CONFIRMATION BIAS #2: Mo Troper

It’s no secret that I love Mo Troper’s music. In my view, his first solo record Beloved boasts (among many other things) a basically peerless track 1/track 2 double-whammy. That the rest of his catalog not only doesn’t disappoint, but in fact regularly surpasses the heights of that entrance—both by broadening the sonic palette and casting a wider thematic net—is testament to a songwriter who takes his craft very seriously.

More than anyone else who I consider something of a peer, Mo is the person whose work most regularly motivates me to write. I suspect some people reading might find that an odd sort of compliment. In my experience, people tend to play down competitiveness of any sort in the world of underground rock music (especially those who are themselves fiercely competitive people, even transparently so). You’d think a scene that prides itself on both communal solidarity and a shared mythos of antagonism towards moneyed interests might at least suspect that if we aren’t comfortable measuring ourselves by each other’s yardsticks, the gauge we’re left with might not be of our collective making. That’s probably an argument for another time; let’s just say that there is a difference, in my view, between competitiveness as usually understood, i.e. the drive to succeed at the expense of others, and creative competitiveness, i.e. the drive to make something as good or even better than your friends and peers make. I think the latter kind is crucial to making good art. If I have made anything good, it’s in no small part because of the good things that Mo (and a number of other people I’m lucky enough to call friends) have made. 

The kind of competition I’m talking about clearly shouldn’t entail hard feelings: theoretically there are an infinite number of great songs out there to be written. And even if there weren’t, I want to be challenged, personally and artistically; I want the quality of what I make to challenge others. That feeling can definitely be a little uncomfortable, though. The best way I can preface this interview—one in which I ended up asking very few questions about Mo’s actual music, probably for fear of seeming cloyingly laudatory—is to say that I have never known Mo to shy away from that discomfort, as a person or as an artist. 

Illustration by Tim Howe

You were playing music in Portland, OR long before transplants like me gentrified that city and left it to consume itself, and I can assume you will be long after whatever identity crisis sends me crawling into the welcoming arms of a career as a community college professor (or something similarly undignified). What first prompted you to start a band, and to what extent are you embarrassed by those early motivations? 

Holy shit. Well first of all, I should be honest about the fact that my mom and stepdad were the first generation of Portland transplants, having moved from LA when I was a little kid. Kids aren’t really regionalist unless they’re like hardcore soccer fans but I definitely think my family was judged by other adults. So whenever I feel like publicly moaning about transplants or whatever I have to remind myself of that.

Jordan from Slender Gems, who was born and raised here as far as I know, said something recently about how he “missed poor kids going buck,” referring to the halcyon days of Portland DIY. I grew up resoundingly upper middle class, and my mom didn’t squander her inheritance until I was an adult, so technically I wasn’t one of those kids. But I definitely think within the last seven or so years, the punk scene here has become more moneyed and aseptic and sort of just a satellite to whatever dumb shit is trending nationally. I think Lewis & Clark and Reed students and alumni gained “control” of the scene and excluded artists who were poor and genuinely punk. This isn’t even some screed against “cancel culture”–I just think there was this influx of liberal arts normies who brought their big city enterprising spirit to Portland and took control of the local scene and the local media and put their normie fly paper all over the place. They created an environment that was really pretty revolting to a lot of punks who had been doing their thing here for a long time already. 

So I guess this leads me to your actual question, and my answer is, I wanted to start a band because all of my friends were in bands and my friends were more popular than me. I really think being in a band in Portland in the late ’00s and early ’10s was just the “thing kids did,” like the equivalent of learning to surf in Southern California. The youth culture was just naturally musical and musically literate to an obnoxious extent. It didn’t seem unusual to be a teenager with a couple of Smog records. I’m not embarrassed by my motivations, but I am embarrassed that I made shitty recordings when I was a teenager that are still out there for people to hear.

