Welcome To Stars Hollow: An Interview with Tyler Stodghill

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If nothing else, our lives are marked by constant change. People can enter your life without warning and leave just as fast. Sometimes their departure is your fault, and sometimes it’s out of your control. Sometimes you form lifelong friendships, and sometimes you find a soulmate just for one night. No matter what these connections look like or what form they take in our lives, these intertwining stories mean that nothing in life is ever permanent. 

This feeling of irreversible loss is exactly what Stars Hollow have captured on their 2018 EP Happy Again. The idea that these important figures enter your life and then leave… that’s an inevitability. At first it stings. Then you feel numb. Then life leaves you no choice but to move on. How we handle those losses is what defines us.

On Happy Again, Tyler Stodghill took this process of loss and crystallized it in a concise and emotional 11-minutes. It feels as if the songs are leading you through every stage of grief in a hyper-compressed timeline, spitting you out on the other side a stronger person. It’s pure catharsis. It’s every breakup you’ve ever experienced. Every death that’s affected you. Every ounce of unrequited adoration that ever went unreciprocated. 

To capture these feelings in such a condensed piece of art is nothing short of a feat, so I sat down with Stodghill, the vocalist, guitarist, and principal writer behind Stars Hollow to learn about his creative process and what’s next for him. 


How did the throughline concept for Happy Again come about?

I was doing my internship for college at a grief support organization. They were having me format and check these grief fact sheets that focused on different topics. I read some of them when I was bored. I came across one about spousal death, and it said something about how being happy after their death is possible, even if things are different. I started thinking about my own life at the time. I was going through a rough patch and I was kind of homeless. I wrote down “it’s not that you won’t be happy again, you just won’t be the same as you were before.” And it just felt right to revolve all of the songs around that concept.

What are some of the biggest influences for your upcoming full-length, and what has changed since the EPs?

The only emo I really listen to at this point comes from bands I’m friends with. Charmer and Origami Angel are two of my favs, and I think I learned a lot from each band about songwriting. Both can make really simple things sound beautiful and really complex things sound intuitive which has impacted my writing I think. 

Otherwise I listen to a lot of pop/singer-songwriter music that has influenced how I approach lyrics and melodies. Our new songs are definitely still super riffy, but what has changed a lot is the approach to making sure the whole song is good rather than just having a cool riff. I want anybody to be able to hear a Stars song and like it, not just Midwest emo kids.

Your album covers, merch, and tour art feel like they all perfectly encapsulate the sound and feel of your music, how did your relationship with Alexis Politz begin?

Thank you! Alexis is the literal best. She was recommended to us by a friend from Minneapolis when we were looking for artists in 2015. She designed our first EP artwork and a couple of shirts and it just clicked. It felt like everything she created fit our music so well. She just kept getting better, and by the time we recorded Happy Again, it was a no brainer. I definitely want her to do our full-length art/branding as well. 

She also deals very well with me sporadically asking for designs and gets them to us when we need them. Couldn’t ask for a better artist to work with because not many would appreciate my scattered brain.

There’s a really cool scene happening right now centered around you guys, Jail Socks, Origami Angel, and Commander Salamander. How have those relationships changed your creative process and/or how you interact with the community?

I mentioned above a bit how Gami’s influenced how I approach songwriting a bit. That whole crew has helped me loosen up in relation to how I present the band online, which helps people relate to us better. I think the biggest thing is the fact that we feel like we belong somewhere now. We didn’t really have that feeling until we started talking to Gami and Comma Salad. We met them and Jail Socks on a tour with Charmer and that was a pretty cool tour for that reason alone. It’s super cool to know we have good people who are great artists backing us. 

Earlier this year you released “Tadpole.” How did that song come about, and where does it stand in relation to Happy Again?

I just kind of started trying to write after Happy Again came out. I actually wrote the first riff for Tadpole when we were recording a music video for a song from our four-way split a couple of years ago. I sat on it for a while and then revisited it last year and ended up making a song out of it. We demoed it all out and all liked the song so we were like “let’s go record it.” It’s a pretty solid representation of where our music is going and it’s my favorite song to open our set with. It was actually supposed to be on a split, but I wanted it to be out because I’m impatient.

You’ve posted a video of yourself at sixteen screaming to blessthefall. As someone who also grew up on that “era” of metal, how important was that genre of music on your life? Are there any acts from that scene you’d cite as a major influence on your current vocal style?

It was super important! I still listen to that era of music pretty regularly. I loved mallcore and I was a major scene kid for a bit. I joke around a lot that the song structures I use (or lack of) come from Woe, Is Me and Attack Attack and it’s honestly pretty accurate. Their songs just jumped from part to part and I loved that unpredictability. Vocally, it’s not much of an influence anymore. It was a good introduction to start using my voice in weird ways though!

Where does I’m Really Not That Upset About It stand in your mind? You’ve described it as ‘songs you wrote when you didn’t know what you were doing’ is that just self-deprecation, or a case of three years changing your relationship with the music?

A little of both. I think “Embarrassed” is a good song. I think the rest are okay, but I don’t like my vocals or much of my lyrical content on that EP. I become detached from music I write fairly quickly if I don’t regularly play the songs. I think it was important, and I’m grateful some people cared about it, but I don’t hold any songs close from it besides Embarrassed. 

*trying to research Gilmore Girls* Team Jess or Team Dean?

