In December, Salinas Records released The Goodbye Party's full length album, Silver Blues, and I have listened to it every day since. The Goodbye Party, based in Philadelphia, is primarily the project of Michael Cantor. Since he is an old friend of mine, I know him as Mikey C. In contrast to the album's heavy, often forlorn tunes, Mikey is one of the funniest people I know and a superlative pun-maker. And in contrast to the candid, vulnerable content of these songs, Mikey tends to be a more reserved and private person. That complexity is reflected in the scope of Silver Blues, which lingers in darker moments along with more upbeat pop tunes.
Songs range from simple and sparse to layered and lush, but build a distinct emotional perspective. "Personal Heavens" is a classic pop song, clocking in under two minutes. The songs with more full instrumentation, including lap steel, tambourine, and tape-manipulation, extend the album's orbit. On the more bare tracks, as in almost-acapella "27 Times," the negative space feels active, as if absence itself were an instrument. "White on White" is bowed guitar and vocals captured in one live take. Most of the songs exist in both sides of the dynamic: building and bursting into fullness and retreating into simplicity right where they need to.
Silver Blues is best considered as a whole. The song order supports this feeling of going deeper into one feeling or one event, with a sense of narrative arc - album as novel, rather than a collection of short stories.
That immersive quality to Silver Blues makes for an intensely personal listening experience. The lyrics play a significant part in that, too - most of the songs are written like letters or directives, in second person. My favorite track on the album, "New Decay," is a startling departure from that lyrical pattern, plunging into harsh self-reflection with "I keep breaking what I've already fixed/I keep fixing what I've already fixed." The effect is plaintive yet liberating, and Silver Blues as whole thrives in this tension. To me the album is about being at once homesick yet aware that what you are aching for is impossible, a distortion of reality and memory.
My perspective is no doubt colored by my longtime friendship with Mikey, and by our shared hometown, Washington, DC. But before you cry nepotism, know that I've negated whatever critical leniency friendship might lend by being a creepy superfan. My behavior has included (but is not limited to) sending unsolicited essay-length reviews via late night e-mail, making absurd lip-synching videos, taking an evangelical approach and mailing his releases around the country, and even learning a song and forcing my way into a set. I hope to avoid total relegation to the realm of estranged fandom, and one day achieve my dream of being in a band with Mikey.
Perhaps my DC-area bias is why I hear notes of John Fahey in the melodic guitar parts of "Louder Than Summer" and "Wash Away." "Disrepair," which opens with a single chord, feels like a musical sequel to "Lighthouse," a favorite early track from Mikey's last band, the Ambulars. The Ambulars were usually labeled pop punk, but I always disagreed. Even in that more straight-ahead project, Mikey's songwriting registered for me more along the lines of Built to Spill, Nada Surf, or Sebadoh. Since the Ambulars went on "indefinite hiatus" (DC lingo for "breaking up"), Mikey has released a handful of solo EPs and tapes, with his sound and aesthetic becoming more and more focused.
Like the Goodbye Party's previous releases, Silver Blues raises the bar on DIY home recording and production. Mikey recorded and mixed Silver Blues with help from Carni Klirs (Fell Types, Gouge Away), who also helped record Bless All the Debris, Mikey's first solo release (also one of Carni's first recording/mixing experiences).
I spoke to Mikey and Carni about the inspiration and process behind Silver Blues.
When did you start playing solo shows? What was the instrumentation like?
Michael Cantor: My first show was in September 2010. For that show, I played electric guitar and synthesizer. I actually only ended up playing 2 songs and a lot of feedback before ending the set prematurely. I played under the name Ghosts at Sea and it was a complete disaster. I swore off from ever performing solo. About 6 months later, I played another solo show, this time with a small silvertone acoustic with the higher 6 strings of a 12-string set. Since then I played mostly a standard acoustic guitar for a few years.
At what point did you switch from "Michael Cantor" to "The Goodbye Party"? What inspired the change?
MC: I changed over about 7 or 8 months ago. I was starting to put more focus on that side of my songwriting and the more invested I became, the more I wanted it to have its own identity, separate from me as just some dude. I also wanted to bring different people in as collaborators and didn't like the aesthetic of another musician or collaborator working with me on a project that was just my name. I also think people have a specific expectation of what a solo "singer-songwriter" would be, and I didn't identify with that or want to be thought of in that way. I had already moved away from purely acoustic and vocal live sets and wanted a solo set to be an intentional live arrangement, not just a songwriter playing some songs.
What is Silver Blues about for you, thematically?
MC: Some of the record deals with time and memory being both cyclical and inaccessible. The first song sets the scene in terms of the record's theme. "Heavenly Blues" is about my own preoccupation with death and the unknown, how easily people can slip from one side to the other.
