Interview: The Paper Chase

This is The Paper Chase.

interview by bushman

Did you ever do a drug then wish you didn’t? That uneasy feeling of your first acid trip… trying to make sense of a world that has suddenly and uneasily shifted and now everything is hard to process? It’s with that aftertaste of askew directions that The Paper Chase dose you hard on. Disjointed. Maybe it’s the intentionally off-key, off kilter and constantly struggling for breath vocal pleadings of John Congleton. Perhaps it’s the ugly bass stomps and creepy insecurity in the delivery of the music. Disillusioned. Those manic and repeating noisy elements of the rhythms constantly arguing with each other don’t make things any more comfortable. Distracted. Pounding louder and louder just to be heard. Justifying their existence even though they suspect they shouldn’t be there in the first place. Cello, piano and some horns are welded into the mix. Tones are less constructed and emanate their feelings of dismay. Diverted. It’s an exposing sense of not being afraid to sound beautifully repellent. Deliver.

Advancing on two full lengths, “Young Bodies Heal Quickly” and their acclaimed follow-up, “Hide the Kitchen Knives” The Paper Chase will be releasing three more songs on a EP to be released by Southern Records American in January of the new year entitled, “What Big Teeth You Have”. This is just a teaser (since two of the three songs are covers) of things to come with a yet-untitled full length to be released on their new American home, Kill Rock Stars.

But if past releases are any indication, The Paper Chase will continue to deliver these disjointed tempos upon beautifully ugly indie rock stomps. In singer John Congleton’s words: “It’s the sound of everything falling apart; the sound of frustration, the sound of wanting and rejecting love, life, death.” It’s the idea that anything can happen, and that anything can go wrong. Strained vocal chords only add to the urgency. The music strips itself bare often, distilling itself down to just one or two elements of the band, to expose something raw and uncomfortable. The Paper Chase has a tendency to find awkward sounds and twist them into significant rhythmic elements of their songs. The bass tone nods to the Jesus Lizard while Pink Floyd pianos do their best to add a dose of melody across the stumbling, gruff percussions. It all rolls up into a big ball of musical drugs, dangerous and fun.

Texas native John Congleton is the driving force behind the lyrics, guitars, keyboards, sampling and most of the song construction for The Paper Chase. He is also a notable producer having garnered some accolades for his work on the band 90 Day Men.
I’ve done three records for them. They’ve always been quick albums. Not too special as far as processes doing an album. I’ve done much bigger things, but for some reason people have gravitated toward, at least their first album. The third album isn’t even out yet. I know they were pretty under the radar until one of the albums I did for them propelled them pretty far. Especially overseas. They do well in the UK.

The Paper Chase seems to have a charm in the UK as well. They were picked up by Southern Records Europe and their music is embraced wholly by the European community.
We were on a small label here in America called Beatville. We put out two records with that label, the last being, “Hide the Kitchen Knives”. Right when we were just about to record that album, Southern Records Europe became interested in signing the band. So we worked out a deal where they re-released our first album over there as well as our second album. Southern Europe was the first substantial indie label to do anything with us. Now we are on a label called Kill Rock Stars.

Did that catch you to the left to be picked up by a label in Europe? How did they find you guys?
I honestly don’t know exactly how it happened. I do know that John Loader himself, the guy who owns Southern Records was actually behind our signing. Which is bizarre cause the guy is like in his 70’s. Well, I don’t know how old he is actually. But the guy has been around for years. So the guy has got to be in his late 50’s at least. So I’m gonna say he’s in his 60’s.

The guy knows a hit when he hears it apparently.
(laughs). Maybe you shouldn’t say anything about his age.

We’ll just say he’s more mature than your average music mogul.
He’s been there for it all, as far as punk rock goes. He really isn’t that involved in who the label signs. But they put it out and we toured over there and it was wonderful. And we still have one more album that we are putting out with them. They just put out our EP “What Big Teeth You Have”. Originally it wasn’t going to be released in America, but they asked us if it was ok for Southern Records America released it and I was totally fine with that.

I read somewhere where Paul Westerberg said, “Pro Tools is rubbish”. Being a producer, and having an obvious appreciation for “sound”, there is a recognizable degree of minimalism to the Paper Chase. One might think that being a producer, it would be… over-produced.

I scrutinize the sound to the effect of I kind of go through the whole catalog in my head of what would be perfect. What is going to get across the emotion I want there. So there is a lot of careful thought put into what doesn’t go there. I do sometimes feel like I want to indulge that sort of aspect of me, but I usually fight back that temptation. Because I feel like in the long run, one year later when I put the album on, I will be happier that I just let the song be the song. All that matters to me is getting across a certain feeling. For example, when people listen to “Hide The Kitchen Knives”, I wanted people to feel like the needed to take a shower after listening to it. I wanted them to feel dirty. With that in mind, what kind of sound is going to make the listener feel that way? I think the most beautiful music out there is the music that never gets totally beautiful. I think toying around with an almost beautiful melody, but doing something to it that makes it sort of askew is really fun and challenging.

