(Originally published in Performer Magazine, August 2010 with additional Q and a below)
By Brian Tucker
The image of John Booker and Rachel Hirsch of Chapel Hill band I Was Totally Destroying It standing outside the Soapbox in downtown Wilmington last May looked was like seeing two middle school kids on a field trip. They were happy together, and laughing, a nice image given the strain their relationship has endured the last few years. A fading purple sky above them on Front Street in downtown Wilmington seemed fitting as band mate Joe Mazzitelli joined them before walking away towards a tattoo shop. The band always seems in good spirits and regardless of lyrical content it mirrors the indie rock/pop music they keep crafting.
“This band has a strong family dynamic. We fight a lot but no one takes anything personally,” Booker says. “We’re all super committed to writing the best music we can and trying to grow the project to its full potential.”
Hirsch concurs, “We have a common goal and that definitely unites us amidst our squabbling.”
Booker played in a few bands before forming IWTDI in 2007. His upbringing in the Triangle area of North Carolina around Raleigh and Chapel Hill had an effect, a city where bands like Superchunk (and community) found success in the 90s. But IWTDI’s first album initially began as a solo project for Booker.
“I had written a bunch of songs and my only concern was getting them down in a studio for the sake of having a document. We didn’t know this would turn into a real band,” Booker said. The singer-guitarist had recently moved home to North Carolina after four years living in San Francisco. The songs he wrote, which became the bulk of the self-titled IWTDI album, grew out of “finding things not the way you left them.” Mining personal situations became further fertile ground. During the recording Booker and Hirsch became romantically involved.
“We were secretly in love with each other and terrified of each other, so we never spoke,” Hirsch said.
Soon after the debut recording the band began writing new material. Hirsch was a voice major at UNC-Greensboro from 2007-2008, commuting home for band practice and playing shows. After moving back she and Booker moved in together, fixing up an old house and writing songs.
“This house was where we lived, worked, ate, practiced and fought together. When you spend all of your time with someone, and I mean all of it, you begin to hyper focus on the negative and then exaggerate the not-so-bad,” Hirsch said. “We started to write songs because they were the things we didn’t have the guts to tell each other.”
The result was a lot of material, eventually spread out over the digital-only free EP Done Waiting, songs for another EP, The Beached Margin, and material for the full length released last October, Horror Vacui. Last summer the two EP’s were released as a 12-inch vinyl.
Horror Vacui became more than just a new album. It was about Booker and Hirsch’s relationship and its fragmentation. Booker said it was about him. His songs were self-analytical where Hirsch’s were about analyzing him. But it held fast to a female’s perspective and the theme of clashing personalities. Much less a he said/she said album, Horror Vacui became what Booker described as their Rumours.
“I guess that it’s totally about us. (Horror Vacui) is a narrative of the eventual decay of our romantic relationship,” Hirsch said.
The melding of personal strife and melodic hooks comes together intensely on “Done Waiting.” Hirsch sings so strong, merging a great vocalist and the strain lyrics likely bring about in a song about near-finality. Hirsch sings, “The self destruction of what you thought you were…And you’re not worth keeping around.” It’s a catchy song but underneath is brutal. Booker comes in at the end, “So many flaws that don’t add up to anyone,” the song as a therapy session set to great pop music.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect, they are about our problems. Songs I was writing ended up being an apology to Rachel for my shortcomings as a boyfriend,” Booker said. “So it’s a lot like Rumours in that it’s an intense pop album that explores the demise of a romantic relationship. As we were writing I thought it was about something completely different. We split and I heard it in a totally different light.”
The strife and self analysis paid off creatively as the band kept working, pushing to make it better. They found a new label, Greyday Records, who became interested after drummer James Hepler sent the label their music. Greyday distributed the Beached Margin/Done Waiting vinyl release last summer and Horror Vacui in late 2009. In July they released a 7-inch, Get Big.
“We wanted to release the song “In a Big Country” as a digital single with a B-side. They encouraged us to go all out with a 7-inch,” Booker said. “It’s amazing to be on a label that says let’s spend money and make something a lot more special.”