Team Logan

What led you to vocal therapy and how has it changed your approach to performing?

I got super sick and stayed sick for about three weeks. My voice stayed messed up for another couple of weeks. I thought I had a nodule on my vocal cords because I lost a lot of range. My voice kept cracking and didn’t seem to be improving. I had an endoscopy done, which was weird as hell. They said my vocal folds were super irritated, likely from silent acid reflux and allergies. So they put me on meds for that stuff and referred me to the vocal therapist!

It’s made me think a lot about how I treat my voice. I’ve always had a very “fuck it” approach to vocal care and going to vocal therapy has helped me value it. I’m learning a lot about warm-ups and relaxation techniques and breathing and I think it’s going to help a lot moving forward. Especially in the studio, recording for hours a day can get really difficult. I’m hoping what I learn can help in that setting the most.

You post acoustic covers of your songs on social media pretty often. Is this a major part of your songwriting process? Have you ever considered recording a fully-acoustic EP?

I really want to do an acoustic EP, but it’s just a matter of taking the time to do it. I tend to practice songs on my acoustic a lot and sometimes write that way too. I write my vocals while playing on an acoustic pretty frequently. It’s just easier to get a good foundation that way and then adjust when we play full band and I yell a bit more.

You’re about to embark on a nationwide tour with the awesome Origami Angel. Aside from sharing your music, what are you looking to get out of that experience and what’s most important for it to be a rewarding experience?

I’m excited to get closer to my bandmates. I haven’t done a full tour with a single person who will be in that minivan. Gavin joined pretty recently on bass, Sage from niiice. is filling in on drums, and our friend B is tour managing and doing photos and basically being mom. It’s a lot of fresh faces for me and that’s exciting. I’m way excited to meet new people too, including internet friends. I’m excited to play shows in places I’ve never seen before. And we get to hang with Pat, Ry, and Lex (Chatterbot) for three weeks and it’s just going to be so fun. I love those people so damn much.

Being in a band is literally just about saying fuck it and doing something, whether people care or not. No one has to care. The whole point is to make people care and give them a reason. Just doing the tour will be rewarding in itself because we get to show people every night why they should care about what we’re doing.

You can purchase Happy Again on Bandcamp or stream it on Spotify. Stars Hollow is about to embark on a nationwide tour with Origami Angel this summer, find the dates here.

Photos provided by Shiara Crilly.

My Favorite Songs of All Time

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With this post, Swim Into The Sound has officially reached 100 articles! I’ll admit between the dreary weather and burnout at work I’ve felt less than inspired to post here regularly this year, however 100 blog posts is a big deal, and I wanted to make sure that I did it justice. I’ve got dozens of different ideas for articles jotted down in digital notes across various devices, but it felt ingenuine to put up “just another” write-up as my one-hundredth post. 

This January I celebrated all of the site’s recent achievements, and of course, the Favorites page has an ongoing list of our best articles, so I didn’t really want to focus on the blog from either of those perspectives. Instead, I’ve decided I’m going to do a write-up on something straightforward but important: my favorite songs of all time. 

My desktop has a 100+ song playlist of my favorite songs all meticulously organized, ordered, and ranked. While that playlist still receives some regular updates, the top 15 or so haven’t changed in a number of years, so I figured why not highlight all of these tracks in one place to celebrate the site’s recent milestone? Without further adieu, I’m excited to share my 15 favorite songs of all time.


15 | Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - “Sunday Candy”

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Two years after Acid Rap had cemented itself in my life, I was eagerly waiting to see what Chance the Rapper would do next. Suddenly on a late May evening in 2015, an album called Surf was uploaded to iTunes for free. Released under the name “Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment,” Surf was a collaborative project that combined the artistic powers of Chance The Rapper, trumpeter Nico Segal, and a host of other Chicago musicians. 

Making sure to savor every ounce of this new release, I wanted to ensure my first listen was special. I downloaded the album, grabbed a couple of hard ciders, and spent the evening in my backyard listening to Surf on a night that was just warm enough to enjoy without a jacket. 

Surf wasn’t quite the Acid-Rap follow-up I was expecting, but it ended up being a release I enjoyed nonetheless. The record is a joyous, warm, and creative outpouring that’s filled to the brim with collaborative spirit. As my first listen came to a close, the record began to wrap up with the penultimate “Sunday Candy,” a bright and loving gospel track that finds Chance reminiscing about his grandmother’s role in his life. These expressions of love are all wrapped around a sunny, infectious chorus courtesy of Jamila Woods that radiates with happiness and a vibrant zeal for life. My first listen of the song left me breathless, tearful, and overjoyed. To this day, “Sunday Candy” still has the power to make my day a little bit better merely by its presence. 

14 | Band Of Horses - “The Funeral”

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While I have an overall preference for Band of Horses’ sophomore record, there’s no denying the brilliance of “The Funeral.” Far and away the band’s most popular song, “The Funeral” revolves around a sparkling guitar line and poetic lyrics that address loss and separation. At some point in the late-2000’s the song entered the pantheon of iconic alt-rock tracks alongside the likes of “Mr. Brightside,” and “Skinny Love,” yet no matter how many times I hear “The Funeral” in a bar, in a movie, or in a commercial, the song manages to disarm me completely. There’s something profoundly spiritual and awe-inspiring lying at the emotional core of “The Funeral,” and that feeling hits me harder each time I listen to it. 

13 | The Flaming Lips - “Do You Realize??”