It seems like most people who undertake that mentality, tend to destroy their music by going for such erratic anti-melody. The Paper Chase does a better job of capturing a song in there. A twisted and askew song, but clearly a song. This left of center writing has given rise to a certain degree of speculation about where Congleton’s inspirations come from. It’s rumored that the bands first album was written primarily as an outlet for Congleton’s frequent panic attacks. Or perhaps that is press kit rhetoric.
That is press rhetoric to a certain degree. What happens is, and I found this out over the last few years being in a band and doing lots of interviews, that you need to be careful what you say. Because everybody is looking for a spin. Which is ok, because you want to grab the reader. What happened was, I did this interview… I can even trace it back to the interview when it all started and I started reading this a lot. I did this one interview with an Omaha newspaper. We opened up for this band called Cursive in Omaha and they hooked us up with this local newspaper for an interview. And someone asks me a question that was someone pointed, like, “I get the feeling you suffer from metal anguish to some degree, like anxiety.” And the fact of the matter is yes, I’m a nervous wreck. I’ve taken drugs for it. A lot of people call it “Panic Disorder”. For entire adult life, since I was 16, I’ve had this pretty debilitating problem. So the first album I wrote it about this problem I had. I never really wanted people to know that. I kind of wanted people to take out whatever it meant to them or take it for nothing. You don’t have to make any assumptions. There’s not really a message I’m trying to get across. So this guy took a spin on it big time and basically monopolized probably 5 minutes of the interview and turned the entire article into this crazy guy from Dallas, Texas. And I’m still kind of angry about it because it was such a minute part of the interview, and I’m sure I said much more intelligent and enlightening things and he just spun it into this web of like I am insane. Unfortunately it’s one of those interviews that really got out there, so a lot of other people would try to find information on the band and then write about that. So it’s a truth, but it’s a half-truth. I don’t consider it some portrayal of a diseased mind. But it was something I was going through and that was the only outlet I had so I wrote a lot of music about it. So now I think it’s blown out of proportion, so I take the opportunity every time I’m asked to put the record straight.

As far as The Paper Chase fans taking his words too literally, I think that’s a reflection on the audience that listens to a band like The Paper Chase. As arrogant as it sounds, they are musically a little more mature. Generally, they are people who are way past the radio and want something a little more musically challenging. Those are the people who are going to study a lyric sheet. Where the radio crowd doesn’t care what it says as long as it rhymes with a good hook. The Paper Chase get a lot of Pink Floyd comparisons. And deservedly so. I inquired into what other bands The Paper Chase get compared to, and which ones John agreed with.
I definitely agree with Pink Floyd, or should I say Roger Waters. It’s more of a Roger Waters thing. I don’t consider myself to be influenced by Gilmore. But definitely Roger Waters. He was the first songwriter who showed me you could stand there naked and come up with something beautiful. The first time I heard “The Wall”, it was just like, “wow man.” I’d never heard such a display of brutally sardonic emotion. I thought it was amazing. I’m really into that. Songwriters who just write from their gut. Like Bob Dylan. Stuff like that. Just tear their hearts out and throw it on the plate. That’s what I look for in anything that I like. We hear the Pink Floyd, and we hear the David Bowie from time to time. But sometimes people will compare us to more recent bands, and the fact of the matter is, not that I disrespect any of those bands, but I just don’t listen to any them. For example, overseas we are always getting referred to Bright Eyes. Which just blew my mind. I just can’t see it. Believe me, it didn’t hurt us because would people came out thinking they were going to hear something like Bright Eyes. I’ve found people that like Bright Eyes seem to like us. At least there is a certain cross section. I’ve heard a lot of his stuff and I have 100% respect for him. Very talented guy. But I don’t see the comparison. I’m not offended by the fact that I don’t see it. I kinda wish they would mention the people that we are really ripping off. Like Roger Waters.

On the “What Big Teeth You Have” 3 song EP, all the songs are pretty long, most push 5 min and the songs are darker than normally dark. Is this a sign of what’s to come on the new album?
It’s right in the middle between, “Hide the Kitchen Knives” and what the new album sounds like. The new album has a lot more quieter, slower somber moments. But there are still other songs that aren’t happier, but sort of peppier in a way. There are a few more moments on the new album where the songs move a little quicker. Believe me, nobody is going to think we “lightened up” or anything. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.


