Matson on Music
The Dutchess & the Duke: "autumn album 2009" proclamation and interview with Jesse Lortz
Posted by Andrew Matson
Local urban-folk duo The Dutchess & the Duke's "Sunset/Sunrise" comes out Tuesday, Oct. 6, and for pop music in Seattle it's the fall album of 2009. The group plays a celebratory concert the following Friday at the Crocodile.
The new album, like The Dutchess & the Duke's 2008 debut "She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke," is for anyone with an affinity for old British invasion pop, and also anyone who ever thought Lou Reed was cool.
Where the debut was recorded starkly—just guitars and voices, mainly, in a friend's basement in Seattle—"Sunset/Sunrise" was recorded in a friend's creamery warehouse in Oakland, and surrounds D&D's characteristic acoustic guitar jangle with echoes and reverberations, courtesy producer Greg Ashley. Also, there's a piano, strings, a drum, and, further switching up the program, Kimberly "Dutchess" Morrison handling some lead vocals, so "Sunset/Sunrise" sounds different from D&D's freshman effort. But not at all like a different band made it. The album is a continuation, and above all else marks the refinement of Jesse "Duke" Lortz' songwriting. It's particularly striking on two tracks—the brutally beautiful "Let It Die" and "Living This Life"—whose lyrics tell us the Duke lives where bone meets muscle.
"Let It Die" is an upbeat number with devastating lyrics. The narrator looks at his pregnant wife in bed, knows she loves him, knows the blank canvas inside her is pure potential, but feels an intense desire to flee. Jesse Lortz and his wife had a son, Oscar, this summer.
"Living This Life" should be called "Suffering This Life." The song trudges mightily, and, in lyrics that are almost too beautiful for Lortz to sing—he sometimes doesn't enunciate clearly—brings forth one point: life sucks. It's the song of this fall, 2009. Seattle's get-through-it anthem. A perfect song.
Lortz and I talked on the phone Sunday, Sept. 9—he at his White Center house, me downtown at The Seattle Times' offices, and we got into his lyrics, which he didn't always sound comfortable doing, but graciously did anyway. I was blown away by how close to home Lortz writes, and also the hard-headed intentionality behind his never offering easy explanations to heartbreakingly rendered existential conflicts—especially on "Let It Die" and "Living This Life." He doesn't let himself off any hooks, ever.
In "Let it Die," there's a line about a woman with a child: "In the bed, my woman lies sweetly with a love that I just can't see / Inside there's a little child now, with a heart and soul that's free." Is it autobiographical?
In the song, there's also the lines "I could hide from the life I chose" and "I could keep what's left of me." What do those lines express?
[Lortz hems and haws. He's clearly reluctant to talk about the topic.]
Actually...I don't know, it's pretty literal. It's basically just feeling trapped. In a domestic situation. All the songs are pretty literal. I think that might've been the first one I wrote for the new album.
The way I write, is I just kind of shut down from every day life and I come out to the garage. I'm supposed to have quit smoking when the baby came, but I'll come out to the garage and smoke and write songs, and at first I was having a really hard time getting started. So I was reflecting on what I could see was blocking me, I guess.
When was your baby born?
Of this year.
Do you mind if I ask your baby's name?
No, his name's Oscar. He's an awesome little guy. We're really excited he's here.
So what's it like to write a song like that, that's so hardcore honest about how you're feeling right now?
Basically, we made our record, and then we learned how to play the songs. And it was really emotional, writing and recording them. Then going and playing them for the first couple of months was really hard. We had a barbecue before we went on our Fleet Foxes tour, and my dad came, and he was like, "I want to hear some of your band. I want to hear your songs."
And we were like, "We don't really want to," but he was like, "C'mon," so we were like, "OK."
And like half our songs are about my dad. I'm sitting here singing to him all the s__t I wish I could say to him. And he totally didn't get it. It totally went over his head.
But it's hard to go out and sing about somebody in a really cruel way, sometimes. Like, "I'm miserable. This is why." And, "Sorry, that I'm sharing this with everyone else. But that's how it is."
In "Let it Die," is there a value in expressing such a conflicted feeling?
I think so, yeah. It felt good to get it out. These songs don't ever really solve anything. It's like a diary. A diary we sell in record stores. The writing part of it serves the purpose for me, and once it's out, it's kind of just a pop song, I guess.
That song certainly is. For such serious subject matter, it's almost oppositely upbeat.
Yeah. I made a joke the first time we played it that it was a cover of an Everly Brothers song. And people actually believed it. "Oh wow, I'd never heard that song!"
I was wondering earlier today: What's it going to be like in the future when your kid listens to that song? I don't think it's a negative thing. I wouldn't be offended.
