Joe Strutt of the Mechanical Forest Sound blog sat down with Jakob Rehlinger, of (BABEL, Moonwood, Reverend Moon and also) The Urbane Decay to discuss the ’90s, personal identity, mercurial nature of memory, grunge typography, and Canadian nerdcore.
In a moment of admirable modesty, Jakob realized that he probably couldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) interview himself for this column on the release of his Urbane Decay EP, so he asked me to pinch hit. Intrigued as I was by his liner notes (and, I suppose, the music as well) I agreed to meet up with him on the patio of the Victory Café. Jakob had some manner of fancy beer in a goblet-like glass. I had a radler and was not mocked for doing so, which I thought was a good start.
For those of us who know Jakob in his latter-day bearded/hooded weird-music making manifestation, it takes a bit of adjustment to realize that a younger/beardless*/hoodless version of him had a fairly straight-ahead grunge-inspired (and occasionally new wave) band. (* though there might have been a goatee involved) The “mainly maudlin and mopey” Urbane Decay was mostly active between 2002 and 2009, and its bandcamp offers a slightly-baffling variety of releases with a variety of Young Jakobs emoting furiously in various degrees of earnestness and glumness, his piercing gaze almost daring you to just fucking feel the depths of his angst and heartbreak.
A comeback single for the project last summer has now lead to a new EP. Unsurprisingly, this is the work of a different musician and songwriter, exchanging heart-on-sleeve emotion for a more refracted (and dare we say mature?) recherche du temps perdu. Is it nostalgia? Yes but no — there’s a nestling here into the past’s warm bosom, but at the same time also an intense awareness that our idealised reconstructions of the past are not at all like the past itself. This is something that I used to think a lot about, and this is where our conversation begins…
All right, we’re chatting about the Cellophane EP. So, besides the musical element, the philosophical basis of this release is: “identity is a lie”. Correct?
[laughs] Do you mean, like “the concept of the EP”? It’s not really the concept of the EP, it’s just how it ended up.
You got to that by accident?
I got to that by accident. I didn’t intend for that to come across as an artistic statement.
Maybe just because I totally engaged with that…
You’re referring to the liner notes, where I talk about going back to my late teens, early 20’s, and being like: “this is all the music I listened to and I’m paying homage to it.” Then I realized: no, I actually listened to Barenaked Ladies and Crash Test Dummies and MC Hammer at the time. I had Hüsker Dü tapes and stuff, but none of the majority of my daily listening is mirrored on the tape. So it ended up becoming a lie, trying to make myself seem cool. [pause] Street cred and all that.
So, you really need a tape that shows your Barenaked Ladies and Timbuk3 influences.
I guess I could record that… or maybe I did! Maybe that really comes through as well. In my mind, this sounds like a really bitchin’ kinda Sugar meets Bleach-era Nirvana/Chapterhouse thing but maybe it just sounds like a slightly-distorted Timbuk3. [laughs] Or like Chad Kroeger fronting Barenaked Ladies or something horrible like that. At a certain point, my conception of what my music actually sounds like to other people is completely off… like, I completely missed any kind of Bob Mould influence on that tape until Ken from Everything is Geometry said, “yr Urbane Decay tape is very Bob Mould. I dig it.” And I was like, “yeah, you’re right. It’s all Bob Mould riffs!”
Grunge will out.
Yeah. I intended it as grunge with a little bit of Madchester and all that stuff from that period that I still enjoy listening to. As opposed to what I was literally listening to on a daily basis. There’s not a lot of Pogues in there. I listened to a lot of Pogues. But there’s no tin whistles.
And so is this just something that was just dying to be pushed out of you? Or was it a theoretical exercise?
It was a complete whim. Last summer, I was going back to B.C. and I knew I’d be seeing Ken [from Everything is Geometry] and we’d been part of an indie-rock scene together, so it just got me thinking about that kind of music. And then I just had this urge to write and record some of that music. So over two weekends, I recorded the EP. With five or six other songs I abandoned, ’cause they were horrifically bad. I didn’t sit around and come up with a concept, just “I feel like recording some late 80’s style indie rock.”
Did you get into a specific mind-state to do this? Did you just sit and play riffs, or did you have a grunge notebook with ideas for these kinds of songs?
