On my most recent trip to New York I confessed to my friend, Ryan Morgan, that he often pops into my mind when I am writing a song, and that when he does, he’s criticizing me. I don’t think he’d mind my saying so, but he’s the type of guy who has a sharp mind and a big mouth. It’s as if there were an intricate system of back roads–paved, clear, and completely familiar–weaving through all the fields of his knowledge, and that his mouth were connected to all that by a freeway with no speed limit. Discussion with him is often intense, sometimes intimidating, and always lively, as he is a very critical guy, and you can’t always tell whether he is baring his soul or playing devil’s advocate. He also takes joy in locating your buttons and pressing them, repeatedly.
It’s a design of mind and mouth that I very much envy, and I have told him so. I envy it because the layout of my mind and mouth is very different. Where he has backroads, I have overgrown footpaths. And where he has an expressway, I have a muddy dirt road. Of course, it isn’t just the design that I envy, as there are plenty of people with the same design who use it to say the dumbest, most boring things. (I am thinking of, say, the stereotype of a so-called “valley girl” blathering on and, like, on.) No, the dude is smart–well read, well studied, thoughtful–and he’ll check you if you’re not being smart and thoughtful, too. He’s a good fella to bounce big thoughts on.
I don’t know if his mind works in the same way for songwriting as it does socially, but mine certainly does. It’s me with a machete, slowly (and I suppose somewhat whiningly, cursing a lot) clearing overgrown paths. And when the work seems long and lonely, after I finish a line or two, I want someone to talk to, and so I conjure someone up, someone like Ryan, and ask him, What do you think of this line? Is it true? Am I being too clever? And sometimes the Ryan will say, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” And I erase it.
It’s not always like that. When I get into the work, when the chopping is good, Ryan isn’t there. Nobody is there. There is no question of what anyone but myself thinks about the lines. It’s that good feeling of, This is true for me, so it will be true for everyone, and I chop on by myself. Or is it that even in that sublime state when I am alone, I’m actually surrounded by everyone I’ve ever met, read, or heard about. But they’re all silent and in accord and let me chop on? It’s a strange thing.
And it’s a thing that, since I began writing songs when I was twelve, I have gone through phases of resenting. Someone would pop into my mind and I’d be all, “Hey, get the hell out of here, I don’t need your help.” The presence of these frowning people made me insecure, made me feel like I wasn’t a true artist, that I couldn’t write a song on my own. It’s always been a big thing with me, this desire to be my own man, to live how I live, to write what I write, and screw what anybody thinks of it. I want to be a true rebel, man. Which is a good, important, useful, and necessary thing to feel, I think. But even that feeling, when I have had it and not been careful with it, has sent me deeper into insecurity, as it has made me aware that my desire to be such a man and to be such a writer betrays the fact that I am not in fact such a man and such a writer, at least not naturally, at least not now; that for the time being I’m just a sheep in the fold who considers himself brave for having the thought of rebellion, but is too cowardly (sheepish) to realize it. But that is all hogwash. Sheepwash. Because sure, maybe there are some true renegades out there, people who’ve never consulted society, externally or mentally, who have never had an internal conversation with someone to determine the value of their thoughts. And if so, then good for them. I guess.
But now I’ve come to appreciate the group of critics in my mind, and to consider them useful and important. I like their company. Ryan seems to appear when I am trying to insinuate something political, historical, or literary into a lyric. And if I can’t convince him of the value of the line then the line isn’t good enough. When I was just starting to write songs, it was my dad who’d show up in my head. I would ask him questions (in physical life) about some of his songwriting rules, and when I found myself breaking them, in he’d walk (in mental life), shaking his head, and I would change the line. The deal is that the songs are much better for it. While writing songs I’ve spoken to Springsteen and Paul Simon, and Hemingway and James Joyce, to Niall Connolly, EW Harris and Mick Flannery, to characters I’m writing about, girls I’m writing about, girls I have had crushes on, girls I have despised, soldiers, political figures, and on and on. A lot of the time it isn’t just a person scoffing at my lyrics, it’s a person who’s challenging my version of things, complicating the picture, making sure I don’t get away with some things, that I include the shitty complicated things. And again, the song gets better for it.
