Because Songs Matter

GREGORY MCKILLOP – LITTLE DEMON ON THE BACK SEAT

Gregory McKillop - Little Demon On The Back Seat - coverWelcome to 2015, folks: meet the New Year, same as the Old Year. But even though the calendar which binds and contains us was installed by Pope Gregory XIII to make sure that Easter stays on the Spring Equinox (the better to celebrate with you my dear), it doesn’t mean we have to throw away the transformative features of feeling like you are in The Future…or at least The Present.

This year I wanted to dedicate myself to finding new music. Choosing records made by artists that have been drunk with your favorite bands is appealing for a while, but doesn’t have any legs. Spotify’s “New Release” playlists are a complete joke; the service doesn’t allow you to just see any kind of list of all newly added records. For my search I turned to that old standby: Bandcamp. I clicked the ‘Discover‘ button right on the top of their website, then ‘Folk’ and ‘New Arrivals’. A record cover caught my eye and when I clicked it, it started playing.

It turned out to be an excellent way to choose an album.

Gregory McKillop was the front man of the band Speaker For The Dead for years, and it transformed from himself and a guitar into a wandering home for musicians of all shapes, sizes, creeds, and instruments. He left it amicably to go solo again, and released Little Demon On The Back Seat on the potent date of December 31st, 2014. It’s the perfect kind of record for the end of one year and beginning of another: introspective, irreverent, and in the artist’s own words, “heavy”. I guess if you had to apply a genre ‘folk’ wouldn’t be too far off, but it wouldn’t hit the mark either. McKillop’s voice vacillates between a keening pop-punk sound, a fast almost spoken tempo, and clear ringing tones. The songs alternate between different traditions and tropes, with any hardly staying in the same time the whole way through. This record is an artist attempting to represent himself completely, in both lyrical and musical content, rather than stay married to one style.

This is an album dedicated to the idea of maturity, and the realization that even if you aren’t a kid any more you’re never done growing up. It’s part cautionary tale, part call to arms, and part diary. McKillop is dissecting himself over 15 tracks, and it causes us to think about ourselves. The prologue “The Fool” (one of many references to Tarot over the course of the record) says it explicitly: ‘This is not a song/About how I have no regrets”.

Little Demon On The Back Seat is a sprawling record, as heartwarming and fun as it can be harsh and heavy, with the resignedly optimistic “Bitter Punk” on one end of the spectrum and the four-part saga of “The Hanged Man” on the other. A note about McKillop’s music, evident especially in the song “This Is What Self Defense Looks Like” below: this is an album by a gay artist. That doesn’t make it a ‘gay’ record, doesn’t put it into any box or take it out of any other box. The beauty of sad bastard songs lies in empathy, ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. If a love song written by a man about a man affects your opinion of the song, maybe you need to check in on your understanding of love.

Though McKillop’s experiences are different from our own, the music he’s written about them touch the same parts of our own hearts and minds. This record is Micah Schnabel’s I’m Dead, Serious from the other side of a mirror. There’s the feeling of necessary self-immolation, of a catharsis that comes through slow trudging work rather than one brilliant moment of inspiration. McKillop has been a touring artist for a long time and plenty of his musings involve playing music, including my favorite turn of phrase on the record:

‘Whether you’re flying free as a bird,
or if you’ve been trapped inside that same old
god damn burg: a town they dared to call a city.
Well my friend: there is magic on the road,
and there is magic should you choose to stay at home.
That’s why they rhyme’

I reached out to Gregory and asked him some questions about his music and music culture, and he was kind enough to get back to me. I’m going to collect my thoughts and post more about that later, but give you a hint: this is an artist who has a lot to say, and Little Demon On The Back Seat is a wonderful example of that.

Check out his record over on Bandcamp, and like his Facebook page.

 

00. The Fool: Maps On Depressional Magick     
03. Barbed Wire Song     
05. This Is What Self Defense Looks Like     

11 Comments

  1. January 9, 2015    

    Those songs sound good. I can hear how you could really dig this record. They also remind me of Sour Boy Bitter Girl.

  2. clyde clyde
    January 9, 2015    

    Lordy that’s good listening, thanks. Put em up on your soundcloud account. tweeted, tumbled stumbled

  3. January 10, 2015    

    Looking forward to listening to it! I wanted to point out (as a gay human) that the queer experience IS different than the straight experience…especially when it comes to love, self-concept, and self-love. You’re right to point out that it shouldn’t have to matter — I can listen to Kierston White’s breakup songs about men and empathize, and I can listen to Micah Schnabel’s references to growing up blue collar in the Midwest and relate, even though I grow up in the 1% in New York City.

