Frightening Intensity, Damaged Beauty

An Interview with the pAper chAse

by Jennifer Kelly

In a revealing conversation, John Congleton talks about fear, ambiguity, imperfect beauty, aging, and German postcard art... just don't ask him about 'emo'.

With a suicide on his latest album cover, ghostly found sound interludes larded between cuts, and a closing track called “The House Is Alive and the House Is Hungry”, you might think that the pAper chAse’s John Congleton was trying to scare people. Not so, he says. “I’ve always tried to make music that’s life-affirming, that makes me feel alive,” Congleton explains. “The way you feel alive is to confront the darkest side of life and all the bad shit and to stare right into it without any fear.”

Congleton has been making some of rock music’s most frightening and intense music with his band since the pAper chAse’s 2001 debut Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know. Following up a year later with Cntrl-Alt-Delete-U, an EP soundtrack to a never-produced movie, the pAper chAse continued to explore post-rock abstraction with jagged, anxiety-ridden punk energy. Hide the Kitchen Knives followed on Southern in 2003, and two years ago, the band made the jump to indie-cred-heavy Kill Rock Stars with God Bless Your Black Heart. But this year’s Now You Are One of Us, also on KRS, may well be the band’s best, gothic horror layered over spike-studded riffs, vulnerability and melody couched within blistering assaults.

“I think that we’ve gotten more and more of our own voice, and I think we’ve gained a certain amount of credibility,” says Congleton of the band’s latest effort. We’ve found our sound. Not that we haven’t evolved, but we’ve stuck with it and put our foot down and said, this is what we are. We’re ready to ram it up people’s snouts.”

Hanged or floating?

The first thing you will notice about Now You Are One of Us is the cover art, a black and white photo of a man’s lower half, floating or hanging in the air, with a small television sitting in the opposite corner. The photo, by German artist Kain Karawahn, is deliberately ambiguous, and, like the album, more frightening in what it suggests than what it shows.

Congleton says that he happened on the image by accident during a European tour three or four years ago. “We were at a sort of the German equivalent of a truck stop, just sort of flipping through postcards and they were all kind of silly, touristy post cards, and then inexplicably right there in the middle of all these post cards was this picture,” he says. “It was just so strange.” He bought the postcard and stuck it on his refrigerator when he got home, where it stayed for several years.

Then one day, while he was thinking about the art for Now You Are One of Us, Congleton wandered into the kitchen and was again struck by the image. He made the call to Kill Rock Stars, admitting that he didn’t know anything about the card, not even the artist’s name. Within a few days, KRS had researched the image, found the artist and arranged for usage. “The amazing thing was that the artist knew who we were and was familiar with our music,” says Congleton. “It was just totally meant to be.”

Congleton says that part of the image’s power comes from the fact that it is so open to interpretation. “You know, the fact that you see the cover art as somebody hanging is interesting to me. Because when I saw it, I didn’t see it as somebody hanging. I saw it as somebody levitating,” he explains. “The next person I sent it to, they immediately thought that the person was hanging. So it’s kind of a yin and a yang of perception. That’s the same kind of ambiguity I try to build into my music.”

Monsters as metaphors

Ambiguous or not, though, this is one shiver-inducing album, its uneasy vibe starting right from track one. “It’s Out there and It’s Going to Get You” lays a terrified man’s voice over an ominous bed of sawed strings and black piano keys, setting the tone for the entire disc. “That guy, the paranoid freak, that was actually from a radio show. It’s the real deal,” said Congleton. “I heard that and to me, the guy just sounded so convinced and so for real that I felt bad for the guy who is obviously so afraid. And I’m like, this is exactly what this album is about, how fear can control you and your life. And how it will absolutely dominate every decision that you make.”

Supernatural sounds are interspersed between songs, reinforcing the fright-inducing atmosphere. “I was a huge, huge, huge, huge sci-fi and horror movie fan growing up, so that stuff permeated my brain early on and it really affected the way I wrote music ... but it’s unintentional,” he says. “I do like the idea that someone would listen to a pAper chAse album and feel like it’s a big haunted house, with a funhouse sort of sound.”

Still Congleton warns listeners not to take horror themes too literally. “People pick up on the whole ghost thing and that’s fine, but it’s just completely metaphorical, as most of my writing is,” he says. “To me, the album is about getting older and realizing that you’re not going to set the world on fire. You know, it’s sort of to me about fear and how fear manipulates a lot of people’s lives to joyless routine. Whether it’s a fear of pacification, fear of domestication, fear of the government, fear of being happy ... fear of anything. Ultimately there’s the fear that you’re going to die and there’s going to be no evidence that you lived at all ... after the people that you knew died. So that’s a pretty powerful fear and I think most people, artists, and the people that I’m around a lot have a pretty strong yearning, as I say in the lyrics over and over again, to let the world know that you were around.”

Almost beautiful

Congleton’s songs are things of fractured intensity, full of ominous pauses and slanted riffs ideas, yet often with a strong melodic core. He explains that they start more or less as conventional songs. “Sean [Kirkpatrick], our piano player, says that everything I write sounds like a folk song the first time we play it,” says Congleton. “I don’t know if I necessarily agree. But I generally just do them on piano or guitar and just kind of sing it to them. I love the sound of things that are almost beautiful. I don’t really want the listener to have the satisfaction of complete cadence.”

Asked to explain “almost beautiful”, Congleton rifles through his mental file and comes up with a surprising example. “‘Queen Jane Approximately’ ... you know, the Bob Dylan tune, that’s just a wonderful, beautiful melody,” he says. But the guitar is completely out of tune, and there’s something so amazing about that. Every time you hear the set of chords, you can tell that the guitar is completely out of tune. It makes it human.”

Emotional yes, but emo?

The pAper chAse shares a certain vibrating intensity with Dismemberment Plan, and maybe some of the off-kilter punk riffs of early Dischord bands. Still, the term “emo”, which follows them around like a sick puppy, seems particularly unfair.

“That pisses me off to no end,” says Congleton. “The shit that they’re calling emo has absolutely no affiliation with anything I remember being called emo ten to fifteen years ago. I don’t understand where the correlation is. I don’t get it at all, except for the fact that maybe both have rock instruments.” And while he respects old-style emo-forefathers like Fugazi and Rites of Spring, Congleton has little patience for the current crop of mall-punk rockers with a day in their name. “Those emo bands and pre-fabricated people, it’s basically like glam rock, where heavy metal was bastardized to the point where it became this completely self-parodied shit,” he says. “If we were really an emo band, would we be on Kill Rock Stars? Does anybody ever ask themselves that? Would we draw the kind of fan base we have if we were an emo band?”

“We Know Where You Sleep” [MP3]
multiple songs [MP3 and streaming]

The pAper chAse - Said the Spider to the Fly


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