Around the same time that I was discovering indie rock, I was also introduced to The Flaming Lips. While the entirety of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was a mind-bending discovery back in high school, “Do You Realize??” was anything like I’d ever heard in my life. Tackling death from an honest and straightforward perspective, the song genuinely made me consider what all my relationships meant to me. It made me think about the inevitability of it all, and what kind of life I wanted to share with those around me. I’d like to think it gave me a greater appreciation for life as a whole, not just existence itself, but life as it was happening. Because one day all of this will be gone, so why wouldn’t you savor every second? Good or bad, life is a gift, and it’s easy to take that for granted. 

12 | My Morning Jacket - “I Will Sing You Songs”

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I still remember my first time hearing “I Will Sing You Songs.” After having My Morning Jacket’s discography on my iPod for nearly three years, I’d put off listening to them only for “I Will Sing You Songs” to come up on shuffle and stop me in my tracks. Almost instantly, I was swept up in the song and found myself frozen by its slow-moving melody. For nine minutes the song carried me gently into an expression of love and adoration that I felt down to my bones. It was dream-like, transportive, and absolutely gorgeous; precisely what I needed to hear at that moment. Years later, It Still Moves has become one of my favorite alternative records of all time, and “I Will Sing You Songs” remains it’s shining, perfect centerpiece.

11 | Radiohead - “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”

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Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is one of the most well-paced songs in Radiohead's discography. Starting out with a winding guitar lick and hi-hat keeping time, these two instruments set the scene for an explosive tale of flirtation, heartbreak, and love lost. Within a few beats, the bass enters the fray, and suddenly the song ignites like an engine. Within an instant, all of the instruments fall into a fast-paced groove as the guitar jangles underneath Thom Yorke’s moody humming. Depicting a series of drunken college nights filled with missed connections and possible love, “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is a nonstop, evermoving journey that can only end in one way. The song continually mounts until every element is exploding to life with color and the song reaches its emotional fever pitch. Everything is humming at the right frequency, beguiling the listener in the most well-crafted and artistic way. 

10 | Sufjan Stevens - “Oh God, Where Are You Now?”

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I’ve already written at great length about my love for Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan, but “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” is the single-song encapsulation of why I love this man’s art. It’s the song that led me to Sufjan. The song that carried me through countless winters whether I was alone or surrounded by loved ones. This song is everything that I love about the Earth, and art, and creativity, and beauty. It’s a haunting, spiritual, and heart-rending question of existence all wrapped in memories that make me feel like I’ve lived this story a hundred times before. It’s the soundtrack to my heart and the death of each year. An absolutely stunning and beautiful track that’s quintessential to my existence. 

9 | Funkadelic - “Maggot Brain”

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I first heard “Maggot Brain” in middle school knowing nothing of George Clinton, Parlament-Funkadelic, or even rock as a whole for that matter. I’d barely dipped my toe in the water of psychedelia, and even less in instrumental music… which explains why this song felt so revelatory when I’d first experienced it. “Maggot Brain” begins with a disarming spoken word introduction followed by ten minutes of the most soulful guitar work I had ever heard...or have ever heard. Split into two halves, the first section of “Maggot Brain” reads like a eulogy. A wordless loss that commemorates the unspeakable feeling of discovering a loved one had passed. This builds up into an eruption of emotion found in the second half in a transition that flows seamlessly and makes sense on a cosmic level. The journey contained within the song can be read in many different ways, and I hear a different pathway each time I relisten to the piece. Truly a powerful condensation of the human psyche. 

8 | Radiohead - “You And Whose Army?”

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There aren’t many words you can make out in “You And Whose Army?” Sure, you can hear the title (also about the closest the song ever gets to a chorus), but what’s left is a mush of phrases that are practically left up to the listener’s imagination. Individual words may make their way through, but for the most part, I love “You And Whose Army?” because it’s an endlessly-interpretable song. These delicately-delivered lyrics are placed above a gently-strummed guitar and Yorke’s own hums in the background. Midway through the song, these fragile elements meet a more precise bassline, rigid drumbeat, and shaky piano that all carry the song to its wounded emotional climax. “You And Whose Army?” is haunting, beautiful, and foreboding all at the same time. Everything feels at once obscured and perfectly in place. 

7 | Pink Floyd - “The Great Gig In The Sky” 

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One of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had wasn’t at a church, on a vacation, or in a relationship, it was listening to “The Great Gig In The Sky” in my backyard all by myself. Yet another album I was handed in middle school, I must have listened to Dark Side of the Moon dozens of times trying to figure out why everyone thought it was so great. It was on t-shirts, referenced in pop culture, and obviously meant a lot to everyone older than me… but I just couldn’t for the life of me figure out what made this record so great. Years later, I put the album on during a warm summer evening and let the LP carry me from beginning to end. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and “The Great Gig In The Sky” was the emotional climax of that journey. From the introductory dialogue, the way the instrumental lifts, and of course, Clare Torry’s brilliant performance on vocals, there’s nothing quite like “Great Gig” out there in the world. To this day, I’ve still never found a song that captures the hard-to-grasp emotions tied to life and death as well as this song does within these four minutes.

6| Explosions In The Sky - “Have You Passed Through This Night?”

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For my money, there’s no song more frisson-inducing than Explosions in the Sky’s “Have You Passed Through This Night?” Centered around a sample of dialogue from The Thin Red Line, this is one of the only songs in the band’s discography to have any sort of lyrical content whatsoever. Maybe the decision to center a track around these words is what makes it even more powerful. 