Getting ready to have a kid, getting ready to completely change my life...I was hoping, and maybe a little expecting, that I would just transform into this totally strand-up, straight-laced guy. Everything's in a row, everything's cool.
That didn't quite go the way I'd hoped it would. I mean, I'm not, like, a devil. I'm a good dad. And I love him. And everything will be cool. But I also think it's important to teach him that everything isn't black or white. That doesn't happen. That happens in the movies. I want to teach him that bad things are good, sometimes. Or vice versa. Life is complicated. And it's not like he'll listen to it out of the blue. Hopefully I'll be able to impart a little philosophy on him day to day.
Funny to hear you talk about the movies, because one thing your music definitely does over and over is pop that bubble. It's not going to be OK. But that's OK, in a way.
Lacey at Sub Pop does the licensing, and she says she's having a hard time pitching it because, they like the songs, they really like the music, but the lyrics are so f___ing dark, and so specific, they can't fit 'em into a car commercial. It's more personal than a product.
On one hand, the music is really poppy, and sellable, and digestible. And then it's kind of flipped on its side with the lyrics.
There's a siren or car alarm at the beginning of "Living this Life." How was that sound achieved?
That's a cop car.
I had it on at the house, and had a friend over, and I said, "I think that siren's in the recording." And she said it wasn't, so I paused it and then it stopped. It really sounds like you're in an urban crime environment.
We were. We recorded it on San Pablo Ave in Oakland, which is totally a crime environment. In this nasty warehouse, with our friend Greg, and when were mixing it, that was stuck in there. And I'm not a fan of sound effects in songs, but it definitely set the tone.
There's a lyric in the song about wearing women's clothes on the song, and there was also a line in "Back to Me" from the first album where the narrator's accused of "dressing up just like a chick." Do you sometimes cross-dress?
Um, I have. It's a coping mechanism for stress, I guess.
Like, you might just put on a dress and go to the store?
No, nothing like that. It's kind of strange that I threw that lyric in, because it's kind of private and not something that I want everyone to know about me. But my mind keeps going behind my back.
"Living this Life" is my favorite song on the album. I love how it's so slow and heavy, and depressing, but beautiful. It makes me feel like trudging onwards through life, even though my life means nothing.
I had to listen really hard to get the lyrics. Can I run them by you?
"If I tear all these walls down
I'm left alone with my memories
They're all waiting for me
In evenly measured up columns and rows"
"If I walked in your black boots
If I walked in your black dress
Would you hold me tight
Or just beat me for wearing your clothes?"
I put that second stanza up as my Facebook status update the other day, and someone commented that they would hug me.
"It's a dangerous lesson
To be learned in the dark
It's living this life
Makes it hard."
"Will I ever visit your tombstone?
Will I ever pay for my crimes?
And, I ask you: If I'm on fire
Why am I so cold?"
"Will I ever walk through the city,
Will I ever look without seeing your face
On every stranger
And every forgotten soul?"
"I don't know if I'll see you
But I'll be on my guard
It's living this life
Makes it hard."
"When I finally crumble
I won't have to fall too far."
That's what you say, "crumble"?
Yeah, I think so.
That's the perfect word. That's a really good line. But I could barely understand you when you sang it.
Yeah, it's covered up by a whole mess of strings.
It's so sad. The lyrics are so sad.
It's making me sad, just hearing them read back to me.
I took the long way to work, which is where I record these phone conversations, and listened to it about 10 times. I've been listening to it for a few weeks. It's so, so good.
Thanks. Felt good to write it.
It must make you feel exhausted to write something like that.
Not really. It's exciting. I've been out of touch with my emotions for basically my entire life, and that first record was the first time I started digging around in history, in my life. And it's really rewarding. I'll write a song, and I'll feel like I'm just finding rhymes. "What's a word that rhymes with 'dark'? 'Heart.' OK." Then I'll go back and read it as a whole piece, and be like, "Where did this come from?" It's backwards process. I'm just following along.
I'm looking at the lyrics right now, and there's so many good lines. Like, "It's a dangerous lesson / To be learned in the dark" means life is perilous and you're all alone in it?
And, "When I finally crumble / I won't have to fall too far" means you're basically attached to the Earth, and you didn't get too far up the grace ladder.
I like your interpretations better than anything I could come up with.
The main drum on that song, and on the album, seems like a single tom, hit with a mallet. Is that right?
It's always beat simply, purposefully, with conviction. Pretty dead-serious drum sound.
When I write 'em, I write 'em in the garage with a guitar and a tambourine. So I like the drums 'cause they just do what they're supposed to do.
I feel like the drums lend a regal quality. Like, even when the lyrics are beating you to death, the drums are standing tall.
