producer, did you satisfy that four-year longing through these songs and performing?

JC: I don’t think that there will ever be a point in my life where I want to get in a van and tour for months and months again, just because of age and because I want to do other things with my life. But I would say that the itch is pretty well scratched at this point. It’s very satisfying to get an idea in your head and then put that out to the world for others to hear. Sometimes people understand it and sometimes it’s very unsatisfying when people don’t understand it, but part of making an artistic statement is that you have to sort of accept the contract you make with the world. There will be a lot of people who don’t get it, and I’m not interested in making art that pleases a lot of people, I’m interested in making art that pleases a small amount of people that I can connect with. So yes, that itch is being scratched.

NT: According to the press release, the album asks the questions “how we live, live together and even consider happiness in the face of our personal meaninglessness, the arbitrary and cruel nature of modern sexuality, and the terrors we inflict on each other and ourselves.” You have a lot of deep questions in there, did you find any answers through the record?

JC: There are no answers. I think that one of the most torturous things you can do to yourself is to sit around and think that anything will ever make total sense. It’s all pretty much chaos. I don’t believe that there really are answers, but that’s sort of what art does. It helps us organize and make sense of our feelings. I think one of the things that attracts me to music and art in general is that feeling that we can sort of connect to each other in a way that words don’t connect, and we can all slightly feel less alone. When you write a song, you don’t know if it’s going to work and if people are going to understand you, but when they do it’s very powerful. Obviously what I do artistically is not going to appeal to a lot of people; a lot of people don’t want to think about those sort of questions when they listen to music, watch a movie, or read a book. There is an enormous amount of the population that really does not want to think about those things, and that’s ok, I don’t blame them.

NT: Do you think that’s changed over time? Do you think that the general pop-culture people are ingesting today is so one-dimensional that people can’t even access these questions and think for themselves? Maybe in mass pop-culture there’s nothing to really digest, whereas in the past we had things that made us contemplate life more.

JC: I think that’s true. I think that in post-modern culture we’ve really removed ourselves from the existential questions. I think even like a hundred years ago it would have been pretty common for somebody to have witnessed someone die right in front of their eyes. I think that death stood in your face and glared at you. Like 150 years ago it was very common for you to have lost a sibling at a young age because of everything from scarlet fever to the common cold. It’s the kind of thing that just existed. And I think in a way we might have been happier back then when we were constantly and unflinchingly forced to stare at our own mortality. It sort of made everything feel less crucial. None of the things that we worry about and get worked up about today fucking matters at the end of the day. None of it matters. Even the art that I make, it’s not going to hold me in my deathbed. It’s not going to tell me it loves me. None of it matters, right? I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there are no answers. We make art because we’re humans and we feel, but it doesn’t mean that I’m existing on some sort of remotely higher plane than people who don’t think about these things.

NT: I think the album cover is awesome, can you explain it?

JC: I’ll tell you what it means to me. I don’t want to talk too much about it though because I want people to have their own conclusions. For me, the human condition is sort of the idea of slowly realizing that magic doesn’t exist. When you’re a child, everything is magical and fantastic because you’re discovering it all for a first time and it feels like everything is possible. But that’s not the case. The older you get, your parents tell you that you can’t fly, that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist, that God doesn’t exist. You slowly realize that magical thinking is not useful. If you look at the bear on the album cover, he’s getting out of bed and has a look on his face, and the best way I can describe his look is, “oh no, not again. Oh no, what today? What now?”. The picture is very much a scene from a magical fairy tale, but the look on that bear is questioning his own existence, his own usefulness. Another powerful thing to me about the picture is the cow in the window. The cow is sort of like a spectre, it can symbolize anything. The cow might symbolize a lost love that meant something in his life, or it could be the spectre of death. It could be anything. The cow lingers like a painful kernel of truth that must be reckoned with.

NT: Did you design it yourself?

JC: It came from a German children’s book from quite some time ago. It was a long slow process to find the rights to use it because everyone who first published it is long dead.

NT: What place remains for the formal music studio in the industry with more and more people recording music in non-traditional ways?

JC: About ten years ago, it felt like everyone was starting to make their records at home, and I feel that now people are kind of getting back to studios and doing things the more traditional way. Today we have sort of an amalgam of things; people are doing some work at home and some work in the studio. The process has evolved into this non-traditional way of doing things, and I’m all for it personally. For me to argue if I’m for or against the way records get made today would be like me arguing about the weather. This is just the way it is now, and that goes for the way people release music too. I’m completely aware that we live in a world where people don’t pay for music anymore, I’m completely aware that budgets have shrunk, I’m completely aware that nobody sees themselves making money on releasing records anymore. I’m completely aware of all that, but that’s just the reality of it. There’s nothing I can do about that. All I can do is continue to work and have an existence and sneak by.

NT: The Magic Shop in New York City announced last week that they will be shutting their doors. What’s the secret to keeping a studio afloat?

JC: I actually did the last session there working with Blondie. The only way to keep a studio really going today is to have it owner-operated. So my studio is a vehicle for me to make records. It’s not a vehicle to make records period, it’s a vehicle to make my records. That’s the only way to keep a studio afloat. Like owning a studio as a viable business is a laughable construct at this point. It just doesn’t work, especially in a place like Manhattan where you absolutely have to throw that notion overboard. As much as I love the Magic Shop, Steve Rosenthal [the owner] knew that at this point running a studio like that in Soho is a ticking time-bomb. You just cannot possibly keep up with the way things are headed in Manhattan. I would venture to say that New York might be the worst place to have a studio in America. This is just the way things go now. We can’t argue with it, we can’t fight it, it just is the way it is.

Top Five Albums of All Time

1. Mickey Newbury – Looks Like Rain
2. Pink Floyd – The Wall
3. Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral
4. Don Williams – Good Old Boys Like Me
5. Suicide – Suicide

Interview by Stewart Wiseman