A Guide to Ages And Ages’ Me You They We

Rob Oberdorfer and Tim Perry take us behind the scenes of their new album.

“How It Feels

Tim Perry: The day we finished “How it Feels,” it was raining ashes in Portland from a fire in the Columbia River Gorge just outside of town. The sun was blotted out with smoke and at night the moon was red. If you talked to anyone out here, they would have told you it felt like end times. While we were recording this song, Harvey hit Texas, and Florida was waiting for Irma. Trump had blamed “many sides” in Charlottesville and threatened “fire and fury” against North Korea. It’s hard to know what to do with all of this. And amidst what seems like an imploding world, we still have our needs. We still need love. We still need affection. We still need to feel heard. This is a song about what it’s like to have these needs in what feels like end-times. Our problems may be irrelevant in the scheme of things, but this doesn’t make them feel any less real. If you’re reading this, I hope you have someone to talk to and I hope you’re able to tell them how it feels.

“Day from Night”

Tim: I wrote this song during my last few days living in a fairly shitty rental home off Going Street in Portland. It being summer, the days were very hot and the only way to keep from roasting inside was to keep the windows open, day and night. There was an orange cat named George who ruled the neighborhood. He used to walk into a bar down the street called Tiga and hang out with my drunk friends. Some nights after closing time, George would swing by my place and hop in through an open window to sleep it off on my couch. Rents rose and Tiga left, but the cat kept coming and going as he pleased.

A neighbor told me once “The last person who lived in your place died there.” I asked her to stop talking. “His corpse was in there for five days before anyone realized,” she told me. “He died in the bedroom,” she told me. I used to think about that every so often, as I lay in that room awake, wondering where he went.

Going Street was a bike and pedestrian thoroughfare. During the summer days, the noises of people chugging along to their destinations would seep into my open windows — the steady pulse of their footsteps as they walked along the pavement, the rhythmic crashing of their handlebars over the speed bumps on the road, the small snippets of conversations swirling in and out as they passed. These were the noises I heard as I prepared to move, putting my life in boxes and trying to visualize my foggy future. These are the noises that inspired this song during my last few days on Going Street, surrounded by the sounds of people on their paths at a time where mine was uncertain.

Rob Oberdorfer: Summer always seems to come on like a drug, this impending nervous excitement with an undercurrent of apprehension. I feel like we all lose ourselves a bit in the summertime, our interior lives are clouded by the rush of activity, our minds slow a bit with the heat, and a sort of a euphoric confusion sets in where you sort of happily step into the unknown. I think Tim captured all that nicely in the lyrics to this one. While we were building this track up, we did our best to drive the feeling home with the swirly psychedelic guitars and keyboards. To balance all that dreaminess, we kept the rhythm section centered around this simple loop-y (but not a loop) beat, so the whole thing feels like you’ve got you’re lost in a daydream but your feet keep steadily moving you along towards somewhere.

“Needle and Thread”

Tim: When I look out, I see our current polarized socio/political/cultural environment as one continuous, tattered and crusty piece of fabric — and here I am with my needle and thread, not so sure how or even if I want to weave myself into it all. The words “needle” and “thread” never come up in this song. Our SEO guy is pretty upset about this.* But make no mistake, this is a song about weaving, plain and simple. Maybe you’ve struggled with the temptation to disengage, but have come to find that disengaging doesn’t actually free you from the fabric, it just relegates you to some threadbare and irrelevant section — still getting strung along, but serving no real purpose and keeping nobody warm. And this is when you might say to yourself: get up, get up…

*We don’t have an SEO guy.

Rob: To me, this song Is about trying to navigate the super-saturated media soup of hyperbole and despair that we have been in recently. It sometimes feels like you’re watching a train wreck happen in slow motion, powerless to stop it. Then you begin to realize your own reaction to the train wreck is being managed and exploited. It’s just another product you are being sold, even though there arereal-world consequences. Who do you take seriously? We’ve got to find a way to navigate all that while maintaining some semblance of mental health — you can’t start drinking at lunch every day. So this is our attempt to channel all that into a fun three-minute pop song, thereby solving all the world’s problems and totally fucking saving the day for all humanity. In the production and arrangement, we just tried to keep it bouncy and lighthearted. Like you were having a really serious conversation while playing volleyball at the beach. If you think too hard, you miss the ball.

“Way Back In”

Tim: This was the first demo I shared with the band. It was comically rough and underdeveloped with hardly any lyrics except “but I’m on my way back in.” What the shit does that mean? We didn’t know yet. So after giving it a fair listen, we forgot all about it and moved on to other song. It wasn’t until the rest of the album had been written and recorded that we remembered this song and realized that now we knew what those words in the chorus stood for. Amassing all of the ideas on the record, I wrote the rest of the lyrics to “Way Back In,” which, to us at least, became an entryway into all the feelings of this record.

“Just My Luck”

Tim: “Just My Luck” is some down home stream-of-consciousness writing that, upon revisiting, seems to address my tendency to sometimes make easy things difficult. I find myself tripping through this mass of cliches, searching for something less disappointing and predictable. It’s the soft surfaces that cut my feet. It’s the easy answers that elude me. And it’s the pursuit of something mysterious and less refined that baits me and keeps me hooked in this hypnotic dance, even when it hurts. But sometimes the truth really is right in front of me. Sometimes it actually isn’t necessary to scrape at the hard earth with my bare hands to get to something more meaningful. So if I can avoid making this mistake, I’m sure as shit going to try. Let’s all try together, eh friends?

