Jon Barthmus is one complex songwriter; a force to be reckoned with. Since working without outside influence or contribution on his Sun Airway project, Barthmus has significantly shifted his sound from the material we heard on 2010 debut ‘Nocturne Of Exploded Crystal Chandelier’. The songs are expansive, often shrouded in mysterious instrumentation, abstract off-turns, all without teetering into the realms of artistic snobbery.
DIY was fortunate enough to get a good amount of Jon’s time, in which he describes each and every song on his forthcoming ‘Soft Fall’ LP.
The album opens with ‘Activity 1’, a 55 second rush of synths that gradually rises into ‘Close’. Did you always intend to open the record with ‘Close’ and did it seem like the right thing to do to ease the listener into the song, or are the two not connected?
I knew that I wanted to start the record with ‘Close’ and that I wanted some kind of short instrumental piece that set the tone for the album. ‘Activity 2’ was initially meant to be that piece but as it developed it felt a little bit too long so I dropped it later in the track listing and tried again. Even then I had another one that I was working with that’s sitting around somewhere. I tried to build it out of pieces pulled from other songs on the record so that it would give an overall impression of what’s to come. The strings are pulled from symphony in white and over my head, the bells from laketop swimmers, some synths rebuilt from synths in black noise and new movements, a percussion snap from ‘Activity 2’ And then I made sure it was in the same key as ‘Close’ so the two could transition smoothly.
‘Activity’ is actually separated into three phases. Why did you decide to call them all ‘Activity’ and why did they all amount to being instrumental pieces? Did you ever consider placing lyrics on top of them?
I love the instrumental songs on the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ and how they break up the album. I wanted to give it a shot, so I started with what is ‘Activity 3’. It developed pretty quickly and I was really happy with it. I liked it so much that I thought about putting vocals on it, but decided to keep it as is. The Activity titles I stole from an artist friend Alex Da Corte. He had a series of photographs that would feature people engaged in some kind of bizarre act. One had a shirtless man with his mouth stuffed with strawberries and the juice streaming down his face. I just always like his naming convention for those and thought it made sense for these since it felt more like I was sitting down with a project with set parameters.
Tell us about ‘Close’, it’s maybe the most frenetic, energised song on the record.
The main part of ‘Close’ is one of the first things I did for the record. It started with a New Order guitar sample (that I ended up recreating) and that driving beat. I was really thinking about what I wanted for the record in general and I wanted it to be heavily orchestrated so I brought in those classical music samples to build a string section. For a while it only existed as a loop of those early parts but I loved the energy it had. Lyrically I was thinking a lot about David Foster Wallace, who I’d been reading a lot of and had fallen down some serious rabbit holes watching interviews with him online and it became something of an obsession for a little while. He talked a lot about this devastating kind of loneliness which potentially led to his suicide. The song is sort of written from that perspective but also mixes in some of the surreal elements that weave in and out throughout the record. For me, the bassline really drives the song. The reverse guitar solo thing is a pretty obvious reference to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ because that title kind of ties together the whole uncertainty of everything.
‘New Movements’ seems to be about a specific someone; someone who you can’t quite get your head around. Lyrics like “you explain too much” suggest this. Would this be the right interpretation?
The main visual influence for the album is Versailles. I would stare at pictures of it constantly and all the crazy ornate rooms and hallways. I started to picture it in some kind of surrealist alternate universe where things are just floating around and it’s an infinite expanse where everyone lives and it’s outside and inside all at once. Because of the Versailles influence I had France on the brain a lot and was reading a lot of Andre Breton poetry which was hugely important to this record lyrically, but also watching a lot of Godard films. I’ve always love Breathless and Band of Outsiders and these kind of romantic/criminal heist type movies. ‘New Movements’ is kind of about that, but with a more classic American film noir type femme fatale. But it’s also existing in this surreal world where one can turn into glass. So short answer, no it’s not about a specific someone, just a surrealist heist romance concocted in my head.
What made you convinced that ‘Wild Palms’ belonged on the album despite the fact that you’d released it as a standalone single last year? Did it form a blueprint of sorts for how you wanted the album to sound?’