As you listen to the gentle guitar strums laid carefully underneath this sample, a sudden gunshot cuts through the song. Then we hear the titular line. Then a slow-moving guitar. Then a series of increasingly-powerful drum strikes. The song then mounts for the remaining four minutes creating one of the most beautiful builds in the entire genre of post-rock. Truly a moving piece of music that instills a sense of something greater just beyond the next mountain. Absolutely awe-inspiring. 

5| The Cribs - “Be Safe” 

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Generally speaking, I am not a “lyrics guy.” I tend to take songs as a whole without necessarily focusing on any one individual element, including the words being sung. That goes for just about every song except for “Be Safe” by The Cribs. An anomaly within their discography, “Be Safe” finds lead singer Ryan Jarman ceding control to Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo for long-winded spoken word passages that act as collages of random visuals placed over a ceaseless instrumental bed. Beginning in a definitively-negative headspace, the song finds its narrator complaining about “One of those fucking awful black days when nothing is pleasing” and how they hate everyone around them. Our narrator explains that he could change, but he knows his old self will always catch up no matter how hard he tries. Suddenly, without warning, The Cribs’ lead singer Ryan Jarman enters the song with a bright and shimmering chorus that seems to give our narrator hope:

I know a place we can go
Where you'll fall in love so hard that
You'll wish you were dead

From here, Ranaldo describes life through a series of abstract flashes, each of which brings a beautiful glimpse of the world into the listener’s mind. As these images pass through your headphones, the song gets brighter and picks up its pace. The words become more positive until they culminate in an escalating rallying cry of “Open all the boxes!” before one last scene-setting outro. It’s undeniable poetry. A reversal of mood that captures these two vastly different feelings and how one person or event can turn your life around in such a short amount of time. It’s a reminder that sadness isn’t permanent, and that the world is beautiful. That it always has been. 

4 | Queens Of The Stone Age - “A Song For The Dead” 

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It only took a few listens for Songs For The Deaf to become my favorite album of all-time back in middle school. The record was unlike anything I’d ever heard and introduced me to a vast array of genres that I’m still shocked all work in conjunction with each other. At this point, Songs For The Deaf has been my favorite album for over one decade, and “A Song For The Dead” is just one of the many reasons why. If you were to ask me why this song spoke to me specifically, I’d answer with one word: drums. 

Featuring Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters on percussion, “A Song For The Dead” is a marvel of precision instrumentation. It’s a middle-finger-extended ‘fuck you’ rock track that’s propelled by Grohl’s unrelenting presence on the drums. Beginning with a single organ note and hi-hat keeping time, a guitar sets the scene followed quickly by a series of drum fills courtesy of Grohl. Within seconds, Grohl lays down a swaying drum beat, and the bass enters mimicking the guitar line perfectly. Josh Homme’s trademarked snarling vocals throw the listener headfirst into song’s desolate, desert-themed hopelessness, all the while Grohl’s cymbals crash, snare snaps, and sleigh bells jingle. 

One of the best moments come in the songs final seconds where several fakeout endings are tied together by multiple drum solos and an unrelenting guitar line. This is one of the few songs I know every molecule of, and I have to give Dave Grohl props for contributing such a major element to the track’s structure. 

3 | Sharks Keep Moving - “Like a River” 

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Picture this: It’s summer. You just graduated high school. You dropped your date off at her house, and now you’re going for a long drive through the countryside with your windows down as you watch the sun set over rolling hills in the distance. That’s what listening to “Like a River” is like. 

Helmed by Minus The Bear’s Jake Snider, Sharks Keep Moving was a short-lived jazzy-math rock band from Seattle featuring members who would go on to form groups like Pretty Girls Make Graves, Botch, and The Blood Brothers. The band produced one full-length, two EPs, and one split in their five-ish years together, and despite their relatively-small output, every song managed to strike a chord in the heart of a high-school-aged Taylor. 

While every song is worth a listen, “Like a River” is the crown jewel of Sharks Keep Moving’s discography. Front-loaded with a narrative tale of drunken love, the song is half storytelling, half gorgeous instrumental. Throughout the first half, Snider paints a scene of meeting a woman at a bar and becoming immediately infatuated with her. Ending the tale with a half-drunk rallying cry of “Get up / Let’s Walk,” the song then floats the listener along a river of sound with an instrumental that adds some color to the narrative brush-strokes laid earlier in the track. It gives just enough time for the listener to meditate and fill in the blanks of the story, whether that be with the words they were just handed or recent experiences in their own life. It’s a transformative piece of art that manages to clock in at 11-minutes long, yet not overstay its welcome. It’s pure contentment, captured to music. 

2| Radiohead - “Nude”

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I know what you’re thinking… another Radiohead song? But hear me out, “Nude” is the perfect Radiohead song. A love song at its core, “Nude” may not be as popular as “Creep” or as catchy as “Karma Police” or as versatile as “Exit Music,” but it manages to reach another level entirely. Lying somewhere between the groovy approach of “Reckoner” and the lyrical content of “True Love Waits,” “Nude” was a long-shelved Radiohead track that took literally one decade to see the light of day.  