There's the theme of "Heaven" that runs through the record, not always as a literal religious reference, but also as the inaccessible, idealized state of being. Not to get too woo-woo psychedelic, but I was thinking about a state of "cosmic truth" or equilibrium. I don't believe in god, so the use of term "blues" plays against "gospel blues" associated with the word. I love pop and doo-wop, so I borrowed their hyperbolic language from those songs.
I wanted to use the recording itself to explore these ideas and create an album that exists as its own world. "Heavenly Blues" starts with a processed and manipulated vocal pattern, a suggestion that the album isn't a straightforward captured performance, but a constructed world. It's a move I stole from Godard, like how he used harsh jump-cuts in Breathless to remind the viewer they were watching a movie.
What is your live lineup like these days, and what instrumentation does it include?
MC: For solo shows, I've mostly been playing an electric guitar, sometimes played with a bow, and I've been using loop pedals to set different drones or auxiliary looped parts. I also recently played an acoustic guitar with a violinist. I'm currently working on a live band with 4 other people. We haven't played live yet, we are still in the process of adapting songs from the record into a full arrangement. So far, the line-up has been drums, bass, two guitars, and a synth/3rd guitar, depending on the song.
What was your lineup for Silver Blues? What was your process for recording?
MC: The lineup for the record was just me, with Joey Doubek (of Pinkwash) playing drums on the louder songs. The record was recorded entirely at home (drums were recorded in Joey's basement). It took about 6 months to track everything. Once I had drum tracks, I recorded everything track by track, usually at night after work or on weekends. I didn't really have one consistent set up or way of recording. Some songs were recorded onto 4-track cassette and then digitally layered, some songs are completely digital and a few were recorded in one or two takes onto a cassette.
Recording onto tape gives you the ability to physically alter the recordings. There's a burst of noise in the song "Funeral Season." It's this caterwauling section of blown out tapes being physically shaken around and pitch-shifted. It expresses what my insides felt like in a way that my lyrics don't. Approaching sound as a physical entity let me get to places I don't know how to find through pure digital recording.
Do you have any simple recording or mixing tips for bands taking a more DIY approach to documenting their sounds?
MC: Well, most importantly, not having access to an expensive recording studio should not be a hinderance for recording music. You can forego a traditional studio and still end up with a great-sounding record. If you're recording yourselves, I think analog technology is more forgiving. A saturated tape has much more character and warmth than a clipping digital signal. But really, just experiment with whatever you can access. Record your band practice with your iPhone and then overdub vocals on a computer in GarageBand. Or pack everyone into a reverberant bathroom and set a tape-recorder in the middle. When you aren't aiming for perfect, you can get great results.
I can't really speak to mixing too much, a lot of that was Carni's hand. I think he did a great job, especially considering how wildly varied the raw tracks were.
Carni Klirs: Definitely record as much as possible, and listen to as much music as possible. While a digital recording makes the barrier to entry lower than it's ever been, it sort of gives you more than enough rope to hang yourself with. I started with 4 track cassette recordings, even for full band stuff, and it forced me to get the hang of the fundamentals, before moving fully into the digital realm.
The primary value is for the process to be accessible and affordable. I have a mobile recording rig, and will travel to record at a band's practice space. That way they can record in a space they are already comfortable. Ideally recording should feel just like another practice. From personal experience, you usually play your best takes of songs alone with your band in your practice space.
The production is such a huge part of Silver Blues' impact. What were your references for the recording initially? Did they change as you worked on it?
CK: Roky Erickson and Okkervil River's "Devotional Number One," Big Star's "Back of a Car," and the Beatles' "Long Long Long." Roky Erickson for the mix of lo-fi and hi-fi sounds on a given track. Big Star and the Beatles track for the drum sound. We knew from the start it was going to be an eclectic record, with a mix of full-band songs with tons of layers, and stripped down cassette recordings. I looked at the more recent Mount Eerie albums (Clear Moon in particular), for a good reference point in mixing a super varied record. Also for the warmth, density, yet clarity Phil Elverum achieved on that record.
MC: I listened to a lot of blues and folk home recordings. It didn't hurt that I'd just read the 33 1/3 book about Guided by Voices recording Bee Thousand. I was thinking a lot about home recordings and the intimacy you can capture with a cassette tape that you just can't with digital. I wanted a record that was lo-fi by choice in places. I wanted parts that sounded rough and personal to mix with lush and hi-fi sounds, creating this friction between the two realms.
