Andy Stack is primarily known in the music world as one half of indie powerhouse Wye Oak, delegating his limbs to drumming, keyboards, and programming, typically at the same time. With Release the Dogs, his solo debut album as Joyero, Stack takes his musical experiences from that project (as well as time on the road and in the studio with Lambchop, Helado Negro, Thor Harris, Madeline Kenney, and EL VY) and pushes his music forward across adventurous landscapes and into a more lyrically personal territory.
The backbone of “Alight” is a drum machine run through some distressed, dubby delays. The drums expand, contract, and flutter— and occasionally they get caught in their own gears and grind to a halt. That same morphic pattern runs parallel through the lyrical theme of the song. It’s about a person grasping for connection, acceptance, love, and reaching for a light in the dark, but inevitably falling a bit short, getting chewed up and spit out.
Since the moment I wrote it, “Dogs” has been the central statement of this collection of songs. It’s a front porch ditty, written as I sat outside my old house, trying to beat the heat and aloneness of West Texas. It’s a simple melody, and when I play it live, I often choose to perform it a cappella, stripped of its facade. Ultimately, “Dogs” is a love song, but like all the other love songs on this record, it’s tinged with an undertone of danger, lonesomeness, and ambivalence. The song is a play on domesticity and domestication, similar and yet opposing forces, equal parts kindness and control. For this song’s music video, I wanted to capture the caged animal energy which inspired its creation, so I collected all of my friends’ pets, put them in a box and observed them under the lights.
Occasionally, the synapses in my brain go weird and sideways. It feels like I’m looking at my life from underwater, all the lines slightly distorted and unfamiliar. This was the feeling I was trying to evoke on “Starts,” as I made a pretty mundane portrait of domestic life: gardening, baking, making the bed, feeding the dogs, etc. Nothing’s out of place exactly, but it all exists in a gauzy dream sequence which occasionally skews a bit dark. And all the while, the hot sun beats down from above, evaporating the water, and baking the life out of whatever has been planted.
For as long as I was working on this album, I would go running, first out in the Texas desert where I used to live, and later, around a swampy lake in North Carolina where I live now. There’s been this image which I’ve associated with this song all along, of running full tilt, all alone, through the desolation. Not exactly running away, or being pursued, but more so running as proof of existence. That’s what this song is about: existential affirmation, flailing around in the void for long enough that you learn to glide or dance.
For the music video to this song, I staged a rendering of this vision. I ran for a very long time on a deserted farm road outside of Marfa, Texas, filmed by my good friends in a Subaru Forester. That part of Texas is at about 5,000 ft. elevation, and I was wearing leather boots, so my lungs and my feet were quite unhappy with me by the end of the day. Then I went to Baltimore and, with the assistance of my father, built a rig where I could fall about 10 feet down, splayed out like Superman, onto a mattress and a bunch of empty boxes. For the video shoot, I did the fall something like 35 times, each time knocking the wind out of me. My whole body was seriously unhappy with me by the end of that day. But the upshot was a great visual representation of the void-flailing which this song, and this record, are all about.
“Salt Mine” is a song about the persistence of physical memory, or my own “Tell Tale Heart.” As I was finishing up this record, I considered naming it “The Body Knows,” a lyric from this song. It’s sort of a hackneyed, new-agey sentiment, like “trust your gut” or “the body is a temple.” But it still resonates deeply with me, this idea that you can feed yourself stories, build up defenses, but ultimately you probably will end up back where you started, dredging up from the depths something you’ve been trying to hide.
My friend Madeline (see “After You” below) likes to play a game where she characterizes everyone into one of four categories: good man, bad man, good boy, or bad boy. Everyone is one of them.
“Small Town Death”
There was a rash of deaths in my own small town, some tragic and some senseless. At the same time, the town was getting the star treatment in a series of articles, television shows, and movies, each one making me fall a bit more out of love with it and making me wonder what I saw in the first place. Parallel to all that was my own searching for connection and meaning in place where human connection could be few and far between, and the spaces separating us were very raw and inhospitable.
I was reading a book about the the half-life of atomic waste which is something like a million years, and the impossibility of language to be able to warn future civilizations about the dangers of the material which we’re collecting and depositing in mountains and landfills. Also it was the early days of the Trump administration and there was lots of braggadocio about walls and invasion and whatnot. This song lives in some sort of emotional distant future hellscape which comes from both of those places. But it’s also a love song. Somehow it’s both hellscape and love song at once, and this is ultimately the conceit of this whole album.
Also, I should mention, this is the only song on the record which features a performer other than myself. It’s the wonderful Madeline Kenney, the Oakland to Durham to Oakland again musician (and creator of the aforementioned man/boy game) who has been a generous collaborator of mine for the last 18 months or so. She graciously did some ghostly “ooh-ing” on this song, which turned out to be the very last cherry on top of the tracking of this record.
Some kind of moral is reached: “Time don’t move backwards; it only moves forwards. What a shame.” We can reframe it, change location, employ all sorts of mental trickery, but ultimately we arrive at the same existential truths. Dang.
Release the Dogs is out Friday August 23 via Merge Records.