Get Big is a nod to 80s music spanning one end of the decade to the other. The B-side is a nod to big rock sounds, aptly titled “The Big Rock” from Booker’s old band En Garde. It’s large and tongue-in-cheek, like Faster Pussycat covering Warrant.
But IWTDI’s sound is a hybrid of many things – indie rock and pop music with shades of New Wave. For Booker, someone who grew up in the period, it’s nostalgic and a genuine affection for the music produced then. For Hirsch, the influx of the synthesizer in that era’s music resonates.
“This was the first decade in which more user-friendly and affordable synthesizers were available to the public,” Hirsch said. “The outcome was a colossal amount of really interesting and compelling new music. I love thinking about how the people who had never heard such inorganic sounds must have reacted upon first listen.”
Decidedly taking a break from writing about personal themes the band has found inspiration in unlikely places for their next album due in 2011, like Stephen king’s The Dark Tower series, and dance music. Booker was planning to write a solo, acoustic-based album while the band explored dance and electronic music.
“I think the final album will end up being a mix of our experiments with dance and electronic music, alongside some pretty down-tempo acoustic ballads,” Booker said.
But Booker and Hirsch are wrapped up in The Dark Tower, drawing on its themes and characters and relating the material back to them. Hirsch has been digging deeper perhaps. Psychology found its way on Horror Vacui. The song “The Ocean” is about Hirsch’s fear of giant open spaces.
“Lately I’ve been reading about abnormal psychology and an encyclopedia of the world’s worst murders,” Hirsch said. “So I don’t know where that will take us.”
Self-analysis and opening up through music has led to mixed results, albeit with a pleasant ending. Today, Hirsch and Booker have a stronger relationship; though experiencing it was difficult for Hirsch.
“Out of everything that has happened, I have found a lifelong friend in (Booker). It was really weird and surreal to put our issues out there the way we did,” Hirsch said. “From journalists analyzing our breakup, to my parents reading about it on the internet, to me screaming at John at shows. For a year it felt like I was somebody’s ex-girlfriend and not really a musician. I don’t think I’m going to open up like that again.”
Additional Q and A
How are songs on the first album?
John: The first record was almost a solo project for me, and I formed IWTDI to manifest that. That’s why we went into the studio so soon after we formed. We didn’t even really know this would turn into a real band. But thematically I was writing a lot about how I had recently moved back to North Carolina from living in San Francisco for four years. I was glad to be back, but there’s melancholy about finding things not the way you left them – regrets, mistakes, and a lot of it ties in around my ex-girlfriend at the time.
Most every song is about her in some way. We had met and lived together in San Francisco for a while, we broke up, stayed pretty close, had a lot of drama. I moved back to North Carolina, she’d visit a lot, and then she joined the Peace Corps and moved to Africa. We were off and on and the record is about the emotional ups and downs of our relationship.
How are songs thematically on the new album?
John: The new record is about me and Rachel and our relationship. I’m still writing from a self-deprecating, melancholy sort-of perspective. There’s a lot on here about how I’m a fuck-up, from my perspective and hers. It’s kind of funny, we say it’s an album about us, but it’s really more just about me. My songs are very self-analytical, and Rachel’s are always just analyzing me, not her so much. This record is just an open book on me and Rachel and what we are to each other.
Rachel: This time, I started to write songs out of nothing, that is, I wasn’t just building off of what John had already written. Perhaps it’s a little more aggressive. We started to notice a recurring theme of personalities clashing and multi-faceted relationships, nothing cut and dry. No single idea to any song. And I guess that it’s totally about us, this album (Horror Vacui) is a narrative of the eventual decay of our romantic relationship.
You said this new one was more akin to Rumours.
John: I’d been listening to Rumours a lot. They wrote all that in the midst of all their relationships falling apart. Ours is different because only one song (“Beneath You All The Way”) was written and recorded after we had split up. All the others were written and tracked when we were still together – we didn’t even know it at the time, but in retrospect, they are totally about our problems. Even songs Rachel had written about an ex, ended up being about me too, or songs where I was writing about my issues with myself.
Rachel: This album has a lot of intra-personal exploration. While this album was being written (right after the first one was recorded), John and I had already started to have an intimate relationship.
Rachel sings more on this album. Was this conscious or just the way it went down?
