Dw. Dunphy is a writer, artist, and musician. As a senior editor for Popdose he has contributed many articles that can be found in the site's archives. He also writes for New Jersey Stage, Musictap.net, Ultimate Classic Rock, and Diffuser FM. His music can be found at http://dwdunphy.bandcamp.com/.
Power pop secret weapon Paul Melançon preps new music that could have been no music at all.
More than once, I’ve played Paul Melançon’s music for my friends, and I generally get the same reaction from them. They will appreciate it initially with the kind of comfort and ease one has while listening to old favorites. They quickly realize that this is not a familiar song, but by then, it’s too late. His songwriting is no nostalgia trip but, rather, the sound of a man who slipped out of a more creative, (some would say) better time. I came to his Camera Obscura album almost a decade after it was released and wondered where it had been all my life. The Slumberland EP had that same effect. His work with The Arts and Sciences was just as captivating.
It was a shame that I had to sneak it on for folks. They’d often thank me for introducing them to “Finé” after the fact. “Guy Fawkes Day” wound up being a song that people would ask to hear again, sometimes with multiple replays, but only after wrangling on my part.
I get it. Each of us has that music nerd in their life that’s always trying to convince someone that they’re missing out on something great. If you don’t have such a music nerd in your life, you probably are that person. Just as frequently, the music nerd will spring some totally obtuse and weird thing on you and then spend an hour detailing your deficiency for not loving this immediately. I’ve never had this problem with Melançon’s music. Listeners respond as if they’ve been waiting for this.
Yet his musical output has been sporadic over the past eight years. He released a digital single with The New Insecurities and has a series of remarkable covers over on YouTube, but not much more than these. This is about to change. Melançon recently launched a new Kickstarter campaign for a brand new record, The Get-Go’s Action Hour. He’s also setting up stretch goals that, if reached, will allow him to create music videos for the songs in the style of old Hanna-Barbera shows like Scooby Doo.
Popdose had the opportunity to speak with Paul Melançon, and learn about his music, his life, and the struggles he had to get through. What were those exactly? You’ll find out.
The new album comes after an extended period of time. Not an unproductive time, but you haven’t had a project committed to a full album since The Arts and Sciences. What prompted the delay?
Well, I had a breakdown, really, after the Arts and Sciences record. I have trouble hearing those songs now because I can hear it, what’s building up in that Paul. That was definitely the peak of the depression for me and the week after recording wrapped I was in the hospital. After that, I was still trying to keep music going but I just wasn’t in a good state. Eventually, I quit music. I couldn’t feel any joy in it, or anything at all, really.
I tried a variety of different meds but nothing seemed to really make any long term difference. Eventually, someone suggested ECT as a treatment and though I know it’s a perfectly safe and viable option these days, I was terrified at the prospect. So, instead, I decided to try something even weirder, which is how I ended up in Peru, meeting with a shaman and taking ayahuasca. I feel like that experience, as crazy as it sounds, really kind of re-wrote my brain. It took some time to process it all, but I started seeing the world differently. I realized that my cynicism had never really created anything, I needed to choose to believe in things in order to create. I learned to love music again, and now here we are.
How will The Get Go’s Action Hour be a part of explaining your experiences?
Well, this is one of those things that, in the past, I might have thought up and then talked myself out of. The record is meant to be a sort of “power popera,” telling the story of The Get-Gos, a band in a Saturday morning cartoon show. What no one knows is that the leader of the band is suffering from severe clinical depression, and as the show progresses he ends up having a complete breakdown. He then goes on essentially the same journey I did; lost and without purpose, he ends up in the Amazon and has a spiritual experience that he tries to work out. In the end, he realizes that he can really only live by saying “yes.”
The fictional band “The Get Gos” is modeled after the Hanna-Barbara cartoons of the late 60s and early 70s, most notably Scooby Doo. These cartoons often had a weird aside to them in that the main characters had a main job (detective work, crime fighting, baby-sitting, anthropomorphic-animal-being) and were also pop stars. How did you decide on this being the framing device for the new album?
A long time ago, I was playing around with the idea of writing something that was instantly anachronistic, in the way that Donald Fagen’s “IGY” was. So I wrote this song called “1985 by the Get-Go’s” (appearing on the Slumberland EP) that was supposedly written by a band in 1965 and had a lot of references to their vision of 1985, which were all horribly off-the-mark. It was also a bit stalkery, so I knew the “writer” of the song had a host of issues, too. That would have been that, really, except I like world-building. So, in my head, I constructed this whole useless backstory about the band and about their lead singer, their Saturday morning kids show, and his eventual disappearance. I think I posted it on a MySpace page once, just so you know how long ago that was.
I always wanted to do something with all of that, but I really had no idea what. Flash forward to recently, and I knew I had this story I wanted to tell, about my battle with depression, my breakdown, and the struggle to find a new way to live. And, for whatever reason, it clicked with the silly backstory I had come up with years before.
I guess I’m showing my age with this, but I’ve always had an iffy relationship with the term “power-pop.” I don’t hate it the way some people claim to, but growing up, this was rock music. Maybe not hard rock or heavy metal, but all the main components were there. You have regularly embraced the term, but I wonder how you feel about these narrow classifications, that music genres have to be sub-sub-sub-genred to a point where the music is nearly over-described?