    There are smarter people than me who have debated about politicizing art but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a gay album because he writes about his own experience, which includes being gay. And even if it was a “gay album” (I’m assuming you mean an album that has explicit political themes), so what?

    I’m also curious as to why you pointed it out at all (I have a whole section on my blog for queer artists, so it’s not like I have a problem with literally labeling artists in this way.) On the one hand, it made me more likely to listen to it, because, like anyone else, I’m always looking for music that more easily relates to my experiences (why should I have to take a man’s love song if I want to declare my love for a woman? Or change masculine pronouns from a woman’s song about a man?) On the other hand, it also gives some readers permission to skip it. If someone is seriously going to lose their shit because they realized some of these songs are about dudes, why does Ninebullets need to be responsible for that? I know you didn’t mean it that way but it’s almost like throwing up a “viewer discretion warning.”

    Lastly, I hope you don’t mind if I point out an unintentional — I’m not sure what the word I’m looking for is, oversight? — in the way you addressed McKillop’s sexuality. I do this because I love your writing and you’ve been an incredible addition to Ninebullets. I hope my comments will continue to hold you true to your amazing writing. You write that “Though McKillop’s experience may be different from our own…” Who’s “our”? From where I stand it sounds like you’re assuming everyone who reads this site is straight. Stastically I can’t be the only queermo who reads this blog. Unless, of course, you’re using the plural to be journalistic? Even so, isn’t this also true for any artist you and I will ever write about? We all have our own stories.

    It sounds like what you’re really trying to say is “there are themes on this album that I’ll never be able to relate to because he’s gay and I’m not, but that didn’t prevent me from resonating with this album.” And if that’s the case, welcome to the experience of virtually every gay person listening to love songs.

    I hope I’m not coming off as an angry lesbian or anything like that. I know if someone wrote a wall of text like this on my blog I’d be freaked out. My intent is to gently point out the implicit assumptions that I’ve read in your post and my gentle disagreement with them. Identity is often difficult to talk about and, as a white person who works in a minority community, I often find myself puttin gmy foot in my mouth. I hope my comment will help you refine the language you use rather than discourage you from talking about identity issues at all. You’re great and keep up the great work!

  4. 'wolf' di chiara 'wolf' di chiara
    January 10, 2015    

    Hey Rachel!

    Dope ass comment. A few things: I’m gonna respond to this comment here but also email it to you because this is a conversation I definitely want to carry on.

    I was 50/50 on if I should address his sexuality in the review at all. In the end I decided to for a few reasons: I think diversity is worth noting in a genre that may not usually be diverse, his sexuality is heavily referenced as a topic in his songs (as well as the liner notes about the record), and it segued into another conversation that I wanted to have with my audience, albeit rhetorically because they’re not actually here. I definitely didn’t want it to be a ‘viewer discretion warning’; originally I mentioned it at the end of the review, but thought that made it seem more foreboding and moved it further up into the body. My wording may also be a little ham-fisted, but it’s hard to say “here is a thing about this record that should not be a factor in your appreciation of it, but is a major theme and necessary to understand”.

    I’m glad you brought up the “our” issue as well, because that is the other part of the conversation I want to have with the audience! So I don’t know who reads 9b. I don’t have access to the analytics, and it’s probably for the best because I might get obsessive about them. My experience with the ‘readership’ is primarily from meeting people at shows, conversations over Twitter, and a few comment conversations like this one (FUCK, Phineas, I keep forgetting to email you back man and it’s been literally a year and I’m so sorry). The most recent meetup was the White Water Tavern Holiday Hangout in Little Rock, where a bunch of the 9b writers were there, in addition to a lot of the people I interact with the most on and around the website. It seems to be the same cross-section of people I see at most of the ‘genre’ shows too: almost all of them are white, most of them are straight, a good percentage of them are dudes, a lot of them wear plaid, and some of them have beards. In descending order, you’re looking at a bunch of people similar to myself. It’s not a rule, so there aren’t ‘exceptions’, but it can be pretty easy to tell who a majority of the audience is.

