If Luke Temple’s description of the process behind 2013’s Good Mood Fool —”prolonged spontaneity”—sounds like an oxymoron, just listen to the album. That should clear things up. Temple spent five months on a farm in the Catskills, surrounded by rabbits, sheep, alpaca, and goats, and came back with nine songs that radiate every which way from the hushed, mesmeric template of his band, Here We Go Magic. Good Mood Fool feels more like a mixtape than an album—a collection of overlooked gems from the last few decades, with Side A designed to wake you up and Side B reserved for night drives and low lit bars. Through it all, there’s the voice: originating high in the back of the skull, gliding over synth-pop, gauzy slow jams, and Harvest-style folk with equal poise.
Three years ago, Here We Go Magic teamed up with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to record their third album, A Different Ship. Expectations were the highest they had been since HWGM’s breakthrough 2009 debut, and tensions between bandmates were approaching critical mass—two members quit after the album was finished. Spontaneity, prolonged or otherwise, had taken a backseat to creative and personal damage control.
When we got together early this year, at a quiet bar just off the East River in Greenpoint, Temple talked about Good Mood Fool‘s beguiling details (e.g. the robotic female voices in two songs) and dark corners (lyrics referencing nuclear war and a recent national tragedy). Along the way, he opened up about Here We Go Magic’s near breakup, the band’s new lease on life, and the importance of letting go. And Steely Dan.
The Rumpus: How connected were you to the rest of the world while you were upstate?
Luke Temple: Not at all. I feel like I’m still adapting to society. I went feral a little bit. I found that when I would get back to the city, if there was any second-guessing about stuff, it would happen here. The energy of this place—it’s so hard to complete your thoughts here. I didn’t notice that until I left.
Rumpus: Were all the Good Mood Fool songs written up there?
Temple: Um, yeah. All of them except for “[Hardest Working Self-Made] Mexican.” That was written before. At first I was doing this kind of intense, kind of heavy rock thing. I wasn’t connecting with it, and then I wrote that song “Florida,” and that was like the beginning of the rest. I wrote that as kind of a joke ’cause I was like, I can’t just write a soul song, you know? We all have fun faking jazz or these things that you don’t really take seriously, but I think being there freed me to indulge my whims. Once I let myself go there, all these ideas started coming.
Rumpus: Did any trace of that rock sound make it onto the album?
Temple: Not really. I had these kind of krauty—I hate the word now, it’s so overused—like Pere Ubu or Numbers Band [ideas], fundamentally rock but with tension there—arty rock, pushing —but it didn’t really spill over. I think I realized I was trying to make this music that really needed to be made with an ensemble. That kind of vibe, there’s a freshness that’s not going to be there if you just try to overdub everything.
Rumpus: The song “Katie” has samples of a woman’s voice saying things like, “That was good, slave.” Tell me about that.
Temple: We almost couldn’t use that. We had to get it cleared. We traced it back to this Russian pornography company based out of London, which I think was probably mafia, but they ended up letting us use it. It was a girl reading from a graphic story that she wrote about pleasing a man like a call girl. And she’s in this really submissive role in the story, letting him dominate her, and so we just took her reading that story and chopped it up. I like how she sounds kind of detached and robotic almost, and that was something I was wanting to showcase in the song: the detachment of pornography. The other song that we had samples on was “Those Kids,” and we didn’t actually end up being able to clear the samples we originally had. They were from The X Factor, and my label just refused to even risk a potential lawsuit, even though there is no way, no way anyone would have ever known. So we had my friend Binki [Shapiro] come in and read from a teen magazine and we sampled that. It came out fine. God forbid, if they wanted to sue me, you don’t want to go up against Simon whatever the fuck his name is.
Rumpus: What inspired “Terrified Witness”? Most of the songs have pretty contemporary references, and then this one seems to go back to World War II.
Temple: One night I was in a YouTube hole, watching atomic explosions, and I woke up the next day thinking about it, and I just wrote it. It’s not like a protest song or anything. I was just thinking about Hiroshima and how that actually happened. I had never really thought about that—how we actually did that. Just eradicated 50,000 people in the blink of an eye. The fact that we’re capable of something like that is just crazy.
Rumpus: A lot of songs on the album are about specific, identifiable things. Was that a conscious decision?
