INTERVIEW: The Hotelier
by Chad Jewett
I sat down with Chris and Christian of the Massachusetts indie rock band The Hotelier in a vegan restaurant, modeled after a 50s diner, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite all the archetypal Happy Days trappings of retro-space-age silver and red vinyl, french fries cost extra. The restaurant was both oddly apt and wholly ironic a space for discussing an album about the dark side of American nostalgia and suburban comfort.
The pair were uniformly thoughtful, frequently pausing over questions and offering careful, nuanced answers, reflecting the same attention and deliberation that made Home, Like NoPlace Is There, their remarkable 2014 album, feel like an instant classic. Later that evening, the band played a majority of Home to a sold out audience at the Middle East Upstairs, and at times it was difficult to hear Christian’s poignant suburban dramas over the din of an audience that knew every word. It felt like an apotheosis, like the band was completing the cycle started by a record about American youth by simply handing it back to a room full of young people who seemed to deeply adore Home, Like NoPlace Is There. Here is my conversation with the band:
It seemed like each song was driving at different facets of the suburbs, of middle class comfort.
Christian: I think that I did have an idea of what I wanted to attack. At the beginning I had wanted to write a bit of a concept album, but not actually a story that goes all the way through, but I did want it to revolve around a theme, and that theme was retracing how a person grows up, and their lives, and originally it was going to revolve around a house, but those parts didn’t make the album.
I wanted to do spoken word interludes, but it ended up seeming really corny, and I got less excited about the idea, so I just sort of gave up on it. But still a lot of the writing follows a discernable path.
Was it trusting the listener to piece it together?
Christian: Well the spoken word wasn’t going to tie everything together, they’d just connect to each other and the songs would be what they are. I just assumed that anyone who is looking deep enough into it, they’d find it.
Were you hoping for that reaction, that this would be treated as a statement?
Christian: Yeah, definitely. I thought that I did enough working on the flow of the record, revisiting parts, having lyrical parts that repeat through the album. I thought that was enough of an indicator that it was of a piece.
Were there albums you thought of in that sense, that evoke one idea or have that theme structure?
Christian: I think Brother, Sister by MeWithoutYou, Reconstruction Site by the Weakerthans. I was going to mimic the interlude thing they do with those records, but decided against that. A lot of it is thinking back to exactly what my mindset was at that period, which is hard, but those were two albums that, flow-wise, worked really well.
It’s apt that you mention thinking back, because it feels like a record about returning, like there’s a nostalgic distance about returning, recapturing. How do you feel about that mix of nostalgia being something you want to recapture, but also the danger of that “good old days” mindset?
Christian: I guess I should just go over the story of the record: A person revisiting their old house, that they were evicted from, but the house is completely intact, still holds all their old stuff that they had when they moved out, and the house hasn’t been sold, and as they revisit the different layers of the house, they’re revisiting stories from their past of how they were raised, the experiences that shaped them, and each level of the house mirrors a different level of their subconscious. So with that, a lot of the ideas of the album reflect that idea of how we’re poorly built, poorly designed to deal with what we deal with. So with nostalgia, you look back on things that might seem really great, but are also really detrimental to dealing with the rest of your life. I just knew there was a lot of heavy stuff that happened in my past, and while a lot of it was really sad, really heavy, a lot of it comes from really caring about people, so it is a give and take. You have these deep relationships with people, and they can cause deep stress.
Is this literal autobiographical material, or more just evoking shapes and themes?
Christian: Some are autobiographical, some aren’t. Like “Your Deep Rest” isn’t. But a lot of it is creative non-fiction, essentially, about actual experiences and people in my life that touched on these different facets and different ideas, how life can be “not built right.”
Does that idea of “not being built right” connect with idea of the suburbs as shelter, or the easy life of suburbia?
Christian: I think that suburbia is a very sheltered place. The metaphor I use on the album is when your young and you watch a movie and your parents cover your eyes during the racy parts, and that becomes the stuff you don’t see and the stuff you don’t know and when you’re older you’re not ready to deal with it. It’s just that suburbia is structured to be a utopia, structured to be this perfect place, but the world’s not a perfect place, so it can be toxic.