Centered around a pristine bassline, careful drumming, and a reversed vocal bed, “Nude” is a world-shattering love song. The defeated lyrics are sung in Yorke’s highest falsetto as Colin Greenwood’s bass rumbles lovingly below him. Meanwhile, Philip Selway’s drums fall into perfect synch with Johnny Greenwood’s gentle guitar plucks, and all of this swirls behind gorgeous orchestral swells that mount with each word.

There’s no other word with which to describe “Nude” other than beautiful. Each element works in perfect synch for a song that emulates love, loss, heartbreak, and sorrow all within the space of four minutes. Those feelings crest as Yorke belts out “You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking” before the song is carried out by a build of double-tracked hums that feels careful, practiced, and achingly beautiful. A rare example of a song that was worth the ten-year incubation period. 

1 | Minus The Bear - “This Ain't a Surfin' Movie”

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Well, here we are, my favorite song of all time, and I don’t even know where to begin. “This Ain't a Surfin' Movie” is perfect — a song of love, beauty, and escape that feels like it was tailor-made for me specifically. 

I first discovered Minus The Bear back in high school around the same time as Bon Iver, Portugal. The Man, and half of the other songs on this list. Specifically, I remember hearing “Pachuca Sunrise” (the band’s most popular song) and “Fulfill the Dream” on a friend’s iPod and being nothing short of blown away. Minus The Bear’s music just made sense to my brain, like it was something I’d been waiting for for years and finally found. Both of those songs coming from the same record, I decided to give the rest of Menos El Oso a listen, and wouldn’t you know that I loved it almost instantly. 

My favorite song on the record jostled around from time to time throughout high school, but a piece of me was always impressed with the way the band ended the album on such an abjectly-beautiful and warm note with “This Ain't a Surfin' Movie.” Depicting a beach-side evening alone with a lover, “Surfin’ Movie” is a song about physical and emotional paradise. A day spent in the arms of a lover in a beautiful place where nothing else matters but you and the connection to that other person. It’s quite literally the most powerful, moving, and loving thing I’ve ever heard put to music. 

Keep in mind, this song comes after ten other dancy, catchy, groovy songs that soundtracked my high school years, so there’s absolutely some added power there, but even still, “Surfin’ Movie” caps off not just this album, but our list as my favorite song of all time. 

To this day, I still remember sitting in the parking lot of a 7/11 back in high school with my childhood friend. We were riding the high of having just attended our first Minus The Bear concert, drinking AriZona’s, listening to Menos El Oso, and reveling in what we had just seen. I remember feeling speechless once the album ended, wishing I could live in that feeling forever.

“This Ain’t A Surfin’ Movie” is a marvel to listen to. It’s a monument to love and an absolute artistic achievement. It’s something that I’m lucky to have found, and fortunate enough to have felt. It’s simply perfect. 

You can listen to a playlist of all these songs here.

Justin Vernon’s Ascent Into The Artificial

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How A Winding Career Led One Man From Folk Hero to Electronic Mastermind

The story of Bon Iver is almost cliched to recite at this point. Heartbroken over a breakup and frustrated with his unsuccessful music career, 25-year-old Justin Vernon embraced his inner-Thoreau and recoiled from civilization in a remote Wisconsin cabin. Over the course of a 2006 winter, Vernon spent his days in isolation hunting for his own food, contemplating his relationships, and recording his thoughts to music in a process that would eventually form his breakthrough album.

Released the name Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago would come out in the summer of 2007 to widespread critical acclaim and unexpected crossover success. Led by the undeniable indie hit “Skinny Love,” Vernon’s unveiling as Bon Iver put him on the map, solidifying him almost instantly as a bona fide folk superstar. This record, along with Fleet Foxes self-titled debut, would serve as an entry point to the indie and folk genres for an entire generation of budding music fans. Despite his humble origins as a soft-spoken folk singer, Vernon has gone on have one of the most interesting, unexpected, and diverse careers in his field… but it didn’t get that way overnight. 

For Emma, Forever Ago contains lots of things you would expect on a folk album: acoustic guitar, heartfelt vocals, and even some expressive brass instruments on a few tracks. It’s a choral journey through the frigid darkness of heartbreak and depression, but the greatest trick Justin Vernon ever pulled was what came next: a series of albums that grew in size, scope, and influence where each was more diverse and masterful than the last. But to fully appreciate the steps he took to get there, we have to start at the beginning. 

What Might Have Been Lost

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Even a cursory listen of For Emma, Forever Ago will reveal why the record became a gateway to the folk genre for a generation of fans. While music from this genre can easily become “folksy background noise” that’s pushed to the back of millennial’s campfire and bedtime playlists, Emma is anything but. Thanks to varied instrumentation, full-hearted emotion, and Vernon’s “melody-first” approach, the record reaches out and demands your attention. It’s a cozy-sounding album that you can sink into and lose yourself in. 

Despite its rustic, folksy sound, one song in particular sticks out as the album’s most complicated and heart-wrenching tracks: “Wolves (Act I and II).” Coming in at track number four of nine, “Wolves” finds itself exactly halfway through For Emma, essentially acting as its emotional low-point. It’s a breakup song, yes, but after dozens of repeated listens, one moment in the song has stuck with me more than any other on the record.

The song starts just as straightforward as any other on the album, however, it’s deceptively-simple beginning quickly makes way for the densest track on the album. Opening with a single acoustic guitar, the song features a multi-layered vocal that finds Vernon harmonizing with himself. The most striking moment in the song comes halfway through the track where the bridge enters and (presumably) the second “act” begins. Vernon sings “What might have been lost” repeatedly, and the most telling moment comes at 2:50 where the third repetition bears a twinge of autotune on the word “lost.”

