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John Congleton Punk Planet interview (extended)

The following interview ran in the final issue of Punk Planet, albeit slightly edited for space. Here's the full thing:

Tackling macabre in rock music often involves dressing up in costumes and putting on make-up. It’s a surefire way to sell fantasy, but thankfully that’s not the way everyone does this. John Congleton, vocalist/guitarist/mastermind behind Dallas-based the Paper Chase, is not some gloomy guy who puts on an act for those who wish every day was Halloween. Congleton, with his blonde hair and slender physique, is a sharp, level-headed guy who draws more from what he learned as a pop-punk/post-hardcore fan in the Nineties than the movies he watched growing up.

Since ’98, Congleton has done four albums, as well as a few split singles and EPs, with the Paper Chase. As evidenced by their material, including 2006’s Now You Are One of Us on Kill Rock Stars, their sound is filled with tonal and atonal melodies found on pianos, orchestral strings and samples from obscure sources. Definitely not something you can understand in a snap, but definitely not pretentious noise, the Paper Chase embraces the appealing and the unattractive.

In the last few years, Congleton has really made a name for himself as a producer/engineer as well. Working with Explosions in the Sky, the Mountain Goats, the Polyphonic Spree, Minus Story, and the Roots, his talents behind the console board are as appealing as they are in front of it. His wisdom translates into how well he understands the conception of a song all the way to a finished album. He also understands how vital the process is to his life, whether it’s making a Paper Chase record or a session for somebody else.

Interview by Eric Grubbs

Would you say George Romero and John Carpenter influenced you as much as Steve Albini and Ian MacKaye?

I wouldn’t say that really any of those people are huge influences on me, but I grew up listening to all that Touch & Go stuff. So somebody like Steve Albini being a big part of that whole nexus – certainly.

The whole horror movie thing was never anything that I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna make a band that has this element to it.” I just really, really liked that kind of stuff growing up combined with comic books and a whole bunch of geeky shit like that. Every type of media that you experience is going affect how you write music. I’ve always been somebody who’s been more influenced by other things other than music when it comes to my music.

Movies like The Hills Have Eyes, Dawn of the Dead and Halloween aren’t just about scaring people – they have a lot of deep subtext.

I loved that about those movies and I picked on that at a really young age. [With Dawn of the Dead], that sort of mediocrity and whatnot – just sort of settling for this really mundane existence. Don’t you want more out of life than just two cars? I’ve never been satisfied with that kind of stuff.

Confronting fear is a common theme in your lyrics. Was there ever a time when you were a very fearful person?

Yeah. With all music, it’s therapy to a certain degree. I was a really nervous kid. I was a total latch-key kid. Didn’t go out much. Didn’t really want to. I mean, I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I was nine. That’s the way my personality was then and it’s not too much different now. I don’t go out to shows that often because I don’t want to, it’s because I’m really busy. Quite frankly, if I do get the time to go to a show, I’d just rather stay at home and hang out with my girlfriend.

Now You Are One of Us deals with everyday fears, from what’s going to happen because of the presidential administration to the weather. Is being around people that are constantly afraid of the unknown a source of constant inspiration?

The whole album to me was sort of like this big fear of never making any sort of impact with your life. All my friends, everybody I know, and everybody I associate with, are pretty much artists. Except for family reunions, I don’t talk to people that aren’t artists. Pretty much the one common thing they all have is they’re trying to affect things. That’s what art is, you’re trying to affect your environment.

There’s a fear that artists will not accomplish what they want to as an artist or what they want to do in their life. I understand that because I make records for people and I experience that sort of painful scrutinization of “Am I accomplishing what I want to accomplish?” This is the fourth Paper Chase full length. There’s a lot of things in my head and my life about like, “Is this happening the way I wanted it to? Am I doing anything that’s worth a fuck? This has consumed my twenties. This is my life’s work. Is it worth a shit?”

The music sounds like you guys are unafraid to play ugly notes, but you’re also not afraid to play pretty notes.

I’ve always really liked the idea of things that were almost beautiful. The sound of something that’s just slightly broken.

Hip-hop inspired Jawbreaker to use samples in their music. Was that in any way similar with the Paper Chase? Was there a band or record that inspired you?

There was never any musical influence I could say except for maybe Public Enemy. I loved them growing up. Their stuff is so noisy and so crazy and they have all those weird samples going. I think I remember thinking that would be cool to do that in a rock idiom.

You don’t like discussing where the samples come from. Is there a reason why?

I think it’s fun if people can try and find them. I don’t particularly try to use stuff that is easily identifiable. I guess I don’t like to talk about it because it’s not important, to me.

Do you consider yourself a producer or an engineer? Does it depend on the project?

I consider myself both. The whole producer/engineer/whatever thing is just so fuzzy. I’ve worked on albums where I didn’t feel I produced in any capacity or helped them make any creative decisions, but I’ll get a copy of it that says I produced. Then there are records where I really feel like I did and they didn’t get credit me as that. So I don’t really care. Credit me as “Pizza Delivery Boy.” It doesn’t matter to me.

Normally, those kinds of things should be discussed beforehand. Like, “Do you want to be involved in that capacity? Or do you want me to just sit there and press play and help you get sounds?” Either way, whatever a band wants, I’m more than happy to do.


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