From the “Hide the Kitchen Knives” album, the song “I’m gonna spend the rest of my life lying” demonstrates the ugly stomping tempo The Paper Chase exemplify. Where did that song come from? Do you find yourself having to lie a lot?
The whole album “Hide The Kitchen Knives” is about knowing people and how hard it is to know somebody. The whole kitchen knives thing is metaphorical to me. A knife, something that is very simple and plain and that is in every house. But that simple thing used in a different way can be so dastardly. It can be an evil thing. It’s the little things that matter. The things we do to wear each other down. And sort of, again the Roger Waters type thing, but build walls between each other. Even if you’ve been married to somebody say for 25 years. How well do you really know them? You only know them as well as they let you know them. That song is sort of about a familial relationship and the way I think about it and can easily be interpreted as the male/female thing. Like, how far do you have to go before you are living with the enemy? How secure are you in the fact when you come home late from work one night they are not hiding in the hall with a baseball bat? So the song, “I’m going to spend the rest of my life lying” is sort of like, I’m going to spend the rest of my life, pretending to be somebody that I’m not. That’s what I meant by that… possibly. Ask me tomorrow and we’ll see what I think. Ask me two years ago… I don’t know what I meant.

You lyrics are obviously very personal. Are the lyrics very biographical?
I write extremely metaphorically, always. It’s biographical in the fact that I have had encounters in my life that didn’t turned out very well. It’s way to general to say it’s the male/female relationship or a romantic relationship because it actually has a lot to do with familiar things to me. Fucked up family lives that I think that everybody goes through. I think that defies all borders. Everybody knows the politics of being in a family.

Isn’t that kind of a sad state of affairs that everybody can relate to a fucked up family?
Well it seems to be omnipresent. It would be a lot more unhealthy to act like it doesn’t happen. That’s what the 1950’s where all about. Its just art. It doesn’t have to bring anybody down. It doesn’t bring me down to think about these things. It’s just a reality. To me, it’s just so much more healthy to sing about it or sing songs instead of getting locked up about it.

The track “A Little Place Called Trust” (from “Hide The…”) intro is a brilliant composition of the sound of scraping, sharpening knives that are somehow pushed into the tracks backing rhythm.
I’m still really proud of that actually. I had written the song and whenever I taught the song to the band, we just sort of started with the drums and the vocals and the piano playing that little part. Somehow or another, it just struck me that it sounded like knives. I know it doesn’t, but somehow in my weird mind, it sounded good in my head. So one night I recorded all this stock footage, of like me chopping celery and stuff. It took hours just sort of recording this stuff. And then I just built this loop. When I recorded the band, I just had the band play to this loop just so they would be like extra influenced.

When your lyrics focus on the very “here and now” of your world, do you find problems with the words of your past as you move on in life and your opinions and views shift?
Every songwriter must go through that a little a bit. That first one, “Young Bodies Heal Quickly” especially. It was the first full length I had ever done. There were so many things I wanted to say. I think I got overzealous a lot on that album. I’m not un-proud of that album or anything like that. But it was one of those things where I had to get a lot of things out of my system. Then with a clear head I was able to do another full-length album, which was “Hide the Kitchen Knives”. Which I think was a lot more concise. It seems very calculated. While “Young Bodies Heal Quickly” is the audio equivalent of somebody throwing spaghetti at the wall.

Ever say anything you wish you could take back?
Not really. Everything I say is pretty encrypted. It’s kinda hard to say a song is about one thing for me. Every song is about everything. So I’ve never done anything that I wish I could take back. But I’ll tell you one thing that I felt really bad about. And this has nothing to do with the actual experience with me. But a really good friend of mine, Chris, he’s one of my best friends, and he came back from his father’s funeral. And was living with me at the time and he had just come back. I had just gotten copies of, “Hide the Kitchen Knives”. We were just kind of flipping through it, and he’s like, “Yeah it sounds great.” Or whatever. And I was like, “Here, check out this last song.” And the first line of the last song is, “Did your sweet Daddy die?” and I felt just insidious. Of course I wasn’t singing about his dad. I wasn’t singing about anything closely related to him. But that was the only time I felt like I was exploiting some evil nature. I knew what he was going through in his life and I felt extremely insensitive all of a sudden. That’s the only time I’ve ever felt… bad… about something that I wrote.

Some of your lyrics obviously deal with love gone wrong. Could your life make a good episode of Cheaters?
(laughs). Wow. You know what’s really amazing about that? Is that’s it’s filmed here in Dallas. I got asked to work on that show once doing audio. The band I was producing from Austin, their cousin came up and hung out on a couple of sessions. The first time I saw him I thought he looked familiar. The second time I saw him I told him he looked familiar and he was like, “Well, sometimes I’m on that TV show Cheaters.” He was one of the security guys on Cheaters. I love that show. I think it’s so over the top. I’ve got the “Too Hot for TV DVD” for Cheaters. I’m totally into that show.

