Frontman JT Daly details the journey behind Paper Route’s new album Real Emotion, the process of rediscovering an excitement for music, the struggle of writing about mental health and why it’s OK to get healthy, and the darks days surrounding Absence.
How does it feel to have some new Paper Route music coming out finally?
Confusing and filled with relief. That’s how it feels.
Yeah, it’s been a while.
Yeah, man. It probably feels like we haven’t been doing that much, but we’ve been busier than ever in all actuality. We added a band member, toured a few more times, wrote an album, got another record deal. That type of stuff.
Have you still been doing a lot of graphic design work on the side?
Yeah, I’ll do a few things here and there, mostly for friends. As far as the visual arts stuff goes, I tend to try and do a show or two a year. Since the last album, I think I did Art Is So Easy Right Now, Monsters in Airports, Messäge, Famous People, and then I art directed the Paper Route album art installation. I did that with my buddy Micah Bell, who has been a huge part of all of the Paper Route art since Absence.
With this album you’ve talked a little about how it felt like you were going back to the beginning, being that you were doing it all on your own and doing music for yourself again. What was that process and feeling like?
It was kind of frightening at first because I don’t think we really knew what was going on. Once we embraced that, we realized we were actually in the best position we could ever be in. When you sort of feel like no one is paying attention, and you’re secluded and writing and creating only for yourself, it becomes yours again and no one can infiltrate that process. You discover your voice again and you discover why you even get excited to do this. You start pacing again. You start staying up and working through the night again. You rediscover that sense of wonder.
A huge way we were able to rediscover that was also just going back and listening through a lot of the music that changed our lives growing up. Douglas Coupland talks about inspiration being like a glass of water. With each thing you experience that blows your mind, it’s a drop of water in that glass. The frightening thing is when you get to your late 20s the glass is kind of full.
At least the way I took it is you find so many people who are like, “Man, why don’t they make music like they used to?” Because they’re stuck listening to those things that blew their minds when their glass wasn’t full. They might be listening to something that could change their life or really stretch them, but that drop of water hits the glass and spills over because it’s full. So you have to find ways to trick your mind into getting back there sometimes.
That’s a very long way of saying that’s what happened to us. Our glass got poured out a little and we were discovering new things that felt like for the first time. One trick that we used was we went back and listened to some of the stuff that hit us so hard as kids, and it really impacted the songs on this album as well.
What was some of that stuff that you went back and listened to?
Britpop and Brit-rock, just melody and guitars. How can I even explain this? I was waking up every morning at this house that we had found secluded away from everything and going on these long runs because I felt like I almost couldn’t stop my speed. I was so excited to bust out Oasis again, or Radiohead. Obviously, everyone’s still a fan of Radiohead, but really, really digesting some of those early albums.
That led us into the things we were really into as we got a little bit older – Massive Attack, Portishead. Blur was huge. We listened to Blur and Damon Albarn stuff every day. It was a very special time in that house. We kind of felt like kids again. The irony is the music felt more youthful than I think it’s ever felt, as far as Paper Route goes. We were doing whatever we wanted, but lyrically it was the oldest album we’ve ever written. There’s a new set of demons as you get older.
You did something else I thought was interesting. It didn’t really make the album stuff, but you did this thing called Band Camp where you brought in some of your friends from Nashville and jammed with them for a week or so. How do you think that paid dividends?
You know, we grabbed a lot of that stuff and sampled some of it. There’s actually a track on the album called “Blue Collar Daydream” that is one of the songs we did just through a tape machine and really jacked up. That was such an amazing time, Band Camp. I think that made us feel alive again, honestly. It was a really healthy thing to do for us because I think as far as our band goes the recording and creating process comes much easier than the entertaining process comes.
I really have to get my head in the right place before we do a tour, and it takes a lot out of me. I think it does with the other guys, but it’s just a different beast when you have a microphone in your hand. It’s just a weird thing. You kind of have to come down when you get back from a tour, or just refigure out what it is you have to say again. I think that was a great catapult into that headspace.
I’ve always considered you cut from the same cloth as MUTEMATH, and you brought in Darren King to do some drumming on this record. What was it like having him in there for you?
Man, Darren is a force of nature. He’s just always inspired. I’ve technically been making art with Darren now for over a decade. He did the music for my first solo art show in Nashville. I had no idea who he was. We just got connected, and then after the art show he asked me to do the art for his band. I didn’t know who his band was and no one did, really. I don’t think they had even released anything, and it was MUTEMATH. So I did their album art and their merch and their website, all that stuff, up until Armistice.
I knew immediately, everyone knows immediately, when you meet Darren King that he’s a special human being. Like we were talking earlier, finding that sense of wonder and trying to find ways to make sure your cup isn’t filled with that water, Darren is always there. I don’t feel like he ever will arrive. He’s always in the state of becoming. That is Darren King.
He’s always evolving, always pushing himself, and to work with someone at that level, who can kind of just do anything and also gets our music, was incredible. I think a lot of people might think he’s just a guy who drums really hard. He’s an animal and that’s like his thing, but his touch is very, very musical. It was incredible to watch.