‘Wild Palms’ really did lay the groundwork for the rest of the album. It was the first experiment within the parameters I set for the whole thing. It was always intended as the first piece of the album. The only reason we released it last year was just to get something out and not lose momentum completely between the two albums. But the album version also has different vocals and a lot of upgraded and replaced sounds and was mixed by someone that knew what they were doing. Also, I usually take an extremely long view of things. I’m thinking about in 20 years when looking at this album it won’t matter that a version of ‘Wild Palms’ was released a year earlier. Both ‘Wild Palms’ and ‘Symphony in White’ belong with the other songs on the album.
‘Laketop Swimmers’ is drenched in warm synthetics and it’s a very expansive, dense song. Was the intention to make something as beautiful as possible, what with all the string sections you apply to the track? It also sounds extremely sad - what’s the prevailing emotion of this song?
I guess I’m usually trying to create something as beautiful as possible. I was originally working on ‘Laketop Swimmers’ with the intent of making it one of the quiet, less dense spots on the album which obviously didn’t work out. I wanted the track to swell and breathe on it’s own and somehow feel like a physical space. Lyrically too it’s a bit abstract and more visual but overall it’s a fairly hopeful song. It’s definitely not intended to be sad but there is a kind of longing in it that might cross wires with melancholy.
‘Soft Fall’, the title track, is for me quite an abstract song. I’m not sure whether the title is relating to anything negative, and the lyrics themselves seem quite ambiguous. Tell us more about it.
I thought of the lyrics for ‘Soft Fall’ after I first came across the artwork of NAM, the japanese art collective that created the album cover and interior images. I saw their work in a magazine and thought it fit perfectly what I wanted to express with the album. They had a series of photographs called ‘fantasy in reality’ in which people and objects were just floating around these environments. The people in the images looked like they were completely at peace with the chaos around them. I got in touch with them and asked them about doing something for this album and explained the inspirations for it and we were immediately on the same page. So the song soft fall is meant to most literally describe the universe that the rest of the album exists in. People floating around, disappearing and reappearing, melting down into liquids, fading in and out of focus. It’s meant to explain that what may seem like bizarre metaphors in other songs should be taken literally as well, setting the tone for the mysterious environment that the listener is stepping into.
‘Black Noise’ has vocals higher up in the mix than they are at any other point of the record. It’s also my favourite track on the album. I’d say it’s the most hook-filled song on the record - would you agree?
I guess it is. The song as it was developing was unintentionally sounding like the most ‘pop’ thing I’ve ever done so I just went with it and pushed it even further in that direction. I wanted the chorus to be huge and the vocals to be loud. Even so, the concept is a bit odd for a pop song, a love song to the silence of a radio tuned to dead air.
‘Symphony In White No. 2’ is another track where you sing about someone else. Are the lyrics ever personal to your own experiences or do you prefer to sing about other characters? How come you applied the Symphony title to this song?
The title of this song was lifted off a painting by James McNeil Whistler. He had a series of paintings with musical titles that partially inspired the name of the last album. I liked the idea of referencing his music-inspired visuals in visually-inspired music. In general I like to sing from different perspectives and create characters and situations but they’re usually informed by my own life and experiences and emotions. That said, this one is more personal.
‘Over My Head’ is a very positive way to finish the album; there’s a very cacophonous application of almost every single instrument that’s involved in the record overall. Why did you choose it to close the record?
‘Over My Head’ went through the most transformations. I have versions of this song that are almost complete and bear little resemblance to what ended up on the album. Once I settled on this version though and added the choir samples and orchestration and saw where it was headed I knew I wanted it to be the last song. And once I knew that I wanted to really build up the ending into a massive climax of colors and textures. Lyrically too, this comes from the same place as new movements but it’s sort of the triumphant final scene where everyone disappears into someplace they didn’t even know existed. They’ll never be seen or heard from again but they’ve got each other.
Sun Airway’s new album ‘Soft Fall’ will be released on 2nd October via Dead Oceans.