I liked it when Tommi Grand was host. Joey Greco is little worm. That said, what makes you laugh? Who is your favorite comedian?
Bill Hicks. He’s from Texas. He died in 1993. Fucking brilliant. Completely ahead of his time. If you like The Paper Chase, he is the comedic equivalent to The Paper Chase. He’s got a lot of CDs out there. His popularity was sort of poll vaulted several years ago when that band Tool used some of his clips in their second album. To be honest, I’ve never even heard the album. But I’ve been told that. Inside the album they actually had a picture of Bill Hicks and it said something like, “We worship this guy” or something. So all these Tool fans went out and tried to figure out who this guy was. A close second would be probably be like George Carlin. Then Richard Pryor.

Where did you grow up? Happy childhood?
Texas. I think I had a happy childhood. Most Americans don’t have a lot to complain about. I had the typical bullshit with my family and whatnot just like anybody else. I think everybody goes through a certain amount of pain growing up. Growing up is hard.

What was your favorite toy as a kid?
This is going to sound like I’m bullshitting, but I was really really really into tape-recorders. I had like three tape-recorders and I just got a huge kick out of recording things. Even as a small child. I used to make songs with my mouth. Like, writing music as a tiny kid. I was really into Legos. I remember liking Legos a lot. I was into Halloween stuff, all year around. Masks and Halloween type stuff is my favorite. The first album I ever bought with my own money was like a “Spooky Sounds of a Haunted House”.

“To have somebody’s attention for one hour of one evening, and even potentially a lot more if they become a fan. That’s pretty awesome.” – John Congleton

Where did you fall on the social scale in high school?
I was a little bit of a misfit the first few years. The first few years of high school I wanted to be liked so badly. I wanted to be kind of popular and I think that I was trying to hard or something. I was a dork. I think that’s what a lot of kids end up doing. That was more of my first year. The last couple of years I just kind of turned into not giving a fuck in general. I think that actually helped me. I was already playing in bands and was like, “Well, fuck it, none of this stuff matters anyway.” So by the time I was a senior in high school, I would say I probably go through high school Ok. I got through it alive. It didn’t scar me or anything. All I cared about was making music so I did what I had to do to get through high school, just to pass, and not make any serious waves. I knew it was stupid. I knew it didn’t matter. I knew no matter how much they kicked and screamed they were just going to fuck up my life and make it harder to do what I really wanted to do. So I sort of grinned and beared it. I don’t look back on high school as being a painful experience. I look back at it as a major annoyance. Something I wish that I could not have done had I been able.

What’s the most ridiculous place you’ve ever played a show?
We’ve played a couple of churches, which is always weird. We played a couple of Nazi bunkers in Germany.

You have the ability to reach a lot of people with your music. That’s definitely a great power. What defines “power” to you?
Wow, good question man. To me, I think power is kind of an evil thing, because it corrupts. I would like to believe that it’s not evil, but I can’t help but always feel that anybody in power is evil. That’s just sort of my cynical nature. I think power has to do with being able to manipulate people, manipulate things.

And you have that power.
I like to think I don’t.

But you do.
I think I don’t. At least not yet.

Think of it in the scale of anytime you play a show, there is a whole evening, of a whole bunch of people that would have been doing something else, but they are not. They are spending that time with you.
I’ve thought about that and what kind of awesome responsibility that is. When you think about it, life is really short. The average person lives to be 75 years old or whatever. And there are only 365 days a year. And after you turn 18, it all flies by anyways. To have somebody’s attention for one hour of one evening, and even potentially a lot more if they become a fan. That’s pretty awesome.

So it’s not manipulating power, but effecting type power.
Even if they hate your band. I gotta be honest with you, I totally remember the bands I totally hate way better than the bands that didn’t do anything for me one way or the other. I remember the bands I love, and the bands I really hate.

Tell me a secret about The Paper Chase.
We take the music very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves very seriously, at all. We just don’t. I think that’s a great thing and one of the reasons we have stayed together as long as we have. We are actually the biggest fucking morons in the world when it comes to doing anything to make each other laugh. We will pull out any body part and do anything to it that needs to be done to make somebody else in the band laugh.


Find the music:

Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know (2000)
Hide the Kitchen Knives (2002)
God Bless Your Black Heart (2004)
Now You Are One of Us (2006)
Someday This Could All Be Yours, Vol. 1 (2009)