Culture

A Conversation with Trevor Sensor

How did you meet Whitney?

Since Secretly [Canadian] and Jag[jaguwar] are all part of the same company, my label head gave me some records, like Mitski’s — she’s just a goddess, I mean she’s fuckin so good, she’s pretty popular but there’s no reason why she shouldn’t reach Bjork level and shit. Not that they’re anything alike — it’s really tragic, but there’s not a lot of really avant-garde or indie or alternative female artists that are really that big, like big as Bjork. A lot of male artists get that big, but I feel like that sector of music, besides like St. Vincent and Bjork and stuff, they just don’t come up that way. And I don’t know why, I’m not gonna be one of those people that tries to give conclusions for why that is, that’s just an observation I’m making. So it’d be nice if she joined that, cause I think she deserves it and she’s really great.

But anyway, they sent me that record and then Whitney’s record, and I listened and I was like “this is pretty good” [laughs] and I followed them on Twitter, and I started — cause you know how Julien is on Twitter, he’s speaking his heart and his mind, and I just got this funny idea about harassing him on Twitter to see what would happen, cause he talked about sad boy stuff about girls, so I’d just harass him about it. And then we had a bonding moment one night when critics were calling their record like a “summer record,” and like “Follow” is about his grandpa and stuff.

Right, yeah.

I was like, there’s a lot of loss in this record, and it’s bullshit that they just kinda write it off as a happy-go-lucky summer record. It’s a great record to play live, right, but the lyricism is really good to the point where it’s like, this stuff is about different types of relationships and how Max or Julien’s like, lost them in some way. So they kinda resonated with that, like “oh this guy’s okay,” and we ran into each other in Germany at like a festival or something. Then eventually I was recording this record, and we were gonna do a session with Rado from Foxygen, and I was like, “he did their record, why not call them up and just be like ‘do you wanna play on it,’” and they had two weeks in December and I snagged them.

So it was all very happenstance and chance, and I got very lucky, and they added a really great touch — [Richard] Swift, Rado and Whitney — all added great things to the songs on that record, and I’m very thankful…so that’s how I met them. Long story short.

Wait, so when you were recording, that was this past December?

I recorded the record like all of 2016, so there were sessions we threw away, sessions we kept, I was working with different producers and hopping around. Cause I write a lot of songs, and I still got like 100 in the trash heap, just waiting to be used — so once I figured out the identity of the record, I knew which direction to go. And Richard Swift really helped me out with that. He was really a big help in getting me back to my instincts about recording, where some people were driving me away from those.

Yeah, it’s weird that I missed seeing you at that Whitney show at Thalia, I think I was at like a Christmas party beforehand.

It’s all good. That was a really fun show though, we had a good time — it’s weird to play for over, what’s the cap of that place, like it was sold out — it’s over 1200 or something — so it was weird that they gave me that slot, just because I didn’t have a full band, so it’s like ‘we’ll just stick a guy with a guitar up there to play for like 45 minutes and see what happens.’”

Do you ever play with them live?

Who, Whitney?

Yeah.

No, there was always talks at some point of having them play the record live one time, but they got better things to do than come do that, and that’s not a bitter thing to say, that’s just the objective truth — they have better things to do than come play my songs for a night or something.

Well, you never know.

Yeah, I mean I haven’t talked to them in a while, so I’m not really sure.

I think they’re in town currently.

I should actually text them then. [laughs]

[texting Whitney & Miles from Elmhurst-originating Modern Vices]

Wait so how do you know those guys? Through Ryan [Ohm]?

Yeah cause they’re all from that Elmhurst crowd, and so I met Miles — he actually found my record, cause Ryan did the music video for “High Beams,” and then Miles saw it and was like “holy fuck,” he likes the record and he hit me up and we just became buds after that. I’ve actually never met Miles in person still. [Ed. note: This changed after the show, I like to think I was part of making it happen.]

Oh really! Oh, that’s funny.

We just talk about random shit over text — that’s the 21st century now, though, you know. You make so many friends over social media or text and then they become IRL eventually, whatever the lingo is now.

Right, that’s how we met. Twitter.

The great spirit of Twitter.

