Leading off with my usual meandering, three-to-four paragraph gassing-up of today’s interview subject would probably be even more “inside baseball” than the interview itself could easily have been. Sonia is one of my favorite musicians and favorite people in the world, and we’ve had conversations like the ones I have on this page so many times, I was worried that reading this installment might feel like trying to listen to a certain kind of podcast for the first time: these people’s friendship isn’t as entertaining as they think it is.
My solution was to have a bit of “structured fun” with this interview, in contrast with the unstructured seriousness that I’d say this series has tended towards so far. After all, Sonia and I originally clicked in part due to being fellow compulsive planners and schemers about band stuff, and what exactly is “band stuff” if not structured fun? In that spirit, I’ll just quickly mention that one of those recent schemes has involved asking various people to submit what—without giving too much away—I’d call “testimonials” about something Sonia’s involved in. I’ve noticed that the submissions keep mentioning exactly how long they’ve known Sonia. I can only assume this is because everyone assumes she’s going to be famous one day, so they have to stake their claim now.
Anyway, listen to the new Alien Boy song that I produced: https://smarturl.it/alienboy-stuck
I know you and I can both obsess a bit about album sequencing—we’ve spent a lot of time in the past couple years bouncing potential sequencings off each other via text and just generally talking about what makes a good track 3 or whatever. So I figured I’d start by asking you to do a little exercise: assuming a 10-song record that’s more or less on the pop end of things—i.e. nothing too experimental—can you briefly describe tracks 1 through 10?
LOL yes I love this okay, we should’ve done this years ago.
1. Whatever your “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is gonna be.
2. Something that might be even better than “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Shorter, more direct, a little less flashy.
3. Where you prove shit is gonna keep getting good, the song your friends tell you is their favorite song but you’re not as sure if it should be a single.
4. Either you go hard or you go soft, you gotta show some depth here.
5. Depending on how hard or soft you go on the last track, I feel like whatever other elements you’re gonna bring to the record, this is a good spot for that. Short ‘n sweet again though.
6. Where the band can “stretch out” as I think you put it a few months ago.
7. The song that ends up being the best song but you’re trying to be nonchalant about it, crucial for keeping the album’s momentum going.
8. Another stretch out moment, whether it’s like the one “fast song” or more of a ballad, a change it up moment. Here is where I like to start leading people towards the end thematically too. A looking back before the very end.
9. This is the last time to rock. I love having this spot be lyrically synced up with the concept of the whole record. Like it really feels like you’ve wrapped up the story you’re trying to tell, whether you leave it on a note of some kind of closure or like “this is never gonna be okay EVER”. Big statement song.
10. I’m a sap for a sad ass closer. Something stripped down and emotional that feels like the record already happened and this is the transition song back into the rest of your life.
I really want to see what yours would be! I feel like I get really hung up on the songs thematically going in order too and I wonder if that’s something you do, or if you feel like your songs exist in different universes and it’s just about what flows well together?
Mine is pretty similar to yours, except that if I was Kurt, I might have put “In Bloom” first and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” second. That’s probably why you’re destined for rock and roll stardom and I’m destined to toil in obscurity. Back in the day I also would have swapped 9 and 10 on your list, but I’ve come around; I absolutely love the idea of “the transition song back into the rest of your life.” You have to give people a moment to reflect on how completely their shit just got rocked.
As far as thematic sequencing is concerned—as opposed to “vibes sequencing” I guess—I used to feel strongly about that being necessary, but these days I think there are other ways to cultivate a voice and a sense of like, writerly intentionality. Sometimes you can do that in a way that makes thematic sequencing less necessary. Really depends on the songs!
Part of my obsession with sequencing comes from a dumb neurotic impulse I have when making an album: I try and figure out what song will be the one that people who skip songs generally decide to skip, and then I totally lose my self and my sense of perspective in a vicious internal debate about whether to just cut that song from the album and save the skippers the trouble. Very unhealthy. Are there any fun neuroses you have when it comes to writing and/or recording that you’d like to share?
