On the Sky Captains of Industry, working together, and the future prospects of the rest of your heart.
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
” conversation become, in the end, no more than the conversation itself. In the case of Rocket City becoming
, 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.
(photos and video: Roy Lewis)