Temple: Yeah. I saw this quote by Steve Earle that said, “Write about what you know. Everybody knows something.” And that was it, that was my motto. It was just good to remember that I have experienced my life. I have questions about things, be they very mundane. So I was waking up every day and writing in the morning and then recording at night, and whatever I woke up with on my mind, I would write about that. It’s inexhaustible, you know? I have to remember that again ’cause I’m writing now, and I’m kind of writing more opaque. Which I can like—I like images, and I like melody; that’s the most important thing to me. Sometimes when things are overtly topical it can kind of take me out of the fantasy, you know? So I think it’s good to have a blend of both.
Rumpus: The song “Love Won’t Receive” seems to be about a school shooting. Were you upstate when Sandy Hook happened?
Temple: Yeah, that, yeah. I think you’re the first person that has said anything about that [song] being related to that. Granted, not many people have heard the record, but no one’s talked about that in reviews.
Rumpus: I’m shocked by that. It’s a moment that really stands out lyrically.
Temple: That’s an interesting one because it’s almost a disco track or something. The beats per minute and the bassline’s really bouncy and then the content is so sad. But in my mind it was like a song you could almost dance to but then on closer inspection you realize it’s talking about something really grave, and so it kind of tricks you into being absorbed. It was like using the tension between those two opposites, the feeling of the song but then the content. But I wanted to be respectful of that situation and not make it tongue-in-cheek, so I hope it doesn’t come across that way.
Rumpus: A lot of the songs have that light/dark dynamic. Any particular songs inspire you to try that?
Temple: Not specifically. I always try to have an element of that. Usually I try to portray that with just the harmony and melody. Like, Here We Go Magic’s really into never being overtly major or minor. In technical terms, we tend to stay away from the third of a chord, the note that describes whether it’s major or minor. So there’s a suspended feeling. I was indulging in the third on this record. I was letting it be really major or minor. But there wasn’t any [song] in particular; I’m only thinking of that Steely Dan song where they talk about getting drunk and dying behind the wheel, and smuggling cocaine, whatever that song is. The end of the chorus just says, “Die behind the wheel.” That’s pretty dark.
Rumpus: But it’s a smooth rock song.
Temple: Yeah. People underestimate those guys, man. That’s such subversive music. It really goes in that schmaltzy direction musically, but that shit is so weird. It’s really psychedelic music in a more subtle way than overtly psychedelic music. But I wasn’t thinking about them either. I was listening to Here, My Dear, that Marvin Gaye record, and Bulgarian Women’s Choir, and Curtis [Mayfield], a lot of soul stuff.
Rumpus: You wrote about Cass McCombs for The Talkhouse, praising his rawness and “artistic freedom” in an industry that demands consistency and predictability. Do you feel like you captured some rawness on Good Mood Fool?
Temple: I think so. I mean, it’s different. I have more Paul McCartney in me than Cass McCombs: I want to arrange things more. Cass is more of the Dylan lineage. He’s a storyteller, and music is his vessel. And the record I made was all overdubbed, so it wasn’t truly spontaneous ’cause I labored over balancing everything and creating these little structures, but in terms of capturing the mood of that time and the energy that I was in and the flow, the continuum of that time, yeah, I got it. I wasn’t being critical of myself in the way I can normally be, and I was letting myself follow through with stuff. It was like a prolonged spontaneity. That was a contradiction, but it was a spontaneity over five months that was just this continual thing, and then it just ended. I had no ideas left. It was weird.
Rumpus: What do you do with yourself when you’re not writing?
Temple: Man, I’m just online too much. I drink too much. A lot of bad things. Obviously I attach myself so much to my songwriting. If I didn’t attach myself to that being my sole attribute, then I would be fine with those. It’s just like I get this identity crisis: my body doesn’t want to write, my mind doesn’t want to write. Nothing about me wants to write, but I force myself to sit there and try. Nothing happens.
Rumpus: Have you started bringing songs to the rest of Here We Go Magic?
Temple: Yeah. It’s really exciting. It’s good stuff. It’s a new band, kind of. I don’t know what it’ll end up being, but right now it’s taking a really cool shape.
Rumpus: The lineup changed while you were touring on A Different Ship, right?
