In 2004, I first heard the music of Crystal Skulls, group making smart, witty pop music (think Talking Heads, think Steely Dan) and led by singer/guitarist Christian Wargo. (I’m not exactly impartial about the band; I ended up directing a video for the song “No Room For Change,” from their first album.) The band called it a day after releasing two albums on Suicide Squeeze. Since then, Wargo resurfaced as a member of Fleet Foxes; and now, he’s in the frontman role with Poor Moon, whose EP Illusion will be released by Sub Pop on March 27th. We checked in via email to talk about the evolution of his songwriting, his tour reading, and his almost-encounter with Steve Martin.
There’s a line in “Anyplace” along the lines of “You stay in the same place for a while/ Lay it on the line.” Is your time in Seattle the inspiration for this?
To be honest, I’m not totally comfy explaining specific lyrics. I feel like the song means one thing to me, but it should mean something else to each person who listens and they’ll decide the level of meaning it has for them. If you want me to reveal my impression… or where I was coming from when I wrote it, then read on… otherwise stop reading now and make up your own story. Might be more fun.
The lyric in question is from “Anyplace,” which is a song that I thought was about a reclusive type character – St. Jerome. St. Jerome was actually a real person, a monk who was a bit of a hermit for a time and I just stole the idea and created this person who locks themselves away from the rest of the world… obsessed with religious ideas… or someone who has lived their life in anticipation for the afterlife… missing out on actually living. “A house behind an abandoned railway station in a ghost town” is more of a reference to latching onto a very obscure idea set… something kinda ‘out there’ that leads the character into, a life of inner mind turmoil and ultimately isolation.
Comparing your lyrics on Illusion to those you wrote for Crystal Skulls, am I wrong for detecting a more personal focus here?
Yeah, I think there’s a bit more transparency here. I usually make songs out of scraps of things laying around in my head andnmy own experiences, so for me, they are all personal but I have tried to get better about being more direct… which is, in my opinion, just trying to get better at writing songs… better at communicating ideas. I never really know how sincere I’m being in a song until a few years down the road… after I’ve changed a little and can look back through the lens of the experiences I’ve had since that time. Sometimes I find it really revealing and embarrassing, other times I feel I was really in touch with something that relates to everyone… possibly communicating something about being a human being. For me, it’s more about creating little worlds for things I notice from day to day. In this way, my own experiences can be stuck into stories about other people and still be about me.
Until “Once Before,” the EP is pretty subdued; what was the writing process like for these songs? Did they begin solo, or through playing with the other members of the band?
For most of these songs, I made a demo with band arrangements and then when we recorded them we used the demos as the basic tracks and re-recorded stuff that we thought could be better or that didn’t quite convey the idea of the part because of my lack of recording skill at the time when the demo was made. It’s never really the same process twice. Especially for these songs which were written over a few years and then brought together through a process of elimination I can’t really explain to you. There were a lot of songs and song ideas that I’d been making since the last Skulls album. Some more finished than others. The ones I chose to record for the EP and LP just seemed to be related in my mind, but I don’t know why.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask what you’ve been reading lately.
I kinda read a lot on this last batch of Foxes touring. I tried to get through “Sometimes A Great Notion” but stopped less than half way through. It’s not really one you can read while reading other books at the same time and I feel like I wanted to be camping while reading it… tour was too distracting. I did however enjoy other classics like Treasure Island [and] Lord of the Flies (which I hadn’t read since I was a kid… still got teary eyed when Piggy gets hit with the rock). Casey [Wescott] has been getting into a lot of standup comedy lately and so I ready a few books by comedians, i.e. Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up… (I was actually in the same room as Steve Martin when I went to the Grammys. He was nominated in a different category and attended the pre-telecast… Neither of us won the Grammy we were nominated for and I kinda wanted to get ‘small’ with him but I didn’t end up meeting him.) I read the books by Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling and laughed. I got an iPad for my birthday and it’s great for books like Long May You Run, an illustrated history of Neil Young, which was fun to look at. Had another about Brian Wilson I can’t remember the title of. I highly recommend hunting down this one article I read recently. It was something Jonathan Franzen made for the New Yorker called “Farther Away.” It’s only 12 pages, but yeah, my friend and I were recently discussing how it’s one of the best things we’ve read about existential boredom and finding something in life that you don’t hate.
And, the perennial Band Booking question: what are some of the books that have stayed with you over the years?
I probably have all the books I’ve ever read since I am a pack rat… but I think you mean more like, what books have effected me over the years? Had the most impact? I’d say Lord of the Flies cause it was kinda the first ‘big boy book’ I read one summer while on punishment. Unable to go outside and play, I stayed in my room and just read that book. Couldn’t put it down. I was emotionally involved in those kids’ dilemma. I had attended military academy the year before and felt like I knew every one of those kids well. I had never really been drawn in by a story before that time. That’s why I read it again recently because I wanted to remember how it felt to love a fictional story. Over the years I drifted away from fiction and have been more into non-fiction, biographies, autobiographies, and stuff about quantum physics that I don’t always understand but I find I can comprehend just enough to tickle my imagination with the possibilities. That’s what I’ve been drawn to the most and felt the most connected to…