Yeah it’s funny, me and Miles have like the exact same taste in music. Like that band Ought.

Do you like Tim Darcy’s solo record?

I do, I wrote an article about it. [Ed. note — also on Jagjaguwar, like Trevor’s.] I tried interview him, it sort of worked, I wrote an article about him…

He’s an elusive one, hiding up in Toronto somewhere.

He is. But yeah we went to the same college in Montreal, I mean I’m a little older than him —

No shit, what was the college?

McGill. So I knew we were both Americans who went up there…and it’s cheaper than American schools.

If I were to go to grad school I’ve thought about going up there or to England or something like that. The system with my bachelor’s already fucked me over — I’d be rolling in it if I didn’t have to pay student loans, that’s like my rent right now. I’m a homeless bum cause I’m touring all the time, but I still basically pay rent in the form of student debt.

Oh, that sucks. Damn.

Yeah it’s a real buzzkill. Someday. Someday I’ll get it all paid off.

Where did you go to school?

I went to school at this place called Central College, it’s out in Pella, Iowa, and that was miraculously the place that I got introduced into the music industry as well, cause the guitarist from The Killers is from there, and he saw me play and just liked my stuff, and got me in. So I don’t really belong here right now, I just got lucky and snuck in the back door.

I mean, I guess that’s how we all kind of end up there, right? Well, it’s just funny how things happen — I got into music writing cause I always liked music, but I’m not a journalist.

No, cause you got your MFA at the Kerouac School, right? Which I’m very jealous of, cause I am super into experimental colleges and stuff. Like we talked about the Black Mountain School — we need more of those, cause the avant-garde scene’s really died down in America, we need to bring it back.

We were talking about that, I went out to see Twin Peaks in Iowa on the 4th of July

Oh you went to that? That’s a great venue, isn’t it? Codfish is rad. You can get messed up there and camp and you’re great.

Yeah, it was really fun, we had a Chicago music scene party in the back there. But yeah I was sitting with Cadien and Stef from Yoko and the Oh No’s, and we were just talking about how we need to start like, a commune. Like a music and arts commune in the middle of nowhere.

Yeah, I think that’s clearly the answer, I think we have to like, leave society for a bit — we’ll come back when it’s fixed itself, I don’t think we need to participate in that too much.

We’ll have to pull a William Burroughs and move to Kansas.

I love that he had this place called The Bunker in New York City. Like, “if you like being alone, you’re perfect for a writer.” Like, “I do,” like I love that. I just like making art in my little room and not being bothered. Touring is a nuisance to me, honestly.

So do you enjoy it at all?

I enjoy the traveling, I don’t enjoy like, the experience of playing shows. Not in a sense where it’s a pain in the ass, it’s not like getting a tooth pulled, but I get joy out of making the music and my problem with live shows is that it costs a lot of money to reproduce what you make on a record. And even this record was only mildly experimental — the most experimental track, like I could never reproduce “Sedgwick” or “Andy Warhol’s Dream” live, cause those were made in such specific ways in the studio that if I ever did em, I could pull it off but it’s gonna be different, and that just kinda breaks my heart a bit. I’d rather just play the record on vinyl onstage and walk off the stage, like “there it is, there’s my performance piece right there, it’s you just listening to the record…and you can come buy it from me afterwards if you want.” It’s my marketing ploy as well.

Maybe you should do that.

I would get speared by many people that work for me, like “what the fuck are you doing.” Like, you’re not big enough to pull postmodernist crap like that. And like, fair enough.

I think maybe you’d just have to switch venues, like play in an art gallery and you could get away with it.

I would love that…I like a weird mixed bag of things. It’d be great if I was opening up for like, Cherry Glazerr, that’d be fuckin rad, cause the thing I’m doing is not what they’re doing, at all. And it’d just be a lot of fun just to mix those two things together. Or like Marijuana Deathsquads, another great Minneapolis band. So I like those weirder type of shows. The Mt. Joy boys are really great and everything, but it is kind of like we’re doing more acoustic to a fuller band thing, and I would be bored going to that, personally. Which probably I shouldn’t say, but…I’m also not a show-goer, I don’t go to shows that much. I go to parties and hang out with people and stuff, I don’t go to shows that much — what I do to support other artists is buy their shit, I’m gonna go buy the record from them so they can put the cash in their pocket. And vocally support them on Twitter or whatever, give the curation — even though my influence isn’t that big but it does help, at least a little bit.

