Animal Flag

Interview: Matt Politoski of Animal Flag

I wrote about Animal Flag at the beginning of the year for our most anticipated albums of 2018 and predicted their new album being “a stunner.” Now they’ve announced that album – it’s called Void Ripper and it comes out on April 13 via Flower Girl and Triple Crown Records – and I can assure you it’s a stunner indeed. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to frontman Matt Politoski about the writing of the record and the break away from Christianity that inspired it.

So I know “I Can Hear You Laugh” and “Lord of Pain” have been around for at least a couple of years, so about how long had you been writing Void Ripper?

Those two are the oldest for sure. I started writing songs for this record in 2014. I had just put out Animal Flag EP 1, which is half of the album that we called LP. I was just touring on this EP I put out at the end of 2014, and on this tour I started to write new songs, so I’ve been writing for this record for about four years.

Were you writing them to be this record, or were you just writing songs and you ended up putting them together to make this record?

I think that at the beginning of any writing process I try to just let the songs exist naturally. But for this record, interestingly enough, I was thinking I was going to start a new band, and call that band Void Ripper, just thinking about starting over again. It was just a couple of songs here and there at first, but then pretty quickly in that process I usually realize, “Oh, these songs are going to exist together,” so then I bunch them together. So yeah, pretty early on I knew this was going to be a full record. Well, yeah, at first I thought it was going to be a band, but then I had a conversation with my cousin, who’s a musician, and I showed her the music. She said, “Yeah, you shouldn’t start a new band. This should just be the new Animal Flag album.” I was like, “Oh, you’re right!” [Laughs]

That’s interesting. This is also the first record you wrote with this lineup, right?

Yeah. I’d actually first started writing the songs before we were in the lineup we are now. We started playing as this lineup in, like, the beginning of 2015, so I’d been working on these songs for a couple months before. As we started playing together, it just took a different form. We were still trying to figure out if we were going to even work out as a full band, though. I’d played with a couple of friends before – the band before this lineup was just a bunch of my friends who all moved across the country to different places pretty suddenly, so I was trying to figure out how I was going to do it. So in the early stages of writing this album, I was still thinking of it as a solo project. I wasn’t really expecting people to stick around. That just wasn’t what I was used to in terms of musical partners. Then over the past couple years, we got together and we made the decision that we were going to be a band and stick together and be loyal to each other. Really make this thing a thing.

Are there any songs you recorded during the Void Ripper sessions that didn’t make it onto the record? B-sides or anything?

There were three songs that got recorded. Well, two songs that got cut, and one song that got recorded around this time that got used for something else. We had a song called “Sink” that got used in Rock Band. That was pretty cool.

Oh, that’s sick!

Yeah. [Laughs] It’s a super weird song. It was written in 2013 – actually, “I Can Hear You Laugh” was written in 2013 too, so some of these songs are five years old. [Laughs] That song “Sink,” it was written in 2013 and we decided to use it for Rock Band because it didn’t really fit in the album. The drums are all chopped up drum samples and it kind of has a hip-hop groove to it, slightly. It’s just a strange song.

But then we did have two songs that were on the first iteration of the album that we finished last year – around this time last year, March of 2017 – and we thought we were finished with it, but we realized it wasn’t done. [Laughs] So we cut those two songs from it and then we remixed the entire album and that’s what you’re hearing today. We might put out those two songs as an EP or something, though. I felt like they weighed the album down. They took away from the starkness of the album, I think.

It’s funny you mention “Sink.” I learned about that song from the comp it was on and I have it next to Void Ripper in my iTunes so whenever that album ends “Sink” starts and it feels like a nice epilogue after “Five.”

That’s sick! Conceptually, I look at that song as a sequel to “I Can Hear You Laugh.” I wrote those two at the same time, and I feel like go together, so it’s fitting it plays after you hear the whole album. [Laughs]

What I’m taking from the record is that it’s about accepting that there’s going to be suffering and pain in life and understanding that you need to find a way to get through that. Does that sound like a fair interpretation?

Oh, yeah, definitely.

Most of the songs fit into that, but there’s one that confuses me. Could you talk a little bit about how “Candace” works in the narrative of the record? It seems a lot more aggressive and direct than the way you usually write as well.