WOW “In Bloom” first! While I disagree with the comment about you being destined to toil in obscurity, that’s just crazy Nay. Wtf.
I totally do the same thing, obsessing over which track will be the first track skipped and then if it’s skipped what’s the point? Turns into a game, like which songs are just SO fucking good that no one would dare skip them or need a second to have it grow on them. Those go first, and then you see how long you can get that to last. That’s always competing with the thematic order argument though, I’m like “these songs vibe so well together but like I wrote one of them yesterday and the other three years ago it would never make sense.” Dumb shit that no one notices but me.
Do I have any fun neurosis? So many. The first one that comes to mind is my obsession with picking tempos before we record. I will completely lose my mind of the difference of like 1-3bpm on every track up until the day we lay down the drums. I’m always looking up the BPM of songs I love to compare it to, I get lost in the sauce. I make Derek play each tempo difference, record us practicing them, and then listen to them all before I go to sleep for weeks.
Other than that, I’m trying to think… I’m just generally pretty uptight about everything so it’s hard to pick and choose. When I write it usually happens in like kind of a fuzzy emotional moment I can’t totally explain, but outside of that it’s a lot of me thinking “if you don’t get this exactly right everything will be completely ruined” about the smallest stuff. Lyrics, guitar tones, drum parts, every piece of art that goes along with the band, every single thing. Every decision can feel like it will have a huge consequence, everything is all or nothing. I’ve been working on being nicer to myself about that.
My most recent “everything will be completely ruined” obsession was album length. I couldn’t stop looking up album lengths of records I love / records I hate as if there was a 100% right answer out there I just had never found. Barely helped, and just made me feel crazy.
You’ve told me about your tempo obsession before, and thinking about that more has honestly been really helpful for me! I was always one of those people who thought “128 is basically the same as 126, who cares.” Bad call—a difference of 2 or 3 bpm can really open things up.
The “everything will be completely ruined” zone can be a real mindfuck, almost like an out-of-body experience: unless you think there’s objectively “good” and “bad” music—which I don’t—you’re basically trying to balance your own creative instincts against how you assume you’d react as a listener or fan, trying to put yourself in the mindset of never having heard the song before. This is obviously impossible to do. But other people’s reactions are a little easier to imagine, so you end up thinking about those a lot—sometimes this is healthy, sometimes not so much.
This brings me to my next little thought experiment: if there was a pill that would leave your motivation to make music completely intact, but make it so that you didn’t care if anyone liked your music, or even if anyone ever heard it, would you take that pill?
Whoa okay damn. I have a lot of thoughts about this and have been drafting this response for DAYS! To the point where I thought I might need that pill to ever finish this answer! First instinct is that I want to be someone who would take the pill. I think if I would’ve had that pill, I would’ve been able to start writing songs way earlier in my life, which I think about a lot. I was so scared to put myself out there like that, and now I can’t ever imagine my life without it. I also want to believe I’m someone who would still make music removed from an audience, that it’s something that could bring me joy in a vacuum and it’s not just about people giving me positive feedback…
All that being said though, I think I have to say no to the pill. I don’t think this is a good thing necessarily but I’ve always been a “you don’t get the good without the bad” kinda guy, and end up feeling nostalgic over the most tormented times. I can’t really imagine the best parts of writing music being good enough without being tormented by what other people think at least a little bit. It’s hard to imagine what my drive would be like too. Unfortunately a lot of the fire under my ass comes from a little friendly competition with my peers. I can’t help it.
So no, I would not take the pill. I think everyone else should though haha… Would you?
I think we’re more or less on the same page here. I don’t think my stuff would be any good if I didn’t think I had to prove something on some level. I really respect people who can just make their personal masterpiece and put it online with no fanfare, in the sort of the mystical/spiritual way you respect something you don’t understand and maybe never will. But I admire all sorts of stuff I have no interest in ever doing.