Yeah, definitely. So where is your home base now — do you go back to your hometown?

I go back there, I sleep in the basement of my parents’ place sometimes. I stay with people in Chi, I stay with people in Ft. Collins — those three places are where I end up a lot. I’ve stayed in New York for a week or two before, just really all over the place — I’m never off the road for that long, and I just don’t plan on getting a place until I have like six months off and can justify getting a six-month lease somewhere. Part of me is just like, let’s go to Wyoming and get a really cheap fuckin’ room for six months and just write and not be bothered by anybody. Another part of me is like, I need to go to an art scene and start mingling with people more. But that’s the whole shitty thing about art and the writing scene and everything, it’s not always about how objectively good you are, it’s about who you know and what friends you have. I dunno if that’s how it’s been for you at all.

Yeah, it’s funny cause I have to make these connections cause I don’t have any official channels backing me — I don’t write for an official magazine, I don’t work for a label, so it’s really just me being a fan.

You can’t really escape the whole networking aspect, it’s pretty much impossible, no matter what you’re doing, you always have to make friends with people — I find that really weird.

Yeah, I know, it is kinda weird. That’s why I was thinking I probably met you or saw you at Frank’s house, because Whitney and Twin Peaks are always bringing people by, like people who played at Pitchfork this weekend, Joey Purp and Knox Fortune, like I remember them hanging out — it’s all the people at a kind of certain level in a scene.

That’s their crowd — my relationship is strictly like, as far as I know, we both like each other’s stuff, that’s about it…I’m kind of a reclusive person, it probably doesn’t benefit me. I dunno if I’d do well in the scene overall cause I’m too opinionated of a person, which you’ve probably noticed, like immediately berating Father John Misty as soon as you sit down at the table.

It’s okay, I’ve definitely noticed that’s a trend with a lot of musicians that I’ve encountered.

That they’re very opinionated?

Yeah, especially about music.

Yeah, you have your opinions too, it depends on how you wanna go about it. You know, I personally am a bit more vocal cause I think art has a huge impact on the culture, and I think if we promote the wrong kind of art we’re gonna get the wrong kind of culture. Like I don’t wanna hear anyone in Hollywood bitching about Trump, because they put out bad movies that make people stupid.

Right.

Like, they could be funding a Kaufman film that could be making people think, or we can put out the eighth Marvel movie, and cash in, and nobody’s really thinking about society or life or metaphysics or anything like that — things that matter, you know. And it’s okay to have your candy and your sweets, but when society is only eating garbage all the time, it’s gonna turn into garbage. And people can point their fingers about Trump all they want but I think it’s just a result of the culture. You got a culture that’s entertainment-hungry, bent on hedonism and relativism, and doesn’t value intellectual activity or challenging art, or even reading. You look at cartoons and stuff, and who’s always the elitist asshole or the dork, and it’s always the guy that’s into philosophy and books and all that stuff. It’s always a guy too, and if it’s a woman, they basically make her out to be like, to be like vulgar about it, they make her into a bitch. So every time it’s always a negative thing. Sorry about using that word, that’s like the best I could think of right now.

No, totally.

You have all these different things that they’re telling kids from the time that they’re young, that those activities are gonna lead you to be unlikeable this way or that way, and now we’re reaching a point of idiocracy or something.

Yeah, it’s true. Anti-intellectualism has just completely permeated everything.

I’ve been kind of rambling, do you have any questions or anything?

This is how my interviews go, basically.

That’s great, I love that. Just let the artist spout off and make mistakes and things like that.

Yeah, I dunno if you saw the magazine at all, online…

I haven’t, I just liked a lot of the Tweets that you were doing and was like “she’s really into music, this is rad.” I like talking to journalists cause they’re really fun, they like to talk about books and things like that.

Yeah, that’s kind of my whole thing — my undergraduate degree is anthropology and I’m kind of interested in ethnographies and histories and learning where people are coming from and what they’re interested in. I’m not writing for fuckin’ Spin, I don’t need to shape an interview a certain way or ask certain questions.

