I recently exchanged some emails with John Congleton. Congleton is a noted producer who has worked with everyone from the Appleseed Cast and Explosions in the Sky to Kirk Franklin and Bono. He, along with friends in Explosions in the Sky, also is responsible for the music on the network television drama Friday Night Lights.
But despite all those projects, his other love is his own band, The Paper Chase, which combines hardcore punk, avant garde and pop into a truly unique concoction. The band released their latest album, the universally acclaimed Now You Are One Of Us last year on Kill Rock Stars.
Music genres are a way of talking down to people and I try not to do that.
For those unfamiliar with the band, could you give me a brief idea of how the band got together?
Itâs pretty boring, as most band stories are I suppose… I was recording bands around Dallas and I had a few song ideas of my own. I had recorded Bobby [Weaver, bass] and Aryn [Dalton, ex-drummer] in a couple other bands and liked the way they played so I asked them to play with me on a recording.
Then we thought it would be fun to play a show, then somebody wanted to put out a recording… so we thought we should tour a bit. One thing led to another. We added on another player after the first record. Things just grew and grew.
You're coming upon your tenth year together, and you've had a fairly consistent lineup, why do you think that is?
Well, we have had people come and go, the only original people are Bobby the bass player and I. I suppose its deceptive cause we donât make a big thing out of it when somebody moves on.
It's hard to talk about a band like the Paper Chase without psychoanalyzing the lyrical content. It seems that lyrics are a major part of the songwriting for you, and I'm wondering how much the particular song structures and lyrics are composed with each other in mind?
In the beginning not much at all but now itâs like the first thing that pops in my head once I get a song idea. Itâs just where I am at right now as a songwriter. A few years from now I may want to never ever sing… and that would make my life easier!
Your production work spans both the very mainstream and the less well known and it's obviously something you're very well known for. With your workload being what it is, where does the Paper Chase fit into your life and why do you keep doing it?
Well, everybodyâs life is got its share of complications when it comes to fitting in a band. So I donât want to put mine on pedestal in contrast to the others. I simply do it because I guess I enjoy it and I feel compelled to share this music with the rest of the world for better or worse. I can say I certainly would be doing much better financially if I didnât tour… but moneyâs never a been a big deal to me.
The cover art of your new album is quite striking, and Iâve yet to see a neutral reaction from anyone Iâve shown it to. I understand it's a fairly well-known photo and I was wondering if you could tell me about it, and why you chose it.
Well I wanted it because of the reason you just stated…people either love it or hate it and I love that sort of polarizing thing that happens with our music. Some people just fucking hate us and I like that in a weird way, because I just want a reaction. And a violent one either direction is fine with me.
On that note, you certainly polarized the crowd at the Explosions in the Sky shows, and I really enjoyed the set. You mentioned that you don't mind having that kind of effect on people, but is it ever hard to deal with?
Well if I am not mistaken you saw us in Toronto, which was certainly one of the shittier audiences of the tour. There were people there to see us - people who dug us - and then the polite ones who tolerated us but that show in particular there where some real fuckers.
Just really close minded people who probably just got turned on to Explosions in the Sky through Friday Night Lights who just where not prepared for what we where doing. I can see how that sentence might make me sound arrogant but itâs not my intention.
Just some people had no frame of reference for what we where doing and to them it was terrible. But at least we got a reaction.. I donât know why people made such a fuss about a band of our ilk playing with Explosions… to me it really is all just music. To me what would have been week would be an Explosions rip-off band opening.
On that note, you work with Explosions on the show Friday Night Lights and working on a network television show must certainly be unique. How do you approach something like that compared to your own band?
Music is just music. Iâm the kind of guy who can be listening to [avant garde group] George Crumbâs Black Angels and then put on the poppiest band ever and not really miss a beat. So I can adapt pretty easily from situation to situation
To work in music production, you need to have a good musical background and the frame of reference that comes with lots and lots of years just listening to tons of music. If a band says "we want this song to sound like something from the Plastic Ono Band" and I have never heard that, they might have made the wrong choice in producers.
I have always been obsessed with almost beautiful sounds.
Again, with regards to the lyrics, you seem very much concerned with the darkest elements of people - and not the cartoony death metal darkness, but real unsettling darkness. Is there something that provokes this subject matter?
You might have to ask a shrink that. I canât really pinpoint the reason I lean towards that stuff, but Iâve always found a real sublime beauty in "rock bottom". I sometimes feel really alive confronting fear.
As far as your production versus your band, do you feel like you experiment with one or the other? Like, do you take experiment from the Paper Chase and bring them into the studio with you when you record another band or do you save your more unique ideas for your band?
I never feel like Iâm creative "tapped" because of one or the other. It the beginning I guess I was "allowed" - for lack of a better word - to experiment more with the Paper Chase and then once more bands gave me the opportunity to be the same with them, it happened naturally.
But I should be clear that I donât particularly expect a band to cater to my creative ebb and flow. Itâs their album and I have a job to do. I am completely satisfied to document the bandâs sound at that time and place. Every situation is different and I like that.
Another question about the songwriting: your songs seem to take very melodic moments and then, at the last minute, inject some uncomfortable discordant sounds. Do you write that way or does that come later?
I write that way normally. I have always been obsessed with almost beautiful sounds.
I noticed you had videos for your previous records but none for this one so far? Any chance we'll see another video from The Paper Chase?
There has been a video for "We Know Where You Sleep" in the works for about a year now. Apparently there is a lot to it.
Some people think that production has turned into a kind of magical pixie dust where below average singers are auto-tuned and Pro Tools is used to erase all mistakes. What is your take on the technology?
To that belief I have one question… are records getting any better? The answer is no. It is pretty much the same as always. Some are good and some are bad. Iâm a pretty bad singer for the most part and I suppose I could use auto-tune.
But the way I look at is no matter how bad my pitch might be on a song [my pitch] has always been better than David Bowieâs recording of "Five Years" and I think that is a fucking amazing performance!
I am not saying that I am better than Bowie. Iâm just saying that Bowie remembered that passion is the most important thing in a vocal take.
Based on your myspace page and statements you've made, you seem very uncomfortable with genre tags, particularly being called "emo" or "post-punk." In fact, your myspace page notes, "this is not a commercial." Do you have any particular aspirations for your band? Do you feel a kinship with any other bands?
Sure, we are friends with lots of bands. There are lots of bands that Iâm totally happy to be associated with. However what people need to remember is that all the genres and tag are just itemized little categories to make things easier to sell to a bovine public.
I like to take the record buying public more seriously than that. Music genres are a way of talking down to people and I try not to do that.
What's next for you and the band? Do you expect we'll hear another album from you soon, or is more touring in the cards?
We are leaving in a few days for Europe. As far as a new album, we donât really know! Iâve written a full albumâs worth of stuff recently but it sounds so different I donât know if itâs really right or not. Time will tell.