Rock & Roll, Talk & Soul: The Minds Behind Listener Share Their Sonic Process
15 years ago, Dan Smith embarked on a solo project influenced by the rapid-fire wordsmithing and storytelling of hip-hop. Eventually, he was joined by his best friends Kris Rochelle and Jon Terrey who have since helped Smith form what we now know and love as Listener today. With eight full-length records under their belt, the band has fashioned a stunning medley of talk and rock: stream-of-consciousness poetry howled into the ether and frenzied arrangements of hard-hitting heaviness.
Earlier this year, Listener dropped their latest album, Being Empty: Being Filled, ten tracks of high-powered rock hurtling at you with full force. We still have Smith's signature witty wordplay and profound poesy, but it's floundering in waves of prog-rock rhythms and major distortion this time. The result is entrancing, a whirlwind of in-your-face confessions told by soul-stripping techniques and arrangements designed to smack and bully and whip the senses. What's extra impressive here is that the record is actually a concept album: each track was inspired by, or focused on, an inventor (their struggles, their successes, their survival), a sort of retrospective of advancements for the future and a nod to our own ability to make things, do things, be something.
Being Empty : Being Filled opens with "Pent Up Genes," offering woozy distortion before jumping into unrelenting indie-rock percussion, aided soon by Smith's quick-spat delivery and ending with a triumphant horn section. Next comes "Little Folded Fingers," dripping in moody prog-rock instrumentation and desperately howled abstract narrative, with schizophrenic breakdowns providing extra tension. On "There's Money In The Walls," Listener craft a tender, bittersweet look at talent and the toll it can take. It opens with a puzzling swell of resounding rhythm lines followed by a soft stirring instrumental (think Explosions In The Sky) before Smith's resigned, emotional vocals join, singing gently candid lines like "This is how we live when we live somewhere / With quiet nights inside making plans to make a life." Later, the arrangement builds with a soaring urgency.
Getting into the second half of Being Empty : Being Filled, the fury and layers of "Shock and Value" act as a resuscitation, indeed shocking us to attention with bold, brash guitar, discordant melodies, and the bark of Smith inquiring (and practically implicating) "Is this what you thought it would be?" With "A Love Letter To Detroit," we're treated to more of Listener's delicate profundity but merged, as always, with percussive jolts, swells of dynamic guitar, and heavy breakdowns teeming with emotion. Being Empty : Being Filled ends after ten tracks with its longest piece, "Plague Doctor," a fantastically energetic post-hardcore effort. Smith spits aggressive delivery among layers of high-energy instrumental throbbing followed by an unrelenting fusion of classic prog-rock rhythms and otherworldly fuzziness, creeping distortion, and a jarring, agonizing percussive buildup. The song and album ends with a final plea, matter-of-fact and followed by a transcendental instrumental solo: "Help, I am alive."
On Being Empty : Being Filled, Listener devise a dizzying soundscape packed with lumbering rock arrangements and a frenzy of sharp melody almost violent in its execution. Together, they combine poignant poetics with thrashing instrumentation, a (frankly almost baffling) talent that yields some of the fiercest, most spellbinding rock 'n roll anthems in years.
The Music Mermaid: First, can you tell The Music Mermaid a little about yourselves and your work?
Dan Smith: My name is Dan Smith and I am the vocalist and bass player in the band Listener. I grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and now live in Kansas City, Missouri. I like to build things, and make music, and travel, and watch good movies.
Kris Rochelle: My name is Kris Rochelle and I play in the band Listener. We are a rock and roll band.
TMM: Listener has undergone a vast evolution: from hip-hop to talk music to rock and more, each genre seeming to weave and merge over the years. In what ways has making magic across many genres influenced your work today?
DS: Every Listener album has been different than the last one, lyrically all sorts of poetic in a way, and musically we have experimented with different sounds. Every album has come with a lot of life being lived, a lot of touring being done, and lessons learned. We have grown as people and as friends and musicians and who we are as a band, and [we] want to make music that comes from growth.
KR: It’s been nice to just sort of do whatever we feel like doing. Lots of bands are sort of pigeon-holed and aren’t afforded the opportunity to change as much as we have. We value artistic freedom and if it’s evident in our production, then that’s cool.
TMM: What was the production process like behind Being Empty: Being Filled?
DS: Kris and I got together a couple times over about a years' time to write for the album. We would each bring songs we wrote or try and make up things in the writing room, and we demoed the songs out, and then took that to the studio where we had a production meeting with our engineer and producer, and took ideas that they had for things like arrangements or shortening songs down, etc.
KR: I wrote a bunch of music and Dan wrote a bunch of words. We would get together M-F every day and just bash them together until we were satisfied. We did demo recordings of the whole album and then went to Atlanta to record at Glow in the Dark with our friends Josh Scogin and Nate Washburn. I recorded all of the music and Dan did all of the vocals. It was cool having such good friends in the studio, it was a ton of fun. We probably spent the most time just fiddling around with guitar pedals. I was nervous about the record because of the amount of work it was gonna be to record the instruments but Josh talked me down. We watched all of HarmonQuest during the sessions.