What might have been lost
What might have been lost
What might have been lost

Vernon goes on to repeat that phrase a total of fourteen times throughout the song, eventually interrupting himself with pained cries of “Don't bother me” that gradually build until a clatter of instruments brings the song crashing to an end. 

“Wolves” is a heartbreaking song, and it’s weird to get hung up on the delivery of one word, but that single use of auto-tune planted the seeds for the rest of Vernon’s discography. They forecast what was coming next. They offered a one-word hint toward Vernon’s future, one that he may not have even been conscious of at the time, but we can point to now that we have all the pieces. 

Up In The Woods

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Two years after the initial release of For Emma, Vernon published an update: a four-track EP by the name of Blood Bank. Clocking in at 17-minutes, Blood Bank was only a bite-sized follow-up, but one that was eagerly devoured by Bon Iver fans who were hungry for new music. 

Bearing snow-covered album art, Blood Bank seemed to rekindle the same type of tender wintery feeling as Emma, and sure enough, the release starts off just as you would expect. Opener “Blood Bank” is a frostbitten love song of candy bars, a waning moon, and, of course, a fateful trip to the blood bank. “Beach Baby” is a post-breakup song that features a spiritual lap-steel guitar outro that personifies loss and contemplation. “Babys” is centered around an ever-mounting piano line with lyrics that bear almost as many exclamation points as a Sufjan Stevens song title. And finally, the EP’s fourth track “Woods” closes out the release and signals the first time Justin Vernon fully stakes his claim on the electronic embrace. 

“Woods” is lyrically-straightforward, containing one verse repeated eleven times:

I'm up in the woods
I'm down on my mind
I'm building a still
To slow down the time 

It’s interesting (and worth noting here) because the song contains almost no traditional instrumentation whatsoever. Initially singing straightforwardly, Vernon croons the first verse with a voice that’s dripping in autotune. 

The second verse finds Vernon harmonizing with himself, singing the same words in two different styles with two different emotions. The third verse adds an additional take, and so on until a multitude of different vocalizations are all flowing and emoting simultaneously. By the time the song reaches the halfway point, ghastly echoes reverberate through the background of the track, and the vocals at the front of the song are singing with even more passion, pain, and expression. As the end of the song nears, the momentum has built to a fever pitch and the autotuned cries all fade out into total silence. 

It’s a haunting and goosebump-inducing track. While “Woods” initially came across to me as the musical equivalent of a thought experiment (“let’s see how many times I can layer myself singing the same thing”), it ends up becoming a gut-wrenching and transformative piece of art. That’s probably why Kanye West tapped Vernon to close out his 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Using the same lyrics as the original song, Kanye and Vernon use a similar emotional build on “Lost In The World” as a gateway to an explosive hip-hop beat laid over Vernon’s autotuned crooning and bombastic drums. This song paved the way for future hip-hop collaborations with Kanye, but also Vernon’s later electronic work. 

“Woods” acted as a proof of concept that Vernon need not be tied to acoustic guitars, folk instrumentation, or even traditional song structures. Emotion and technology were enough.

Shifting Layers

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While Emma and Blood Bank are insular and inward-looking, Bon Iver’s 2011 self-titled record is the complete opposite. Massive, arid, and expansive, Bon Iver is a pivot from Vernon’s snow-covered origins, yet in retrospect feels like a completely logical stepping stone. 

Featuring swelling arrangements, atmospheric instrumentals, and sweeping vocals, my first listen of Bon Iver initially left me underwhelmed. As did my second listen. In fact, it took me around five years to fully-realize the brilliance contained within this record, all because it didn’t sound exactly like its folky predecessor. Now I hear the opening cascade of “Perth” and receive instant goosebumps. I see the brilliance of “Holocene” and recognize the sadness contained on songs like “Beth/Rest” are just as valid as anything on Emma… they’re just packaged differently.

Overall, Bon Iver might use less overt electronics than anything else in the rest of the band’s discography. Instead, it sees Vernon enlisting the help of his friends for a fuller and richer-sounding record that leans even harder into the choral flavors only briefly touched upon in Emma

While there may be less overt electronics, Bon Iver is a record of layers. Vocals are layered, instruments are layers, ideas are layered. There are airy horns and explosive drums. Background vocals echo far off in the distance as ornamental swirls overwhelm the senses. It’s a feast for the ears and ends up being a complicated record that’s dense yet emotionally bare. 

The album benefits from an obviously-improved budget when compared to Emma, but it finds Vernon exploring the possibilities that a studio brings. The different shapes his ideas can take outside of a traditional folk song, the different ways ideas can be transferred yet still be used to the same effect. The way melodies can be muddled, shifted, and played with until they’re nearly unrecognizable but still manage to come through… which leads to his next release.

The Arrival

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On August 12th of 2016, the Bon Iver YouTube account unleashed two lyric videos onto the internet: “22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ (Extended Version).” If the names alone didn’t give it away, these songs represented a massive departure from everything that came before them. The former was a flame-engulfed crooner accompanied by dueling English and Spanish subtitles, and the later was a glitched-out beatbox spitting out distorted lines and stuttering forward endlessly. 