Spin would probably have better articles if they were more free-balling…you read a lot of music journalism, I’m guessing…

I have very mixed feelings about it, which seems to be the case for most people.

My problem with it overall is that it always seems to go very surface-level, like that’s why I always tell official outlets that I have to talk to them in person or over the phone, I can’t be given questions over email cause they’re just gonna shape it in a way that they want. I wanna have the ability to pull them out of that professionalism, just to get them to talk as a human being, and as a writer myself I think that makes the piece more interesting.

I did music journalism for a bit too for Alt Citizen, and I always tried to do interviews with people and make them as normal as possible, not like “what are you listening to now, what do you like do do on the road” — it’s all about this image-building, and if you’re a notable party band, they’re gonna ask you things that revolve around that lifestyle. Like me, they’re gonna ask things about sad singer-songwriter bullshit, and that’s not interesting either. They’re all entertainment pieces, like clickbait shit, and I think the biggest thing that irks me overall about music journalism is I just don’t think reviews are an objective source of how to rate music.

I agree.

I know for a fact, people in that industry — because of ties they have with labels — are sometimes like, “this record deserves like a C, but I have to bump it up to a B-, otherwise my head editor is gonna be really pissed,” so it’s like I said about “Pure Comedy,” how do we know it’s really this critically acclaimed record or not.

Or the same thing even with an artist I do really like, Bon Iver, it was obvious that Pitchfork was gonna give him a 9, I could’ve predicted that a mile away…

…Radiohead…Chance the Rapper…Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty…

I have my criticisms of him, but he’s a very true artist because he’s divisive.

Good art is divisive in one way or another. If everybody likes it, there’s something wrong.

You should be doing something that’s gonna split people…there’s definitely the Lou Reed, Bob Dylan influence on the media persona there, but it’s his own way of doing it. It’s very postmodern, and it’s very him, and it’s very clever. I’m interested to see how long he can ride it out, that’s what’s interesting — it’s like waiting to see if a car is gonna go first place in the race or if it’s gonna crash, it’s kinda fun to watch.

I feel like with him, and you, and artists who are more “intellectual,” to use air quotes, or not — you are aware of all the mechanisms in place, and it’s probably easier for people who don’t think about that or don’t care to just be like “blah blah blah, I’m gonna give my talking points to the media and sell my record,” or whatever.

Yeah and he’s not like that at all. He’s very much like, I’m gonna completely throw down the curtain and expose this…I would just do it in a different way, we go about it in very different ways. He’s like the guy I would love to — you ever hear of those old political talk shows like “The Firing Line,” that William F. Buckley used to do back in the day, there’s one of him and Chomsky going at it for like an hour — I would love to do that with him, just to sit across the chair from him. From what I can tell, he sits on a more nihilistic, relativist end of philosophy, where I’m probably more of a Platanist and objectivist, and that bleeds into our art in different ways, and I think it’d be interesting to get to the heart of that and debate about it…

Also, we go against so much of what the music industry is about, which is they don’t want intellectual stuff like what we’re doing, and the fact that he’s as big as he is is great, because it’s showing that people want to engage in something that’s a bit more high-brow, and I don’t think the industry wants that. The industry’s not really interested. I think he’s able to get away with it because he makes comedy out of it, and packages it in a way that’s really marketable, but like the essence of what he’s doing is not like low-brow, “here’s Oasis”…and I love Oasis, but it’s very different from that, Oasis is not a high-brow band.

I think about that a lot when I go to his shows, cause I don’t think all of his fans engage with him on that level.

What do you think they’re there for, then?

I think they’re there for the fact his music is pretty, and he’s funny, and he’s like a conventionally attractive person, and it’s just kind of this “oh he’s this cool dude, whatever,” but like, I see the people at those shows and I’m like, “you don’t listen to interesting music.” Like I know your market segment, and you do not listen to interesting music. [laughs]

I like one of his taglines, where he was like, “the Michael Bublé for people who shop at Trader Joe’s.”

I mean, I think a certain amount of people get it, but I don’t think everyone does.