This isn’t to say that songwriting is a people pleasing business for me. For one, the Ryan in my head is not the actual Ryan, of course, but a Ryan I have invented to keep me accountable. Similarly, I certainly don’t have much interest in spending time pleasing exes, nor do they have time for me, but the exes I invite into the writing of songs have all the time in the world to give just to me, and they politely argue over our grossest past with me until we come to some consensus. (I was distant, you didn’t deal with that in the best way.) Secondly, there are people who pop into my mind because I know that they would loathe my train of thought, and in these cases it is their disdain that proves to me that the line is good. For example, I’ve written a thing or two about religion on each of my records. Having grown up a religious man I know plenty of religious people, and those people have appeared in protest in my mind every time I write something that might disagree with them. And it’s a thrill. Now, I have never written a line with the sole intention of offending anyone. It’s just that, with my real life people pleasing tendencies, the thought of making someone uncomfortable inside the safety of my song makes me very happy.
Now, see, the Ryan Morgan in my head is telling me to end this post, and I’m arguing with him that it needs some grand closure. Something that begins with something like, “In the end…” And my wife is telling me that it’s a blog post, and it doesn’t need some grand closure. And I’m telling her that she usually has something like at least semi-grand closure in her blogs, so what right has she to say something like that? And now there is my new manager, Jeff, he’s in my head too, and I’m like, “You told me I should be writing more outside of songwriting. Is this alright? Or should I have talked about my chickens more?” Meanwhile, I am loving all of this, and on and on and on it goes, until…In the end, when all the conversation stops, I’m alone at the kitchen table again, and I’ve a little piece of writing that’s been torn apart and vetted by all the people I trust.
Like all songwriters, I have a pathological incapability for listening to other people’s music without thinking about how it was written. This manifests itself in a lot of different ways - I always try to guess the rhyme after the first lyric in a verse, for example, or I think “Hmmm, I wanna use that chord progression” instead of just appreciating it. In a recent interview with Conan O'Brien, Jack White says that he knows a record is good when he hears it without thinking about how it was recorded. That is to say, he by instinct doesn’t hear records or songs. Instead, he hears effects and reverb and levels. He really loves something when it doesn’t make him think about any of that.
The Brooklyn-based Sky Captains of Industry's debut record, Rocket City, pulls me totally out of my own writer-ness. It presents itself in such a way that I have nothing to add to it by wondering why the hell E.W. Harris says “Barack Obama” in the first part of “Love Shark.” He just does, and it makes sense in context. Rocket City is just so fucking successful at what it does that I, when I listen to it, believe completely in the parallel universe the band has created. Every note and nearly every lyric, especially when understood in the context of the record, is perfect. There’s nothing there for me to doubt and the end result is appealing to me as a fan of great art to such an extent that it shuts up the part of me that wants to know how they did it. (Well, almost, as we’ll see.)
This is a particular accomplishment, in the narrow and narcissistic way I’m judging it, because I know all the members of the band, and I knew them all before they were in the band. I’ve known most of the songs from the time they were half-written little acoustic numbers being played in the back-room at our regular Brooklyn pub. Hell, I've played with all the members of the band at different times, and E.W. Harris produced my own record. By all precedents, I should be comparing the songs as they exist on the album to the evolutions I know they’ve taken. In fact, I thought that would happen. Like most people in my social circle, I was waiting for Rocket City with varying degrees of patience for something like a year before it finally came out. And I’ve had plenty of conversations about it since then that worked around the basic theme of “I was really nervous that this thing wasn’t going to be as good as I hoped it would be, considering how great their show has become. And, um, it’s better than I expected.”
All of the members of the Sky Captains - and here I include the various guest Captains that appear from time to time on Rocket City and at their shows, in addition to the core of E.W. Harris (vocals, guitar, synth), Don Paris Schlotman (bass, vocals, synth), Jasper Lewis (guitar, vocals), and Lindsay Dragan (drums, vocals) - are excellent songwriters on their own. This strikes me as superficially problematic. Songwriting collaboration, I confess, has always been a mystery to me so I’m dealing at least somewhat from a place of my own weakness of imagination. Still, I would think that even in the best of situations, there would have to be arguments and bruised egos. Put at least four and sometimes up to six songwriters into a room, as The Sky Captains of Industry do, and the best I’d expect is chaos and the end of several friendships. Rocket City, though, represents a triumph for collaboration.