From being in grunge bands and stuff back in the day, I just knew how to play the riffs. And from all my other previous attempts at shoegaze or whatever, I just knew what kind of chords to use. For the music, I’d sit down and write some riffs and the more immediate and the less I thought about it the better it would work. Some of the lyrics were stuff that was left over from the Reverend Moon album and I just sort of tweaked it a bit to be a little less apocalyptic and a little more…
Well, there is a sort of… not quite a worldview, but a world-sense to it, ’cause “taste” comes up in almost all the songs…
I suppose. I didn’t really think about that. But there were a lot of references to pizza and vomit. There’s a sort of extra set of liner notes that are going in a cheaply photocopied fold-up, sorta of the time, and I was writing some pretty pretentious liner notes for each song as if it was a re-issue thirty years on, like Lou Barlow looking back to a Sebadoh album talking about what inspired his songs, and after I was like, “wow, it’s all about food!” Food and cars or something. Weird things that pop up that I don’t know are important themes to me, but somehow I associate them with those times. I dunno.
And sound-wise, did you have specific effects and stuff that’s different then your normal setup?
Well, the guitar sound is definitely very different than what I would do with Moonwood… I tried to make it as not-psychedelic as possible, but retain a little bit of that psychedelia that alt-rock had, the tracings… all grunge guitars have a bit of a Hendrix sound, or a Tony Iommi sound, just de facto by their influences. With Moonwood, I generally try and blow that out and make it as psychedelic as possible, so I tried to strip it back. I tried to make it sound lo-fi without it actually being lo-fi. That was probably the most contrived part of it, making it sound like it was recorded on a four-track cassette though it’s actually a digital recording.
You didn’t wanna go all the way back?
Considered it. But I wanted more editing ability. There isn’t a lot of editing I ended up doing, but I wanted the drums to not be all on one track and be able to have them sound… good. [laughs] I’m not really a fan of lo-fi. Mid-fi I like. Lo-fi, except for the times where it really works well… there’s only a few true masters of lo-fi sound out there. Maybe Lou Barlow.
And there’s a lot of crappy, crappy Lou Barlow.
Yeah, on the writing end and the recording end. I guess it was more when Sebadoh went more into that mid-fi range, before they went hi-fi, there was a lotta magic there, and that’s the kind of area I was trying to re-create, if anything.
I had some era-specific regrets about some Sentridoh stuff I bought.
Yeah, I don’t think I ever found a single Sentridoh album I could get behind. And the worst part about that is I feel like it spawned so many people who felt it was totally okay to do that, and it just killed lo-fi as a genre.
You talked about the idea of coming late to the cool stuff. I know I got into Sebadoh a little later. I never heard III or Freed Weed when they came out, but I was into Harmacy and Bakesale.
Bakesale is definitely the one I came in on. And I was resistant to get into it. I can’t remember why… I think I thought the graphic design looked so shitty… that intentionally cut-up bits of National Geographic ’90’s graphic design… the intentional slacker we-don’t-care aesthetic bothered me for some reason. But once I got over that, that album is amazing. And Harmacy is kinda bad.
I haven’t revisited it, which maybe is good. I remember it was still a fairly big deal at the time when it came out.
It’s not bad. In retrospect it’s kinda lackluster where Bakesale and the three before it really hold up.
As a designer, you must have essays to write about the evils of “grunge typography“.
[laughs] I don’t know. I think I kinda got over that. There’s such a nostalgic pull toward the really terrible typography that’s on Superchunk records. I really like it in its own way — the poorly-kerned used of Helvetica, and stuff like that… stretched type, like on a Mother Love Bone tape… it’s horrible but I have such warm, nostalgic feelings for it. What I didn’t do for the graphic design for this tape that is very 90’s is like a black box with reverse type on it. I was going for more of a shoegaze look for the graphics.
The British stuff I was mostly not into at all at the time. I somehow just missed out entirely.
