Would you call an album of modular synths, tape delays, and guitar stabs a blues album? Probably not, but the blues are here: in the lamentations, in the melodies, and in the grit. They are so deeply ingrained that I didn’t realize what this record was becoming until it was nearly done.
The first song, Secret Weapon, began with three sparse guitar strums that filled the void. After a beat, three strums replied—text book call and response. My initial inspiration wasn’t a blues song, rather it was a song named, “Rutti” from Slowdive’s 1995 post-shoegaze album, Pygmalion. I often admired the loneliness and patience of this song and wanted to do something similar because the feeling I got from the music matched the feelings of my verse:
Left in the darkness out in the cold / Always the last to know / I am the sunshine behind the clouds / An afterthought, fire in the wall
I make records in seasons. There are winters when life is invisible, happening only underground. In those times my creative output appears dormant and dead. But then Spring arrives and suddenly there are shoots, leaves and flowers. Because of this rhythm my records are often thematic. For example, my previous EP, Can It Find Us Here?, came to life during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. The turmoil I felt at that time made its way into the songs causing one reviewer to call the album “a startling record rooted in fears, paranoia, and cultural shock.” I didn’t set out to do that. It was just the context in which I was writing. War Is On Its Way came about similarly and so it is a reflection of the last 18 months.
I started looking for a theme after a few songs emerged. I suppose it’s the same kind of pattern recognition that helps me write lyrics for the songs in the first place. Two things stood out to me: the occurrence of violent language like “weapon”, “bullet point” and “war,” and an undercurrent of grieving or sorrow. The songs didn’t tell stories. They didn’t have obvious agendas. They seemed to be lamentations. They were spiritually the blues, my soul crying out.
When I write about songs coming to life it might seem weird that there is so little intention involved. For me, songwriting is initially more like revelation or discovery. The first words are coming from my subconscious. But there comes a point when I consciously engage with them and build them like a house. In the case of this record, and consequently, this song, I decided to emphasize the blues and write a new intro to the song, knowing it would also introduce the entire album.
Secret Weapon got a new intro, a massive floor tom beat that I relentlessly carried on throughout the song. Over that beat I repeated a melody with a slight variation of bending notes, a blues technique I’m sure you’re familiar with. The lyric for this melody, “Violence has its own light,” has an unusual origin. Sometime in the past I read an article about newly discovered behaviors of bioluminescent sea creatures. I jotted down the phrase, “Violence has its own light.” It’s something I often do when I read or hear an interesting phrase. It’s like depositing money into a savings account for a future purchase. When I was looking for words for this new intro the phrase leapt from my notes. Instantly I had the theme of the record. Violence colored every song and every sound, just like it covered every news headline I had been reading.
It amazes me how our minds sample from all of our experiences. Appropriation is a hotly debated topic. Who has the right to borrow someone else’s ideas or culture? I don’t understand enough of the arguments to respond to that broadly. But from an artistic perspective, I can offer this: appropriation is a fundamental tool of music. Appropriation is admiration. Songs build off each other, are inspired by each other, sample each other and sometimes acknowledge each other. Jazz musicians call these acknowledgements “quotes.” The richness that emerges from this art gives listeners something familiar and something new at once.
Secret Weapon doesn’t sample anything but it is filled with inspiration and references like the Slowdive riff, the New York Times article, and 120 years of blues in the DNA of American radio hits. It’s taking cues from Portishead, who sampled classic jazz for their first record, Dummy. It takes cues from Thom Yorke’s solo projects which are informed by Massive Attack, Boards of Canada and Moderat. It nods its head to spy genre films like James Bond. Every song has this kind of etymology, and the deeper and broader your music library, the more often you’ll hear the references.
Like the music, War Is On Its Way is also trying to make sense of our culture — to find the patterns — of the past year or two in America. Secret Weapon is acknowledging that so many of us have been marginalized during this time.
The story of the world is this / Those who oppress and those who resist
This album is dedicated to the Black musicians who sang the blues. It’s dedicated to Black musicians today who continue to struggle to be equal, recognized and rewarded for their work. It’s dedicated to all the people grappling with injustice in our history and fighting to make things right. It’s dedicated to everyone that is worn down by resistance to truth and the weight of it all. It is for everyone that feels fragile, strung out, burned out, impossible, invincible, improvised, explosive and denied.