In celebration of Bar None Records’ 30th anniversary, Burnside Project—the electronics-indebted indie rock trio featuring Richard Jankovich, Gerald Hammill, and Paul Searing—have decided to do something wholly unique: take the group’s labored-over but never-released third album, Syntax and Semantics, and unleash it onto the world, starting with a two-week free download exclusive to PopMatters.
Casual observers may be familiar with “Cue the Pulse to Begin”, a minor four-on-the-floor club hit that later became the theme song to the US version of Queer As Folk, and the album that it came from, 2003’s The Networks, the Circuits, the Streams, the Harmonies, even got a nomination for the short-lived Shortlist Award, no less than Cameron Crowe ending up being the one who nominated the guys.
With a growing fan base and “Pulse” going big in Japan, the group, known for their dynamic instrumentation and quirky lyrics, began to work on a follow-up album, but ultimately shelved it (for more of the too-intriguing backstory, don’t miss Richard Jankovich’s interview with PopMatters). They released a perfectly fine follow-up disc later down the line (2005’s perfectly passable The Finest Example Is You), but by then, the group knew they were done. The group each explored their passions, but kept coming back to their unreleased masterwork, tweaking it here and there in a purely casual fashion.
Now, at long last, it sees the light of day. To help celebrate, all three members sat down with PopMatters to go over what went in to each and every track. Dive in, friends, ‘cos you don’t want to miss a release quite like this.
Not long before we started working on Syntax and Semantics, Richard and I collaborated with a friend on a one-off project called the Pants Situation, recording a cover of the Slits’ “Man Next Door” for a post-punk tribute. This tune in fact was first performed by reggae great John Holt and later famously covered by Massive Attack with Horace Andy, so naturally we played around with a lot of space and dubby textures. It was an approach that was still on our minds when we started sketching out “Every No”, resulting in what is probably one of Burnside Project’s best songs. As the album opener, it makes it immediately clear that we aren’t retreading any of our past work. —Gerald
“You Only Call”
This song came about after a few weekends of obsessing over Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. The lyrics are from the point of view of Ellen Burstyn’s character with modifications to make it less about drugs and more about feeling lost, lonely and afraid. I was into drum programming at the time and my friend Vic had given me some loops that I layered underneath my own glitchy programming. For this one, we had a tough time holding back on adding parts and at one point, I swear, you can hear about 25 different melodies on guitar and keyboards simultaneously. —Richard
Of any song from these sessions, “Sync Spinning” is the one that I’ve by far listened to the most throughout the years. In so many ways the arrangement is pretty modular, yet the way the instruments call and respond to each other and how the layers of Molly Schnick’s cello and later that hypnotic loop of Richard’s voice all fit together, it just elevates this song to such a beautiful and unexpectedly ethereal place. Now I’m not about to insinuate that “Sync Spinning” is in the same league of “Running Up That Hill”, or even that it sounds like it, but for me personally, it really does tap into the same deep yearn that I feel when I listen to Kate Bush’s song. —Gerald
We were pretty excited to have Liquid Liquid’s Dennis Young come in and play marimba and a bunch of percussion, using the very same instruments heard on his old band’s influential records. Together with Richard’s drum programming and Gerald’s rolling bass line, it really created a nice rhythm bed. Much of “Quicksand” was recorded at our old studio in Hoboken, but I ended up tracking some guitar and keyboards at my place in Astoria, and put down the vocals at Richard’s space in Williamsburg. Lyrically, well, it was inspired by the sudden loss of two of my best friends in separate awful circumstances, so it’s fair to say I’m not at my merriest here. —Paul
“We Are Not Heroes”
This originally started out as kind of a disco-leaning instrumental. We revisited it a few years later after I had written some lyrics about the futility of war—in particular how Afghans and Iraqis weren’t viewing our soldiers as heroes. The lead vocals here are from our friend Anna Bohichik, who played bass with us from 2005 to 2006. The main lyric is an obvious reference to David Bowie’s “Heroes”. I always loved the way Gerald’s lead guitar lays over Paul’s Middle Eastern-inspired keyboard melody. This song takes me back to our studio in Hoboken and all the gadgets that were lying around, especially this old Casio CZ-101 from 1984, which I still have. —Richard
This is the oldest track on Syntax and Semantics, and I think it’s the very first recording I ever did with Burnside, from early 2003. We were invited to be a part of a compilation that Swirlies were putting together in which every band had 30 minutes to write and record something from scratch. This is a truncated and slightly altered version of our result, which does work nicely as an interlude. —Paul
What can I say? This was our attempt at pairing the IDM-style electronica we were really digging with the dance tracks from our youth. Like if you combined Real Life’s “Send Me an Angel” with Boards of Canada. One of my best memories of this song was playing it live in Tokyo during our tour there and seeing the whole room dance along even though it was unreleased and no one knew it. Lyrically, I had wanted to write a simple love song via some light wordplay. I treated life as a contest and in the lyrics I congratulate the love of my life for winning ... me. A self-deprecating award, “This is the prize.” —Richard
We were listening to a fair amount of minimal techno back then, and chances are you’d find some new Kompakt Records release sitting in our studio’s CD player. “Bravo Bravura” does takes some inspiration from those sounds, especially in the beat, but Richard’s melodies, lyrics, and those sinuous guitars push the song in a darker, cinematic direction—albeit still minimal. We reworked this more than a few times, at one point even adding live drumming and some punky guitar stabs, but ultimately this early version is where it’s at. Indeed, less is more. —Gerald
Forgive the tongue-in-cheek spelling. It’s a concept song about evil evangelical preachers who take advantage of people’s fears. We were all multi-instrumentalists and this features a rare trumpet melody by Gerald along with something called a Sound Gizmo that my friend Ethan played. The middle is broken up by a piece of sound design—an explosion, an old modem dialing up, the roar of a crowd, and then it goes silent. It totally interrupts the flow but it feels like all of the sudden you’re in the middle of a movie. Cinema really did have a huge influence on this album. —Richard
Working in our own studio, we were free to experiment, swap instruments, and go off on any tangent that we wanted without having to worry about any cost or time restrictions. And needless to say, we did a lot of that on this record. “Driftwood” is a good example of us just messing around and having fun. I’ve always felt that it matched the spirit, if not the sound, of what the great Tones on Tail did so well. —Paul