telethon

Interview: Kevin Tully of Telethon

“Where does my brain wander, and where does it party?” asks Kevin Tully of Telethon on “How Long Do I Let It Go For?,” the lead single from his band’s latest record Hard Pop. I caught up with Tully recently to figure out exactly where his brain wandered in the writing of Hard Pop. Our conversation ranged from the scrapped concept record that became Hard Pop, to the miseries of working in fast food. Check out the interview below while you listen along to Hard Pop, which is out now on Take This to Heart Records.

So first things first, what exactly is Hard Pop? Is it a genre? Is it an alcoholic soda?

It is a blanket statement for the type of music we’re trying to make. We’re definitely not the first people to use the term, I’ve discovered, but we put it on a shirt like two years ago – we still sell the shirt – and we just thought it was a good descriptor. We’re not really pop-punk, but we try to make pop songs with a little more punk or whatever edge. It’s like hard rock, but with pop music, so Hard Pop. I think power pop, too, has certain connotations, so we figured defining it ourselves was a good route. It’s just a fun catchy phrase too. So the album was going to be self-titled or Hard Pop and we went with that.

Your last two releases were both concept records, and this one, as far as I’m aware, isn’t.

It was going to be.

Why’d you change that?

We’ve just always worked in concepts. The first album wasn’t really a concept, but it had some more conceptual songs. I just figured, like, “We’ll always make concept records,” and it gives you a really nice wall in which to paint. You’ve got constraints and a space to stick to. In the past, like on The Grand Spontanean, that was essential. It was a story we were trying to tell and the outline of the story governed how many songs were on the album and what each song was about. At the time it was a novel feeling as a songwriter and it felt nice and I figured we’d always do that. Modern Abrasive was fun since it was all these character sketches. I was able to take a third person perspective and exaggerate on things that wouldn’t come out of my mouth and speak in a voice that wasn’t my own, and that was kind of liberating. Hard Pop I was trying to write for a year and a half. There was a concept about a small town and a person who – long story short, there’re some drownings and this person takes it upon themselves to solve the mystery of the drownings. The twist I was thinking is there isn’t any mystery, it’s a simple case, but your brain can make a conspiracy out of anything. I do think it’s an interesting idea but I was completely unhappy with everything I was writing. The words weren’t coming as easily as they had before and I think I painted myself into a corner. As a thought exercise, like a month before we had to finish Hard Pop, I thought, “Fuck it, what if, as an experiment, I rewrote the whole first song?” I kept the structure, even some of the lines, but rewrote it as a stream-of-consciousness thing. Before I knew it I had half the album done and it was way more inspired. “(I Guess You’d Call It) An Undertone” didn’t change at all. You can see it’s kind of about a person who sees dark undertones in everyday life. That was more like an introduction to the protagonist of the album, so I had to rewrite the end chorus to give it an endcap, like, “The undertones I saw weren’t real.” 95% of the song stayed the same. Imagine that person in that song carried over an entire album’s length. Exhausting to write from that negative a worldview. The character was such a sour-minded person, not learning from anything and I don’t know if they ever will. I was craving some catharsis that was never coming. All the songs now explored the negative emotions, but most of them have the through line of coming out on top, like, “Yeah you’re going through the shit, but you’ll come out on top and you’ll still be here when the dust clears.” And the album’s way better for having changed it.

Is it any more or less difficult for you to write autobiographically, as opposed to writing as a character?

is sort of a concept album but about me, or someone like me, and The Grand Spontanean is definitely about a character. I did that because I didn’t think I could do another album from my perspective. It felt wanky, like “Woe is me.” How self-satisfied do you have to be to write from your own pint of view? I now see that’s wrong and there’s a lot of good that can come from writing from your own perspective. It took me, though, two very conceptual albums to figure that out. It was so easy. It was flowing so freely that I didn’t even know if it was any good.

Did you have the order all figured out from the beginning or did you shuffle them around? 

We reshuffled them. We scrapped some. There were some ideas we had music for but no words. Some things got ditched, some were written after – “Youdontinspiremelikeyouusedto” was totally written after I’d scrapped the concept. This was the first album we were so stoked that we didn’t give a fuck the track order. The only thing we knew was we wanted “Loser / That Old Private Hell” to be the intro track because it felt so epic, I guess? Felt like an opener, I guess.

I was wondering if that song had been written to be an opener. 

That song had full lyrics written as part of the concept, and the intro was an announcement by the town sheriff about the drowning. I still sometimes accidentally sing the original lyrics.

Was it always written as two separate songs, too?

We always played it as one sort of suite, then toyed with the idea of making them separate tracks. Ultimately we decided, with how people listen to music, no one would listen to the intro. People would listen to “That Old Private Hell” on its own but who would listen to “Loser”? So we decided to force people to listen to both. [laughs] I think they contribute to one another and they’re thematically linked.

So knowing why you combined those two, was there ever a longer version of “Sirens”? Or was that written as a minute-long interlude type song?

That was just a little pretty thing I wrote in like ten minutes. Sometimes you’ll write something and think, “This is a tasty piece of a song,” and I always love short songs – there’s always at least one sub-one-minute song on our LPs. I thought it was pretty and we had about a week before we had to go to the studio, and it worked as a standalone thing, like a side one closer, so we kept it short. I don’t think it would’ve lent itself to becoming a three-, four-minute song as well as it worked as a one-minute long song.

For sure. It feels like a nice breather for the album. 