E.W. and Don have both told me that, to varying degrees, they accomplished this by a mutual understanding of - and dedication to - a Rocket City concept that predates the existence of the band. Rocket City (the place) has its origins in a dream E.W. had some time near the turn of the century, itself inspired by a dream his friend Dr. Cool had just prior. (Speaking of Dr. Cool, knowing E.W. and Don personally just blurs the line between the supposedly fictional Rocket City of the album and their actual lives, which are populated by people and stories that wouldn’t be at all out of place in the Altered States of America.) During periods of studio tedium while Don and E.W. were working on Don’s album Mother Transit Authority in late 2010, the two began talking about a concept album built around E.W.’s old dream (which never totally left him) and the shell of the song that would become the title track.
A lot of ideas that start that way, in the inevitable Four Loko and American Spirit haze of delirium during endless hours mixing the same 20 seconds of song, fizzle out. For people of a certain disposition (I include myself, and I doubt E.W. or Don would mind that I include them), lots of ideas that started in some kind of “awww, man, that would be awesome!” conversation become, in the end, no more than the conversation itself. In the case of Rocket City becoming Rocket City, though, the story of sticking with a great idea and the story of how a bunch of writers with their own styles, influences, and egos can blend together into something so spectacular are the same.
E.W. and Don started playing as the Sky Captains in the spring and summer of 2011, playing a set heavy on stuff from their solo projects that was peppered with some of the earliest Sky Captains tunes (“Rocket City”, “Factory”, and “Time Traveler's Lament” among them). According to both of them, they had a wide-ranging bunch of discussions of what exactly Rocket City would be. Their major musical influences (Bjork, Radiohead, and assorted noisemaking sci-fi scores for E.W., Joe Jackson, The Talking Heads, and assorted noisemaking sci-fi scores for Don) would all make appearances. More important, though, was the story and the point they were making with it. Both agree that E.W. served as sort of a “guardian” of the concept, while Don was the major idea-man. Neither of them had a particular interest in a specific narrative, so they approached writing the songs for the record in two ways. Sometimes an idea (usually Don’s) would spawn a song, and sometimes a song that one of them had incidentally written would make sense in the larger context.
Jasper Lewis, the lead guitar player and (like everyone) co-writer and co-singer, joined the band around New Year, 2012. (His first gig as a Sky Captain was January 31 of that year at Spike Hill in Brooklyn.) His recently released solo record, The King of Ideas and the Weirdo Kid, highlights the eclecticism of his tastes and abilities. He’s a literal music student, but also a genuine student of music, and King of Ideas ranges from straight up Tom Petty-like rock and roll to gorgeous acoustic ballads to something like RnB.
There is, of course, no shortage of guitar players in Brooklyn. E.W. and Don knew that with Jasper they’d be getting a collaborator as well as a great guitar player. Jasper’s playing goes way beyond filling in musical gaps, instead changing the entire tenor of some songs. It’s impossible to overstate how much he brings to the table. The ideas around Rocket City were reasonably well-formed by the time Jasper joined the band, but it didn’t take him much time at all to be fully on board. Jasper’s contributions to the band, in some ways, highlight the enormous attention to detail that E.W. and Don have paid to the Rocket City project. What I mean is, they didn’t ask Jasper to join the band because he’s a great guitar player (which, make no mistake, he is.) They asked him to join the band because he was the best possible guitar player for the band. Simple as that. (It’s also a testament to how good an idea Rocket City is, and how well E.W. and Don are at presenting it, that Jasper would agree to become a full-time Sky Captain. He has no shortage of prospects as a solo performer and a sideman, but he’s chosen to throw himself in with these guys. It’s a perfect match both ways.)