In Vancouver there was a radio station that played almost exclusively Britpop and Madchester stuff, in ’89 to ’91 when they went off the air, I think. Maybe ’92. So yeah, I was totally into it, ’cause I turned on the radio and you’d actually hear it. This was actually a commercial radio station, which was a weird thing… that was where I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and stuff, just played as part of their top 40. Way early on, super-early adopters, it was bizarre. If I didn’t have that experience, I certainly never would have heard Stone Roses, probably. Just wouldn’t have been something that would have been on my radar, ‘cept for some reference I saw in a fanzine or something. But it was getting played all the time on the radio. And I was, “wow, here’s this great new band from Britain.” And I sorta got into that whole scene through them, and it was, like, all I would listen to. When I wasn’t listening to Crash Test Dummies, of course.
It was particularly resonant when you talked in the liner notes that the Barenaked Ladies being the true face of Canadian DIY, ’cause that was so huge…
Well, totally. That’s what made me believe I could put out my own tapes, and that that would be a viable option… At seventeen, I was so anti-major labels and getting signed, I had this idea in my head that if you were going to be on the major labels, first you had to have your own Yellow Tape. [laughs] And if you got a record deal that way, that was okay, but otherwise… [pause] I was seventeen. I was crazy. I had no idea how the real world worked at all. So my band had our Blue and Red Tape.
At that time, they had distribution at HMV, so even in Winnipeg — or B.C., I guess — you could go and buy this independent tape…
…which was on this shitty, photocopied yellow card stock. It was horrific, everything about it. What was the graphic, like a hot dog? A hamburger? Some sort of shitty, hand-drawn graphic.
They were a band with the worst graphic design sense ever. I mean the Gordon cover…
Well, that 3-D, CGI graphic of a bouncing ball? That’s amazing. [laughs]
Amazing’s one word.
“Regrettable” is another.
But that was all such a big deal! The Yellow Tape, and then, at the same time, that “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” video…
…which is actually really good. It’s, like, the height of their actual artistry. Maybe because they didn’t write the song. But also far, far better than a lot of stuff than Bruce Cockburn’s ever done.
And they had legit cred! Billy Bragg was covering them!
The worst thing about them, though was… I was a fairly big, without thinking about my motivations for it, Housemartins fan for a little bit. And I was driving a friend somewhere, and she goes, “is this Barenaked Ladies?” And I suddenly realized, “oh my God, Housemartins sound exactly like Barenaked Ladies.” Where in my mind, Housemartins were like The Smiths, but jauntier. But really, they’re like a happier Barenaked Ladies. And it just destroyed that band for me. They’re like Barenaked Ladies with good graphic design, maybe.
And a socialist agenda. But the real worst thing about Barenaked Ladies was that they opened the door for Jian Ghomeshi.
[laughs] Yeah. That Moxy Früvous tape is another thing I didn’t put in the liner notes but that… I mean, I had the triumvirate: I had Barenaked Ladies, Crash Test Dummies, and Moxy Früvous in heavy rotation in my car. As were N.W.A. and Nirvana, but I had a solid Canadian nerd-rock element in my listening, with no trace of irony. I thought it was bad-assed awesome. “King of Spain”, what a great jam! [laughs] “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors”, that’s such a clever song!
That was where I drew the line. I did not fall for Moxy Früvous. I must have just had the right mix of other random influences.
I also had the misfortune of having a girlfriend at the time who also loved that tape, and I think maybe I could have skipped over it or had a passing fancy without her influence, but I think I kinda gotta own the fact that I enjoyed Bargainville. [pause] A lot. [pause] Probably wore that tape out. It’s… horrific. [pause] In my defence, I didn’t know who Jian Ghomeshi was, I didn’t have foresight or even know he was in the band when he was the host of CBC’s Play and I started hating him immediately. But there was no Moxy Fruvous shame in my hating him. It was genuine — I just disliked that man from the get-go. Except for Moxy Fruvous, which I apparently thought was delightful. [laughs]
And it comes out in the EP.
I think some of the lyrics are just as goofy as anything those bands wrote. I mean, I probably can’t get away from that. Or I dunno, maybe I did do a reasonable facsimile of cynical slacker lyrics. I find the lyrics on the EP quite hilarious myself, but it’s supposed to be more deadpan hilarity.
It’s also just the sort of hilarity that is also something that a nineteen year old could take so seriously.
And anyone else would be like, “dude, just take off the black shirt already.”
Interred Views is a series of interviews with Arachnidiscs Recordings artists. This interview was conducted by Joe Strutt.