Rob: We had done some basic tracks for this one early on, and then we did the lead vocal and a couple of overdubs with Sylvia Massy at her studio in Ashland. Sylvia’s collaborator Morgan O’Shaughnessey recorded the strings remotely at his place in LA. We then discarded and reinvented the song about 14 times before the version you hear on the record. We embraced the patchwork spirit in the album version. If we had continued to work on the record, it probably would have evolved again a few more times. It’s just one of those songs which doesn’t want to settle, which fits in with the lyrical themes.

“Unsung Songs”

Tim: Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but it feels like there were two kinds of people on November 9, 2016: those who woke up feeling beaten down, sad, and angry, and those who woke up feeling super excited about their new racist President. I stepped over the open dishwasher and walked over to my recording setup in the nook of the tiny kitchen in my dilapidated apartment (probably the same room that Bieber keeps his studio) and I recorded this song about things going back and forth. All of the vocals from that morning are still in this song. We recorded the guitar solo later, asking our good friend Lewi Longmire to do us the honor. He’s a great guitarist, but we asked him to approach the beginning of the solo as though he hadn’t found his sea legs yet, like he was a beginner at life. As the solo progresses he starts to pick up steam, to stride, and eventually to come off the rails. The moral of that story? We love Lewi Longmire.

Rob: We took a lot of care in building the arc of this song. It encompasses the cycle between this reflective, contemplative state into a furious rush of activity, and back again. I know Tim wrote it with this political theme in mind, but in working on it, it became a sort of meta song for me — all the insecurity/doubt/confusion/inspiration/irrational rush which is involved in making music is reflected in a tender way. It is one of my favorite melodies Tim has come up with.

“Nothing Serious”

Tim: Soaked with the feeling that you’ll never be able to crawl out of the uncomfortable space you’re in, you’ve been there so long that you forget what not being there even feels like. Your brain tells you that you can move in any direction, but your feelings tell you there’s a cliff on all sides. Embarrassed about feeling so paralyzed, accustomed to feeling isolated, you tell your friends not to worry, it’s nothing serious.

Rob: A bouncy summer jam that questions how real you can be in the context of a summer jam. I worked to give it a boom-box-y sonic quality. It didn’t feel right to have it be terribly hi-fi.

“Hiding Out”

Tim: “Hiding Out” is about being outside in the world, but somehow remaining oblivious and insulated. Like the other songs on this record, I feel like “Hiding Out” explores in its own way how we choose to intertwine ourselves with the people around us.

Rob: We’ve all wanted to be invisible at times, and there were a few weeks where that urge became really strong. I was burnt out from the intensity of the news cycle and just wanted to cocoon myself in the studio away from the awfulness and stupidity of the world. At the same time, I kept happening on these intense scenes of people doing the opposite — desperately trying to engage in some meaningful way through protests, cries for help, grabbing strangers off the street in a drugged frenzy… all way beyond my ability to engage. Being distracted is sort of an occupational hazard at the best of times, when you are caught up in a creative project, it is very easy to turn off the world and dive into it, sometimes in unhealthy ways. It was important for me that this song not be judge-y about it, because we all have to find some kind of balance. We’ve got to do what we can to effect positive change while reserving some energy to do the inner work we’re all here to do.

“All The Sounds of Summer”

Tim: Part two in a two-part song series about feeling depressed, all the sounds of summer are calling you to leave your own negative thought patterns and go out into the world. Maybe those sounds are crows squawking, children playing, or a man with a Sarah Palin tattoo screaming at random people at a bus stop about fly-fishing. Whatever it is, put on your pants, open your front door, and walk out into that thing.

“Forever Cul-de-sac”

Tim: This song starts as a tribute to the suburban neighborhood which was my whole world for the first nine years of my life. I found out after we recorded this song that cul-de-sac is a French word and it means, literally, bottom of the bag. To me, it always meant a dead-end street that went around and around. I used to bike through those cul-de-sac neighborhoods with my friends, inventing reasons to explore. But no matter how far we went, we could never pedal our way out. So curious. So determined. And so unaware of what we couldn’t see.

Today I still find myself in places I can’t see out of; forever pushing forward, but only ever going around in circles. It feels like movement. It feels like progress. It feels like change. But when you look closely, you realize you’re in the same places but with different names and faces. It happens to Me. It happens to You. And those people out there who seem so unaffected? They experience it too. We are all here together, going around and around, struggling to break free.

Rob: This song is sort of like an onion in reverse, where nothing musically really changes but layer after layer is added to what adds up to a giant ball of musical ideas. The structure and evolution of the song are really deliberate in terms of how they circle around and around this simple idea, like a kid daydreaming in their cloistered little neighborhood or an ambitious adult caught in their own happy world which nourishes and suffocates them at the same time.

Ages and Ages‘ follow up to their critically acclaimed 2016 album, Something To Ruin, Me You They We is a statement of purpose that also served as a respite, a kind of musical group therapy, for the principle songwriters Rob Oberdorfer and Tim Perry who got together twice a week, along with drummer and co-producer Evan Railton, to cope with the daily onslaught of atrocities by writing through it. Ages and Ages continue with their offbeat take on indie-pop in ebbs and flows of optimism and pessimism but never falling into cynicism.