    When I wrote ‘our’, that is the audience I was speaking to. I’ll write something else up on this later (including quotes from a conversation with Greg that I really liked), but I get worried about inclusiveness. I get worried about this group of people that I love not venturing outside their bubbles, because it can be really easy to only listen to sad songs by white dudes who used to be in punk rock bands; that’s a trap I almost fell into myself. I guess it’s chagrining (is that a word?) an audience for the sins of the writer, but I wanted to get the point across to people like me: keep your ears open, listen to everyone, because everyone has something to say. When an artist is different, it may get a little easier to say “oh, that’s the GAY singer-songwriter, and while I don’t have a problem with that I don’t really want to listen to a GAY record right now” which is a really self-deceiving kind of discrimination.

    I want to see more diversity in the shows I go to. Some of that I can change by just changing up the shows I choose to go see, and that will solve the problem for me. But I’m also concerned with the future of the scene I love, with wanting it to expand and grow more diverse over time, which isn’t going to happen if the next few generations of bands are all white dudes with the same tattoos singing similar songs.

    Even if that’s a concern, the possibility exists that I got too preachy, and was concerned for no reason. I haven’t seen a single person say they wouldn’t go see Against Me!, for example. I could have been trying to force an unnecessary argument and been needlessly combative. I have found it difficult to walk the line between ‘progressive individual’ and whatever the latest term for ‘white knight’ is. I don’t think it’s my job to advocate for The Cause, but I also don’t want to leave anything unsaid if I feel I have a responsibility to say it.

    Thanks a lot for your comment and the conversation it started: I think it’s an excellent one to have.

  5. January 11, 2015    

    Hey Rachel & Gabriel.

    Thank you both for this discussion, for your willingness to dive in, to think and to explore. I hope you’ll both continue to have the discussion here because I’m interested and others probably are or will be. I have a few thoughts to add but I’m going to save them until tomorrow.

  6. January 11, 2015    

    Rested now are ready to jump in.

    One of the things I was thinking about as I read all of this is about our (the three of us) as blog writers. We dance around the line of being journalists, fans, advocates, columnists and it’s often a difficult a distinction I have a hard time making in my own head. The truth is we aren’t trained as journalists and don’t have editors and that sometimes leaves us susceptible of falling into traps.

    They way I think about writing about and album like this (most likely unknown to most of our readers) that I’m trying to introduce it, trying to say whatever I can to make the reader hit the play button. And sometimes when I’m writing a review like that I’m throwing everything at the kitchen sink. Part of that with this record is the sexuality of the songwriter. And one of the pitfalls of that method and of being untrained ‘journalist’ is not being aware of best practices in language or how best to include information in a review.

    One of the things I try to do in my review, and might be one of the things Gabriel was trying to do, was leave some things open-ended to spark conversation. One of the hard things about being a music blogger is trying to write down the conversation you would be having with someone about and album if they were sitting in the room with you. I would never say everything I thought about a record before allowing the other person to say anything but unfortunately that’s what we have to do here. BUT thankfully there is a comment section for people to join the discussion. I for one, wish people used the comment section on nine bullets more. I wish people would engage in having a conversation about the music instead of just saying the like it or don’t like it.

    So this review has given us (the three of us but hopefully more) to have a conversation about this music but about broader issues. Rachel, I would encourage you to talk a little more about presenting or mentioning an artist’s sexuality (or other personal information) in a review and in how that experience does make the music different. Not because you didn’t earlier but because it’s a worthwhile conversation.

    Finally, about the “our” statement. Like Gabriel, I hope this musical community (which stretches well beyond 9B) is willing to stretch their musical tastes. I think listening to a broad spectrum of music informs us about ourselves and our neighbors. I also wonder about our “typical” or “average” reader here and my only evidence of that reader is antidotal. But I often find myself writing with that reader in mind and the pitfall I succumb to with that is I get to sounding like I am defending a record more than talking about a record. Some of that goes back to the first thing I said about trying to get people to hit the play button. What I’m really trying to do is give the “typical” reader a way into listening to something because I believe our mindset and expectation plays a large roll into our original impressions of music. And again, this is a pitfall of the fan/advocate/journalist thing.

    Finally finally, I missed the line about McKillop being gay when I read the review the first time. And now I want to listen more to see if I can find more understanding about his worldview as an artist.

