When the sun is shining on your day off, it’s like a glorious pop song strewn with shimmering promises of long life and love. But not every day is a day off, and on a chilly Tuesday morning mid-January, you might consider Dust Congress‘ latest full length album Open Your Eyes, the World is Shit. I’ve seen them live several times, and each time I become more intrigued by the way their no-frills performances captivate audiences into silence. The instrumentation is unusual to the point of demanding a close listen, your ears trying to suss out every voice’s origin. The linup includes any combination of acoustic guitar, banjo, string bass, marimba, trumpet, bassoon, piano, accordion, bass drum and hi-hat. Somehow, the subtle presence of each instrument throughout the minimalistic arrangements highlights lead singer Nick Foreman’s vulnerable yet often abrasive vocals. His delivery style is reminiscent of Jeff Magnum of Neutral Milk Hotel, letting each note resonate within the granular walls of his throat until they’re almost unrecognizeable as words. Recently, I corresponded with him recently about the Open Your Eyes, the World is Shit. wanting to know more about the album’s genesis.
Laurel Kathleen: That’s a pretty provocative title. What is the take-home message of this album?
Nick Foreman: The overall idea of the record was to promote this half-joke I have about depressive realism, which is this idea among psychologists and other mental health professionals that those who suffer from depression actually make more realistic evaluations of their own and others’ standing and esteem in society. They are less likely to have overinflated self worth, and are less susceptible to delusions about good luck being owed to them in some way. I just thought it was a funny, yet telling fact about society that folk music should better communicate. Old folk music was not borne out of whimsy or cutesy nostalgia. It was about lament and distraction, and in that way, Dust Congress is hoping to avoid being considered alongside gimmicky, starry-eyed hipsters who strum a ukulele as soon as they can grow their first beard. The best chance listeners will have at gleaning something from this record is to listen to the words. The point is that the instrumentation is juxtaposed against blunt observation for effect.
Check out the title track here. Be sure to listen for the ghostly background vocals echoing the chorus.
I did listen to the words, becoming even more intrigued by Dust Congress‘ inner workings as a band. I found their half-serious embrace of viewing the world as-is refreshing, and as Nick mentioned, I was surprised at how the off-kilter combination of sweet melodies and bleak lyrics served to compliment one another. The occasional one line choruses come to fruition in an incredibly satisfying and memorable way, the trumpet and bassoon providing an appropriately solemn accompaniement. But it’s an occasionally ironic solemnity, like during “Invention in D/Regurgitate Sunshine State”:
And a reasonable voice tells me that we are really alone
That you’ll probably die an undignified death
Open your eyes, the world is shit
The words sound dreary, but Nick’s delivery is tongue-in-cheek and the way that the marimba arrives at the final chord is almost mischevieous. But where I was amused by this track, “St. Augustine” floored me. The way the band swells under Nick’s increasingly frayed voice makes it hard not to go back and listen again and again, if at first to get a handle on the weight of emotion in his voice and then to admire the entire band’s artful phrasing. That’s part of what strikes me about the sound of this album is how it sounds like a living, breathing performance, prompting me to ask about the group’s recording techniques:
LK: What was the recording process like?
NF: First of all, we recorded all the songs live to 2″ tape, which is sort of uncommon. It was pre-mixed, which meant that the levels were all set beforehand instead of being mixed after all the songs were down on tape, and obviously since it was live, there were no overdubs or multiple takes. This is kind of our band tradition, and goes back to our first record, which was made without any edits in order to prove a point about the slippery slope of digital recording, wherein nobody has to get anything right because you can just re-do it, making for a less honest and interesting recording (in my opinion). It was engineered by Matt Barnhart, a genius and really good friend of ours, who has made records with heroes of mine like David Bazan, The New Year, Shearwater, and lots more. He’s co-owner of the studio outside Denton called The Echo Lab, which has produced some really great pieces of our town’s musical history.
LK: Who wrote the music?
NF: It was a collaborative effort all around. Just because I wrote the songs, doesn’t mean that everyone else credited on the back of the record wasn’t just as crucial to this record coming out right. They are, if anything, more important and talented than me in every respect, and Dust Congress would have never gotten past Egg Tooth if it weren’t for all of them.
LK: Who did the album art?
NF: The artwork is just as important as the music on this and all Dust Congress records. Nevada Hill is one of the most original artists I’ve ever met, and I think the cover of Open Your Eyes, the World is Shit is one of his finest accomplishments. It’s based on an old drawing from communist party periodicals, depicting the tiers of society in their varying degrees of squalor or decadence, depending on how far up you go on the ladder. For instance, the proletariat are on hand and knee underneath the weight of the social structure, atop which preside the ruling class, represented by two giant asses, which hold up money above all else whilst raining down shit upon the lower rungs. True “trickle down” economics, if you will.
Dust Congress‘ next show is this Saturday, January 22nd at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in their hometown of Denton, Texas. The cost is free for 21 and older, and $5 for 18+. For more information regarding their upcoming tour dates, please stay tuned to their website or follow them on Facebook here. For a vinyl and digital copy of their album Open Your Eyes, the World is Shit please visit their website here. The title track is available to stream free above, and their previous LP Regurgitate Sunshine State and first EP Egg Tooth are available for purchase here.