“I was just trying to be honest.”
That’s how Paul Gonzenbach, lead singer of the Jim Yoshii Pile-Up, describes their latest record, and it’s a
statement that is forcefully proven to anyone who actually sits down and listens to their latest album, Picks Us Apart.
Many critics have lazily labeled the band as “emo” or “Death Cab-esque” but not only are these comparisons way off, they provide the reader with little insight into what Jim Yoshii (named after a childhood friend) are really about.
“I think what you get compared to has nothing to do with what you are doing, it’s easier for people if you have some way to categorize bands. But I think it would be better to look back a little further to find comparisons. We weren’t listening to Death Cab when we where growing up.”
Instead, Gonzenbach is influenced by a wide variety of styles, particularly British bands of the 80s and early 90s. With each record, the band has ventured into new territory, and on Picks Us Apart the group moves away from the melancholic droning guitars that distinguished their first album and instead wrap their songs in sunny pop melodies. But that’s not to say this isn’t a melancholic record.
“We decided, well we wanted to try something different. The lyrics were going to be pretty over the top dark, so
I think it (the music) sort of tempers the lyrics. But, this isn’t party music by any means.”
The result is a deeply personal record for Gonzenbach, a work that struggles with issues of depression, anger and suppressed desire. Yet, he insists that first and foremost he and the band are about making music, and that lyrics like “to my father…I leave a blood-stained mattress,” are often metaphorical or strictly about telling a story.
“My first and most important goal is to make a good record, if I was going in there for myself that would be
selfish. For me there isn’t therapy value, if you need
therapy go to a therapist.”
Yet, the songwriter’s inherent lyrical honesty struggles to be separated from the musical proficiency displayed in the songs. Gonzenbach has dealt with depression, and the opening song, from which the aforementioned lyrics are quoted, is a compilation of suicide notes he had written. Often these songs resonate with a hidden anger, and when true feelings emerge it creates an amazing amount of emotional intensity.
“When you are dealing with something like this, you are in an altered state, you aren’t looking at everything with any understanding, and everybody is either too smothering or not helping enough. I think that a lot of suicide feelings are really intense feelings of anger, and anger outwards.”
The passion behind the words and music on the record are reflected in the live performance as well, where the Pile-Up transplants some of that anger from the record into moving drama. And so when he tells the story of a fictional inmate on Jailhouse Rock “you will spend the next ten years/regretting the last six months,” you can’t help but think that there is a bit of Gonzenbach’s own experience
in that line.
“I don’t think mental illness ever really goes away,
but I certainly didn’t want to make this to drive anyone
deeper into depression, and at the same time I didn’t want to make a Lifetime movie.”
The album is never shy about facing
the realities of life, but many often miss
the other social commentaries that Gonzenbach makes apart from his
ruminations on depression; mainly issues of homosexuality.
“I wish that would be acknowledged,
or talked about a bit more. Most of the
people who listen aren’t gay, but I do wish that they were sometimes, in some ways it does kind of bother me.”
Any artist working within the realms that Gonzenbach and company travel through are bound to make some listeners uncomfortable. But it’s something that the band isn’t shy about, and as long as Gonzenbach continues to write with the same combination of vitriol and honesty, their music will remain significant.
“I was just trying to be honest.”