As you were making the record were you conscious of the fact that it would be this thing that captures people?
Christian: Not really. I wanted it to be. I really wanted it to be.
Chris: There was this feeling of “Okay, we’re doing this.”
Christian: Yeah, I remember saying a billion times “This is going to shape our next two years, we should do it really well”. There was a lot of stress put on the songs, making htem exactly how we wanted them. But we didn’t know; it definitely took us by surprise when a lot of the stuff that came along with it happened.
So you guys didn’t finish recording “Your Deep Rest” and just share a look?
Christian: We were actually sort of disappointed with “Your Deep Rest”.
Chris: Yeah, we finished recording “Your Deep Rest” and just sort of said “Oh.”
Christian: We relate to the songs differently, even individually. We’ll have an idea for a song, we’ll have it really strong in our heads, but if it’s recorded and it doesn’t make us feel exactly the way we wanted it to feel when we were writing it or playing it to each other, then we’ll get pretty disappointed in the song. And that sort of happened to me on “Your Deep Rest”.
So what was the difference? Was it the sound? A theme you were chasing?
Chris: Well now we’ve heard it so many times as is that we’re used to it. Half the album was re-recorded. There was an initial tracking that turned into pre-production.
Christian: For me, certain songs I’ll come up with the riff in my room, and I’ll feel like there’s a certain magic in something about the song, the way I heard it in my head, and if I don’t hear that when it all comes together, I’ll be sort of upset. “In Framing” came the closest to being what I wanted it to be.
Should we understand a metaphorical layer to “Housebroken”?
Christian: Yeah definitely; that song is the most obviously metaphorical song on the album. To me, that song is about how people internalize abuse. Abuse was a heavy conversation in my life at the time [that the album depicts], but we think of someone being abusive and people would say “Well you need to revisit their past, you need to see what made them who they are” and that’s true, and it can be really sad and horrible, but in the end, you’re still being attacked, you’re still being hurt, and what do you do about that?
In connection with that, “empathy” is a term that I really associate with the record. Sometimes the things you’re trying to get at aren’t topics that would come easy. For instance “Life In Drag”. So to what extent did you feel motivated to be a broader ally, covering more of what the suburbs could be? Was there ever a point where you made an active decision, or was there some concern about the complicated nature of being an ally?
Christian: There was some worry, especially with “Life In Drag”, and I had a couple of friends call me out on it too. They actually said it sounded like that Macklemore song; this person was a really close friend, but he pretty much thought my experience put me in a place that was weird for me to use the term “Life In Drag”.
The word “drag” can perhaps be less thoughtful about identity.
Christian: Yeah, he used the word “obtuse,” he felt the song was “obtuse”. But I did take the time to share that song with people who are involved in drag, and people who are trans, and they thought it was great, so that was my beginning point when I started it. As far as the other stuff, that’s how I interact with my friends. For instance the “bitches in line” lyric [from “Housebroken”] I did bounce that off a few of my female friends to see what they thought, and they understood my concern and said “no I think you should keep it,” even though it’s mixed weird, and really loud on the album.
It seemed like a moment where you put a lot of trust in your listener to understand the irony of the line.
Christian: I still feel weird about that song. Like it’s too obvious.
Chris: We wrote it, performed it the next day, then it got posted on the internet, so we never changed it that much.
Christian: It was the first song I wrote for the album. That song was a song we had to fit into the record. It felt like it didn’t really have a home on the record.
So how does the songwriting process work?
Christian: Usually one of us will write either a riff or a chord structure, then we’ll bring it to practice
Chris: Or like we’ll meet up in someone’s bedroom for twenty minutes, play one part of it, then we’ll meet up in a month and practice it until we can record it.
Christian: But there were other songs that I had structure for, but a lot of it happened in the studio, and then I would come back to the studio with lyrics.
Chris: Pretty much, when we came to the studio we made sure we had the drums, and the chords, which is probably why it took so long. We started in Summer 2012.
You made a traditional “album”, was there an artistic statement there, where the artifact is what’s important?