Yeah, that song was a fluke. It’s very weird that that song came out of me and it was a weird experience actually writing it. As a whole I think, at least for me in where I was coming from, when I was writing the album I was in a place of psychological disorder, going through a process. That process was a feeling of losing the spiritual aspect of my life. I grew up in an evangelical culture. Like, going to church every Sunday of my life until I was, like, 21 years old. Growing up my home was a very spiritual one, and at times very religious. I grew up very devout, you know. My Christian beliefs were my main identifier for most of my life. And growing up in a very evangelical culture you can see it’s a fucked up subculture. I think in its worst cases it’s a cult.

When I was writing this album, I was feeling really confused and I felt like I had to start over from a psychological standpoint. I thought that I had to – no, I didn’t think that I had to, I had to rethink my entire worldview. I felt like a brand new person walking through the world, very disoriented. The question that led me to this is, “Why do people suffer?” You know, if there is a God, and there is a God who cares about us – like the evangelicals say, God cares, he cares about us, because they turn God into a he – then why do people suffer? I’d struggled with this question my whole life, but I got to a point where I couldn’t really reconcile those two ideas anymore, how there’s a God who cares about humanity, but there’s all this senseless and pointless suffering in the world.

The song “Candace” was very strange. I just made a drum loop, just 808s, electronic drums, and just started playing this distorted guitar line. I’d never written anything so aggressive-sounding, and I just wanted to. It was the first time in my life that I was that angry about what was going on in my head. All the music I’ve written since then, all the music I’m writing now, and all the music I foresee myself writing probably won’t ever be that aggressive or on the nose as that one is. [Laughs] I wrote that song in about two minutes. It was very stream-of-consciousness, which is a method I don’t usually use, and it just explores the question of “Why do innocent people suffer? Why do evil people thrive?” How can we live in a world that unjust, where innocent people must experience pain and evil people can experience pleasure? And of course I believe bad people can do good and good people can do bad, but I just wanted to explore that.

The answer I got growing up was always, “Oh, because God says so. There’s a time and a place for that.” There’s that passage in the Bible, “There’s a time for peace, there’s a time for war, there’s a time for life, there’s a time for death.” That was always posited to me as the solution to suffering. And when I wrote that song, I saw it as a big middle finger to that answer. Because, you know, that’s not an answer. A time and a place for everything is not satisfying enough. [Laughs] Like, you can’t get me to feel alright about the injustice of the world by telling me that. I was pissed when I wrote it. And there’s one sexual image in there, and I’m a little uncomfortable that I wrote it, because I’m a little squeamish. [Laughs] It’s just a little awkward to me. Not that I think it’s bad, but it’s the first time I’m stepping out and using any type of sexual imagery in my music but I didn’t want to edit myself too much. The song dried – you paint a song and then it dries and you can’t do anything about it. Yeah, it’s ugly, but the song’s ugly and the album’s ugly and I was feeling ugly at the time when I wrote it. [Laughs] 

I think “Candace” is really powerful just as a picture of the times we’re living in, even though I wasn’t raised in the same upbringing as you. 

Thank you.

I want to go back to something you said before, because it reminded me of a lyric from your song “Jealous Lover.” You mentioned the way that people portray God as a man, and in that song you invert that by referring to God as “the Lord” and also “she.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and why you wrote it that way and how it relates to all of that.

I think most religions that have been popularized conceptualize God or the divine as a “he.” Like, classical Greek mythology puts such importance on Zeus, a he. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, the three big monotheistic religions, God is a he. Growing up, I was like, “Yeah. God. He. He’s like a big father.” [Laughs] That’s a really troublesome metaphor. That was something else I started to become critical of. When I came out of it, I realized, “Of course God’s a he, because men wrote it and men controlled it and it was another way of holding power.”

When I started writing that song, I used “she,” and I was just trying to conceive of God in other ways than the one I’ve always known. And I also think part of it was just the weirdness factor. People in the west – even for you, and you said you weren’t raised religious, I think it perks people’s ears up. I know at least some of my audience is Christian people, so I wrote it as a kind of challenge to that thinking. That was my tiny way of working against this misogynistic thought that God is always a he and dipping my toes into that water.

