There is a murky edge to American Trappist’s new single, “Holy Moses.”
The song is as an acoustic showcase for American Trappist, whose previous tracks have been more electric and energetic. Yet there is something different about his new sound that works. I like experimentation in music, especially when artists take a multitude of influences and work them into a familiar, yet inventive new package. “Holy Moses” is a great mix of influences. On my first listen, I instantly thought of a few comparisons.
There is definitely a Leonard Cohen quality to the song’s vocals and arrangement. Think of a gruff, spoken-word timbre, wrapped in a haunting acoustic groove. The lyrics in “Holy Moses” are also reflective of this type of sound. There are hints of folk-rock, indie, and even bits of 70s alternative to my ears. They all mesh into a cohesive, interesting sound that is a cool new direction for American Trappist.
The overall construction of the song is simple, yet effective. In terms of the instrumentation, the acoustic guitar carries the song, acting as the central rhythm instrument in the track. There is a shaker moving subtly in the background, with a lot of open space in the mix. The production is also simple. The vocals are delivered quietly, but sound massive when compared to the other instruments. They take center stage on the track, hanging just above the rhythm section with an ethereal quality to them. When the chorus hits, there is a nice doubling effect added that amplifies the vocals.
One of the most interesting parts of the track is within the melody. It is subdued at first, letting the instrumental groove take over with its steady beat. But then, every so often, there is a triangle that accents each melody note in a way that not only brightens the line, but also gives it a new vibe. It highlights the melodic line, which would be easy to miss due to the airy, almost spoken vocals in the verses.
The lyrics are coy and mysterious, and they carry a nonchalant vibe. They seem to drift in and out of the track, dealing with shadowy characters with few details and background. The central character seems to be disaffected, and the delivery of the lyrics help convey this feeling. To be honest, there does not seem to be much of a cohesive story to the track. The lyrics bounce around, taking different viewpoints of a relationship between two characters.
Religious symbolism appears towards the end of the track, which adds to the song’s strange and otherworldly sound.
The song carries a nice pace, increasing in energy gradually. However, the track takes on a new energy when it reaches the bridge. The vocals suddenly explode and take over the mix, while an electric guitar makes a well-timed entry to strengthen the guitar line. For the remainder of the song, the guitars weave in and out over a melodic guitar solo. It’s simple, unique, and it adds a nice twist to the direction of the song. I found this to be an interesting addition to the song, as it gives a needed diversion to break up the occasional monotony of the repetitive verses. And then, right as the energy increases and the feel of the track takes on a new feeling, everything goes quiet – until the central melody returns to close out the track, drifting into a final strum of the acoustic guitar.
“Holy Moses” is a great introduction to American Trappist, which makes the following questions even more exciting.
How has your music style evolved?
I think it’s all happened very naturally. Over the years, not much has changed about the way I approach songwriting. I reach higher, but my process is largely the same. That’s one thing that’s been so interesting about what gets received well and what doesn’t. I hear people talk about how my music has changed, or how I should go back to writing folk-rock music or something like that. But the truth is, nothing has changed. It’s the world around me that’s changed. My perspective on life has changed, and I guess I’ve raised my standards a little when it comes to what makes a “good song.” I’m just being myself. That’s the only way I know how to do it, and I’ve been practicing that way for so long it would be dishonest to try something else.
Who are some of your musical influences?
Leonard Cohen is my favorite songwriter if we’re reaching back a ways. Present day I love the Cass McCombs catalogue. All the way through, Cass is so creative. I think I’m drawn to artists who put creativity first. And it has to feel honest, if it doesn’t feel like the artist is really telling me their truth I have a hard time getting into it. Beyond that, Big Thief, Blake Mills, Timber Timbre, Daniel Romano. In fact, if you’re reading this and haven’t heard of Daniel Romano, check him out first.
What is your creative process usually like?