TMM: Being Empty: Being Filled dives hard into heavy post-rock instrumentation. What was the thought behind tackling (or at least cranking up) this tone?
KR: Honestly, I think Time is a Machine is more post-rock than this record. In any case, there wasn’t much thought about it. I wanted to make a Listener record with more structure to the songs. I feel like we got there. As far as cranking it up, we just wanted to match what we’ve been doing in our live show for the last six years. Our live show is really loud and fairly intense, so we tried to get it on the record.
TMM: The record is a concept album, each track inspired by a different inventor. This is a ridiculously cool idea -- what made you want to create an album devoted to this concept? Did your songwriting efforts ever feel confined by this specific approach or did it enable you to be all the more creative?
DS: Thanks! I thought it might be kind of nerdy, but I liked the confines... sometimes I used the idea looser, sometimes tighter. I definitely didn’t want it to be a history album, but more songs inspired by the lives or ideas that these inventors brought into the world. The basic idea for the record is that we all put things out in the world and they ripple out far past us, whether you make a thing or a person or an idea... your words and actions too... but we all have an effect on everyone and everything. Writing about inventors was a small way to start that idea and make it into a whole thing.
KR: I’d heard Dan talking about that concept since at least 2013, and we were all really excited about it. I don’t think having a concept hampered anything. It’s nice to have a sort of base structure to build on. Dan does an excellent job of weaving his own thoughts and musings into an already exciting story. Musically, I just took cues from the lyrical content, to sort of get the “mood”.
TMM: You’re obviously a poet -- a storyteller, a confessor. Can you tell us a little about your journey with spoken word poetry?
DS: I really used to like listening to hip-hop music. It was the first kind of music I found on my own, and I grew out of it eventually, but there is something to the way words are made in hip-hop that sticks with me. I’m not much into spoken word or hip-hop or anything like that, but I like to try and make a type of it, I guess, at least as my part of doing the vocals for the band.
TMM: In an interview with Enoch Magazine nearly a decade ago, you said that you’re “not a fan of tragedy” and that life is only ever really as hard as we make it. Can you elaborate on that a bit? You’re certainly right, but I’m interested to hear if you’ve gained any further insights or how that belief may have changed over the years.
DS: I don’t remember that interview but I think I understand what I meant. I still believe that way, but maybe not in the way I said it. I’m not sure of the question or context -- in a lot of ways perspective can be the key to living a more prioritized headspace. Good and bad things happen. Things just happen to us all the time, and living in a place where there can only be good or bad doesn’t seem like a good place to live. I’ve found that accepting and flowing through the tragedies and the successes and knowing that tomorrow will happen and be what it’s supposed to be is a way to live. Nothing lasts forever ever and feelings are not facts.
TMM: Who are three musicians you think the world needs to be listening to ASAP?
DS: AA Bondy, Pierre, Bill Mallonee
KR: The new Birds in Row record is FANTASTIC. Nathan Abshire -- it’ll make you feel good, and we need that, [because] the world is nuts right now. Jon Terrey’s solo record is super duper good.
TMM: What has been your most memorable musical moment so far?
DS: There are a lot of things I try and remember, but I’m not very good at it. There are so many rad things that I’ve been able to do and be a part of. Especially when we are on the road, things happen so quickly and often. Day after day, we are in different places and get to see so many friends and family and other bands, and get to go to festivals and fly to interesting cities and stay in fancy hotels and really bad places too, and sometimes they pop into my mind -- the memories -- and sometimes I just try and focus on what I’m doing now.
There was one cool one when we were in Denmark last summer on a world tour (crazy), and our friends were playing Roskilde and so we were helping them, and I was backstage and saw Angel Olsen, and then sat side-stage and watched the Foo Fighters play to 100,000 people. That was cool.
Or once in Cornwall, England, we played a small festival called LeoPallooza and Thom Yorke was hanging out backstage and we talked for a bit. That was nice. I don’t know... we have played some really awesome festivals and venues and with some amazing bands. My heart is happy to be doing what I do.
KR: There’s been a lot of cool moments. We’re very lucky people. Here’s one that comes to mind: I remember looking at the floor of this stage in Southampton, UK and seeing “M. Watt’s Amp” on a piece of tape stuck to the floor and realizing Mike Watt had played there the night before and just being like, “Whooooaaaaa."
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Listener?
Dan Smith: We have three more tours this year: two in Europe and our first ever Australian/New Zealand tour, then we are planning another US album release-ish tour for the first of 2019…..then we are planning on writing the next record and taking a few months off... but we are always looking to do fun tours and play shows with friends and rad bands in new places and old. Happy to be working, and making music, and playing the best we have ever played.
Kris Rochelle: We’re doing some festivals in Europe this summer, then Australia and New Zealand in October, and then have a pretty broad Europe/UK tour in November. After that we’re taking a break for the year!
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Featured photo by Matthew Morgan