You don’t want to meet your favorite musicians because they’re all assholes. In the hellscape wake of Kanye’s near-religious awakening as an alt-right MAGA zealot, you’re really taking a chance meeting anyone whos ever sold you an album.
You’re going to suffer through lyrics about stupid celebrity stuff like “tweakin’ off that 2CB”, defending Russell Simmons, or hiding a newborn child from paparazzi. Trust me, it ruins the whole mystique when your favorite rock and roller parries your post-show parking lot interception when they flick a lit cigarette at your crotch and peels out on a 1979 Honda CB with some really sick drop handlebars.
And that’s why I keep coming back to Paror Voice. Because after three vastly different full-length records that bounce from alt-rock, to lo-fi garage, to basement-prog and back, they’ve never insulted anyone. Ever. Not once. Well maybe they have, but they’re one of the few local bands I regularly listen to of my own free will for a dose of truely literary lyrics and thoughtful Pavement-like riffage.
Singer and guitarist Johnson Cochran has been releasing material as Parlor Voice since 2016. For two albums Cochran had written and played every track himself, but on At Night the Trains Sound Like Music, Parlor Voice’s third album, he rounded out the band’s lineup, bringing on Spencer Brown on Drums, Daniel Hickey on bass and Sam Steenwyk on guitar.
The band’s newest EP, Vainful, moves away from the abstract 4-track recordings they’ve built a discography on while retaining that Guided-By-Voices-meets-Third-Eye-Blind sound they’re known for. And if you’re one of those people who walk around real fast in a David Byrne suit yelling “time is money!” into their phone, first off, don’t be that person, and secondly, Vainful’s five songs make for a concise, poppy-in-all-the-right-places EP that, and I really mean this, leaves you ready to listen to it all over again.
I talked with Cochran about Vainful, his band’s ebb and flow in identity and Parlor Voice’s foolproof six part plan for absolute world domination.
DT: Rice Cakes for the Unsettled, Parlor Voice’s first record, came out two years ago. What do you remember about making that album?
JC: I think a lot of my records have that nostalgia element, and that record especially was reflecting on my college experience and processing it because I was about to leave college and didn’t really know what to do next. I was heavily into, not just during the first album but the last three, this band called Guided By Voices. I had also just bought a Vox AC15, because I was very into Third Eye Blind. So those two bands have kind of shaped that record for me.
Your second album, Birds We Should Know By Name, sounds like it’s taking what the first record did and making it weirder. Was that growth something you were thinking about?
Yeah. That record actually came about very unexpectedly. My grandfather passed away at the end of the summer of 2017. At my grandfather’s funeral and during that whole week of sort of preparing and carrying out his funeral I wrote that album. That record is definitely the most emo. [Laughs.] It is sort of an homage, a eulogy. And it’s also the first record I made on a four track.
How does your last release, At Night the Trains Sound Like Music, fit in your discography?
I think Trains is an amalgamation of the first two records, but I think that my three albums sort of go together as a trilogy. I do believe that this next period of Parlor Voice is sort of like a new chapter. I’ve bookended these three albums.
What’s this new chapter for Parlor Voice going to look like?
That’s a really good question and to be honest I don’t know. [Vainful] is definitely the first album that to me doesn’t come to any grand statement, not that the albums before really did.
Let’s talk about Vainful. How did you decide on that name?
I like words that seem real but aren’t. In this case I was reading something and misread a word as “vainful”. I like it because it’s evocative without being descriptive.
How do these songs break away from the trilogy of your past work, how do they sound different to you?
To me they feel like taking a blanket off one’s head. I knew we had to forego the cassette recorder treatment to bring out the immediacy of these songs, so that accentuates the difference. The wall of sound that we’ve developed is still there but it’s less claustrophobic now.
Vainful is full of restraint. It’s not exponentially sweet all the time, but when it’s catchy or chorusy it’s catchy to the nth degree, but only for a moment. Was that intentional?
I think it was. We pulled the noisiness and guitar gain down which is out of our comfort zone, especially for my lead guitarist Sam. [Laughs.] It was an exercise in deprivation, like, “what’s the least amount of gain we can get away with here?”, which produces a certain urgency, and I also think it lends those catchy moments some extra pop.