The truth is, really, that I couldn’t tell you what constitutes power-pop. I’m in a couple of online groups that are focused on it as a genre and the surest way to start a multi-day argument is to go in and just say, “Is band x power-pop?” It just seems to be the genre I get linked to the most. It can be frustrating at times, only because getting sub-sub-classified like that can often lead to people dismissing you out of hand, without even listening. But at this point, in the way the industry seems to work, you get the niche you get, and I just keep trying to make the music that I would like.
Even though I call this a “power popera,” I’m not really sure how well it fits. The first half of the record is pretty straightforward power pop, I think, which is deliberate because they’re all meant to be actual Get-Gos songs. But the second half is where things fall apart and I hope it ranges a little wider in terms of influence. There’s an 11-minute, sort of proggy piece in there, which I hope doesn’t scare anyone off.
Not only did you make this music and work up the concept, but you also designed the artwork. How do the visual arts play into the music work for you, and vice versa?
I’ve always had a hand in trying to design the look of whatever record I’m making at any given time, but this is definitely a new thing, trying to design and make a lot of ancillary stuff like cartoons and things like that. I had bigger ideas for all my previous records, honestly, but like I said before, I usually talked myself out of things, based on the work involved and my self-perceived skill levels. This time I tried to stick with it, because I’m trying to live this idea that “the answer is yes.” So, if I think, boy, I wish I could have actual Get-Gos cartoons to go with these songs, well, then I should sit down and try to figure out how to make that happen.
Also, I would totally remiss to not mention Sarah Marks, who did the original design of the Get-Gos themselves. She made an animated intro for their non-existent cartoon for me as a birthday present a few years ago (with Windows Movie Maker, of all things, maybe the most difficult tool to use to try and do that). Seeing them like that really sold me on the idea that I needed to pursue this as a project.
Having multiple talents like this, did you ever feel like you had to bear the burdens of depression as sort of the price one pays for the work? There’s a lot of romanticism about the “tortured artist” from Vincent Van Gogh on down. Did you ever feel like suffering, for your work or otherwise, was part of the job?
Yeah, I have thought that in the past. But it’s a thought I find really uncomfortable now. I think there’s something to the idea that people who make art tend to relate to the world in ways that also make them vulnerable to depression. But the romanticism of it seems to me to be more telling of the way we treat artists in the world.
What brought you to that realization that, no, one can be productive and fulfilled and not be taken down by depression – it doesn’t have to be part of the presumed life of a creative person?
Taking ayahuasca. (laughs) I mean, I don’t want to pretend that it was a magic trick where I took it and suddenly I understood everything, let alone that I was suddenly “cured.” But that experience led to a lot of reflection and trying to come to grips with things, and part of that process was realizing that suffering and making art didn’t have to be inextricably linked. Depression doesn’t need to be a price you have to pay to be able to express things to the world.
Were there superstitions that held you back, such as, “If I get to some degree of inner contentment, I’ll lose something from my work”? I have heard that this, above all, has caused people to reject treatment because they are concerned they’ll miss that edge for their creative endeavors?
Yeah, I definitely have had those moments. I’m sure I have even said that out loud to people before, which is really pretty embarrassing. But I eventually got to the point where the depression was so severe that I couldn’t create anything at all. I just shut down completely. I suppose that makes the decision to try doing things a different way a bit easier.
Typical interviewer question alert: what were the initial influences on you that caused you to think this is what you wanted to do?
The first record I ever bought with my own money was Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue. I have plenty of other influences that show up in my stuff, I think, but if you wanted a sort of Patient Zero test case, I feel like that’s a pretty good indicator.
I used to joke that, when I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to either be a super-hero or a rock star, and that I chose rock star by default, really, since radioactive spider bites probably just cause cancer. Neither career is really an option at this point in my life, but I’m learning to find the joy in making music and art anyway in a way that pleases me and then hopefully connects with other people. Truthfully, I’ve never really learned to do much else.
How complete is the new album at the moment, and how far to go with it? Who else is involved?
My band are a bunch of incredibly talented people who could be playing with other people and making actual money, so I try not to ever take them for granted. Jonny Daly and Lee Kennedy both worked with Michelle Malone. Peter McDade was part of the band Uncle Green (later 3 lb. Thrill). They’ve all been part of the Atlanta music scene forever. Deb Tala is a recent transplant from LA who has toured with Billy Bragg, among others. Rob Gal, who has produced way too many amazing records that came out of this city to count (as well as all of mine) is producing.
Most of the record is close to complete. I have a couple of lead vocals left, then backing vocals for most of them. Then just mixing, mastering, and sending them off to be made. I really wanted to be sure that I had done as much as I possibly could before trying to launch a Kickstarter.
What are you planning for the project should you gain the “extra innings” of passing your goal and offering stretch goals?
If the record is funded then I get to turn my eye towards making this project more than just a record, which has always been my goal. I have scripts and designs for five Get-Go’s cartoons, which make up the first half of the record, and then some film and video ideas for the second half. Each stretch goal we hit means another video gets made, and if we can get to the end, I’ll collect it all and release it to the world.
Circling back, if you have the opportunity to speak to others who are dealing with depression, what should they know or think about, coming from someone who understands what they may be going through?
It’s really hard to try and say something helpful in such a short space. But the first thing I always say is that your brain is lying to you. When you’re really depressed, there’s a really terrible voice in your head telling you some really terrible things. Worse, it’s terribly convincing because it’s using your voice to do it. Don’t believe it. It lies. That’s all it does. If you find yourself thinking the unthinkable, give it one more day. When you’re able to talk, find someone you trust, and tell them what’s going on. What you’re feeling will pass. It ALWAYS passes. There is always an “other side” to it, and that’s when you try to find ways to deal with it.