that's what was sought after, that waiting laughter

 Cover art by  Quinn Stephens .

Cover art by Quinn Stephens.

 
 

It all started when...

The first half of my 30s have been a time of drift. Family, friends, loved ones have ended up in different cities, as have I. Around me, the international sovereign order frayed. These years—2013-2017—are chronicled here.

Listen to the album.

Read the lyrics.

 

Eastern Industry Zone

A song that attempts to capture the intersecting lines of ethnonationalist politics, nation formation, and free trade. The first verse is about the dislocation of individual people in an era that glorifies rapid economic transformation and growth. The second verse considers radical politics, with explicit references to the various Balkan wars and the bombing of the Bologna train station in 1980. I was reading Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" and Tony Judt's "Postwar" at the time. I also lived in Bologna in 2012 and it was jarring to stand on that very same platform that had born witness to a dreadful act that, in 2012, seemed utterly anachronistic. The third verse is about the cheap, modern conveniences that international trade and development have brought us ("Caribbean to palm to flame, Marseille to soleil" being five colors of cooking pot found in a Bed Bath & Beyond catalog), but leaves open the question of whether this provides us with sufficient meaning, or whether we will again resort to the kind of identity-based national politics that caused such turmoil in the 20th century.

 

I've Been Thinking About You Often Lately

This is an unusually direct song for me, with the lyrics explicitly thought out rather than freestyled and scavenged like I usually do, and clearly about one topic rather than being defensively layered in potential interpretations. The lyrics floated without melody or backbeat for several months before I found a home for them in this dancehall-style riff. I have a long-standing interest in minimalist composition—Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, acid house, etc.—and as a producer I like the idea that multiple samples and grooves can be mixed and matched and any sample can fit over any measure of the song. In this type of composition, it's the building and subtracting of layers that creates the forward momentum. This is a simple four chord hop-step (e, G, C, G) but it gets sonically dense in the middle with interlocking layers of percussion, alternating bass grooves, vocal harmonies, the piano hook, strings, a lead synth, and chopped up guitar chords slowed and played backwards at multiple pitches. Everything here is recorded in little 4-8 bar bursts, sampled, and looped.

 

In The New Year

So far my 30s have been kind of a mess, I'll be honest. At the start of 2016, I resolved to fix my shit, resurrect my moribund career, have a healthy, happy relationship for the first time in several years, and put the various damage and failures and traumas of the previous couple years behind me. None of this happened, of course, at least not right away, but I go back to this song for its determination and fundamental optimism.

 

Through Days of Endless Time

An information age love song. I found myself alone one evening at a fairly isolated time in my life, simultaneously chatting on WhatsApp with an ex-girlfriend who was caught in an airport when her flight was delayed, and with an old bandmate who had moved away and had linked me to a collection of internet sci-fi art to peruse. Time seemed to be passing me by, the future seemed a long way off, and my various acquaintances, musical collaborators, and paramours were all in the wrong cities. Or perhaps I was. Andres Gallego does some delicate guitar work on this track, and the instrumental bit features a sample of a busy L'Enfant Plaza—where I worked at the time—at lunchtime.

 

Hidden City Ticketers

In 2013 I was looking for summer internships and briefly considered one in Monrovia, Liberia. While looking at airfare, I was befuddled to see that a London-to-Paris-to-Monrovia flight was $1,000 but just taking the Paris-to-Monrovia leg of the same flight was $4,000, which is insane. It was then that I learned about "hidden city ticketers," or the practice—discouraged by airlines—of buying a multi-stop ticket because it's cheaper but only taking one leg of the journey. Around the same time, I kept having relationships end (or fail to begin) due to geography. "Pocket universe" is a reference to a Doctor Who episode. Finally, I never did get an internship that summer, but a classmate of mine did, and a major difference between our respective resumes was that she spoke French and I did not. So I got a French phrase-a-day calendar to help me learn, and one of the phrases was "J'ai failli tomber," which means "I almost fell." It sounded melodramatic, so I threw it into the song. Andres Gallego did the guitar work here, which is sublime.

 

Like Storm Petrels

Inspired by my sister Abby Geni's debut novel "The Lightkeepers," this song has a simple arrangement and makes full use of my beloved Fender fretless P-bass. I've always been fascinated by pitch bending and the P-bass allows for effortless sliding between notes. That makes this bassline, which is basically just two notes, a root and a seventh, more interesting than it deserves to be. Literally everything you hear on this song, including the lyrics, was created and recorded in one feverish 45-minute session. Fastest song I've ever laid down.

 

Waiting at 10 to 9

I got a job at IMF Headquarters, which has a beautiful atrium. While I liked the job, it was temporary and came at a moment of high uncertainty in basically every facet of my life. A block away from the Fund is one of my favorite coffee shops in DC, and even if I was having a rough day, I could rely on an excellent caffeinated beverage. The reference to the Plaza Accord, which I researched as part of my job, is a stand-in for important people in businesswear making world-changing decisions—you can listen to my previous exploration of this subject in the song "Chosen Ones" off of the album "Natural History"—as opposed to my fairly limited role which was mostly reading about and summarizing those decisions. There really is a place in DC called "Ted and the Bully Bar," and our current political moment is a bull-headed time if ever I saw one. I also got a Moog tremolo pedal that has a footswitch to speed up and slow down the tremolo—I call this the "Massive Attack effect"—and I used it liberally on this song, the one before it, and the one after.

 

Salonica Blues

The first person I played this song for said it sounded "spy-movie-esque." (More on why that's an interesting observation later. I have some further plans for this track.) Each of the three lines in the song references a running theme I'm interested in: the first, about how power dynamics corrupt human behavior; the second, how ethnic cleansing/population displacement/nationalist projects create homogenous cities out of polyglot ones but the contributions of the vanished remain; and third, that long-term, colonization and subjugation of foreign peoples and territories is doomed to fail, at terrible cost to all. The bassline is the driver here, and I'm so grateful I have the P-bass so I can slide all over the pitches the way you can hear here. As for the title, I've been to Thessaloniki—as Salonica is called these days—a couple times. The city has special significance for me.

 

Someone Somewhere

My favorite bands are the ones whose music scores the emotional landscape of my life. Sometimes this happens out of order. A decade or so back, the British band Elbow released a track called "Friends of Ours" to honor the passing of a friend of the band who had died young. I liked that tune, but events and emotions comparable to those it depicts hadn’t happened to me yet, so it sat there, a little unopened box from the future, waiting for the moment I needed it, floating weightless in my playlists. Until November 2017, when I was polishing up this album and suddenly learned that a good friend who had found his place in this world had passed on far too soon, and I found myself in an airport after his funeral playing "Friends of Ours" over and over again, the full weight of it hitting me for the first time, just wrecked and confused, but comforted knowing that someone somewhere had felt this way before and carried on, that while we are here we are here for each other, and that for however long we get to live, we should. This friend was notable for his charming obsession with municipal transportation and the most efficient ways of navigating cityscapes, and he unsurprisingly planned his own funeral down to a T. But just as surely, his conduct during his life was a signpost for the rest of us on how to do the thing properly. This song, which I wrote in one sitting the day after I got back, is both a tribute to him and to Elbow, whose music helped me understand and release everything I was feeling then.

 

In The Right City

This is my favorite song I've ever written, and one that I had to live my whole life to date to write. It cements the idea of how I ultimately want to live my life as an imperfect but happy being in an imperfect but dynamic city. Big shout-out to my Warwick $$ Corvette bass guitar, which survived Hurricane Sandy and has been my workhorse through thick and thin for almost a decade, and which anchors this song. I wouldn't want it any other way.