Interview: Youth Lagoon
“It’s easy to just find beauty,” Trevor Powers says of his Boise, Idaho, hometown. The singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist might almost be talking about the two albums he has recorded under the name Youth Lagoon. 2011′s The Year of Hibernation was an indie-rock moonshot, resonating with wide audiences precisely because of how personal its winding guitar lines, sighing synths and fragile vocals could sound. New album Wondrous Bughouse was recorded with producer Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Washed Out) in Atlanta, and this time unexpected vistas await around every corner.
What exactly makes the Rockies so beautiful, though, is hard to say. The source of Powers’s muse isn’t always apparent even to him, but on Wondrous Bughouse he has a way of channeling it into expansive, magnificently warped dream-pop that can be breathtaking. Chatting on Kurt Cobain’s birthday from Boise, where he’s relaxing before a tour that will take him as far a Brooklyn arena gig opening for the National, Powers discusses the subconscious, the ineffable and, inevitably, Nirvana.
How was it different writing this album knowing people would actually hear it?
As soon as The Year of Hibernation was done and it started getting a little bit of attention, it kind of psyched me out. But as time went on, I just went back to the mentality that I’ve always had ever since I started doing music, just doing it for myself. Once I got back into that mindset it was easy to zone out and create whatever I want to create. As long as I do that then I’m happy.
On the last album, you compared some of the songs to entries in a journal, but on Wondrous Bughouse the song titles have less obvious connection to everyday life. What were some of the inspirations this time around?
Especially lyrically, this record is a lot more across-the-board. It’s mainly idea-based. I oftentimes write in a stream-of-consciousness type of way to start off songs. So a lot of stuff was just coming out of my system. It would be common themes I didn’t know I was dwelling on that much and I’d just go back and shape them.
Mortality seems like one of these themes. But it goes from “you’ll never die” to “here’s to death, drink up.” Is there a thread running through?
It’s always the type of thing where certain songs just play out different ideas. You mentioned some lyrics from “Raspberry Cane.” That’s kind of about, I got obsessed with this idea of just picturing what it would be like to stumble on this being that was by water, and all these crowds, they want this thing to come back to life, but they don’t always know what it is. And it could be something that’s dangerous, it could be something that’s very kind, but just the idea of something dying all the sudden makes it bad. Like, “Oh, this thing shouldn’t have died.” But maybe it should have died, you know? Sometimes death — I don’t know how to phrase it.
Children come up at least a couple of times: “Couldn’t have babies” on “Attic Doctor,” and then on “Daisyphobia,” there’s something about “and children are…”
That’s what I was saying as far as the subconscious stuff. A lot of it I was just writing. With this record I was trying to approach it in a way that’s very free and not agenda-driven, not trying to be like, “OK, here’s an idea that I’m going to write a song about.” It was more like, “OK, let me start writing and see what’s inside of me that wants to come out.”
That’s something Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox has talked about doing. I know you’ve mentioned Deerhunter before. Has that been kind of an inspiration, or what were some of the inspirations musically for the album?
One of my biggest inspirations musically for this record was the band This Heat. Just how at times it’s very, very minimal — it’ll be certain things that just keep going and it’s hypnotizing — and then at times it would be really chaotic. And that sense of freedom in music to where it’s really just letting your — back to subconscious — letting your subconscious guide what you’re doing. Letting the song take you where it wants.
I’ve always been a fan of A.R. Kane and a lot of early, early dream-pop stuff. Just that similar mindset of taking you to a different place. You turn on a record and you’re instantly someplace that’s unfamiliar and at the same time there’s a certain sense of familiarity to it.
The album cover last time came out of a vacation with your family to Hawaii. This time it’s art by a teenage drug-abuse patient in West Germany in the ’70s named Marcia Blaessle. What about the art connected with what you were feeling with the record?
I can’t put my finger on it. I saw it as I was closing the writing process, and I stumbled on this stuff, and there was something about it that really connected to what I was trying to say. I don’t even know what it was. There was just this sort of mental connection where it just felt right. I almost got into panic mode because I tried to track her down, track down the publishing rights, all that kind of stuff. And for a while there was nothing. The publishing company that released the book way back in the day folded, and they passed on the rights to another company. And it got to the point where I was like, “This needs to be the art,” because it was so connected with what I was trying to say. But I don’t know exactly what it is. It kind of just was, you know?
You’re hitting on a theme that I’ve seen in your interviews, that I love and think is interesting to talk about, because it makes sense with your music: You’ve said before maybe you can’t explain too much about the songs. But can you explain a little bit about that, about why sometimes it’s hard for you to put in words too much about your songs, or about the connection between the art and your songs?
I think it’s just because music for me is almost like this bubble that I live in. When I’m writing, I’ll just close myself off. It’s almost like transportive, like taking you to that other place. And when you come back, like say I’m done writing a song and I come back to reality or whatever you want to call it, it’s just hard to explain your visit to that other place when you’re writing it. Do you know what I mean? It really does suck though from my vantage point because then you have people asking questions about your mindset. It just kind of is.
Today’s Kurt Cobain’s birthday. What did he mean to you, if anything?
On Netflix, I found the documentary on the making of Nevermind. I happened to just watch that a couple of days ago. And I was just so, so fascinated with it, because I’ve always loved Nirvana. People like Kurt have left such an impact. It’s funny because, back to the idea of mortality and stuff: Certain people die at a younger age, and for a lot of people it’s really sad, but at the same time he lived so much more than most people do if they grow to be 85 years old. He experienced so much stuff. It’s so beautiful if someone can leave that kind of footprint at such a young age.