SUNDAY CLASSIC GTC: MATTHEW FOUNTAIN and the WHEREABOUTS – Born On The Hook LP (Track x Track)
by Walter Price
Wedging in someplace between works by Peter Murphy, David Byrne, and Billy Momo, the new album “Born On The Hook” from Matthew Fountain and the Whereabouts is certainly one of the most interesting albums of 2017.
Crafted with a wide array of sonic textures that drive the reflective, and at times, dark lyrical content. This album is unlike anything I’ve heard this year. And although the tracks do tackle the heaviness of personal histories and angst, the focus for me repeatedly is less the ‘dark matter’ and more the structure and tones Fountain has done with the writing here. Almost any songwriter can lament about pasts and the troubles and fears that have been, but few can orchestrate songs like the ones on this release. Each track a story, tales that have obviously been mentally filmed as they were written. This sort of cinematic songwriting is a true pleasure to dig into. Dark or not. Peeling back the layers and finding new understanding with each and every listen.
To give us all better insights on this new album, Matthew Fountain has gone track by track the fascinating “Born On The Hook”.
BORN ON THE HOOK
WRITTEN ON YOUR WALL
“Written On Your Wall” is about how we never really know our partners. There’s an irony in how the more connected we feel to someone, there’s a tendency at least at first, to project onto them who we want them to be, or who we need. Love is blindness as they say. I wrote the song when I fell in love with someone while being in a relationship with someone else. We never consummated it, or even openly acknowledged it until I left that first relationship. So in a way, we kept our integrity, but in another way, I kept wondering, is this real? I kept looking for clues, do they feel the same way? Can I take that way that she’s looking at me to mean what I want her to mean? Did that word she used to describe, I don’t know, lawn furniture, betray some deeper meaning, or is it just in my imagination? “Aahlooeeooaluah” is gibberish. It’s like a sonic Rorschach— what did you want her to say? We take it to mean what we want it to mean.
“The Company” is about the splitting psychological effects of multinational corporations and mass surveillance. How they make people simultaneously strive to be both extremely controlled but also abdicate control. And how they make us both drawn to and afraid of money. How they make us afraid enough to change what we desire most deeply, and how we behave. How they make us fear those whom we love. With lines like, “It’s a capital crime to connect the accidents– keep it company” clearly thinking about the big picture is anathema to getting along. Introspection is a crime, memory is a liability. So long as your enemy is yourself and your own faculties and antennae, the demagogues can get away with whatever they want.
“The Defector” is about two spies on opposite sides of a war, who fall in love. But they don’t know if they can trust one another. “I want to pull you close, but the static might pick up / If I sleep with you I might not wake up.” It’s about fearing the person you love, and about really the power of love itself. About how when we become vulnerable to another person, truly vulnerable, we’re risking annihilation. Some people can’t even function in that state of bliss, much less once the relationship is over. So these are two weary and wary souls who’ve found each other and are gasping when they should be sighing, and vice versa.
“Rose” is a “Purple Rose of Cairo” story. A man falls in love with a character in a movie and keeps watching it over and over again to reconnect with her. The female character inside the movie drops a locket off a bridge and dies leaping off it to retrieve the locket. She sacrifices herself for the photograph of someone, for an illusion. Similarly, the man watching her is slowly creeping towards death as he keeps himself transfixed to the screen. He too sacrifices himself for an illusion. The theater is even compared to a tomb. They’re both failing to face reality and embrace the uncertainty of real-life and love.
BOOKKEEPING FOR THE WORLD WAR
“Bookkeeping” is similar to “The Company” in some ways. It’s about how the threat of nuclear war is so difficult to face that we force ourselves to think small– about minutiae– in order to function from one day to the next. We’ve all become little myopic bookkeepers of completely extraneous details– hence “counting drops in a downpour”. And, like in “The Company”, our psyches are split between our conscious realities of jobs and family life and the threatening undercurrent. So when the war does break out, it’s both true that it “happens out of the blue” and “you saw it coming a mile away”.
The song was inspired by Herzog’s “The Mystery of Kasper Hauser”. When the prophetic, enigmatic hero dies, a little man writes down details about the hero’s physical aspect, as if the size of his kneecaps will reveal anything about the source of the hero’s wisdom. Herzog himself in interviews has made a distinction between the “deeper truth” and the “bookkeeper’s truth”. So we relegate ourselves to the bookkeeper’s truth when we’re not brave enough to face the deeper truth.
In “Telltale Heart” the rational, reasonable part of the brain is speaking to the irrational, imaginative part. It’s a person trying to talk themselves out of starting a relationship. It’s similar in spirit to Bob Dylan’s “Heart of Mine” i.e. “Heart of Mine, be still. You can play with fire, but you’ll get the bill.” And the connections with the Edgar Allen Poe story are, for one, like in most of my songs, love is partially a destructive and fearsome force, and the narrator has feelings of guilt over even considering a relationship that is doomed, he thinks, to fail. And also because, well, it’s already too late. The narrator in Poe’s story is trying to rationalize a madness that has already taken over. And in my lyric, it’s too late for this guy too. His monologue is an exercise in futility because he’s already in love.