John: I wanted to establish us both as singers equally. I also found my voice and learned how to sing after the first album, so I decided to stay away from notes I couldn’t hit. I hadn’t done that on the first album which is why there are songs we never try to play live and that opened up more room for Rachel to harmonize, take the upper octaves and me find the best place for my voice.
Rachel: I matured greatly as a songwriter and musician, so it seemed natural for me to start singing more. The songwriting began to get split 50/50, and I don’t mean John wrote six songs and I wrote six. Every single song was collaboration. There’s not a song on the record that I came in with a full idea for – just a part or a sketch, then John and I would sit down and put it together. Our relationship allowed for that.
Then we started to date and suddenly we were around each other 24/7, so we had a lot of time and material to collaborate on. I would help John finish up lyrics on one of his songs, or add a bridge or something, and then he’d give one of my songs a chorus and a melody, a hook, etc. What you hear is really the whole progression of a relationship. The oldest songs are us getting to know each other and falling in love, the middle period is finding the problems you always do with people, and the most recent stuff is us trying to deal with the heartache.
I had more to say this time around. I had things to say from my perspective that I felt an audience needed to hear from a female voice, and John was always encouraging me to do so. We also wanted to make sure we were both the front-people. We tried to have as many songs where we both sang lead, to identify ourselves both as the leaders, not one or the other.
To you, what is IWTDI supposed to sound like?
John: I’ve always thought of it as “pop art” in that it’s not dumbed down. The music might be tight and catchy and the melodies plentiful, but structurally, it’s actually really complex rock music, and lyrically, it’s ridiculously dark and personal and sincere. A lot of people have a fear of pop. My goal has always been to squash that unfounded and silly fear. I love pop music, and I also love some crazy math rock, krautrock, ambient and electronic drone, all kinds of stuff. This is me trying to reconcile all that and appeal to people like me who will like anything, as long as there’s good songwriting in there.
Rachel: It’s supposed to sound honest. It’s supposed to compel you and make you feel that you can relate to it without the music being pretentious. It’s supposed to emulate genuine experiences. Also, 90s indie rock.
How long did the recording sessions go on?
John: We were in the studio last August for a month straight – six days a week, ten hours a day, for over thirty days. Then we went back in March for about a week and a half, again ten hours a day, straight. We spent almost fifty days in the studio spread out over almost a year recording and mixing about twenty-six songs. It’s a pretty insane amount of time for an indie band to spend on something like this, but I was just always rethinking and second-guessing and trying to sculpt what I heard in my head.
I kind of lost my mind a bit creating this album and the rest of the band can attest to a bit of a mental breakdown on my part and it’s safe to say that it probably had a hand in me and Rachel falling apart as a couple but I think I just put a lot of pressure on myself in making sure this sophomore effort was worth it. Even up to the last minute though, I’ve been second-guessing: we recorded ‘Beneath You All The Way’ a week before the label’s deadline, it’s now the opening track on the album, and a couple of months ago we had a completely different song in that position that’s not on the CD at all.
In the future I think I’m going to be able to let go a little more. Something about Horror Vacui just wouldn’t let me be finished with it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to it like I can other CDs I’ve been a part of. I think it might be because it’s too close to my heart. I hear myself too much in it.
What was behind releasing the vinyl/double album release?
John: When we first went in to the studio to start, and at the time, we thought finish this album last summer. We tracked eighteen songs so at the time we picked a top twelve or so we thought would go on the record, and we had the rest left over and wanted to find a cool way to release them. We decided to put out a free digital EP, the Done Waiting EP, while we waited to search for a label for the full length. So, seven leftover tracks went on the Done Waiting EP.
Then, in spring 2009, we decided we wanted add newer stuff to the full length, and went back in to Warrior Sound and recorded six more songs, five of which made it on there. So now we had recorded a total of about twenty-five songs, and only twelve were going on the CD (Horror Vacui). So four of those leftovers we wanted to release as an EP as well, so that is The Beached Margin EP.
When we signed with Greyday, we had the idea to combine the two EP’s since one was unreleased and the other only previously released in digital form and put them out as a special limited edition vinyl. It was just a cool way to get all this extra music out, and it ended up being a full length of its own when we combined the two EP’s.