  7. January 11, 2015    

    I want to respond to both your points in full, but I’m trying to help 28 high school students write their own 7-page argumentative research papers, so I’m very sympathetic to the idea of what the writer WANTS to say and how it actually comes out right now. 😉 I’ve read both of what you’ve said and I’ll try to respond tonight, if not tomorrow. That being said, you are both really amazing for being receptive and open to talking about this. 🙂

    First of all, there are plenty of trained journalists and established publications who have not updated their standards and practices. I see this as stemming from a culture of defensiveness when it comes to pointing out mistakes and a culture of anger among marginalized communities who act like everyone else should know better and is being deliberately antagonistic, rather than giving the writer/publication the benefit of the doubt. That being said, there’s a lot of pretty atrocious coverage of trans* people out there right now. I was pleasantly surprised that the music press was much more careful and sensitive when writing about Transgender Dysphoria Blues than a lot of mainstream journalism is when it covers trans* stories. The TL;DR is it’s not just you guys. It’s about a broader need for education around language.

    Secondly, I hadn’t read the liner notes or lyrics before typing what I had said. Greg is quite upfront about how his sexuality has shaped his musical career in the hardcore/emo scene and these are big themes in his work. Also, “Self Defense” drops the f-bomb like there’s no tomorrow and Greg himself provides a trigger warning for that. Greg doesn’t keep any of this a secret.

    The short version of what I’d say is that if I was writing this review and writing from Wolf’s perspective, I’d summarize what Greg has to say first, then write what Wolf wrote above. Without that context, it’s pretty much what I said above. It sounds like you’re uncomfortable with how Greg’s sexual orientation impacts your reception of the album. But in point of fact, part of Greg’s intent is to put his sexual orientation in the open and make it a point of discussion.

    In other words, it’s not easy for the reader to see from your post alone that you’re responding to a question that Greg has intentionally posed.

    As for how to include analysis of identities, what it means for our “scene,” and how to incorporate it into music writing, I’ll return to it either tonight or tomorrow. I hope others will feel free to contribute as well. I think it might be worth making an open thread. I’m happy to put something on Adobe and Teardrops but you guys have a much larger readership than I do.

  8. January 12, 2015    

    Hey everyone, cool conversation! My name is Greg, I wrote the album and am super thankful for such a great review of it (this is the first time that a reviewer has ever ASKED ME to review my album rather than the other way around, woo goals!)

    Anyways, obviously before I start weighing in on this, my opinion obviously does not represent the opinions of all queer people, etc etc etc. Also, I am far better at writing songs than I am at writing things out in longform, so forgive me if things seem a bit scatter brained.

    I often go back and forth about whether to add “queer” to everything I do. There are all sorts of reasons: I have a weird emotional relationship to the queer community, and often the line is very hard to draw between the boundaries of “promoting to be inclusive and make people feel comfortable” vs “promoting because you know putting “queer” on something will get folks out to shows”. This is something I struggle with all the time: even as a white cisgender gay male who has faced violence myself, I still have shit tons of more privilege than other queer folks I know. Do I get to fly this flag? Its a difficult thing.

    I do know though, that I very much enjoy it when people writing about me or writing about my music include my sexuality in their articles. When I was growing up, I never went to gay pride, or anything like that. I had a lot of internalized homophobia, even when I accepted myself and came out and all that jazz. I thought that by going to a gay pride parade I would just be surrounded by a bunch of limp wristed fairy boys. Obviously now that I grew up, and am older, I realize how harmful and violent that attitude was, even as a gay man. If I had gone to any of those things sooner, I would have (a) been able to have friends who were gay growing up, and (B) gotten rid of all my super bigoted opinions faster. And I would have probably attended them if there had been some punk or hardcore band playing, or something like that.

    So in my forwards and in my music, I def try to put myself out there as gay so that if there is some kid like me (when I was a kid) who has shitty opinions can maybe come and have more of a chance to get rid of those shitty opinions faster than I did. So I am super glad it was pointed out in this review.

    As for the “we” thing, I had just figured it was in reference to the team behind Nine Bullets, and maybe they are all straight. But I can definatly see how that might make someone uncomfortable.

    Thanks everyone!

  9. January 12, 2015    

    Hey, Greg! I hope I have the honor of being the second person to ask to review your work! This album is incredible!

    OK, so here are the rest of my thoughts. I tried to categorize them a bit.