You mentioned the lineup changes you went through. You have a full-time guitarist now and that really fleshed out the guitars more on this album. What was that like, writing and structuring things more around that instrument?
It was an absolute dream. Chad and I have been doing this for forever now and we adore the guitar. The problem is neither Chad nor I are very good guitar players. We love drums. We program drums. I play drums. So even though drums are a huge backbone to the album, we can survive without a drummer. The drums get done, and usually drummers who play with us play the beats that Chad and I have already played.
But the guitars are something we just adore and appreciate and respect and cannot execute. So to have someone like Nick, who stepped it up so much on this album, and stepped it up mostly with his patience with Chad and I. We were relentless in getting some things to sound a specific way, and he had to endure those sessions to work hours and hours on trying to figure out how to get something to sound like if Johnny Marr played on OK Computer. That can take its toll, but he withstood that and executed it. It was phenomenal to have Nick on this album.
Speaking more lyrically, you’ve talked about how this album was inspired by mental health and the struggle of balancing everyday life when people see the real you. As you mentioned before, these are topics you write about and realize more as you grow older. What was it like writing from that perspective and dealing with some of this heavier material?
I want to say embarrassing at first and empowering in the end. Embarrassing at first because I’m a stubborn, Irish heritage, American born man that is trying to project perfection at all time, and project confidence and just kick ass, but I rarely am. I think it’s embarrassing, and it’s an embarrassing thing to admit that maybe without a pill I’m not the best me.
I’m still trying to figure that out, and I think it was empowering because the more we talked about it, the more we found out how many other people deal with stuff like this. I think that mental health is grossly overlooked, and grossly overlooked in America especially. It’s my hope that a lot more attention gets put on the human mind because it’s very real. It’s a real thing, and we have an album about it.
Is there something in particular you hope listeners can come away with after listening to the album?
Let me think. There’s a lot. The reality is that if you and I were just having a conversation, I would answer this with ease, but the print or however this gets posted lives for eternity. Sometimes some of the things I would like to say can be cringe worthy with time. It’s a complicated thing to answer, to say what you would want someone to come away with after listening to an album like this one.
I think unfortunately I just have to answer with the obvious. The point of an album like this is to remind everyone we have a lot more in common than we think. If you’re dealing with some of this stuff, you’re not alone. I guess that’s probably the best way to say it.
Here’s what I would like to say, actually – it’s OK to get healthy. I think a lot of artists are terrified of that. They think that their chaos is their crutch. They think that their chaos is their genius. I disagree with that. I think someone like David Lynch is very inspiring. He’s going darker and crazier and more intense, and he’s getting healthier.
I believe the healthier you get, the greater your art can become, because you’re able to go to places you never were able to go to before because it doesn’t actually impact your life. You don’t have to suffer through it, and you’re able to actually focus in on that much better.
Going to a slightly lighter subject, the first two singles you released, “Laugh About It” and “Chariots,” I think are two of the easy highlights off the record. What was it like coming up with those ones?
“Laugh About It” is the curveball on the album. We always write albums up until we hit that curveball track, where it almost doesn’t fit the album but when you really step back and blur your eyes, everything hits at the right time. It’s perfect and without it the album just isn’t complete.
We had done five different versions of that song. I think at some point we’re going to release them all. We had written it very, very fast and the lyrics came even faster. Almost the entire melody was sung in one freestyle. It was just this really sort of sing-along-until-your-nose-bleeds type hook.
We knew that it had to be juxtaposed next to a very, very different lyric. Tom Waits says, “I love beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” It was kind of that vibe, especially with my voice. My voice sounds the best when I’m hitting the notes right, whereas a lot of my favorite singers don’t really have that typical great voice. So with anxiety, I try and mask it with as many things as possible.
On the earlier albums, it was doubling or reverb. Stuff like that. Now, it’s just make the words hold the weight. To me, that’s a very honest song. You can’t really sing a song like that if you haven’t been a band for as long as we have with the type of career we’ve had. It’s a stand up, get kicked down, stand up, get kicked down sort of a thing. It’s an honest song.
“Chariots” is one of our favorite songs on the album. We were shocked that our team wanted to release it as a single. We were like, “Are you kidding me? The average punter is going to like this? If that’s the case, maybe we did finally do something right.” That was just a special song, man.
Chad had this track started, and the overall feel and mood never changed in that song. It’s been consistent the entire time, it was just the melody we spent a long time on. Then we needed, again, the lyric. The lyric just had to be right. When it was about any other subject other than that very visceral sort of battle over fidelity, it seemed wrong. It seemed cheesy, honestly. It seemed lightweight. It just clicked, man.
I was at Bonnaroo, watching all these bands. You know how it feels. I mean, I feel for you. You have to be on the phone with me, you probably have eight others after this, and I don’t even know if you like our music. You have to endure so much music now. With the internet, there’s no filter. Everyone’s a record label, you know?
