"I've been trying to write the perfect pop record for the last 14 years. I've not yet succeeded, but the next Closer record will be Taylor Swift quality," laughs Closer's guitarist Matthew Van Asselt.
It feels a lofty claim from the songwriter, especially when his bandmates take great delight in discussing their lack of choruses or whether they should leak the 'pop mix' of second album, 'Within One Stem'.
But, while they joke about their pop credentials, there is an undeniable love of melody that finds its way insidiously into the group's work, softening the abrasive post-hardcore edges. The hooks may be twisted and rusty, but they serve as an appropriate gateway to Closer's dense postmodern screamo.
And, although Matthew may strive to make the perfect pop record, it's unlikely he'll ever be involved in a project where quite so much care is taken over its output. You see, Closer – completed by vocalist/drummer Ryann Slauson and bassist Griffin Irvine – are a band that revel in subtext.
On 'Within One Stem', the group have delivered a masterpiece of misdirection and allegory, where every lyric could have a double or triple meaning. In short, it's just what you'd expect from a band whose members include acclaimed artists and poets. Reference points abound, particularly from the world(s) of science fiction, including 'Alien', 'The Expanse' and 'Blade Runner 2049'.
For example, take the line "Hold us up / A two-body problem" from 'Pawning A Laugh'. On the one hand, it ties into a principle of astrophysics and is a play on the title of the science-fiction novel 'The Three-Body Problem' by Chinese author Cixin Liu. More tellingly, it's a nickname given to a 1930s strike in a Michigan car factory, where workers took two body moulds of the cars to prevent production. The fallout from the protest led to the unionisation of the United States automobile industry.
Committed anti-fascists, Closer want to ensure all these ideas – the subtext behind science fiction and the blurring lines between the personal and political – flow through the narrative.
Unsurprisingly, these themes are so dense and interlinked that lyricists Ryann and Griffin are producing an annotated lyric 'zine, which will dig into the meaning behind the songs. Promising extensive footnotes and endnotes, as well as a comprehensive discussion of all the supplementary materials that helped flesh out the ideas on 'Within One Stem', it will provide a fascinating insight into the machinations of a beautifully unique act.
"I feel like doing that has really helped me think about the content of the lyrics, and how you can view it through another lens, so really diving deep into what we wrote," says Ryann.
"I think, also, there's the idea that science fiction isn't really about the future or other worlds," continues Griffin. "It's about how we interpret the world we live in and how we feel. It's a different epistemological approach to understanding what it means to be alive in the present, or what it was like to be alive when it was written."
Such dedication to the craft is emphasised by the inspiration they've taken from Vladimir Nabokov's novel 'Pale Fire' – part of which was used in 'Blade Runner 2049' to check the emotional baseline of Ryan Gosling's character, 'K'.
At this point, it's pertinent to explore the concept of 'Pale Fire'. A landmark of postmodern literature, it is a novel based around a poem written by the fictitious writer John Shade, and the editor's notes made by his equally fictional colleague, Charles Kinbote. Fittingly, it means much of the narrative takes place in footnotes and endnotes, with the onus on the reader to figure out what's going on. It feels suitably meta – and appropriately postmodern – when set against Closer's plan for an annotated lyric 'zine, where the idea of politics and society can be explored in the margins of the songs.
Not that Closer haven't always had this political edge, more they're now looking to explore it in much more subtle and interesting ways:
"I always look back to this lyric on 'Dust' from the first album [2018's 'All This Will Be'] – 'Let the dust from your goldmine choke you'. To me, that's very political," says Ryann. "And I thought, 'OK, I want to write more like that, but in a softer, more didactic way'. So, several of the songs on this record are just pointing things out or questioning things.
"These questions, they're not directed to a single person or group of people, but to the void: 'Who has the power?', 'Who is deciding this?', 'Who is more important, and why?'"
"It has to have enough going on that it refracts properly," says Griffin. "Otherwise, it's like looking through a window compared to looking through a kaleidoscope. You can see very clearly through a window – but what can you see? Here's the party program or the ideology that we want to lay out. Great, but that's not necessarily as interesting as seeing it presented it in other ways."
"It allows people to interpret it on their own, rather than it be us simply saying 'we hate fascists'," says Ryann.
If this all sounds heavy, fear not. 'Within One Stem' is also a fantastic post-hardcore record that stands up to scrutiny beyond the politics or clever lyrics. Filled with urgency and passion, it's a quintessential screamo record, propelled by Ryann's desperate vocals. With nods to In/Casino/Out era At The Drive-In, emo mainstays Rainer Maria and screamo heavyweights Circle Takes The Square, they've found a way to marry cryptic lyrics with staccato music to great effect.
And, just as there's exceptional detail in the lyrics, such care has also been taken over the music. 'New Refused', for example, went through more than 20 iterations before being finalised. Even now, having finished the record and sat on it for 12 months, Ryann says there is plenty they would like to change – highlighting how much of 'Within One Stem' is merely a snapshot of where Closer are at a moment in time. Constantly evolving and pushing the envelope, it's nevertheless a high watermark for a band that refuses to compromise on their vision.
It also feels like a pivotal moment for the group, as they look to build on their debut's success. Indeed, there's an argument that they're looking to make up for lost time – and not just because of the inertia caused by the pandemic. Shortly after the release of 'All This Will Be', Closer were forced to cancel an extensive US tour after just one date due to ill-health.
Such a setback was hugely frustrating for the group, having already met the approval of Jeremy Bolm (Touché Amoré), Jordan Dreyer (La Dispute) and Geoff Rickly (Thursday). Endorsements from the world of hardcore don't come much better – and for a band with few discernible choruses, it highlights the strength of the songwriting on display. If 'Within One Stem' breaks out – and if there's any justice in the world, it would be regarded as a beacon of heavy music in 2021 – then what happens next could be intriguing.
"I have been working on new stuff," attests Matthew – no surprises, given the lag between the release of 'Within One Stem' and the delay caused by the pandemic. "I haven't shown the others yet, but it's gonna be cool. It might even be poppier," he laughs.
Taken from the April issue of Upset. Closer's album 'Within One Stem' is out now.
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