Christian: When I was writing lyrics, when we had the song structures, I know I wanted to have an album that you listen to the first time and continue coming back to and finding new things. I remember in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, there was this scene where Draco’s dad drops the book he writes to Tom Riddle into his bucket, and you never catch that, but when I did catch it I was like “Woah,” and it was the sort of thing you’d never find unless you stumbled across it.
But I’m pretty focused on not paying attention to what other people are doing. That’s how I try to stay continually different. I respect what other people are doing, but I put way more emphasis on what my strengths are and what I can do with them. As far as lyrics, I just try to make the best representation of myself, and what I like to hear and see. And I like albums like that, but I don’t care if it gets respected in that way. I knew that some people and those are the people I wanted to hear it.
Did it go above and beyond what you expected?
Christian: Yeah definitely. We’ve had a lot of people say that an album hasn’t hit them as hard as ours had in like, six years. I wanted the lyrics to hit people on a deeper level than a lot of songs typically do, so people saying that I guess was exactly what I wanted to happen.
I think this record is a fairly socially responsible record, that while catchy and easily consumed, is also asking tough questions. Sometimes modern emo can feel really frivolous. I was wondering if you had thoughts on that, your relationship to all that?
Christian: I think people make music for different reasons. I think a lot of people make bands because its fun, and its fun to do that. But a lot of the reasons I started getting into music is because whenever I was sad or confused I would go home and spend three of four hours in bed listening to albums, and it made me feel so much better about everything. And that’s what I want to do with music, and that’s what I want to do with my life. I have the people in my life that I care about, and I want to defend those people and their struggles and that will undoubtedly come through. But I usually don’t concern myself with what other people are writing. I think you can write about frivolous things and do that really well. I think you can write about what we write about and have it go poorly. Art comes in many different forms, music is just the medium. It depends on what people are trying to do. Modern Baseball’s album is a good example. They write about pretty frivolous things, but they do it really well.
I also sense that the way you respond to fans on Tumblr or Twitter is more thoughtful, even more responsible than how other bands do. Occasionally I’ll think “Man, if I was 13 and I asked a band a sincere question and got that response, I’d be kinda crushed.” It seems like you try to avoid that.
Christian: Definitely. I mean, if someone asks us a joke question, I’ll give a joke answer. But I just try to engage what people are feeling when they ask the question. I ignore a lot of questions because I don’t feel like I have a thoughtful answer. And sometimes I just don’t know what to answer, so I’ll just give a fun answer. But if we’re going to present ourselves as a band that try to meet you at a deeper level, we might as well try to do that with all facets.
That shows a pretty respectable level of responsibility. It ties back to you asking your friends about “Life In Drag”.
Christian: It’s more just that those are people that are really involved in my life, and they’re people that I care about, and if I release a song and its questionable, I want to know how they feel. I don’t have a big enough ego to think I don’t need to ask the people it might effect.
When it comes time to write another record, will the process be similar? What would you change?
Christian: I probably wouldn’t want to go for writing Home Like No Place Is There 2. I’d want it to have some kind of progression. Some people will expect Home 2, but I’d just like to keep that album what it is. But as far as emotion, I’ve thought about that. Home is really sad, dark, and I’d like to brighten it a bit. But that’s all I have.
Chris: I’d like the sound of the album to be warmer. I feel like Home is cold-sounding. Like a “the fire just went out” sort of feeling.
Christian: It’s like late fall, and I’d like to make an “early spring” record.
Chris: Although I’ve seen people say “Perfect album to roll my windows down in the spring”.
How did the album cover happen? Was that done in Photoshop, or did you paint an actual house?
Chris: This is a good story.
Christian: The guitarist that quit the band, his house got foreclosed on. They got evicted, and we decided to do it. He gave us permission, so I woke up at three or four in the morning, and I got a ladder, a bucket of water, and about 20 bottles of washable paint. And I walked from my house to his house because I didn’t have a car. And so we did it, I wrote it on there, it took forever, the cops came, I said “my friend lives here” and they said “okay,” and the neighbors kept calling the cops and I kept going and we got it done and we took the picture that afternoon. And I cleaned it the next day and it was freezing and I just kept dipping my hand in cold water and it sucked. But then we developed the film and it came out really bad, so then we had to Photoshop it. I painted it on to a piece of paper and scanned it on.
Chris: But we did do it.