Devon Welsh describes the strange, amazing world of Are You Alone?
Devon Welsh strikes me as bullshit-less. Not in the usual hyper-macho, doesn’t take crap from anyone type of way. More along the lines of his entire being doesn’t have a false bone in it. He’ll answer questions frankly, even if they’re uncomfortable. He’s quick to correct if an assumption about his music is wrong and will freely admit if he can’t explain the intricacies behind his work.
This isn’t all that surprising as Majical Cloudz, Welsh’s project with collaborator Matthew Otto, is one of the more frighteningly direct bands of the last few years. In the midst of ethereal, stripped down dream-pop, Welsh’s baritone pleas, hopes, and forgives in a way that cuts down to the soul. My first introduction to Majical Cloudz was through the brilliant “Childhood’s End”, where Welsh’s opening line was, “Someone died. Gunshot right outside. Your father, he is dead.”
It’s that frank power that’s propelled Majical Cloudz from living room shows to opening for Lorde. The bleakness of their debut album, Impersonator, made it the clear cut favorite for saddest album of 2013, but their newest, Are You Alone?, takes a different approach. Welsh’s bass coo is still there, Otto’s romantic, yet restrained, production is as compelling as ever, but Are You Alone? is fiercely and powerfully positive. That doesn’t mean you won’t cry; Welsh’s confessions are as devastating as always, but there are rays of light in the hope tinged lyrics. We talked about those confessions with Welsh and dove into the strange, amazing world of Are You Alone?.
The new album, when compared with Impersonator, seems to have a lot more conversations. The word “you” is used much more often. Impersonator seemed more made up of monologues and internal stuff. It seems like there’s another person in the room on Are You Alone?.
Yeah for sure. I kind of noticed that too. I think it’s just the intentions I have while writing a song maybe?
In Impersonator it seemed like the narrator, or you, was talking to themselves and trying to work through issues internally. It seems like the world just grew on Are You Alone?, because, despite the title, you’re not. There are more people here and more interpersonal interaction.
It’s not necessarily an intentional thing. But I guess when it was all said and done and when were were wrapping it up and putting the songs together that we wanted to be on the album, the narrative, or the voice of the songs has changed a little bit. I guess it’s just wanting to make something that’s…when we were writing Impersonator it was more internal stuff, like writing songs that expressed the way that I was feeling. When I was writing songs that ended up on Are You Alone? it was more, I was a bit more conscious of the way I wanted the song to appeal. Just wanting to write music that sort of—made you feel a bit more positive. I think I was just more conscious of wanting to write songs in a certain way and it ended up being—another aspect of wanting that consciousness of how to write music, just making the songs more of a dialogue, making it seem like there were more people involved than just myself.
In terms of having more of a positive space on the album, there were moments where there are really dark situations, like you talk about car crashes a lot, or crashes in general a lot. “Silver Car Crash” is the best example. You’re kissing a person as you die it’s this weird juxtaposition between these positive sentiments and these dark moments. It’s like keeping a candle lit in a dark place.
Yeah. They’re like aspirations that have to be held up or they’re in jeopardy.
I thought that was interesting how you make the sentiment of love even more powerful by putting them in dark spaces.
I could be completely wrong! But that’s what I took away from it.
Yeah, yeah, no. It’s hard to explain because it’s not like I was rationalizing it. I guess a lot of the songs on the album just have to do with real human relationships and time…sort of…I don’t know how to explain it.
It’s weird to do interviews like this. I think the music really encapsulates all the feelings. It’s like, the music already kind of explains it, but I still want to get behind it more.
It’s sometimes hard to explain because the songs speak for themselves better than I could explain them. It’s like trying to explain a joke or something. When you explain the joke the punch line doesn’t really work.
I read an interview you did a while ago with Dummy magazine. You were talking about listening to more Smashing Pumpkins recently and also talking about having this naivety that made energy within the album. I was wondering why did the Smashing Pumpkins work for you right now with Are You Alone?>
I think I was listening to Smashing Pumpkins while I was making it. I guess I just mentioned it because it was my example of music that does a certain thing that was inspiring to me. And it ended up being something that guided my values or what I wanted to do on the record. Not necessarily that it’s extremely influenced by Smashing Pumpkins, but that music has a naïve quality to it. Billy Corgan has a voice in his music that never really seems like he’s being ironic or distanced. In a lot of his music he’s just out there. The emotions are kind of big. I guess I was just inspired by music that apes its emotional convictions pretty straightforwardly and has a kind of innocence to it.
That makes sense. In the new album there are a lot of these sweeping romantic gestures. Dying in a car crash together or like running through the streets together in “Downtown.” There are these movie moments, but they could also happen in real life and if they did they would feel even more special.
Yeah they’re movie moments. You could be inspired by them or something [laughs].
It seems like the ideas of fluid identity, personal improvement, and being ready for change all seem to be themes that come through the album a lot. And they seem to be moments of impact, like the last thing on “Control”, you’re talking about wearing a person’s clothes and shoes to use to dance and lose control. It seems like this big moment dealing with identity and where you’re going to next.
Yeah I felt that way; I guess I just wrote songs about that was happening. I feel like some songs on Impersonator reflected that to me a little bit, maybe not as directly as on this album. I think that’s generally true. I don’t know how to better explain it.
You bring up Impersonator and I was listening to “Mister” this morning and it reflects what you just said. The chorus going “hey mister don’t you want to be right here.” It’s like it’s saying “don’t you want to change”, “don’t you want to be in this new place”, “don’t you want to be different” seem to be the questions…within that one questions there are all those questions.
Definitely. That song is about that. About wanting to be better, wanting to be different, wanting to change and move forward and just be something new. And there are songs on Are You Alone that are about the same thing. I feel like people are always at points in their lives where some sort of feeling, some sense of identity comes to an end. Something you felt sure of like “this is who I am and I can define myself this way” then all of a sudden it starts coming apart or you start to change. You start to feel differently and it puts you in a space where you’re not sure where you’re going to go in terms of how you define yourself.
I had a question about a lyric in “Downtown”. You have the lyric “if it ever goes wrong I’ll write you into all of my songs”. It’s such a romantic song but that seems like a threat almost.
I hope that it’s not taken that way, as a threat. It’s more of like moment of a sense of humor in that song. To me that song has a lot of aspects that are abstracted from a love song or a romantic song. It’s almost about romantic songs. The song sort of engages with romance and the ideas of romantic love in music and that’s a little bit abstract. There were times where I didn’t really know how to feel about that song because it felt abstract. There are the other parts of the lyrics where it references The Beatles song [“I Want to Hold Your Hand”] at the end. That part was just a humorous thing about the way relationships can just end up in music. It’s not like a threat where a person will become a negative example of something, it’s more like so much pop music and romantic music is written about memories. It’s not necessarily about something that’s happening right now, not like jump on the keyboard and make something. It’s more like a love gone wrong and the opportunities for writing a love gone right.