How did band members gel creating Horror Vacui?
Rachel: John and I were the primary songwriters. We’d come up with a skeleton or frame of a song, then bring it to the other members to flesh it out. John was more open to creative input from all members of the band. We had time to work on these songs and even take a few on tour, rewrite them when we got back.
Where did the album title come from?
John: Horror Vacui is a term that is used in the field of visual art, and originates from a theory first proposed by Aristotle that “nature abhors a vacuum,” and therefore empty space would always be trying to suck in gas or liquids to avoid being empty. So in visual art it became a kind of outsider art movement usually performed and experienced by artists with some sort of mental illness in which every space on the canvas was filled with detail.
So I thought it would make a great title for this record in a few ways – the closing track, “The Ocean,” is all about Rachel’s irrational fear of giant open spaces, therefore she somewhat suffers from a horror vacui complex. I felt our first album was cluttered with ideas and filled to the brim and just seemed to suffer from trying to be “full” all the time. I wanted to try to move away from that, and we did, to varying effects. We still suffer from horror vacui, or, in our case, “fear of big open spaces in our music,” so therefore the title fits.
The album deals a lot with fears and complexes, so it seemed fitting just in general. I thought the album cover was perfect with the title – its balloons, the clear open sky, the endlessness of it. Basically, it’s just an interesting, beautiful term that ties in a lot with insanity and personal neuroses, and that just seems to fit where we’re coming from.
Rachel: I have this complex where I’m scared of empty spaces. I get panicky when I’m in an open field, or near the ocean. Things that overwhelm me with their emptiness terrify me. When I was a kid, the first time I looked at the ocean I cried because I couldn’t fit it into my eyes, no matter how wide I’d open them. I like to fill the space I’m in with as much sound and stuff as I can. My room is crammed with books, the air is crammed with music, and my head is crammed with ideas. The end track ‘The Ocean’ deals with that complex I have about this fear of emptiness, but the same idea extends to every facet of our lives, doesn’t it? We’re all afraid of emptiness, even in our most intimate moments.
Given these new songs are so personal do they get easier to play?
John: It’s strange. At the time the songs were being written, Rachel and I were still together – for some reason a lot of the very harsh things that are said didn’t seem so harsh when we would fall asleep next to each other. At the time, the words were more snapshots of little fights – fleeting arguments and disagreements. I think the breakup made the words take on new meaning and weight. It highlighted them in a new way, poured a little salt in the wounds.
So I’d say at first, they weren’t hard to play, then things fell apart and they got very hard to play. Now it’s starting to level out again. As for the songs that are focused more inward, the self-deprecating songs, they’ve always been fairly easy for me to play. I’m a pretty open person, and pretty self-aware, so it’s not strange for me to just lay it out there in the open. I’m used to that.
Has the experience added to your ability to communicate better?
John: Well, Rachel and I couldn’t communicate at all before we started our romantic relationship. There was so much tension between the two of us early on, which turned out to clearly be romantic tension, but at the time we both thought we hated each other. When we started dating, that’s when the creativity took off, and we could finally speak to each other. It’s always been tumultuous because we’re both hard-headed and stubborn, but the reason the first album wasn’t very collaborative was because we were both secretly in love with each other, and therefore, terrified of each other.
How is it working with Greyday Records, especially since they’re on the opposite coast?
John: Greyday has been a fantastic experience for us so far. I really don’t have any complaints. They work as hard as they possibly can, and often exceed my expectations based on the limitations of finances, time, and scope. It’s a small operation that somehow manages to make a sizable dent. They’ve been sending us spreadsheets of where the radio promos are headed, blogs they’ve pitched the album to, tour press. They send us frequent requests from our licensing agent. We just can’t wait to get back out to Portland and set up a few shows, hang out, maybe talk a little business.
You’ve played some acoustic shows, some in-store shows. What has been the response to new material?
John: The response to the new material has been overwhelming. I think I got so wrapped up in the creation of Horror Vacui that I got too attached, too involved and it made it not exactly fun for me to listen to. One person (said) our two EP’s released earlier this year are the best things we’ve done, otherwise everyone thinks Horror Vacui is the best thing we’ve done. From a redneck guy coming up to the merch table after we opened for Joan Jett saying he’d wait to buy our new CD because those songs were way better than the older material that we had for sale at the time, to our friends in Motion City Soundtrack or local journalists that tell us this is a giant leap forward for the band.