Speaking of taking the good with the bad, especially now that the speculative tour announcement machine has really started kicking into gear and live music is hopefully returning this fall… I’m curious to know about what you consider the worst show Alien Boy has ever played. I feel like for most bands it’s hard to choose, so in the interest of narrowing it down, let’s say bad shows come in one of three categories: 1) funny at the time; 2) funny in retrospect, 3) still not funny. For our purposes, we can steer clear of #3.
I’m sure there are so many but one comes to mind immediately. On the full US we did in 2018 after Sleeping Lessons came out, we were doing some east coast dates with Dump Him (shout out, I adore that band and those rockers). It was in DC and we were playing Comet Ping Pong, a place that we’d played one of the best shows on tour the year before, so I’d say my expectations were already high. All the other bands playing were also especially cool, like had members of other bands I loved kinda cool, so I was already feeling the need to impress! A few hours before the show I shot out a text to a conservative and maybe even homophobic family member in kind of a manic moment who ended up actually coming.
Now my family members who I haven’t seen in years roll up to a completely empty [except for the bands] gig, we have our “dreams and queer feeling” banner up, and everyone in Dump Him is wearing a “god loves fags” t-shirt, and I realized what I had done. Things just went from generally awkward to really fucking awkward. And then of course because it’s me, I was like well if we kill it anyway we’ll prove to them… I don’t know, that we’re cool and they shouldn’t be homophobic anymore. We start playing and over the course of like 4 songs, if that, all our gear breaks to the point where we just stop playing and call it. Then, STILL trying to impress them, I go looking for them to explain and they texted me “sorry had to wake up early and headed home” and we’ve never talked about it again since. Ice. Cold. Left without saying goodbye. I remember feeling like “please don’t tell my parents this is what I’m doing out here, I promise it’s usually better than this!”
I’d put that under funny at the time. Funny in retrospect though—can’t forget the all day queer fest gig in 2016 at that vegan bakery on Stark that everyone I’ve ever dated was at, so me and Derek proceeded to get so drunk in the middle of the afternoon someone actually said “didn’t this band used to be good” and then I proceeded to angry watch all of my exes sets. Embarrassing in retrospect, definitely not funny at the time smh.
Usually bad sets are just tech issues for us though, I fidget with my amp and pedals too fucking much.
Both those stories are brutal! I feel like “I promise it’s usually better than this” is basically the defining feeling of having family show up when you’re on tour. Until about 6 months before the pandemic, I felt like even my parents had only been to shows that fell in like the bottom 15% of shows I’d played—to no fault of their own! That’s just how it works for some reason.
OK last question—circling back a bit. Alien Boy’s sophomore LP is coming out this summer. Would you say you consider it to be your Nevermind or your Live Through This? That’s obviously an insanely loaded question, so feel free to interpret it however you’d like.
I’ve been thinkin on this for a day now and have a lot of thoughts. First, interesting you picked these two records, because I almost think of them as a package deal. For both bands it was their true breakthrough, and I find a lot of similarities in the sequencing of both (both are albums I’m referencing when I’m talking about “front loading” with the hits).
I keep saying shit like this, but again, I want the new record to be our Live Through This, but I think that in the end it’s more Nevermind. Live Through This is just so badass, so bitter, so ruthless almost. That’s what draws me to Hole, but I’ve never had that Courtney Love energy. If anything maybe the earlier Alien Boy EP’s got closer (see me and Mo’s tweets about our drama rock era).
With the new Alien Boy record I think it feels like our most unified step forward yet. It feels sensitive and dynamic… whereas Live Through This is a wrecking ball in the best way. Chaotic and unstoppable. Nevermind has really sensitive moments, and to me comes off more calculated and focused. My many google spreadsheets can relate to that. [Ed note: does that mean Nevermind is “structured fun” …?]
I don’t think the new record is anywhere close to as good as Nevermind, but I hope that people can see the vision. When I listen to it it feels like one step closer to the band becoming fully realized. All that being said though, I like Live Through This more, and what I’m really after these days—is my In Utero.