Yeah, we operate at such a high octane that we try to have a couple of those on each album. For Hard Pop it’s “Sirens” and “House of the Future.”

”House of the Future” is cool too, because it’s so, so different for you. 

Thank you. I was super self-conscious about it – we recorded it differently. To record that, you can tell it sounds different – it was all live, including vocals, me on an acoustic guitar, Eric, our drummer, was playing with Sega Genesis sounds. I know there’s soundbites from Earthworm Jim 2, Comics Zone, and Streets of Rage 3. Then Alex, our bass player, was playing “Jingle Bells” in the corner, and Gene Jacket, our keyboard player, was playing synth through and amp. Some people love that song, and I was super self-conscious, so hearing people like it was super awesome to me. I’m happy people don’t think it’s an embarrassment. [laughs]

Do you have a favorite song on the album?

I think we’re all similarly stoked on “Loser / That Old Private Hell,” because I think it really accomplishes what we set out to do. At the same time, we like them all. “Manila” I think is my favorite. I think it has everything that Telethon does and the lyrics are the most me. It sounds a little like a Britpop song but it’s also ska and it’s weird and I love it. Think that might be my sleeper favorite.

”Wanderparty” and “How Long Do I Let It Go For?” both have that line, “Where do you wander and where do you party?” and I was wondering what that line means. 

Unfortunately, sometimes something just sounds right – the way I’ll write is that I sing nonsense bullshit in meaningless phrases to think of melodies, then I turn them into sound rhymes that do make sense or whatever. Every once in a while there’s a holdover when I can’t think of anything that works better than the nonsense. [laughs] I think that makes it interesting. That line I turned into a guiding light to write the rest of the song. It’s just, “What do you do at this point? For fun? To explore yourself?” It’s vague as fuck and it can mean whatever you want, but it’s too catchy and too immediate. I tried others, “How do you squander the life of the party?” I tried all these other ways to change it and none worked. I thought it was an interesting songwriting exercise, come up with the only thing that fits off the top of your head, and write a song around that.

What’s the significance of the callback in “How Long Do I Let It Go For?”

It was a line that fit and I like doing callbacks, like, “Oh, where’ve I heard that before?” I think it fits well in that section because, in that case, the brain wandering is going through the different possibility toured that anxiety takes us down for the future. Partying, I think, is the same thing – “What’s my brain doing with this information, or this lack of information, and how’s it warping that?”

I was curious about the way that song shifts from being more generally about anxiety to the second verse about house- or apartment-hunting. It seemed like a super specific jump and I was wondering why you took it in that direction. 

That’s just how I write songs. To avoid sounding self-centered, it’s just where my brain goes. I have a blanket statement, and then wonder, “Where do I go from there?” I don’t want to just sing vaguely so I’ll think of a detail in my own life that embodies that in a specific way and I think it comes out sort of stream of consciousness. That song is just about generalized anxiety and how tightly wound you can get without realizing it. One thing that drives me fucking bonkers and makes me obsessive and think the worst whenever I have to do it is apartment-hunting. In that case, it was just, like, “I have this chorus about being tightly wound, what makes me feel that way? Apartment-hunting!” I just rolled with it. I’d say eight times out of ten that’s the way I write. I have a lot of quotes in my phone, and one is from the director Jon Favreau, about how, the more specific something gets, ironically, the more people can relate to it. If it had just been a song about anxiety, I feel like it would be about nothing. The lines about apartment-hunting make it more specific and more fun and more personal.

Definitely. My favorite line on the album is from “Loser / That Old Private Hell” about wanting to be a baseball player but just not really caring to practice, which is a similar very specific sentiment that I imagine a lot of people can relate to. 

Yeah, it’s why we don’t achieve our dreams. They were hollow to begin with. I guess that’s why they call them pipe dreams. You ask a little kid, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” and I’d say a very small amount of the time it’s what they actually end up doing. I wanted to be a baseball player, I wanted to be a marine biologist, all these things I didn’t end up being. Your dreams change, they go away, and your life journey doesn’t take you there. Thinking I wanted to be a baseball player and realizing, “I fucking hate practice,” it’s realizing it was never really your dream.

Another song that really does that well, I think, is “Time to Lean,” which absolutely nails the feeling of just being miserable working at a restaurant. 

That one’s not as much about me – it stemmed from exploring the small town concept album, it was the perspective of a teenager in the town. I changed in to draw more on my experiences at a fast food place. It’s a specific type of misery. You’ve got to be nice to people and you fucking hate their guts and you have this warped sense of reality. You just want to go steal samples, or at least I did.

If you went back to play Hard Pop for the Kevin of Witness era, how do you think he’d feel?

I think I’d be surprised at the trajectory. When we recorded that I didn’t know what Telethon would become. I wanted it to be more of a Pavement-style – maybe not Pavement, but I was singing really low and mumbly. I was really inspired by Parquet Courts, things like that. If I heard myself singing as high as I do now I would probably be like, “Oh. Alright.” We really leaned into crafting what we think are good pop songs, and I used to poo-poo that until I realized how rewarding it could be to craft a hook that sounds good. We were trying to a fault on Witness to be weird and quirky. I think the songwriting’s gotten better. I think I’d be happy with it but I’d be surprised. At the same time I think we can all see it. We’ve gotten better each record, I think, but we’ve worked with the same producer every record, the lineup hasn’t changed much. I think we’ve just honed it. You can see traces of what we’d become in Witness, I think.

Zac Djamoos
Zac Djamoos Zac Djamoos is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @greatwhitebison on Twitter.