It’s funny you ask about the acoustic shows and in-stores, because for some reason a large chunk of the material on the new album doesn’t translate as well to acoustic form as some of our older songs. I wrote most of the first album on an acoustic guitar. Acoustics are prominent on a lot of the EP tracks, so those work well, but the newer material thrives a lot more on interplay, rhythms, and certain electric tonal qualities.
In the last four months you’ve released the vinyl of the two EP’s, Horror Vacui as well as a side project called On the Beach. That has to feel cathartic.
John: The releasing of lots of material to the public might be a little more fulfilling than cathartic. The catharsis for me is probably more immediate. It’s either listening back in the studio and being so proud of this new creation that is documented and eternal, or at least getting the final mix and hearing it in the car for the first time. It might even be more immediate than that – it’s certainly a cathartic experience when crafting and writing a new song, whether alone or with the band.
The catharsis is more a personal thing no matter what. I make this music for me first, everyone else second. So catharsis comes when it goes from being just in my brain, to in my ears. Fulfillment comes when it elicits a reaction from others, hopefully positive.
What was the genesis of On the Beach as a side project?
John: It definitely hasn’t been easy, Rachel and I still playing together, by any means. It’s been possibly the most trying experience of my life. When On the Beach was happening, our band leader, Nagendra, was living in Philadelphia while the rest of us were in North Carolina. Nagendra would come down for the weekend every once in a while and we’d practice. When he and I started the band I suggested Rachel, who I was still with at the time, to join us. Nagendra agreed and we became a trio.
Much later, we brought IWTDI’s guitarist, Curtis Armstead, in as well. When Rachel and I broke up, I remember Nagendra had a flight planned to come down for practice very soon thereafter. I remember that was a hard phone call to make. I had to fill Nagendra in on what was going on, and assure him practice wouldn’t be awkward (it was) and that we wouldn’t have any additional issues (we did).
2009 has been one of the hardest years of my life because of all of this, but in the end, not only are Rachel and I still insanely close and best friends, we’re both heavily intertwined musically. It may get heated sometimes, and it may not always be a pleasant experience to be around, but it works.
How has the area you’ve grown up in affected your music? Would be vastly different if you’d been raised somewhere else?
John: Growing up in The Triangle affected my musical development greatly. I Was Totally Destroying It may not sound much like Superchunk, Polvo, Archers Of Loaf, or Spatula but it’s a big piece of my musical evolution. My first bands were indie rock bands and a lot of the material had that sound, a sound that really seemed to be a soundtrack to the microcosm we were all living in – the late 90s N.C. indie rock music scene. Some bands are really good at that – being a mirror of their direct surroundings, sounding definitively like their environment. While that is a wonderful charm and a feat in itself with IWTDI, I like to think we’re somehow focusing our sights more universally.
How have you measured success in the past compared to now?
Success is an increasingly difficult thing to quantify. I don’t think about it too much because it’s all relative. In our band, we talk a lot about the hierarchy of self-improvement: we’re always getting better, more polished, tighter, but we still can be as down on ourselves about shortcomings as we were years ago, when we were nowhere as good. A perfectionist will never be perfect; he’ll always be aiming for the next goal. It’s not necessarily the most enjoyable mentality, but it’s the most disciplined, and it caries over into how I look at success.
We’ve got lots of cool things happening for us right this moment – everyone in the band is feeling great about the reaction this new album is getting, but what does it all mean? Only time can tell. I have friends that sell a few hundred thousand more albums than we do currently, and the reality of their situation is if their next album doesn’t sell significantly more than past releases, they may have to hang it up because with all the time and money and resources they have to invest to keep their career constant like it is now. They’re barely breaking even and they’re all grown men, trying to start families.
So again, it’s all relative. Most people would assume those guys have it made, but they’re struggling to push to the next level to keep going. We’re lucky to be in a slightly more comfortable situation currently because we’re not constantly on the road, but I can still relate. As for personal success, lately I’m just feeling very accomplished and lucky to be experiencing some career highs and milestones.