The two songs represented the first new Bon Iver material in over five years, and fans consumed them voraciously, if not a little hesitantly. Drawing early comparisons to Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz, Radiohead’s Kid A, and Kanye West’s Yeezus, the two tracks were electronic, dissonant, and wholly unexpected. A left-field creation for which there was seemingly no precedent… But there was. 

The day these songs were uploaded, Bon Iver’s site was completely revamped. Mostly bare, but sporting a new “bio” section written not by Vernon, but Trever Hagen, a Bon Iver collaborator and one of Vernon’s childhood friends. This new page was a long-form update captured in a TextEdit screengrab that attempted to update fans on what had happened over the intervening years. It also framed the two new singles better than any traditional press release ever could:

So, in short, 22 A Million isn’t as simple as a change in sound; it was a spiritual inevitability.  

A Pathway to Understanding

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I’ve built this narrative of Vernon’s increasingly-electronic career in my head for some time now. The pieces were all there from the first twinge of autotune on “Wolves” to the ever-mounting brilliance of “Woods,” but I didn’t know what to make of these disparate pieces until that summer day in 2016. When Bon Iver’s third album finally released that fall, it wasn’t just a new record from a band I already loved; it was the missing piece of a puzzle and the actualization everything that came before it. 

Despite some early comparisons to genre-shifting albums of greats like Sufjan Stevens and Radiohead, I also remember reading speculation that 22, A Million wouldn’t be as good as his previous work. Of course anyone attracted to Emma’s soft-spoken folk music will find themselves lost in 22, A Million, but at that point, I had come around to Bon Iver after years of doubt and now knew to trust in Vernon completely. 

What Trever Hagen was saying is that 22, A Million isn’t actually that different from the records that came before it. If there’s any trend to Bon Iver’s discography, it’s that every Bon Iver project is an album without precedent. For Emma, Forever Ago sounded nothing like Bon Iver, and 22, A Million sounds nothing like either of its predecessors. The difference here is that 22 is a complete dismantling. The first two records at least existed in the same sonic realm. Songs used familiar structures, familiar sounds, and familiar language. They were different but still comparable. Emma was a folky and intimate snow-covered cabin. Bon Iver was a wide-open sun-drenched field. 22, A Million is a meteorite. 

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Where previous Bon Iver songs were built around simple guitar lines, mounting drums, and easy-to-grasp melodies, 22, A Million strips songs of everything but the melody and reconstructs them from the ground up. The instruments that that are present are twisted and distorted until they’re alien and unfamiliar. There are horns, and guitars, and percussion, but they’re scratched up and broken. There are vocal melodies, but they’re chopped up and shifted around. 

In fact, Vernon and his engineer Chris Messina invented a new instrument just for this record: The Messina. Better journalists than me have detailed the creation of this instrument, so I’ll just link them here along with this quote from its creator:

“Normally, you record something first and then add harmonies later. But Justin wanted to not only harmonize in real time, but also be able to do it with another person and another instrument. The result is one thing sounding like a lot of things. It creates this huge, choral sound.”

For the purposes of this article, the invention of the Messina was a major step in Vernon’s career. The Messina allowed not only for the creation of 22, A Million, but some of Vernon’s most beautiful songs. The instrument’s effect is felt all over the album, but one song in particular stands out as 22, A Million’s most breathtaking creation. A song that takes the stripped-back dichotomy of “Woods” one step further. A song that Vernon’s entire career feels like it was leading up to: “715 - CRΣΣKS.”

Lost in the Reeds

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While  “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” are great songs on their own, they also had to serve double-duty and act as a primer to what 22, A Million stood for. Once those two tracks are out of the way, the record throws listeners into the proverbial deep end with “CRΣΣKS” which, Messina aside, is done entirely acapella. 

As most Bon Iver songs do, “Creeks” opens pointedly. 

Down along the creek
I remember something

These lines are sung straightforwardly, but set the scene for the song and introduce the recurring phrase “I remember something.” With each following line more and more of the Messenia leaks into the vocals until the third verse where Vernon reaches a near-yell as the song explodes with passion.

Toiling with your blood
I remember something
In B, un—rationed kissing on a night second to last
Finding both your hands as second sun came past the glass
And oh, I know it felt right and I had you in my grasp

Put simply, “715 - CRΣΣKS” is sublime. The song is a beautiful and one-of-a-kind creation that represents millions of branching paths all converging to create something practically too beautiful for this world. If Vernon hadn’t shown the propensity for electronics, his path wouldn’t have led to this song. If the Messina hadn’t been invented, this song wouldn’t have been possible. If Vernon hadn’t stowed himself away in that cabin over a decade ago, these feelings would not have been realized. 

“CRΣΣKS” is the ultimate marriage of humanity and technology. The entire time you’re witnessing Vernon’s emotion breaking through with each word and waiting to see what comes next. He leads the listener with each line, forcing them to lean in closer and closer until he violently breaks through the cold, indifferent wall of technology. It’s explosive, fragile, and heartbreaking. It’s a song that never fails to make me feel, and there’s something to be said for that. 

Never-Ending

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Vernon’s journey from folk hero to electronic mastermind was a long and winding multi-year-long process. It’s a journey that continues to this day as he tours, performs the songs live, and even on side projects like Big Red Machine where Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner both encourage each other along their respective increasingly-electronic journeys

The saga of Bon Iver has been a thrilling story to watch over the past decade. From the first wintery guitar strums of Emma to the final piano notes of 22, A Million, Vernon has weaved a multi-part epic on heartache and the human condition. Each song peeled back another layer, revealing the human behind the music, and that unfolding has been a fascinating, touching, and rewarding thing to witness.