Through 2011 and 2012, the Sky Captains played with the ultimate rock-and-roll cliche - a rotating cast of drummers. Their first (and still occasional) percussionist was the Groove Lobster, E.W.’s trusty drum machine. As with Jasper, though, each of the drummers the Sky Captains have played with have brought something specific and meaningful to the overall idea. Four of them, including the Groove Lobster herself, are credited on the album. (The humanoid three are Casey Black, E.W.’s brother Phil Harris, and Lindsay Dragan.) It would’ve been an easy choice for the band to just use whichever drummer was playing with them at the moment on the record, but the truth is - all of them are necessary. Phil brings a bizarre combination of musical talents to the table (in addition to drums and percussion, he plays saw and kora (!) on the album), Casey would claim not to be anything as a drummer but in fact adds a very specific percussive element to the sound of the band, and Lindsay (who plays with the band full-time now) sings gorgeous harmonies and plays perfectly off Don.
It’s my impression from watching the evolution of the songs over time, from hearing Rocket City itself, and from talking to the Sky Captains both socially and in the attempted formalities of “interviews” for this review, that one of the biggest reasons for their success in corralling the talents and egos of all these songwriters is that everyone is completely committed to the band as a band and to the idea of Rocket City as an idea. (This, I’ll note, explains the lack of jealousy about the others’ songwriting - what I mean is, in a band, it’s expected that when some songwriting member is hoarding good material for a solo album, that will create resentment. All of E.W., Don, and Jasper have been writing killer material for themselves during the time Sky Captains have been together and none of them mind - if it’s outside Rocket City, they don’t want it for the band anyway no matter how good it is.)
Although E.W. is the nominal front-man of the group, singing lead on most songs and also producing and engineering the album in his Bed-Stuy studio, the Sky Captains are actually a well-cultivated blend of the talents of every member of the band. Without any of of the people who play on the record or in the show, either one would be something different than (and less than) it is. Nobody operates as a traditional sideman. The band is not a democracy exactly, but if it’s a dictatorship, the dictator is the Rocket City concept. E.W. may be the guardian and originator of that concept, but every member of the band past and present has had a part in creating it. They didn’t find a magic potion to subsume their egos, but such is their dedication to making Rocket City properly (and here I use the present tense verb because, as E.W. told me, the recorded version isn’t the finished version - it’s just the recorded version) that losing arguments about lyrics or arrangements or vocal effects doesn’t hold the sting it otherwise would.
And what is the concept, exactly? Rocket City is, if we must genre-ize things, a work of science-fiction. A sci-fi concept album, I suppose. As I mentioned earlier, it eschews a narrative format, presenting itself instead (as Chris Michael, the announcer at the beginning of the title track, called it in his review) as “a series of vignettes” that explore the post-apocalyptic American landscape, the capitol of which is Rocket City. (Don’s extraordinary cover art for the album would have us believe Rocket City is New York, but I think that’s too easy.) I would make the argument that the album (and the band more generally) didn’t invent a fictional setting for their stories so much as they’re working in a parallel universe to our own. It’s beyond allegory, and more like magic realism. Robots, aliens, and rockets may be the backdrop, but the record shouldn’t be confused with escapism.
E.W. thoroughly rejects the idea that Rocket City is any kind of philosophical allegory, but he agreed with me when I suggested the allegory might be political. Rocket City presents a dystopian vision, sure, but it’s one that is fundamentally optimistic - the opposite of Ayn Rand, if you’ll permit the easy comparison. Time and again, the tracks on the record reflect the spirit of the band itself - collective action to a greater accomplishment. For evidence of this, I’d point you to the “we” that gets into trouble in “Factory”, “Dog Eat Dog”, “Mermaid”, “The Rock Saved Us”, “The Cans”, and “Gone Fission” as well as the call for the audience to join the collective in “Rock & Roll Shoes.” We don’t find much at all - sorry, Ayn! - that suggests that any one can save the day. The songs have narrators, of course, so the group activities are presented through individual experiences. But the narrators and, through the “come on, climb aboard” invitation in “Rock & Roll Shoes”, also the band and we the listeners, have a consistent point to make: we’re all in this together.
