There are few words that fully describe the Texas-bred Paper Chase, and even fewer that lead singer/guitarist/songwriter John Congleton would like to hear. Granted, the band’s trademark is an uneasy yet confident mess of found sound, haunting piano, a dirty, thunderous rhythm section and Congleton’s sprawling, squealing guitar attacks. Yet it’s the 32-year-old’s writing and delivery — tense, sometimes comically fervent warnings of murder, guilt and the rapture — that have spawned thousands of critics to wrongly deem the group as humorless, art-house horror junkies. In truth, the band’s version of the dramatic owes as much to Queen as it does the snide human condition that inspires such tracks as “I’m Going to Heaven With or Without You” and “The Kids Will Grow Up To Be Assholes.”
Currently on a fall European tour in support of this year’s Someday This Could All Be Yours (Kill Rock Stars), Congleton — who has also done production and engineering work for anyone from the Polyphonic Spree to R. Kelly — spoke with us about his disdain for being taken too seriously, how growing up in the Bible belt influences his songwriting, and why he’s rarely satisfied with how his albums turn out.
You’ve worked with a wide variety of bands as far as producing, engineering or mixing. Is there something you look for specifically in a group when you agree to work with them? Is it usually just friends, or do you often work with groups you don’t know personally?
Normally, I don’t know the bands very much, or at all. For years, I worked with just about anyone who wanted to work with me, All (bands) had to do was just contact me. Then I got so overwhelmed with work, I had to start figuring out some way to decide who was best for me to work with, and so now, I like to talk a bit with a band beforehand and maybe hear a bit about what they would like to do and why they sought me out. I don’t have to particularly love the band or anything, but it helps to know that I’m going to be what they are looking for beforehand and usually this can be found out very easy with a couple of talks.
What are both the attractions and challenges you face when working behind the boards on something that’s not a Paper Chase record?
Well, please realize it’s very rare for me to work on my own stuff. I mean, Paper Chase isn’t an extremely active band. We put out a record an average of every two years, and I spend about a week or so on each, so an enormous amount of time I’m producing or recording somebody else. The challenges are obvious, You have to wear different hats and you have to be able to quell your insecurities as a songwriter and musician while you are trying to kinda just do the job at hand. This is a very fine skill to hone, and I think I only just now started to nail it. In my mind, most of the Paper Chase records have been failures in regard to what I was trying to do. I blame myself, and I can’t listen to them. I’m happy people like them, and I do like playing some of the songs live and all, but the records absolutely kill me.
What about the final version sounds unlike what you aimed for it to be? Do you think there’s a disconnect somewhere during the recording process where you’re making it and it’s sounding good, but the final product isn’t what you were hoping for?
It’s hard to say. I mean, I’m pretty happy with the way the new album turned out for the most part, and there are glimpses and moments on the other albums where I feel I sort of nailed it. But for the most part, it’s torture for me. I’ve developed more of a thicker skin with these things, so I would say there is more of a disconnect.
Kill Rock Stars is a pretty iconic label and it seems like a natural fit for you guys. What sort of things do they do for their talent that other labels might not think of?
They stay the fuck out of everything, man. Like, almost to a cartoonish extent. I never get bummed about how many records we sell, except when I wish I could sell more for KRS, because I never want to let that legacy down, you know? But that’s stupid and I know that.
The band is known for including very eerie sound or dialogue clips in songs, both on record and live. Without giving anything away about how you obtain them, do you feel that technology today helps or hurts your search and use of these clips?
I guess I’ve never really ever thought about it. I don’t really care if something we use is identifiable to somebody else. I really just try to use things that make me feel a certain way. In general, that’s what I do: try to make the music in my head. If people like it, that’s awesome. But I couldn’t even tell you if I would like it, but that’s not the point. There’s this vision, you know? I just want to see if I can make it not be phantom.
Have you always been interested in adding to a song’s atmosphere with found sound?
Man, forever. I have always loved non-musical sounds in a musical context. I can’t see me ever outgrowing that.
A rookie to the Paper Chase’s music may find no method to its madness, but the more you listen, the more the discordance brings out big harmonies or refined musicality. How much of the music or even specific notes, that may seem random or of-the-moment on record, are actually planned out? Do you feel the band’s sound benefits in a live format, being of a school where maybe a song never sounds the same way twice?
Everything is planned. There are accidents that happen from time to time that we will keep, but for the most part, I kinda like it all sounding like an accident. I know that people need to listen more than once to get it. That’s a compliment to me, that the sound can be that rich and dense. Live, it’s different. We know we can’t sound like the record, so there is an element of newness to it every night, mainly with me. I have to change things up on tour or I start to feel like a robot.
Most families are either really enthusiastic and supportive or just not interested in a family member’s music or band. What is your family’s reaction to what you create? Do they appreciate how unique it is or do they not understand why everything sounds so nightmarish?
My mother is amazingly supportive. I don’t think she “gets it” like a fan would, but she “gets it” enough. My father seems more confused by it, but he knows that I’m happy, and he seems pleased with that. I think it’s fair to say though that both of them don’t like it at all on a personal level. I mean it must be strange to hear and see your son do this kinda stuff, even though to me it’s all just theater.
What about Texas or the South influences you as a songwriter?
Well, being the buckle of the Bible belt, and growing up with so much Baptist fire-and-brimstone talk, that certainly affected me and still does. There is a particular brand of ignorance that the South has all to its own, and it’s so frustrating that I think the artistic communities are tighter. People seem to pull for one another a little more down here.
This newest record (and the next volume) obviously hold a central theme. Is that the case with most Paper Chase records? Do you set out to tie most of the songs together in some fashion?
I guess. Really it’s more about me than the overall outcome. It’s just easier for me to write within a framework. I’m not trying to be clever just for the hell of it.
What can be expected on the second volume of Someday This Could All Be Yours? Is there an expected release date? Did you record everything for both volumes at once, and if so, how did you choose to divide up the releases and put these certain tracks on one record and the remainder on another?
At this point, I have no idea when it will come out. Speaking completely honestly with you, my plan was to release them within a year of one another. But, as you might know, it’s hard as shit to sell records nowadays. I don’t really care too much, you see, but our label does, so we need to sell more of the first one and tour a bit more before we can really seriously slate it. If I could make some general statements, I would say it’s a lot more mellow and more different than other releases. In my more recently frustrated moments, I have even considered throwing it away. Not because I don’t like it, quite the contrary, but just because so many morons have completely misread the last one. I’ve grown really weary of people writing about how depressing my music is. It makes me wonder if they are really listening to it or if I am just completely failing in my delivery.
What are a few assumptions about the band or the music you make that you’ve heard and either take issue with or seem hilariously opposite?
As I said, I feel like my music is very misunderstood. It’s OK if people want to find it dark, but my intention is to never be depressing. It should feel life-affirming and powerful, but also sardonic and still fun. I feel like the Paper Chase is a band for people who read a lot of (French author Albert) Camus growing up or something. It’s supposed to be cartoonish and over the top, not subtle. It’s frying-pan-over-the-head music, but I get the feeling from different responses that people think we are dead-ass serious about these things. Of course I’m serious about the music, but lyrically, I’m trying to point out the absurdness of it all. And I guess that’s what bums me out sometimes. You do what you think is your most concise, best work to date, and people don’t seem to get at all what you are going for. Not the fans, mind you. They seem to like it a lot, but other people. And please understand, it’s not that I mind when people hate my music, but it’s when it’s grossly misunderstood that I feel like I haven’t been clear enough.