I love 60s soul, with these lush string arrangements that are so deceptively simple and serve as the perfect bed for a tight pop song to float over. I listened to John Cale's solo records and the record he did with Nico, those Scott Walker records, albums from T. Rex and Arthur Russell. They all use strings or string sections but it never feels overly virtuosic or showy, always there to serve the song. For the dronier sections, I thought a lot about La Monte Young's influence on The Velvet Underground and how you can see that in a song like "Heroin."
When we both still lived in DC, I remember watching you practicing in your room the day before a show, and asking you how it was going. You would usually say something like "great, just need to get the lyrics done," and I was always shocked, because that's the polar opposite of my creative process (where lyrics come first) but also because your lyrics are so good, and such a huge part of my experience of your songs. You talked about the process of recording, before - what's your songwriting process itself like these days?
MC: Well if I said "great" without having lyrics finished, I was probably being polite and internally freaking out. Lyrics are almost always the last piece of a song that I write. Without a specific song in mind, I write lyrical phrases down when they come to me, but these are usually fragments and scraps that I set aside. It's much easier for me to pick up an instrument and start making noise than to pick up a pen and start writing. Lyrics are certainly important to me, and I appreciate you saying they're a big part of your listening experience. I think it's the least instinctual to me in terms of my songwriting. I spent five or so years playing in bands before I ever wrote lyrics, so I think my process formed around that.
Recently though, I've been trying to approach songs from different angles. There's a song on the record called "White On White" that is a live take of just vocals and bowed guitar. I was really interested in these John Cage compositions that are just one violin or cello and one piano. I liked the idea of taking two elements that I could play simultaneously and having them harmonically orbit each other. This is a totally different approach from my go-to of guitar part + band arrangement + vocals. I still feel like a new songwriter so I'm trying to expand what my process is and approach songs in different ways.
Before the Goodbye Party and the Ambulars, you were in Remainder and Attrition. What do you miss about playing in heavy bands? What lessons from your sordid metalcore past do you use in your melancholy indie present?
MC: Remainder and Attrition had a lot more physicality tied into playing and performing. In Attrition, everyone moved as much as possible, band and audience alike. It sounds laughable now, but we would stretch together before playing to prevent the dreaded bangover. For Remainder, I was a guitarist first and a songwriter second, so the things I was writing were based on complicated guitar riffs that had a lot of physicality to how they were played. As my taste shifted towards crafting songs, I sang more in bands, got tethered to the mic, and generally played quieter songs. It's easy to romanticize past bands, I'm definitely more satisfied writing and playing what I am now.
Since my first bands were pretty noisy and catered to a specific audience, I expected that very few people, if any, liked my bands. It reinforced the idea that making music was a compulsion, and something that I would sacrifice for instead of gain from (in a monetary, etc way). I still have some of that adversarial mentality of "I don't care if you like it." That's not to say that I don't really appreciate people that listen and connect to my music. That's a really humbling and inspiring aspect of being a musician. Those early bands gave me the idea that I'm going to make music, even if no one is going to care.
Attrition messed with my sense of song structure. We never repeated parts, songs were mathy and linear. I think I've shaken that off, but I'll still throw in a weird chord or change to throw the listener off a little. At least I can write a song in 13/4 if I have to.
Philadelphia is poppin off right now. So many of our friends have consolidated there, and the music scene seems so rich and inspiring. How has moving there affected you?
I'm so happy to be living in Philadelphia. Since moving here in 2012, I've gotten more focused on music and more sure that it needs to be a priority in my life. It's more sustainable in terms of show spaces and there are a ton of bands forming all the time. My partner Ramsey is an illustrator and a tireless worker. My roommate Sam plays in the band Radiator Hospital, I hear him writing new songs and practicing all the time (my studio shares a wall with his bedroom).
When you play local shows, what types of bands do you share bills with? Is what you're doing musically an anomaly?
It's all over the board. Most bands are at least tangentially tied to DIY. In the past 2 months, I've played with acoustic singer-songwriters, poets, psych-folk-noise projects, post-punk bands, a pretty varied array of bands. I play with bands probably more often than I do with other solo artists. I wouldn't call what I do an anomaly, but I don't know of another Philly musician that sounds like me or uses the same set-up. People have been really supportive here. I'm not used to that, especially as a solo artist. I began playing solo to do something while Ambulars was taking our frequent breaks. It was always the footnote to the band, something I didn't really push too hard.
What is next for the Goodbye Party - any upcoming plans for recording or playing shows?
We have a few NYC and Philly shows planned for February where we have vinyl copies of Silver Blues with us. In April, we are touring with Waxahatchee for 3 weeks down the east coast and out to Texas. In the mean time, I'm writing new songs. I have a collaborative recording project planned, which is all I will say for now.