Brimming with unique ideas that don’t shy away from the personal, the vulgar and the graphic Toby Goodshank’s 2009 album“untitled” shows an artist exploring the boundaries of what you can say in a song and how you can deliever it. Mathias Kom is the singer, guitarist and songwriter of Canadian indie folk outfit The Burning Hell.
The two musicians talk about “untitled” on the occasion of its 10 year anniversary re-release.
How well do remember the time when you made this?
Pretty clearly! I had a lot of shitty life events to demarcate the time of making it. The collapse of a two-year relationship. It started out pretty fun – as they tend to – but went horribly wrong. I feel like some of the material was a reaction to that. Especially some of the more grotesque lyrical elements of it. I felt like they were intended to bum that person out.
It doesn’t sound too much like a breakup album.
Also, my father died during the making of this album, which left me pretty distraught. It was a weird time. I was a drunk mess and could barely finish the album. It comes out in some of the performances. For example, I would just start recording the song in the wrong key and go with it. Later, I would have to do some vocal gymnastics to make it work.
Did it help to be creative in such difficult times?
A majority of the writing was already done by the time the shit had hit the fan. Then the recording process was sloppified because I was a wreck.
I’m sure that my state affected the way I was looking at the arrangements. I feel like it put a strain on me and the album producer Major Matt Mason’s relationship. I’m sure I was probably not a lot of fun to be around. There was no bad blood, but it was definitely the last thing we worked on together (laughs).
There’s a lot of beauty in this record: Beautiful hooks, double and triple vocals. The coexistence of that beauty with vulgarity is really interesting.
I feel like deep down it’s the influence of the band The Frogs. They used quite a bit of vulgarity in their work.
What do they mean to you?
At the time that I first heard them, their music made me feel more comfortable with myself as a person, with my own sexuality and other people’s sexualities.
Growing up it made such an impression on me that you could make a song about anything, and use whatever words came to mind. It wouldn’t necessarily make it a good song, but you could do it. I feel like that opened up a lot of doors for me musically.
So there is something cathartic about using words that are crude?
The vulgarity that I put on the record was a good way for me to blow off steam. My vulgar attempt at humour felt like a release.
After spending a lot of time at the hospital when my dad was dying, it just felt especially good to curse and to be kind of gross.
In terms of beauty, I was listening to a lot of beautiful music at the time, like Janet Jackson and the band Helium. I feel like I just borrowed a bit from everywhere.
“I couldn’t come up with a better calling card than this untitled album with no song titles that was upside down no matter how you held it. I felt like it was appropriately confused and confusing.”
You are also a painter and a visual artist who uses vulgarity as a stylistic device. How do people react to that?
Early on, I found that drawing weird anatomical stuff got a crazy reaction from people. Some people loved it, some people thought I was an asshole. I just liked that I hit on something that easily garnered a gut response. For the most part, it feels good to do.
Do you take it personally when people dismiss your art because of its vulgar aspects?
I’m not really in the school of ‘separate the art from the artist’. I’m more like ‘Here’s this intense stuff about me and you can decide whether I’m a worthwhile human being or not’. And sometimes people decide not, and that’s ok. I feel like I want to give an honest overview of my inner workings. It feels like a very direct approach for me.
Ten years after its initial release, do you still find yourself in that record ?
I hadn’t listened to it in a long time. Once Boo Hoo broached the possibility of re-issuing it, I listened to it again and sort of braced myself to feel ashamed.
But I still like how it sounds. I don’t feel like I would’ve made many different choices, had the circumstances been different. It’s as good as I could’ve made it, and I still feel pretty proud of it.
Have you ever performed the songs live?
Everything except for the final track and the rap track. I’ve never done them solo. But my hope would be that I can wrangle some musicians to travel with me, to flesh out the arrangements a bit. Some things work better than others. And with the rap, it’s hard to bust out a two-minute rap song in the middle of a lot of folk/rock songs.
Will the record still be untitled?
Yeah, I wanna keep it as close to the original release as possible, even if that means it remains somewhat impenetrable. It’s what I intended. I still feel like it was a good call in hindsight.
“ It was a weird time. I was a drunk mess. I barely could finish the album.”
How did you release the album in 2009? Was there a release party?
It was pretty unceremonious. With the CDs themselves, I was so incredibly happy with how they turned out, and I paid for so many of them, that I would just give them to anyone, like random people. I just wanted to disseminate it. More than loving the music, I loved how it looked. I couldn’t come up with a better calling card than this untitled album with no song titles that was upside down no matter how you held it. I felt like it was appropriately confused and confusing.
The record was also a collaborative effort between you and musician friends? The credits read, that all of the musicians wrote their own parts. Could you talk a little bit about how that felt for you?
I try to make it a habit of inviting friends to add to the arrangements of my recordings, and this album was no exception. I generally enlist folks I trust, and give them carte blanche to write and perform their own parts. I wasn’t too internet savvy at this point, so all of the collaboration occurred within NYC!
It feels great to let go of some of the control I have over my songs, and have friends add to them. I find that it increases the chances of me wanting to listen back to the recordings later! I think it keeps things fresh and exciting.
You are a longtime New Yorker. In which ways does the city affect your music, in which ways did it affect untitled. What would be different about it, if you were f.e. living in California?
Every art and music opportunity that I’ve uncovered in the last 20 years is directly tied to living in this amazing, expensive place where other artists and musicians still congregate. I wouldn’t be able to live in California for any long period of time. I enjoy the seasonal weather changes, I enjoy prolonged moods. The East Coast moodiness affects me deeply, and NYC is still an inspiring creative hub.
Untitled was written and recorded just before everyone was constantly and everywhere on social media and on their iphones. Is the ubiquity of social media and the new normal of communicating all the time a blessing or a curse for the artistic process?
I’ve always been a bit of a Luddite, and slow in general when it comes to utilizing new technology. On one hand social media may have helped spread the word about this album, but on the other there are so many artists doing the same for their work. It’s easy to get lost amid all the choices, especially if the music hasn’t been vetted by a media outlet. Myspace was a fun way to connect with people around the time this album was released. I think I caught a few more ears than I would have otherwise. Maybe social media will help with this reissue!
Untitled came out and Obama had been president for some months. Many people describe a positive vibe at that time, even over here in Europe. Is something on the album due to that vibe that the Bush years, connected to war and fraud were over?
I was super-hopeful when Obama was elected! I certainly voted for him. I was writing this album during the ramp-up to the election, and the media atmosphere was that of a circus; the opposition not only appeared idiotic and scary to me, but seemed to resonate with a lot of Americans. That nightmare scenario is blossoming here at the time of this writing with Trump running wild. Anyways, I was beyond sick of hearing about the election and so stressed out about my dad’s ill health that I became apathetic in a way. That numbness was my personal vibe while composing the music, but changed to match.