“I’m an animal. I wanted to love you but I needed a meal. Turned into a beast looking for my ideal. Now I can’t forget your name was Imogene.” This song is about a spiritual crisis. It’s about one of those moments in life when all signs point one way, all external energy is pointed one way, and everybody believes you should go one way, and if you don’t go that way you’re just creating chaos and destruction for those around you– and yet only you on the inside know that you have to go the opposite direction.
The spirit and the flesh are at odds in the song, the narrator wants to do the right thing and stay with their partner and love them. And yet, the narrator has to do what’s in his nature, which is to eat her alive. No one on earth would think it’s the right thing to do, and yet he must do it, no matter what they think. The name “Imogene” for the victim felt right to me– it sounded like a very old name like maybe this keeps happening to these two people over and over throughout the ages. The title of the song was originally “Cannibal” but it made my mother cry, so I changed it to “Animal” to make it more palatable to the listening public (sellout!).
THIS IS KNEELING
This song is about abdicating control and living in the present. And trying to become stronger by becoming more vulnerable. All of my songs are about being drawn toward what you’re afraid of, or the fear of being annihilated by what/who you love. Two sides of the same coin. When I thought of that riff first, and the words, “Honey are you braced for this? This is kneeling.” I played it for my girlfriend, and I think partially in order to prevent me from asking her to marry her she suggested I figure out multiple meanings for the phrase “This Is Kneeling.” Then I remembered Harry Nilsson’s rules for songwriting, one of which is never written “honey” unless you really really have to.
So once it became “Tell me are you braced for this” instead of “honey are you braced for this” it became easier to make it about the relationship between the listener and their own conscience. “Sometimes you’re granted more than you’d dream of stealing / sometimes you’re born on the hook and released in the reeling” is the line that I wrote and thought, okay maybe I actually am a good songwriter, this is actually good. It was the best line I’d written in any song up to that point. It gave me more confidence in seeing the album through. That’s one of the reasons “Born on the Hook” is the name of the album.
OPEN TO A LIGHT
This song was written as a pep talk to myself, to give myself confidence about becoming a performing musician. And also, like in “This Is Kneeling”, I’m suggesting to myself to become vulnerable even knowing ahead of time that horrible things will happen to you. As in, I know that I’m going to screw up a thousand times, but go do it anyway because it’s better than the alternative. “You love the cruel world, you don’t hesitate…. You are open to a light flooding the tomb.
You know that poetry is sweetest by the light of the shattering moon. It’s not mercy you’re begging for, you’d rather take the pain. You are a hero in this light, you will have a taste for wounds.” I keep repeating “you will” because it’s not something destined, I’m not describing the kind of person I am– but rather I’m trying to force myself into being the kind of person I’m describing. It’s an affirmation, a prayer.
[first published on 20. December 2017]
MATTHEW FOUNTAIN and the WHEREABOUTS
Born on the Hook + This Is Kneeling film
Produced by Matthew Fountain, Paul Laxer, and Jeff Stuart Saltzman
Mixed by Jeff Stuart Saltzman
Mastered by Adam Gonsalves at Telegraph Mastering
Vocals, Guitar, Bass, Marxophone – Matthew Fountain
Piano – Becca Schultz
Upright bass – Sean Vinson
Drums – Nick Werth
Violin – Shannon Rose Steele, Diana Bright
Viola – Amanda Lawrence
Cello – Samantha Kushnick
Trumpet – Eric Stipe
Vocals – Lizzy Ellison, Sarah Clarke, Johanna Warren, Ana Hurtado-Gonzales
Recorded at The Map Room and the Falcon Art Community in Portland, Oregon
Strings recorded at Mississippi Studios
Dancer, Choreographer: Candace Bouchard
Director: Alex Fournier
Camera: Artem Ponomarev
Location: Alison Greenberg
Concept: Matthew Fountain
Thanks to Decater Orlando Collins
“Portland’s Matthew Fountain and the Whereabouts’ hooky, cinematic song noir is lowing an eerie foghorn through their native Land of Ukuleles. Their 2016 debut, “Born on the Hook”, co-produced by Paul Laxer (Typhoon) and Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Y La Bamba), fuses densely arranged chamber folk, moody, syncopated grooves, and angular, runaway-train guitar work– all set against a weary-traveler baritone lead vocal and direct-yet-poetic lyrics about life’s mysteries and anxieties– love, war, eternity, identity. Their wide range of influences includes Leonard Cohen, Talking Heads, Portishead, Harry Nilsson, Björk, and Elliott Smith.” – bio