With the title of your recent solo album being 8 Emanations and a lot of the themes of this record about coping with the suffering in the world, I was wondering if any Eastern religions were an influence on you in writing Void Ripper.

Yeah, definitely. I think a lot of my interest in the topic has been almost research-like. [Laughs] After I had my disillusionment experience and realized I wasn’t really a Christian anymore, I felt confused and I felt embarrassed. So I thought the next step for me was just to learn. So I started studying the history of Christianity, of Catholicism, of the culture I was raised in, going all the way back to the first and second centuries. Just reading books and listening to podcasts, I realized I really liked studying this topic. I started studying more things – and when I say this, I don’t want people to think I’m looking for a new religion. [Laughs] I’m not, I’m just learning. I wanted to learn more about Islam, and Judaism, and most recently Buddhism, and specifically Zen Buddhism. I want to expose myself to Eastern religions and Eastern thought – even as a westerner, trying to understand these ideas and even what it means to be a westerner trying to understand these ideas. I just feel I can learn so much from this.

The ambient album is definitely the exact opposite of Void Ripper in a lot of ways. Void Ripper is me tearing down my worldview and my old evangelical structure, and to me the ambient album – and the new Animal Flag songs I’m working on right now, literally last night, that you’ll be hearing in a couple years – are me realizing I’m still in tune with the spiritual aspects of my life, just without religion. Moving past the religious structures but keeping the spiritual elements.

Emanationism, I was introduced to that whole concept through Gnosticism, which is, like, a weird mystic sect of Christianity. Every religion or culture has their creation myths, and the creation myth of Gnosticism is that the physical world was created from a series of emanations from this one original source of energy. It’s similar to Christian though in that there’s an original thing that just is. Each emanation off this being gets diluted, and becomes less divine and less pure. It branches off into two, four, six, eight, it keeps going down. And the way the physical earth is created is from one of the furthest emanations from this original godhead. So the reason there’s so much pain is because we’re so disconnected from this source, or God, whatever you want to call it. I was very inspired by that and I thought it was a very interesting story. It made sense to me and it helped me not be so angry. Having that be the ambient album – not being so weighed down by lyrics – I didn’t have to worry about these concepts or these heavy ideas. It allowed me to breathe. So yeah, definitely inspired by Eastern thoughts and just alternative ideas.

But I think it’s a careful thing, too, because when you’re dealing with other religions, you’re invariably dealing with other cultures. It’s something I try to be mindful of and I always try to be respectful when I’m learning. Like, “How do I integrate these ideas into my life without appropriating or stealing?” But I think it’s quite simple. It’s just about respect.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “Stray,” and I have a theory. “Stray” comes right after “Candace,” and a couple of characters die in “Candace.” Are any of them reincarnated as the dog in “Stray?”

Oh, fuck, that’s a good idea! Yeah, sure, I like that! [Laughs] 

Since the last line in “Candace” is about the painless execution, and the next song starts right with, “Welcome to the world, you’re the newest stray dog,” I was thinking the character from “Candace” was killed and came back as a dog.

That’s dope. That’s funny, I was actually talking to one of my coworkers, who’s a shaman, and we were just talking a little bit about reincarnation, so it’s funny you say that. I never thought about it that way. To me, I just liked the contrast. “Stray” is the lightest- and happiest-sounding song on the album, so it’s like a deep breath after “Candace” is over and it’s like, “Thank God, let’s move on to something easier to digest.” But I guess that’s true, that’s also how felt in a lot of ways. “Candace” is me going through the fire and killing a former self, and “Stray” is like, “Welcome to the world again.” “Stray” is after I did all that horrible introspection and digging and found myself naked, like, “Oh shit, I’m here now! What do I do?” Also I was walking dogs at the time so I was thinking lots about dogs. They’re very instincts-driven and they don’t really know what’s going on, but they’re just going to trust you. They’re simple, they just want to eat food and smell things. I think they’re great. [Laughs]

Now that we’re on the topic, what’s your favorite breed of dog?

