In an ordinary year, 'There There' wouldn't even be a thing. Coming a little over 12 months since the release of 'Dark Comedy Performance Piece of My Life', it's a mighty swift turn around, even for someone as prolific as Walter Etc.'s Dustin Hayes.
But 2020 was far from ordinary, and even though it's been a bust of a year for touring musicians, the silver lining for Dustin is the fact that he hasn't had to drag his break-up album around the world to re-live the trauma on stage night after night.
'Dark Comedy…' culminates in 'Thanks For Growing Up With Me', a five-and-a-half-minute rumination on learning to let go and moving forward as he meets up with his ex for the final time. Filled with searingly honest lines like "And I regret that the whole time we never took off our sunglasses/I wish we had/I wanna know what your eyes look like so bad", it's no surprise Dustin calls it the "ultra-personal, sappy record."
"I definitely did not wanna play 'Thanks For Growing Up With Me' every night on tour," laughs Dustin, as we chat over Zoom.
"I mean, over time, I've grown more comfortable with that record, and a lot of people have reached out to me and said they've gone through similar break-ups, which has taken the pressure off – if you can call it pressure. I guess it's no longer my embarrassing personal jam, but a group of people's embarrassing jam.
"But a lot of the songs on 'Dark Comedy Performance Piece…' were a couple of years old for me by the time we released the record, and I had a backlog of stuff I'd written, so with the pandemic and not being able to tour, it was like 'OK, what else are we gonna do? Well, let's just move forward with the next album'.
With a flag planted in the ground, it has meant Dustin was able to put this global inertia to good use and move on to 'There There', teaming up with collaborators Kris Schobert, Jake Lee and Milk Flud – the same group that performed on 2014's fan-favourite 'Well Soon' (released under the name Walter Mitty And His Makeshift Orchestra).
Since then, Dustin has worked with an array of friends and collaborators, first on 2017's 'Gloom Cruise' and then last year's 'Dark Comedy Performance Piece…', with each album influenced by the musicians and producers behind the record.
'Gloom Cruise' (helmed by Jeff Rosenstock and released on Lame-O) remains a peerless pastel-hued pop record, sun-kissed and breezy despite the serious content matter, while 'Dark Comedy Performance Piece…', produced in collaboration with Modern Baseball's Ian Farmer, has a more frantic indie-punk edge.
'There There', however, is neither of these, but instead a grown-up folk-punk record, heavily percussive and stripped back to the bare bones – think early Bright Eyes played by Jack Johnson. It's an album for slow and lazy afternoons, where its gentle vibe and unhurried pace has the space to breathe. It owes much to the cast of characters responsible for it and the heavy collaborative process in which it was forged.
On 'Well Soon', the quartet decamped for a month to Dustin's house – at the time he was living in Portland, Oregon – with everyone bringing in their own parts. This time, they retreated to a cabin in Big Bear – the lakes and mountains behind LA – and approached the writing and recording process in a similar fashion.
"When I wrote them, the songs were all inherently very acoustic and much more laid back and mellow," considers Dustin. "When the guys came in, they really hit that vibe with what they brought, too. Like, yeah, we might have said, 'Well, what about putting some full drums on this song', but often, we just went for the more percussive sound instead because it fits the record's feel. It definitely has a laid-back vibe and far less of a rock band sound compared to the previous record. I mean, there are a couple of rock songs, but not many."
One such rock song is lead single 'UBI'. Named after the abbreviation for the concept of Universal Basic Income – where the State would pay citizens a standard salary – it's an interesting concept for an enjoyable surf-pop number, written from the perspective of a self-important guy mansplaining the concept to his girlfriend, even though he can't quite grasp the idea entirely.
It's also a song that is notable for heralding the return of one of music's most-overlooked musical instruments – the kazoo.
Walter Mitty And His Makeshift Orchestra were synonymous with the instrument – to the point fans would come to shows with their own kazoos to play along on the likes of 'Compersion', 'Holy Cannoli' and 'Otterpops In The Icebox'. Yet the kazoo has failed to make an appearance on the last couple of records.
"'Dark Comedy', there was no place for a kazoo, really, and that's the same with 'Gloom Cruise' – they're slightly more serious records. But I've always wanted more kazoo because I love the way it sounds.
"People think of it as a really 'kiddy' instrument – and it is – but to me, it sounds cool and crunchy and soulful, and I wish we could rip it from its juvenile connotations, but I fear those are here to stay.
"But I thought it worked well on the song 'UBI' because the song is full of these adult, political concepts, and universal basic income is a boring adult concept and not youthful. I wanted to juxtapose those things. Like the lyrics in the song are overtly cartoonish, and it's a little bit hyperbolic, but I loved the idea of juxtaposing the kazoo sound with the dry economic concepts."
That's not to say 'There There' is simply an album of political and economic discourse – although written against the backdrop of the fractious 2020 US election, some such ideas do creep in. Instead, it's just as preoccupied with nature, being outdoors, spirituality and lifecycles.
Equally, this wide-ranging focus is reflected in the production. Dustin mentions that he repeats the phrase "closer to the source" on the record, and this philosophy underpins the album. There's little in the way of overdubs or retakes, meaning this stripped-back sound is as close to the original take and idea as possible.
Such dedication means there are some moments where the band breaks the fourth wall, particularly on the second song on 'Me Vs The Algorithm', where the sound of a meowing cat can be heard in the introduction. While Dustin's cat Gidget has been the object of Walter Etc. songs previously, this is a neighbourhood stray which Dustin has adopted (of sorts) and created a small house for outside his garage.
"I was just touching up the song, and the cat had snuck in and meowed, and I was like, 'Well, I guess the cat is on the album now'," Dustin laughs. "There's actually a few things like that on the record where we said 'Fuck it' – like that's what happened when we were recording it, let's keep it on the record. So just trying to keep it all closer to the source."
Like the idea of a universal basic income, algorithms are another area of interest for Dustin – and another interesting jumping-off point for a song. Considering the songs and history of Walter Etc. (and Walter Mitty and His Makeshift Orchestra), they're not an algorithm-friendly band, jumping through styles and names with reckless abandon. Dustin also acknowledges that he's unlikely to ever write songs that people expect. By extension, such an approach to artistry means he's probably shooting himself in the foot when it comes to beating the algorithms.
Equally, he's been surprised to find that songs that have found their way onto Spotify Radio or Discover Weekly playlists are not ones he'd have said represent the band – even though he's thankful for any "algorithmic action".
Instead – and it feels pertinent to the discussion and the themes around the record – Dustin is much more concerned about organic growth and self-sustainability. Much of the press, PR and marketing is done on his own terms, while he also maintains ownership of most of his catalogue.
Similarly, a popular Patreon allows Dustin to support himself and his creativity. Indeed, Patreon-only live streams of the album before launch have proved to be very successful, allowing fans and friends to listen to the album and ask questions and engage with Walter Etc. immediately, removing some of the barriers between band and audience. For an act that welcomes its own kazoo orchestras to shows, such an approach seems entirely fitting:
"It's definitely more direct and authentic [than traditional media interviews]. But for better or worse, I think that goes well with our band. There's very little that's contrived, and we try to be filterless and accessible. Just straight to the source," he laughs.
As conclusions go, it's a more than fitting point on which to end…
Taken from the June issue of Upset. Walter Etc.'s album 'There There' is out now.
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