Temple: Yeah. We did a bunch of touring last fall with this guy Steve Mertens [on bass], and then after that I just went upstate. So I was just writing for my record with the idea that Here We Go Magic was just going to take a break. We were almost going to break up. It felt like that. So we needed to just kind of put on the brakes for a while. And then I wrote my record. It was cool doing that. I realized certain fundamental things that will stay with me from that record that I can bring to any context. The writing about what you know thing was a huge one. Not worrying so much about what people think. Just writing for myself and the band is enough. We’re an easy please. If it’s pretty and it sounds good or if it grooves, it’s fine. I think we’ve always felt this pressure of making something contemporary, and within the competitive world of records or something, which is just ridiculous. If you have any hope of actually doing that, it’s letting go and letting it just happen naturally.
Rumpus: How much of that pressure was in the air when you were making A Different Ship?
Temple: That record, I feel like we got knocked around a bunch, and at the end we were like, OK, that’s it! I’m done! It was an amazing process in a lot of ways, and I love that record. I feel like we all really love it, but it was wrought with a lot of tension. Two members quit right afterwards, and that was on the horizon the whole time we were recording that record. So right from day one, stepping into the rehearsal space and writing for that record, six months before we went into the studio, it was just like, you know, going in and I’d have a song and everyone would just be sitting there like. . . . [Temple stares at the ground.] Or it would be like, “I don’t like the blues. I don’t want to play anything bluesy.” It was brutal. And so it was all these compromises being made, musically and also personally, because different people were in different states of struggle, so the band was trying to equalize itself constantly and take care of everybody, and nobody was standing on their own two feet. It was like this real dependent situation. Everybody, me included. And then we had this specter of recording with Nigel Godrich, and it was just this really stressful thing. It ended up evening out by the end of the sessions, and the stuff we kept on the record was pretty much done at the very end. We had like two and a half months, and the last two weeks is basically when the whole record was made.
Rumpus: The first two months, was that different songs or just different versions of the songs that made it onto the album?
Temple: We came to the studio at first with, like, twenty tunes, and the only ones that made it were “Hard to be Close” and “Miracle of Mary,” and then the rest was done much later. But I can hear it in that record, in a way: there’s an iciness in it. There’s a detached quality that was a reflection of the way we were all feeling interpersonally. It’s there, but it adds an interesting tension to that record. It’s like a testament to that time. The last six months of that band it felt like a balloon was inflated in my chest and it was just never deflating.
Rumpus: But you and Teeny [Kristina Lieberson, who was Here We Go Magic’s keyboardist and who now fronts TEEN] played together recently.
Temple: Teen, yeah, we love each other. That’s fine. I mean, it wasn’t great before she quit because I knew she was going to quit, and I actually tried to fire her. I don’t like saying “fire,” but I tried to level with her: “Who are we kidding? You’re out the door. You should go before we make the record because we need everybody 100 percent in this.” And she was like, “No, absolutely not,” and then she quit right after it was done. But whatever. She put in two years of straight touring with the band. She deserved to be on that record. All’s fair. Jen quit in the airport, stormed out. I haven’t seen her since. I saw her once, actually—I take that back. She came to the Baby’s All Right show [last January]. I saw her, and she didn’t really like—probably not the best blood there—but I don’t know. I don’t know. I hope she’s well. She has another band, Exclamation Pony, with the guy from the Cribs.
Rumpus: So what are Here We Go Magic’s plans for the rest of the year?
Temple: I think we’re gonna record in March. Time friggin’ flies, but we’ll probably have something by the beginning of, like, 2015? I guess that’s how it works now. Probably be next fall we’ll put something out. Weird. That’s so weird. I’m going to be 40. Unbelievable.
Rumpus: And your process this time, how’s it going to be different?
Temple: I’m much more excited about relinquishing control for this record. I have implicit trust in this band, and it’s sort of enlightened me to how great the band actually is. It’s just such an open dialogue, and everyone’s enjoying themselves so much, and we’re just following any fancy that we have. And I’m still writing songs but leaving them a lot more open and not trying to control every nuance of it—you know?—and letting those guys do what they naturally feel like doing. We want to record the record with a lot of loose ends. So far it seems like these very structured, very formal songs, almost little fugues or something, and they’re tempered with these long, expansive linear things. We’re in the phase where I’ll bring in a song and we’ll work on it and it’ll be like, “Aw, that’s amazing, that’s the best thing we’ve ever done!” And then we’ll do a bunch more and a week later we’ll listen back to stuff we recorded on the phone and we’ll be like, “Oh, that one’s actually not so hot. That one’s cool, though.” It’s weeding through and realizing the real gems. That’s a cool process. Sometimes you don’t know right in the moment, you can’t see it.
Images by Dusdin Condren.