Oh man, I love pitbulls. I’ve had really great experiences with pitbulls.

Did you write Void Ripper specifically to be in the order it’s in? Like, was “Morningstar” written to be the opener and “Five” as the closer and all that?

Yeah, I tend to think when I write a song about how that will fit in the context on an album. I love albums. We have a joke in the band where it’s like, “Love albums, hate bands, hate shows.” [Laughs] We all each have our own iteration of it and my thing is “love albums, hate bands, hate shows.” So I love the concept of an album. So when I’m writing I do think of that. A song will pop up its head and say, “Hey, I want to be the first track,” or, “I want to be the last track.” I feel like in some way songs kind of speak for themselves. “Void Ripper” was actually the last set of lyrics I wrote for the album. We had the instrumental part – the riff, the groove – and I said, “This is going to be the second track. There’s going to be an intro and this is the second track.” And when I wrote the lyrics I’d already had the rest of the album written and I said, “This is going to be the prologue and I’m going to just vaguely and briefly touch upon all of the topics I talk about in the rest of the album.” The music had already told me this was going to be the second track and be the first thing to really jump out of your speakers at you. “Five” I originally wrote as an acoustic song, and it came to life in this really obtuse way, and the ending is so strange because we just made it up in the studio. It just naturally lent itself to being the last song.

Speaking of “Five,” that song and a lot of your songs seem to be broken into two clear halves. Is that an conscious choice or just the way you write?

That’s a good question, and it’s funny you brought that up because it’s something that I’m trying not to do anymore. It’s a compositional instinct that I have where I lead the listener on a journey and then quickly change direction. I’m trying not to do it now because I’ve done it so many times now and I realize I lean on it. It’s a crutch for me. But at the same time it feels right so often to do that. I really like when songs do that.

I think a lot about that duality. I took a poetry class in college and my teacher said that contrast is the primary element to art. I was like, “Whoa.” Because whether there’s a very stark contrast or a slight one, that contrast is still saying something. I think that works with poetry, painting, any kind of art, and I think that’s where my songs splitting in half thing comes from.

What’s the deal with the spoken word at the ends of “Void Ripper” and “Five?”

That’s actually my mother, she’s from Uruguay. My family moved to the United States in the late eighties, so that’s why she’s speaking Spanish. The first passage is the “time and place for everything” passage we talked about earlier. I wanted to have that one because it’s a perfect segue to “Candace,” since it’s what that song’s about, and it’s one my mom and I always talked about when I was growing up. My dad and I had super intense conversations about religion. I did a lot of my challenging with my dad but also had a lot of discussions with my mom. That one felt very natural to have her do.

Then the one at the end is the “our father” prayer. It’s one that I think most westerners will know, but she’s speaking in Spanish, so maybe most of the audience won’t pick up on it. That was one she used to say a lot when she was stressed out, and I’m pretty stressed out for most of the album, so it’s nice to have my mom at the end to say, “Hey, it’s going to be fine.”

That’s really nice. I’ve just got one more question.

Alright, cool.

What do you think Flood of Sunlight-era Matt would think of Void Ripper if he was hearing it for the first time?

Oh, shit. [Laughs] Oh, man. I think about this from time to time. Flood of Sunlight Matt is still in high school and very intensely thinking about these spiritual ideas. I think he would think the album is really cool, like really sick musically. Lyrically, he’d be like, “Goddamn, what’s going to happen to me?” [Laughs] When I was young I loved David Bazan – well, I still love David Bazan – but his music in Pedro the Lion outlined a similar journey from faith to non-faith. And I always loved him because he was challenging my beliefs. I was like, “He’s amazing, but he looks like he’s suffered a lot because of these questions, and I hope I never lose this thing.” I was in love with the idea of God and at the time I would’ve told you that I loved God himself. I was enamored, and when you love something, you don’t want it to go away, so I was afraid of losing it.

And then life happened and I realized I had to let Him go – let it go. That was heartbreaking. I think 2009 Matt would just be like, “Damn, dude, what the fuck is going on?” It’d be very strange. But, well, first I’d have to convince myself that I was me from the future. That’d probably take a while.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

No, thank you.

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