It’s the same thing with Bon Iver though, minus the conventionally attractive thing, it’s very pretty music — that’s something I definitely rally against, I don’t want to make pretty music. I’m into this guy Scott Walker — his avant-garde stuff from the 90s forward, is really dark, nihilistic music, and it’s so beautiful. I always like stuff like that or Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits, the stuff that’s unconventionally beautiful, that’s more interesting to me than like, a pretty boy who can sing. Not to demean Josh Tillman down to that, but that is definitely a facet of his thing, like you said — there’s a lot of people out there who probably like him cause he’s pretty, and he sounds pretty, and he dresses well, and he’s very funny. I mean, our generation is so drenched in postmodernism, it’s like how we talk. We don’t even talk in a sincere format anymore, we’re constantly trying to out-irony, who can be more ironic in the room, who can be more cynical.

I do think that’s a problem, I don’t think we have time to go into my whole theory about it, but I think it’s why he’s resonated with so many young people, cause he plays into postmodernism so deeply. We are the meme culture, he is king of the memes, basically. Whether that lasts, though, I don’t know…

It’ll be interesting to see how it all evolves.

Well you probably had a class though, what comes after postmodernism?

Um, metamodernism.

Oh yeah, I’ve heard that, or the New Sincerity.

Oh yeah, I’ve heard that too. Are they the same thing?

My theory of it is that you can’t get rid of the self-awareness thing, it’s just permanently there, so you have to defy it and go back to modernism, and ignore the outside world and have the art live within that world itself, and this idea about…it’s just a defiance against post-modernism, like we’re not gonna be cynical, we’re not gonna be ironic — we’re only gonna use irony as a tool, not as an end in itself, cause it’s just a means back to what it used to be. And when I say something, that’s what I actually mean. And that’s like a criticism of his lyricism, I don’t know if he means what he says half the time. Like when he says in “Pure Comedy,” the opening track, “I hate to say it, it’s just us,” it’s like, you don’t hate to say that, you relish in the fact of the cynicism, like so many people relish in nihilism and their own brand of atheism or spiritualism — we all like to thumb our nose at the Church basically, and say “generation X and mainly the Baby Boomers can go fuck themselves,” na na na, “we’re so much more advanced than you now, you guys are a bunch of dumbasses,” that’s kind of the general attitude we have with those things.

And so for him to say it that is ironic, cause he doesn’t hate to say it, he relishes in that. And now you’re like, okay so the point is, you love the fact that everything’s meaningless — but that gets paradoxical because that would leave one in despair, obviously, cause now we’re in this temporal existence where nothing matters. So you get into psychiatry and metaphysics and all this stuff, and it really unravels into this really weird thing, to put a short blunted version of it, and that’s my problem overall with that kinda stuff. I wanna listen to “Dreams” by — I’m forgetting everyone’s names today — wow I can’t even remember her name — the album “Rumours,” who wrote that damn record?

Stevie Nicks? Fleetwood Mac?

I wanna listen to “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac.

I don’t know that song.

If you heard it, you’d know it, it’s been on the radio since we were children. Or you’ve heard “Landslide.” You know Stevie Nicks means everything she’s saying.

But is that a good thing? Is that the highest ideal?

I don’t know, that’s a good question too. I think it’s the next move, cause I think postmodernism has run its course, like David Foster Wallace was right when he called it in 1998, like, “it’s dead.” When Burger King is saying “you gotta break the rules” in their commercials, “Seinfeld” is the most popular show — a show that’s drenched in nihilism and irony and cynicism, and is self-aware of itself — and Nirvana is the king band, a band that is all about being self-aware of the industry and defying that — and it’s not the old type of punk, it’s the new self-loathing, nihilistic type of punk that’s like…ironic because Kurt Cobain wanted to be a superstar. So when that’s all in the mainstream, it’s time to switch it up — it’s no longer transgressive, you gotta find the next transgressive thing that’s gonna be sexy and be like this is gonna push art forward. And I think we’ve been stagnant for a while because of that.

No one thinks anything is new anymore.