    The Scene — This is the quickest. For better or worse, this corner of Americana lies at the intersection of two genres that have traditionally been exclusionary, if not hostile, to non-straight, non-white, non-guy humans. I don’t think I need to discuss why sociological and historical factors have made country a white genre. Similarly, sexism, racism, and homophobia in the punk and hardcore scenes is well-documented. Little Demon is one of many artifacts of this.

    I think it goes even deeper than that, though. As I wrote on my blog (http://adobeandteardrops.blogspot.com/2013/02/where-ladies-at.html) a little while ago, the primary emotions in this genre are sadness (from the country songs) and anger (from the punk songs.) Women aren’t really allowed to be angry — we can express justifiable rage (like Carrie Underwood in “Before He Cheats,” and even that song is more smug than anything else. The singer is distant from the initial feelings of violent rage), or we can be sad about things that are done to us (see all of Patsy Clyne), but that’s very different from expressing impotent anger or sadness. It would be great to see more female songwriters who write more than love songs, and it’d be great to see more POC involved in folk and folk-inspired music. It’s a problem way bigger than this cowpunk stuff, but that doesn’t mean we can’t avoid doing our part to figure it out.

    So what’s our responsibility as bloggers? I guess it’s to make sure we feature multiple types of faces and voices on the blog as often as we can and as long as the music is actually good. Did you guys notice you posted D’Angelo and then Mr. McKillop? I thought it was diversity week on here. :p Speaking for my own experience, I’ve noticed for the last few years that the most of the artists (and, consequently, most of the people on my year-end top 10 lists) I write about have been men. I didn’t make a conscious decision to feature more women, but I noticed that this year the gender ratio was a lot more balanced on my 2014 list. I’ve also featured more POC artists than in the past. I guess the change was really more about being more thoughtful with respect to representation than in the past — I’m also more open to diversity of music in general, which I guess includes who the artists actually are as well as genre.

    Identity in Music and Writing — At the end of the day, you have to let the artists speak for themselves on this one. For example, to my knowledge neither the Alabama Shakes nor Gary Clark Jr (for example) have explicitly discussed race in their music. So to make a point of Brittney Howard or Gary Clark’s black identity seems a little weird to bring up. On the other hand, Alynda Lee Segarra (Hurray For the Riff Raff) has written songs about her non-white identity. It’s salient to her music so it’s appropriate to bring up in the context of a review (though, more specifically, if that song is being discussed.)

    This is actually something that most of us navigate every day to some extent or other, I’d think. I made a conscious decision to be out as a teacher, and while I ran the risk of being the “gay teacher,” like Greg, I thought it was important to make that aspect of my identity known. But if I had chosen not to emphasize it, it would be inappropriate for others to discuss it.

    Part of white privilege (or wealthy/male/straight/cis privilege) is assuming that the white experience is normative. A lot of the songs we post on our blogs about coal miner strikers in the 1800s, small-time farmers, and recently laid off factory workers in the rust belt are very much about the white working class experience, but we’d never characterize these songs as “white” music because it doesn’t occur to “us” (as writers? As white people? As residents of Middle America? I’m not, thank goodness) that these are unique experiences.

    Sometimes the story really does matter. I recently reviewed an album by Marca Cassity. If I had only listened to it and looked at the cover art, I would have assumed it was a pretty nice album by a butch (possibly gay) lady with some empowering and uplifting music and a possibly naive appropriation of Native American music thrown in. Turns out Cassity is Lakota (which explains the Native American influence) and two-spirit (traditionally, many Native tribes recognized that there are some people who are born into one body but spiritually/emotionally encompass the other or other genders, depending on who and when you’re talking about.) Cassity’s enormous struggle to accept herself and to be accepted by others — on top of being a member of two of the most reviled minorities in America — and making it out alive adds so much more weight to the songs beyond their just being good music.

    So the route I’d take is just what I tell my students to do — quote or paraphrase the part that’s interesting to you, then write your own interpretation. Lyrics are supposed to be discussed and interpreted (and if the artist doesn’t want that then they’re doing it wrong.) Framing it as a dialog (in my mind) makes it much more likely that others will be invited to contribute. But it’s also important to frame your opinion as what it is — YOUR opinion, and not the assumed experience of others.

    I hope that didn’t come across as preachy! That’s just how I do things, I guess. 🙂

    • January 12, 2015    

      Thanks for thinking the album is good! feel free to review it, and send me a link so I can repost it and be proud 🙂

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