I’m a little foggy about what exactly “genuine punk” refers to in the 21st century. Maybe if I hadn’t attended the more aseptic of the two institutions of higher learning you just mentioned, or if I hadn’t grown up in a town where everyone’s favorite band was Sublime, I’d be in the know. But I agree that the scene in which you and I were fellow travelers during the late 2010s was growing sterile in a way that felt exclusionary, and there’s no denying how that dumb shit is trending nationally. I think you recently described something along these lines (or at least parallel to them) as “criss-cross applesauce indie” which I thought was hilarious and spot on. But if you’re tired of hearing adolescent emotions and grade school morality plays expressed with inside voices, what can you do about it? Just try to weather the storm? A friend of mine in New York recently told me that people in Brooklyn are “moving back to Manhattan,” for whatever that’s worth…

Regarding “genuine punks,” you’re right, and it’s sort of embarrassing that I’m even hung up on that at my age, and God forbid this conversation becomes about defining punk. It’s also maybe ironic that I’m accusing people of being exclusionary when I used to act in a way some people probably perceived as gatekeeping. I’d like to think it was an inclusive scene, however. Like a Villain would open for Duck. Little Brother, Duck!, and my old band Your Rival, which was like Weezer but even more incel, would play with scary hardcore bands. Everyone played in like 11 bands but none of those bands toured or released records. I think I’m really nostalgic for that period because music still seemed totally divorced from money. That was not the case a few years later. Everyone who makes music feels entitled to a career in music now. I’m not in favor of Spotify stealing royalties from artists or anything, but I sometimes think that is a disingenuous vibe. It really turns your brain to dogshit. 

I think most scene people age out into one of three categories: Lifers, which is a noble path, but a really restrictive one if you ever want to like pay off your student debt or own a car. Or creaky old dipshit pathological sentimentalists who pat themselves on the back for living through “the most” fertile era of DIY music. Or you invest in other scenes that are inhabited by other older adults, like the Mississippi Studios manicured beard pre-med rock scene here. There are a lot of former Portland DIY people who got really into the electronic music scene here. I guess I’m a combination of those first two categories. I want to keep tabs on the DIY scene but nobody wants to be the 30-year-old at a house show. There is really cool stuff happening though. There’s a collective here called Propaganda Kid which is run by this person named Forrest Power. They curate a Portland music Wiki and their bands are really terrific. I don’t think they know or care about anyone’s version of the good old days, thank god.

I agree with a lot of that. Entitlement sucks; careerism is always a bad vibe. Money, or the wide shadow it casts, turns most things to dogshit eventually. But past a certain age, music inevitably has some relationship to money because unfortunately, everything in your life has some relationship to money. Art isn’t supposed to discriminate the way money does—that’s precisely what attracts good people to it. But making music can be more than art, in a sense: it’s also a craft, and devoting the amount of time that craftmanship requires is pretty difficult when you pay the bills through full-time employment of another sort (unless you have an Adderall prescription or are naturally insomniac). As you say, the path of the lifer is noble, but it’s beset on all sides by the inequities of the market and the tyrannies of the debt collectors. Have your own efforts to carve out space for your songs in this fucked up world left you with some sympathy for those who might choose to debase themselves by pursuing a career in music?

I have limited sympathy for anyone who thinks they are owed anything just because they’ve spent a long time doing it. I respect the craft but you have to devote a certain amount of time to learn how to paint model cars too and it would be insane if I was like, “I just can’t keep doing this until I start making an ER doctor’s salary from it, somehow.” If you love making music then you shouldn’t have to justify it in that way. From 21 to approximately 27 I was working full-time and making music in my free time. Some of that time I was living with my mom, but still, my most productive year musically was 2015, when I was working probably 55 hours a week between the record store, subbing at School of Rock and writing for the Mercury. If I didn’t have people in my life who were so supportive of me then there probably would have been periods in my 20s when I would have had to hang it up temporarily to focus on work, but I think if you really love something you’ll always find time to do it. I am currently going to school full-time, working part-time, I have a yeast infection that makes sitting really uncomfortable, and I just recorded a full album cover of Revolver, and it would be absolutely deranged if I expected that to “pay off” in the literal sense, but it was worth it to me. It’s edifying. I think it’s awesome when people make money from music but the attitude that music is going to suddenly become unsustainable for these people unless they start making a penny per Spotify stream is, in my opinion, comically disingenuous. I think some stuff like touring does get harder to justify but there’s nothing inherently expensive about writing songs. 

[Editor’s Note: Mo sent me this email about half an hour later]

Just to clarify, and this is on the record, the recurring yeast infection is NOT from Maya. I have no idea what it is and I have a doctor’s appointment in a couple of weeks. 

Sent from my iPhone

If you know someone in our scene who expects to earn an ER doctor’s salary, please introduce me. I’d love to interview them for the blog. 