While I hope we have many more years of music from Vernon, 22, A Million is undeniably an incredible third-act in the discography of Bon Iver. It’s more than folk music. It’s more than indie music. It’s more than electronic music, art pop, or any other label you can place on it. 22, A Million is human music. 

Catholic Werewolves - You're Gonna Miss Everything Cool And Die Angry

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Catholic Werewolves’ debut album begins with a collage of humanity. Within 30-seconds, clips of news reports, interviews, movies, and game shows all flash through the listener’s speakers, each punctuated by a short buzz of static. It’s like we’re listening in on an old TV controlled by an impatient person who’s channel surfing until they find something that captivates them properly. No sound bite lingers for more than a few seconds, but the result is something that feels both familiar and relevant: all the pop culture in the world isn’t enough when you don’t know what you’re searching for. 

34-seconds into the opening track, two cymbal taps signal the entrance of the trio who make their way into the frame like a band taking the stage at a house show. Soon the drums, guitar, and bass all whir up to speed, synching up and making way for a bombastic shouted vocal harmony. After a fiery verse, blistering guitar solo, and cathartic group chant, the song ends mid-thought and throws you directly into the remainder of the album. 

I first wrote about Catholic Werewolves back in December when this album was fresh off the presses. At the time, I held them up as an exemplary midwest band that embodied immaculate songwriting, tenacious spirit, and the DIY aesthetic. After spending even more time with their record, I’m happy to confirm that every one of these beliefs is true. 

Clocking in at a mere 15-minutes, You're Gonna Miss Everything Cool And Die Angry is one of the most compact, exciting, and well-thought-out records I’ve heard in recent months. The melodies are catchy, the choruses are sharp, and the instrumentals are tight. The Jeff Rosenstock and Joyce Manor influence is evident from the outset, but it’s also clear that Catholic Werewolves are putting their own spin on it.

Songs never wear on because they don’t have time to. Within the space of minutes, the band can deploy a concept, set the scene with minimal effort, and then bowl you over with everything that they just put into place. It’s economical songwriting that respects the listener’s time but also shows incredible talent and creativity. 

With every song hovering around the two-minute mark, the band spends the release exploring different sonic pallets in a free-wheeling and uncomplicated way. “Instrument of Torture” is a thrashy punk pit-starter. “Title on Screen” is a bouncy and clever song that breaks out into a rapid-fire final verse. “Tom Hanks” is a guitar-led song that somehow manages to be poppy while also hosting the most hardcore screamed vocals on the entire album. “Tuxedo T-Shirt” is a two-minute acoustic pit-stop centered around an infectious melody backed up by strings, piano, and harmonized vocals. “Emotional Sharingan” bears a hard-charging drumline with crashing cymbals and one of the record’s most catchy hooks. “Where Do You Think We Are?” uses a line from Scrubs to springboard into a narrative-driven brush with mortality that evokes the best parts of You, Me, and Everyone We Know. Finally, album-closer “Adult” is a biting, vicious, and hilarious takedown of complacency that sends the album off on punchy a high note.

It’s hard for me to think of a better pop-punk record than this in recent years. I know I’m a sucker for short albums, but the sheer amount of ideas that Catholic Werewolves manages to pack into such a short amount of time is absolutely astounding. Every song is varied, catchy, and speaks to a different concern. The lyrics are razor-sharp, and the production is immaculate. Most importantly, the songs never overstay their welcome and always leave you wanting more. 

One of the reasons the Emo scene feels so exciting right now is because it’s very economical. Bands are releasing more EPs, splits, and singles because those are more affordable. It leads to a genre that feels ever-shifting and constantly-growing where bands can release updates on their lives in short bursts rather than long, bloated stream-chasing records. It leads to a more supportive scene that feels more intimate and interconnected than ever before. 

On this record Catholic Werewolves didn’t half-ass a collection of songs; they honed these tracks down to their bare components and bundled them up in a compact package that’s simultaneously quick to consume and artistically-satiating. It’s an inspiring, accessible, and creative force, and that’s the type of art we need right now. 

When Musicians Tweet

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There’s an old adage that every musician wants to be a stand-up and every comic wants to be a rockstar. While this is probably a case of “the grass is always greener,” sometimes you’ll find someone who manages to excel in both categories. 

Luckily platforms like Twitter have made it easier than ever for musicians to prove their comedic chops, even if it’s just within the space of a 280 character message nonchalantly fired off from the comfort of a rest stop toilet. Some bands may relegate their social media usage to promoting their newest album or upcoming concerts, but (unsurprisingly) some of the most fulfilling Twitter follows belong to bands who also to use the platform the same way that I do: shitposting.

As great as it is to know when new music is coming from a band you follow, it’s almost more rewarding to find out that an artist you love shares the same sense of humor as you. Social media has allowed us to peek inside each other’s heads, and sometimes what you’ll find is so unexpected that you can’t help but laugh. Whether it’s dumb puns, depressing realizations, or just funny observations spurred by the never-ending drawl of tour life, there is occasionally some gold to be found in between tour dates and album promo.  

Without further ado, these are some of the funniest, most iconic, and just plain goofy tweets from musicians paired with their hyper-serious press photos. Because at the end of the day, bad jokes bind us all.