I think that’s cause we’re in a cultural lull, we need another Renaissance to kinda kick us in the ass and do something different. I don’t know what that is, but there’s not really a new artist that’s come out in the past 15 years that I can say “this is completely original and new.” It’s really hard for me to put somebody in that category. Maybe Sufjan Stevens, maybe. But a lot of people compare him to Elliott Smith for some reason — but maybe it might be our culture, maybe we’re so obsessed with comparing things that we can’t believe anything’s original, cause we’re constantly comparing things all the time. We’re too informed as an audience, so that’s a possibility too…

I think that’s the metamodernism thing, cause we’re like aware of it, and so everything is like a comparison because we’re so self-aware.

Yeah, we’ve read so much criticism, listened to so much music or digested so much art that now we’re able to trace all the influences all the time…like if you think about David Lynch, he’s a really original filmmaker, but if we really got into film history, we could find all his tricks throughout the years have already been done.

Right, and then he’s established, so he’s his own reference point for what’s coming after him…So where do you think your music falls into all of this?

I don’t think it’s postmodern. I think this album has its influences for sure, I do mean everything I say on the record

So do you think it’s part of a tradition that’s more, I dunno…that was the whole thing with Dylan, like “is he sincere, is he talking about what he…”

I think it depends on the record, and the day, of how he’s feeling.

Right. So I feel like your music is in his tradition in some respects.

I don’t think that’s a bad place to be. People like Oberst felt so self-conscious about that. I think if you’re gonna be a sincere songwriter, I think you have to accept being a part of this chain that’s existed since modern music came into being, and the best you can do with that is make your link as individual as possible. And I think with this style of music, at least for this record, and just the popular song format, I think the biggest thing is lyricism. Cause there’s so many combinations of words you can use, it’s really infinite…Every emo band, for example, has said “your broken lips.” Or the phrase “I want you,” how many times has that been used. Ever since Dylan used the term “boots of Spanish leather,” people like The Head and the Heart and The Tallest Man on Earth have said those lines. And it’s not really individual to them, cause it’s been said before. That’s the thing that Father John Misty has going for him, is that a lot of the things he says are very original to him. And he has this huge vocabulary that he chooses to use, so he’s got that going for him.

That’s like the best you can do then. I think the lyrics are really important cause the strong structures are gonna be there — you’re gonna use the same chord progressions, music is such a limited tonal format, it’s not like I can go outside the 12 notes, that doesn’t exist. [laughs] There’s only so many pitches you can hear before you can’t hear them anymore. But kind of a long story short, I’m okay with being that, but I don’t really know — I’d rather try and break away from that chain if I can, but I dunno if it’s all in my capabilities or not. I could be anything from that to being in somebody’s obscure record collection, that’s the highest I wanna reach.

Well, we’ve also talked about the Beat Generation stuff, is that something you feel informs your writing — their philosophy or style?

Yeah, Kerouac’s spontaneous method I really believe in — I write songs in 30 minutes and I’m done with them. I only do one draft of lyrics and that’s it. So everything I write is always that one draft, that’s it.

Oh, “first thought, best thought.

Yeah if there’s an edit, it happens in the moment, and I never really go back and change things. I’m influenced in that way. And I think Burroughs influenced me in the way that the artist could be multi-medium — people want you to do one medium all the time, I think that’s boring. I’d rather work on sound collages, or films, or books, that’s more interesting to me.

In that regard — we keep coming back to Father John Misty, but social media and the Internet is almost an extension of that at this point, because it’s like your persona as the artist is existing there.

I do it cause they tell me to do it, I don’t like social media. Social media makes you feel more alone, makes you feel more isolated, and it makes you paranoid that other people are choosing to ignore you. Everybody nowadays is like “if I don’t get a text back in 5 minutes, or somebody doesn’t like my Tweet, they obviously don’t like me.” That’s destroyed our sense of communication. So I do it just cause the industry is like “you gotta promote yourself,” and I say okay, but give me money for my shit, I’m gonna do that. I don’t really care for it though, if the Internet shut down tomorrow I’d be a happy boy. I think everybody’d be better off without the Internet. I know that would probably put an end to your blog.

Yes.

You could do it the 70s punk way and print it out.

I like the Internet cause it’s so easy.


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