I think people ought to be forgiven for trying to do the thing they enjoy as much as they possibly can, and they ought to be held accountable for being assholes about it. Beyond that, I wonder whether it’s mostly just personal preference. The ethical tradition in DIY is on the balance a great thing, but it has the annoying side effect of imbuing choices that should essentially be treated as questions of taste with this inescapable, exaggerated moral significance. Touring is a great example—no one is obligated to do it any particular way, or even do it at all! Of course, it can be hard to tell preference from principle in the trenches, as touring also illustrates: whatever way you go about it, there are lots of opportunities to rip people off or be ripped off yourself. Your very good Believer tour diary from 2017 leads me to believe there isn’t a huge amount of love lost between you and the road. Do you still feel the same way you did then? Has a year of pandemic life changed anything in that respect? 

I reread those tour diaries for the first time in years after you mentioned them. The last two where I talk about my pelvic floor dysfunction or whatever are kind of wack, but the first one is still mostly how I feel. And I even reference something you said about how musicians write more emails than songs! 

I would say that a little has changed since then. Tender Loving Empire basically wouldn’t sign me unless I got a booking agent and committed to a certain amount of time on the road. We only did a couple of weeks before the rest of the Natural Beauty tour was cancelled due to the pandemic, but if they’re a good and trustworthy person then I am very pro booking agent now. The guarantees mean that I could actually pay out my band members. But yes, for the most part, I really hate the actual process of being on tour and I always feel like a stick in the mud because I just want to take naps whenever we aren’t playing a show. I also usually have to do work from the road. I get really anxious on tour generally and if I didn’t have to do it I wouldn’t. I miss playing music with my friends but I don’t miss touring specifically. There are specific shows that I would have loved to play on this last one that got cancelled–we were going to play with Yeah is What We Have, the Great American Novel and Turtlenecked in New York, for example, which is a wild bill. 

But I think the pandemic has even revealed how touring can be a farce for bands at my level. It was always advertised to me as something you had to do if you wanted to be taken seriously or if you wanted Important People to listen to your music, but that is so clearly bullshit. Lee Corey Oswald were touring like four months out of the year at one point and it didn’t really do anything for them, except make them more cynical. Most of the people who buy and listen to my music are in like Spain and Japan where I’ve never played. There are so many artists who broke out in 2020 despite not being able to tour. I feel like people should still do it if they want but the accepted model is a joke and the point of those tour diaries was to illustrate how it’s another example of the music industry privileging adults who can afford to fuck around. There are plenty of incredible musicians and songwriters who functionally just can’t tour, and it seems massively unfair to me that they get less opportunities or that that’s somehow delegitimizing. Even though I dislike it I feel very grateful that I get to do it, if that makes sense.

Still the man with the microphone

Though I personally like touring, I think you’re more or less right about it. I read a Chris Weisman interview recently where he compared the popular consensus around touring to religious doctrine. I think the analogy works for a lot of the music world: it’s contradictory even by the standards of its own internal logic, but it sure has a lot of apologists. 

I try not to be an apologist for anything, but obviously I like to argue. Anyone reading who’s made it this far will get the sense that you aren’t afraid to talk a little shit, either. Recently I saw someone on Twitter say something like “In songwriting, ‘you’ is the cowards ‘I'” and I thought of you right away. You’re one of my favorite active songwriters and you clearly have no problem writing a diss track. You’re not afraid to skewer yourself either, and I can never decide which of these approaches I think you’re better at (though obviously there’s often an element of both). What do you think—is “I” actually the cowards “you?” 

I actually saw that tweet too and I had no fucking idea what it meant. If you’re addressing yourself in a song then it makes sense to write it in the second person, lest you end up writing something that sounds like Catatonicyouths-style emo. We both know that Elliott Smith was a master of this device. Is there anyone on this planet who thinks Elliott Smith wasn’t referring to himself when he sang “you can do what you want to whenever you want to” in “Ballad of Big Nothing”? That would be such a perverse interpretation. “I” becomes “you” in song world because it’s more artful and fictive, not because you’re trying to hide anything.

In general, I’d say one of my least favorite qualities in songwriting is when honesty gets in the way of artfulness. On that note, I have one last question. In your opinion, is making a good power-pop record more like drawing a perfect circle or bending a square out of shape?

The power pop albums that are perfect circles are like the old guy in chelsea boots, power pop pop pop stuff – really sort of formulaic shit. I think good power pop albums are more like a drunken oblong.

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