Photo by Chris Schoonover
A glitch is not always a fault. Sometimes, that chink in the machine can render new possibilities: a sound, a melody birthed of dysfunction. And with the right manipulation, that melody can sound gorgeous.
On his latest album, Mulberry Violence, Trevor Powers, formerly known as Youth Lagoon, has crafted an electric world that reprograms its defects into strengths: discordant arrangements breed balance, lyrics of loss and abuse emerge within crystalline harmonies. On album opener “XTQ Idol” robotic screams quiver and break; piano keys singe underway like overcharged currents; programmed beats ring out in metal clangs.
But Powers’ voice, layered and filtered like gauze, somehow bridges the cacophony. In an email interview with AdHoc, which you can read in full below, the Boise, Idaho-based instrumentalist, producer, and composer describes the album to AdHoc as a “tug of war” between “harmony and discord.” The result is a brooding, compelling embrace of our worldly condition.
Mulberry Violence is officially out today via Powers’ own Baby Halo label.
Trevor Powers plays National Sawdust on Wednesday, October 17.
AdHoc: In a note accompanying your recent single, “Playwright” you wrote that you ended Youth Lagoon because it “became a mental dungeon.” What gave you the impetus to break free, and what was the largest obstacle you had to face on your way out?
Trevor Powers: It was never meant to be something that continued. It was a muted, detached world I wanted to spend a bit of time in to examine memories. But I wasn’t about to set up camp there forever; I would’ve torn my face off. I said what I wanted to say in that setting, then burned it to the ground. I didn’t want to turn it into a disgusting money grab just because the name could sell a few tickets. It became its own organism, and I was luckily in tune with it enough to kill it when it told me it wanted to die.
My only concern in art is following the visions. Those rapturous flashes of imagination direct every stride. If I’m following those, I know I’m going the right way. Often the flashes only last for a second or two, so it’s critical for me to always be paying attention. Ideas truly are phantoms, and life is far less grand and appealing if those phantoms aren’t chased.
In many scenarios, I’ve found the most colossal of obstructions come from my own fear—and there’s no way around those obstacles except to decimate them completely. The war on fear is a strange one, because it can be just as inspiring as it is devastating. Usually my best work comes from the same thoughts that are trying to destroy me.
Your words and lyrics are intensely poetic, full of vivid descriptions and metaphors. That said, do ever you find yourself trying to resist abstraction in your work? Why or why not?
As I was writing Mulberry Violence, many of the lyrical concepts and themes were crushed and rebuilt many times over. Because of this, there is a natural abstraction that starts to take place over time. When any idea is smashed into small enough pieces, you will never be able to put it back together the same way. I’m drawn to working this way, because it mirrors our existence. No environment, action, or even person will ever be the same the following day. There will always be change, no matter how slight.
Within the rhythms and melodies, there was also a heavy deconstructive mentality behind them. I started with a lot of forms that were relatively straightforward and began taking them apart or magnifying specific components until they had a whole new identity. There’s a certain romance to music for me; I would rather give people a puzzle they can put together, than [give them] all the pieces already glued into their positions.
Mulberry Violence is interested in exploring our human condition, and as you’ve explained before, the “paradoxes” that exist within it. What prompted you to consider these ideas? And could you speak to those paradoxes a little more?
There are contradictions, inconsistencies, and paradoxes everywhere you look. You can’t escape them, but they often go ignored. I completely understand why so many people look the other way, because some of those notions can really fuck with your head if you go deep enough into that cave. But for me, it helps me understand my immediate world and the difference I can make around me. In the music I write, I’m consumed with trying to find the golden mean: that perfect balance between harmony and discord. That tug of war is what Mulberry Violence is based on, and that tug of war will continue to bleed into whatever I write in the future, because it’s what all of life is based on. I’d say the mystery that drives me most is how there will always be a sense of obscurity in the light. The more brightness is turned up, the more shadows are revealed.
This isn’t just from a lyrical vantage point; it’s equally in the production. There are many points in MV where I wanted to make it sound like there were angels and demons performing together in the same band. I envisioned it like a freakish orchestra pit with all these disparate creatures in it—some holy, others downright repulsive, but they were all playing together.
What made you settle on electronic music, an “inhuman” form, to explore human tendencies? Do you see a paradox in that, too?
There can be just as much human emotion in electronic music as there is in anything else; it all comes down to what you feed the machine. Technology is simply an aid, another voice in the choir. If I’m behind a computer composing, I’m still channeling my feelings into everything I’m doing on screen. That can be every bit as human as someone sitting by a fire with a guitar, because an enormous factor of being human now means developing a working relationship with technology.
There’s a connection I’ve developed with computers, because it’s like another entity and I are working toward a shared goal. On top of that, rarely does anything stay inside a computer; usually, I’ll export sounds I’ve created into something physical, such as samplers I can manipulate or keys I can play, and that adds another layer of humanity. Also, most of the sounds begin as living, breathing noises before they ever enter a computer.
Do you pay attention to how others react to your work? How much does that affect what you create?
I only want to focus on what is in my control. That’s easier said than done, but that’s the goal. Public opinion on anything you release into the world is so fiercely subjective, that it’s just a blanket of noise. The time an artist spends focusing on the cacophony of judgment is less time they can spend focusing on their work. If you’re creating anything because you require a sense of validation, you shouldn’t be creating.
All I hope is to make music people have conversations about. I’d rather someone completely hate something than feel lukewarm about it, because at least then it stirred something inside of them. That being said, obviously any artist hopes people appreciate what they’re releasing into the world. I will only compose as long as I believe what I’m making is important. I wouldn’t dare waste anyone’s time.