But on the other hand, we showed less restraint on this EP by letting the songs run longer–something we’ve been loath to do in the past. We let the ideas breath a bit more in the hopes of finding something more resolute in the end.
Do you like writing short? I feel like there are a lot of bands that drag that songs out but Parlor Voice isn’t one of them.
I think early on that was something I was combatting, pushing up against: the four minute song as, like, standard. That’s sort of the cultural consensus, that a three and a half to four minute long song is normal, but I want to say for pop songs two minutes is perfectly enough time. Or even a minute and a half, some of my favorite Guided By Voices songs are 45 seconds.
Vainful is less abstract on its surface than the last three releases. What do you attribute that to?
I love abstract imagery and non-sequiturs, and I was committed to an otherworldly aura in the previous three Parlor Voice records, but I guess I’ve started to want Parlor Voice to exist in a more familiar space. I think I’ll always write fairly oblique lyrics, but I’ve come to appreciate straightforward structure and identifiable narrators as well.
“Separate Peace” is full of dissonance. The first time I listened to it it really wigged me out, but since then it’s become my absolute favorite song on the EP. Why’d you choose that song to the open the album?
Since this EP marks a new direction for us, we wanted to begin it with the biggest sign of change. It took us a while to warm up to “Separate Peace” ourselves, so you’re not alone.
“Days I’ve Missed” seems like a song about a relationship lacking in communication that results in a lot of wasted time, or at least a certain level of disconnect with anything going on outside of the relationship.
Yes, that is the narrative, but within the song are vignettes which range from fondness to ambiguity to grief, which hopefully combine to create a sort of neutral nostalgia–a clear-eyed remembrance. If some people find the song mostly forlorn while others find it more romantic, I feel like I’ve done my job in some respect.
I love this line in “Oliver!”: “Bad things come to those who wait,/ refuse to leave town,/ take their punishment late./ I have an expensive habit,/ telling truth from your lies.”
I’m glad you asked about this line! It’s the first line I wrote, and built the rest of the song around it. It’s about grappling with flawed truisms like “good things come to those who wait” that have been ingrained in oneself. Like, that’s true sometimes, but this song is about someone who has settled into a perpetual “waiting” which will never beget fruit. They can’t tell the truth from a lie, and they bemoan an ambiguous “other” who delivers faulty advice to them.
“Promise of Port” sticks out to me as a very straightforward song among a group of more Parlor-Voice-esque songs. What does it bring to the EP?
The Third Eye Blind flair. [Laughs.] It’s fun and loud.
On your last three records there’s some religious imagery and satire. Are you a religious person?
Gee, I wonder if my parents are listening to this. [Laughs.] For the record I don’t consider myself a religious person anymore, but I was at one time. I would say another reason why the first three records are in a trilogy is that all of them contain some religious imagery, and that’s me dealing with my residual protestantism. I don’t believe song writing should be therapy, or necessarily always is, but I do believe part of my songwriting process was working through my own departure of my own religious background. I don’t think I’ve put in any religious imagery in this new album, and that’s intentional.
There was a time when you were the only one writing and playing everything on these records. Has the writing process changed as you’ve transitioned into a full band?
Yes, I think with Trains there was an element with me where I wrote the songs and I was like “okay guys, come in and play these songs that I wrote and play them my way or the highway”
Did you feel weird about that?
Yeah, I don’t like being a taskmaster and a bad cop. But for this new album as I’ve played with these guys more I’ve picked up on things they do really well, their stylistic inconsistencies they bring to the music and I’ve started to craft songs with that in mind and made room for Spencer to bring in his finesse-style of drumming and Dan has these wonderful arpeggiated bass lines that he loves to do.
So you moving towards a more collaborative process?
Yeah, I can leave room because I know Sam is gonna wanna do this on guitar and I can leave space for Dan and Spencer to do their things. Just getting to know them better has helped change the style of the band.
We’re having a release show for the EP tomorrow at Witch House. Then in August we have a 25-day tour of the Midwest and East Coast. Then we have a few Grand Rapids shows in September and October lined up.
You can stream Parlor Voice’s Vainful right here on SkipFiction and on their Bandcamp.