(A quick parenthetical pseudo-paragraph in which I explain why I think “Rock & Roll Shoes” is the ultimate in this idea. It’s all right there in the hook - “it’s gonna save the rest of your heart”. Yes, you’re fucked up and broken and shitty things have happened to you, but if you come with us, man, we can at least keep you safe for the rest of it. Much of the beauty of rock and roll as a subculture is in that exact sentiment.)
Such is the attention to detail, and on content and form colliding in the most beautiful ways, that the triple lead vocal on the Don-penned “Factory” has a Rocket City-specific reason for being. (I assumed that it was a matter of just taking advantage of the band’s ample resources - if you’ve got four great singers, why not use them all?) E.W. concedes that Jasper phrases the first verse better than he used to, but also says that the three lead singers works as a sort of exposition for the story. If the album actually is about collectivity as expressed through individual narrators, what better way to show not tell that then to give us three narrators right up front. The lyrics may be all “I” and “my” but the fact of the three singers introduces us to the group from the get-go.
Speaking of attention to detail, I want to draw attention to the tracks “The Great Inland Sea”, “The Rock Saved Us”, and “It Matters” (the latter two featuring performances by guest-Captains Casey Black and Niall Connolly, respectively.) Spoken-word-over-sound-collage is an E.W. Harris production trope, especially on his 2010 solo album A Waste of Water and Time. “Supernova”, the first song on that record (which also featured in the earliest Sky Captains sets,) is (in his words) “a context experiment” in which members of a live audience read aloud whatever they happen to have with them (I’ve seen it done with novels, poetry, newspapers, it doesn’t matter) over the chords and the chorus of the song. The idea being, whichever words are read will change the meaning of the music (and the lyrics in the chorus) and simultaneously the music and lyrics will change the meaning of the text.
I’d argue that the three tracks mentioned above are proof that the experiment worked. While all of them serve the concept album purpose of tying together tracks and sounds to form a more cohesive whole, the content of “The Rock Saved Us” and “It Matters” fully support (maybe even explain in a way the live show doesn’t) the record’s theme. The mutant played by Casey in “The Rock Saved Us”, for example, interprets the motivation of cannibals in, well, in very un-Randian terms. “It Matters” is a beautiful Niall-penned poem with Phil’s kora playing behind it. “Nothing’s built to last…it matters how you are.” Here again, as in “Rock & Roll Shoes” and throughout, we have the twin ideas that things can be terrible and there can be destruction, but that we’re still responsible for being Good People. These three tracks, not songs, are also not interludes for the record or transitions between up-tempo and down-tempo. Not just that, anyway. They’re integral parts of the album - Rocket City is incomplete without them, both musically and theoretically.
As for the music, I realize I’m closing in on 3000 words here without ever talking about it. To be honest, I expect whoever’s gotten this far (hi, Don!) to know what it sounds like. The music, and here I’m repeating myself to the point of self-parody, reflects that same idea of collectivism and collaboration. Every band member is providing something singular - each song, like the album as a whole and the band as a concept, is less complete without any of its parts. The Sky Captains of Industry is made up of great musicians who write great songs, and that would be enough on its own insofar as a band of great musicians playing great songs is always something worth listening to. They haven't just done that, though. They’ve combined their influences and individual styles seamlessly in service of the idea. When the idea is that we all gotta work together to get through the shit, it’s not (I hope) too much to say that the way the band works is also a reflection of that point. So what does it sound like? I dunno. I think describing music in words is asinine. Here’s as close as I can get: Buddy Holly fronting a band of robots and hobos, but only if he’d learned to sing opera and also spent three years listening to nothing but Pixies and Radiohead. See? That’s bullshit, and it doesn’t explain anything. So I think I won’t bother.
What I’ll close with, then, is something E.W. said to me about “Gone Fission” and its place in Rocket City and Rocket City. “There’s no one thing that’s gonna solve everything,” he said, “I’m about to blow up. We’re trapped in this thing. We have to do something about it. Everybody has to do something about it.”
The Sky Captains of Industry will be playing a record release show at Mercury Lounge in New York, NY, January 27th at 8PM.