Well I’m usually in the car. And I’ve never written anything I like while I’m high. I sort of need to be in touch with reality on an uncomfortable level. Sometimes it comes quickly, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just a piece of something that gets used a few years later. But mostly it comes to me when I’m doing a mundane task. Forced to face the real world or something like that. Also, when I’m feeling so emotional that I can’t control it, I get to remind myself that I have this outlet and something good usually comes from those writing sessions.
How did you write “Holy Moses?” What was your inspiration?
Holy Moses really started as a recording exercise. I’d bought a new microphone for the studio and wanted to experiment with recording every single instrument on one song with that microphone. I guess that’s what I mean by “mundane task.” I was so preoccupied with the recording aspect of it that I was able to access my subconscious and pull out a song that was really vulnerable and emotional. As far as the recording goes, I wanted it to sound like “Goddamn” by Girls. I mean I wanted it to be its own thing too, but that was the inspiration I guess…when the vibraslap comes in it smashes the whole mix. I love that.
What is your favorite line from “Holy Moses?”
“Well I know it’s not my party, but I’m sure if someone saw me here I would not have to die” — if I had to pick one maybe it’s that. I was singing about the music industry, and how I don’t deserve anything, I don’t deserve an invite to the party, but somewhere in my heart I’m still sure that if the right person heard it, maybe I could pay some of my bills with songwriting and afford more time to make my own records. Kind of selfish but I feel like I buried the thought pretty well and left it open to interpretation, so I could say what I wanted to say without sounding ungrateful.
How did you first get into songwriting?
I’ve been writing music for as long as I can remember. I grew up playing classical music and I just always remember having ideas for songs, melodies or concepts. I’m grateful that my parents encouraged me to explore that. I probably wrote my first song when I was five, I’ve been writing ever since.
What advice would you give to other aspiring songwriters?
If you want to make something original just be yourself, and if you want to make money do what they tell you to do and don’t complain about it. Finding a way to be yourself while navigating the pop world’s rules and regulations is exciting and admirable. It’s not for me, but it’s not wrong. That being said, if you’re really interested in making something original, you have to be honest with yourself 100% of the time, and be conscious of the sacrifice you’re making. It could be very little, but it could be everything. If you can’t handle that thought then play the game, and know you’re playing the game. If you straddle the line, you’re just going to get frustrated by all the people on either side who really know what they want.
What is one of your favorite albums of all time, and why?
I love that album “I Want That You Are Always Happy” by The Middle East. It just hit me at the right time in my life I guess. My old band was touring Australia and as magical as it should have been it was kind of a hard time. I can remember having a couple of hours to kill in the airport and putting that album on. It ended with me crouched down and sobbing in one of those touristy perfume shops. Ever since then I think I’ve been more in love with it every time I listen. The mood is just perfect, the songwriting is so strong. It’s unique and earthy and spiritual and experimental.
What do you think defines art that stands the test of time?
I don’t think there’s any way to know. Each individual person defines it I guess. I think if you want a shot at it though you need to stay open, listen to the generation above and below you, do your research and love other people. Art that stands the test of time, by a universal standard, has to appeal to a lot of people, and stay relevant. I think you need to write about the human condition first and foremost if you want to do that, like how Lord of the Rings is really about the journey we go on to try and rid ourselves of our worst tendencies. But also imagine the biggest kind of love you can, without any judgement or boundaries that only apply to you and this lifetime. Write about that, because that’s where the world is going.
What should we expect from American Trappist in the future?
We’re working on another record, I’m writing right now and the band is playing together a lot. We took some time off after the last record cycle and now we’re back on it. This new record will be pretty different, but a lot has changed for me over the last couple of years. I think, if you get a chance to see the band live, you’ll understand that we’re yet to capture that sort of interpretation of the songs on our recordings. This next time around we’ll be shooting to bottle a little of that energy I think, as well as the noise and impulsive nature of the set. It’s weird because we rehearse a lot, but I think there’s something about building such a specific box to such specific specifications that when you decide to step outside of it, it’s a super deliberate decision. It feels good and there’s this chain reaction where we all start to go nuts, but we’re all on the same page. I know I don’t really get to say this but that’s real rock and roll to me.