So I don’t even know half these bands who are playing Bonnaroo. I can’t even play Bonnaroo. I’m just walking around, being attacked by musical ammunition. I left and I couldn’t even tell you one band that I saw. I remember thinking, how can you stick out? Even if I heard a great song, I would still need a word. Am I making any sense? I’m trying to think of an example. You need to have something to hook you.
We were writing “Chariots” at the time. I mean, that’s a great track, but even if someone was walking by our stage at Bonnaroo and saw us playing that song, how would they even remember it? What’s a word that I can say where someone would be like, “Oh yeah, I saw this one band. They had this cool drumbeat song and he kept on saying that word.” So chariots came to mind. Who’s written a love song about chariots? I don’t think anyone, so game on. Let’s do it. And that’s how that song happened.
One other song I wanted to ask about is “Balconies,” which is another of the ones you released early and another I really love. What stands out to you about that song?
That one will be a much shorter, easier answer, so your job’s easy on this one. Chad again had a track started. This was right when we were really in limbo with things that were going to happen in the band. I think this was probably the first song written with that “nobody’s ever going to hear this” mentality.
I took what he had started and I went downstairs in that house we were in. Lyrics, melodies, banged it all in one night. I brought it up and was like, “What do you think of this?” With Paper Route, things always get shifted around towards the end of a song’s completion, but that song just happened. It was just one of those songs. It was done.
So much of the music industry, as you know, is all about timing. Looking back to Absence, that album was probably a few years ahead of its time and got lost in the major label shuffle. I remember being blown away the first time I heard “Carousel” and still can’t believe that song didn’t get to be a lot bigger than it was. What is your main takeaway now, looking back at that time period, from that whole experience and living in that world for a bit?
To be honest, those are dark days. This is stuff that I’ve never even admitted. I’m kind of excited to even admit this, because I would love it if maybe people knew this, but it was dark. We never were a band that started with the end goal of “let’s get a major label record deal.” We were a studio project that got found on MySpace by some people that were like, “You guys should tour,” who eventually became our management and lawyer team. They just really believed in it, and we loved making music.
We believed in what we were being told and witnessed all of that. To this day we’ve never made an album where, by the time it was actually getting released, the same team was releasing the album. That hurts because you feel like people have stolen from you. It just doesn’t feel right. There’s nothing beautiful about the album releasing side of the industry that we’ve experienced.
It was bad management. A horrendous record label. I mean, our album wasn’t released in the right genre on iTunes. We were in world music and in stores we were in the hip-hop section. When we toured the U.K. and Europe with Paramore on a massive, massive tour, our international record deal didn’t give us a single CD to sell. They didn’t have product for us to sell. I don’t even know if they ever even tried at radio. I don’t remember, honestly. It was just a disaster.
I think if we weren’t the sort of blue-collar artist that we are, we would have been done. Any other band would have been done. They would have been super pumped on being famous, or they just would have been confused and would have dissolved.
For us, we’ve always been like I’m not going to wait for anyone else to do this, so I’m just going to do it myself. That’s how we ended up producing and engineering our own albums. Chad’s mixed so many of our own albums. We’ve just done everything ourselves. I used to do our music videos and our album packaging and our merch. We just resorted right back to that. We had no team.
So yeah, it hurts like hell, looking back. But you kind of just have to let go of it. I tried to drink those nights away, and I think I successfully did a little. Some of the tours we had to go on, I would like to forget about. But to be making an album still that I’m even more proud of than Absence, that’s the dream. So in the end, it was all worth it.
What does it feel like to be back on a label for this album?
Terrifying. With The Peace of Wild Things, we were able to get free after that album was done and release that independently. I kind of felt like we had maxed that out. There are some people at the label we’re with now that, how can I even explain this? I believe them. It’s right this time. They’re working very, very hard.
This is the best success we’ve ever had at radio. It’s still small on “Chariots,” but they’re pushing really hard and I’m proud to say they’re our team. Everyone’s just trying, man. The music industry is really, really bad. It’s a really, really hard thing.
I saw “Chariots” got on that FIFA game. That’s pretty cool.
It’s phenomenal, yeah. That was an honor to be a part of.
In your bio you mention this concept of the sacredness of the musical language being one of your main goals and aspirations that you have for Paper Route. What do you mean by that?
Really, I said that? That sounds excellent [laughs]. The reality is this. Music in general, and the type of music we’re making, basically can be the vitamin in the Twinkie. You can give everyone a Twinkie, and they’ll pound it down and won’t realize you snuck a vitamin in it. I think maybe that’s what I was referring to, is figuring out ways to say some very personal and heavy things and Trojan Horse it in a way where people might just crank the song because they like the beat.
It’s a crazy thing, man. Music is different. I tend to think that film is probably the best medium. I always get into arguments with my painter friend, Johnny Gillette. He’s this amazing artist in New York. We get into these arguments and he’s like, “No, dude. Music. People lose their minds over music.” I’m like, “Yeah, but let’s be honest. The majority of music in my opinion is kind of shallow.”
Compare the Grammys to the Oscars. We’re talking pretty different competitions here. But he swears that it’s music, and I guess in this instance, he might be right, because it’s easier to Trojan Horse things with music.