Do you remember who the first person what that you played that song for?
My wife. She has a weird relationship with my music. She loves music, but not in a musician capacity, but she's also my wife and she knows me. I think she just listens to them like they're songs. I think she cried, actually.
She's in an unfortunate situation, really. Being the one that's closest, she bears the brunt of a lot of my creative fallout.
[The conversation turns to the production on the new album, which was done by Greg Ashley in Oakland. Ashley's known for full-sounding recordings lots of people call psychedelic. Generally, he uses echo and reverb to musical effect. Ashley was selected specifically for the job.]
How does he get those sounds? You saw it firsthand. Is it as simple as mic-ing things in the far ends of really open rooms?
He's got this huge reverb chamber. He's set up an old creamery. He has a tiny room with his bed and his records, and a bigger room with his pianos and his drum closet and his board, and then this huge room, like 50 [feet] by 50 [feet], and he'll just throw a microphone in there. He built it with cut-outs for sound to bounce around. He's a f___ing producer. He records records. And he knows what he's doing. It was cool to go down there and have this whole little world that was waiting for us to start recording.
Does it sound a whole lot different while you're playing, or just in the recordings?
It sounds that way when we play it. He didn't add anything. It really amazed us, when we were singing. When we were doing our vocal parts. We're hearing it live in this awesome room, it sounds like a church, almost, and me and Kimberly, we were almost in tears. Like, "Our voices sound..." It was cool.
So it's really a recording of the room, then.
And you got out of that experience what you wanted to?
You can make money off this album, I'm assuming. The last one kind of made you famous, a little bit.
We made money off it, too. It recouped after nine months, I think. We're doing good. I mean, it's not a chart-topping success, but...
...you're making a living?
Um, with that and touring. And if I could ever write a happy song, some licenses. It's not sufficient, but supplementing.
I just want to know that you're not broke and dying.
No, no. I have a house. I have Internet. Baby's fed. We eat all organic.
On "The River," you sing, "I'm moving faster and faster away from the day I was born," and then the drum rolls and the guitar solo shoots out, and it's very dramatic. You probably could never have achieved that drama and not been in that room in Oakland.
Are moments like that why you went down there?
Yeah, we wanted it to be really dramatic, and dynamic. He's a friend, we've known him for a long time, and he's got reasonable rates. It was a no-brainer.
"Greg Ashley: Reasonable rates."
Ha ha. Yeah.
That song mentions "If there's a darkness in my soul / I'll let the darkness walk with me." And that's the theme we were talking about earlier, in the lyrics on this album, that there's this darkness inside you, or these dark impulses all around, but you sound reconciliatory in the end. Do you think you're ending on a hopeful note?
I think so, yeah. I think the last songs on both of the records are hopeful, 'cause it's like, you have to. After the other ones, it's such a job.
What was the last song on the first record? "Apocalypse Song"?
Uh, "Armageddon Song."
It's work to sit and listen to someone bitch about life. And then it's like, "Well, why doesn't this guy just blow his brains out if his life's so horrible?" So it's like, well, it's not really that horrible. I'm just dealing with the same s__t everyone else is dealing with. I'm dealing with life. And you can't shut out darkness. As cliché and cheesy as that sounds, you really have to embrace the things that are wrong with you, or else you'll never see anything as it really is.
That feeling's become a motif in your work, it's really nice to know it comes from you just writing honestly and emotionally about your life. It's nice to know it's kind of an accident.
It's totally an accident. People try to make that happen. Luckily for me, I don't have any experience in the music industry. Pop music. Even indie music. I've always just played in s___ty little punk bands and wrote songs about, like, partying.
Like Fe Fi Fo Fums music?
Yeah, stupid "let's have fun" music. And it's really nice to write whatever I want, literally whatever I want, whatever the consequences are, and people really connect with the stuff. I get emails like, "I broke up with my girlfriend, and I wanted to kill myself, and I listened to your songs and figured everything was alright." It's weird to have somebody come up to you like, "Man, thank you for making these songs."
Those are the kinds of songs you make, though. I know that must be weird, but that's gonna keep happening if you keep writing songs like this.
Yeah, I think so.
Dec 31 - 6:30 AM Premiere: 'Seattle Party' by Chastity Belt
Dec 31 - 6:00 AM 'Stop Biting' night at Lo-Fi now an album, mini doc
Dec 29 - 11:52 AM Were you there? 'The Rolling Stones' and Shabazz/THEESat
Dec 28 - 6:00 AM Top 40 of 2012, Seattle and beyond
Dec 27 - 6:00 AM Shabazz / THEESat: a history of high-concept Seattle shows