With a large portion of the world having been locked up in quarantine for weeks and months at a time, musicians and creative artists would be hard-pressed not to draw some inspiration from recent events. However, for Bloomington, Minnesota indie-rock outfit Remo Drive, work on the group’s upcoming third LP started long before the world faced a global pandemic and the prospect of extended self-isolation. Speaking to vocalist and guitarist Erik Paulson, we talk about the front man’s creative process, working through criticism, and his deep love for Jim Henson.
In the press release for the new record, A Portrait of An Ugly Man, there’s a quote from you talking about how you wanted to make the guitar presence a little more forward, as opposed to the last record [2019’s Natural, Everyday Degradation]. I just wanted to ask you a little bit about that, and what your reasoning was there.
I’ve just been listening to a lot more guitar-forward music lately and, I don’t know, I sort of like it in our live show. I really enjoyed playing songs from the last record because I could move around more and focus on singing. But I felt like that, as I was progressing as a singer, I didn’t feel like I needed to have the guitar simplified quite as much. Now that I’m sort of getting the hang of it, I can manage both.
So, with the guitar forward music that I was listening to, like old classic rock stuff, and then just feeling more comfortable I think with both instruments that I’m playing on stage.
You also mentioned that it was different in terms of the songwriting process, where you weren’t necessarily being as ‘conscious’ and trying to simplify things from a songwriting point of view. Were there any kind of external influences or things that you brought to this record that were different to the last one?
Yeah, I think with the last record, my sort of palette of influences was a lot of very narrative-driven songwriting, whether that be Bruce Springsteen or stuff like The Killers’ second record [Sam’s Town]. I guess really anything that was sort of driven by the story within the lyrics and the music kind of following that arc.
And this time around, I felt like I was listening to a lot music from the 70s that was still lyrically driven, but with more of a structure that isn’t so based around the words—like there’s music and then words on top of it; more of a David Bowie-type influence, than say a Bruce Springsteen kind-of vibe.
That’s interesting. There does seem to be some consistent themes and messaging going on with A Portrait of An Ugly Man. Was there any kind of underlying concept originally going into the record, or did it just come about organically?
With the title, I was trying to think of ways to make all the songs fit under that ugly, less desirable, sort of underworld type behavior.
Things in my personal life have been pretty tame for a while, so it’s just easier to explore some fiction. There were a couple of songs that I had started writing right after our last record was finished, that I wasn’t sure where to go with them. But then I realized that I could kind of create characters that are doing things that are more questionable or emphasizing personality traits that are less desirable. And I just wanted to expand on that throughout the whole record.
And I figured, even though other songs aren’t necessarily narrated by the same character, something like A Portrait of An Ugly Man would describe the role coming from this person, where maybe everybody contains a little bit of those characteristics and—in a sort of tongue-in cheek way throughout the record—paint a picture of those traits.
Speaking of tongue in cheek, there’s one particular lyric that stuck out to me on “Star Worship,” where you reference a Skeksis from Dark Crystal. I wanted to get your thoughts on where that came about, because I laughed out loud as soon as I heard that on the track. I was like, ‘Wait, did he just say that?’
Yeah [laughs]. I was obsessed with that show as a kid. We had a tour in the middle of working on the instrumentals for the album, working on the production and lyrics and everything. And on that tour, I finished that whole Netflix series [The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance] I think in maybe one or two really, really long drives from Texas to California. It’s really fun to watch, you kind of forget that it’s all puppets.
I was just really into the show and I figured I was trying to be less limiting on what bits I included between the music and just like whatever was actually happening in my brain. So, I was like, ‘Well, I’m thinking about that for some reason. I’ll just put it down and I can decide later if I’ll keep it or get rid of it.’ And then I guess I just never really got rid of it [laughs]. I thought it was funny and it served the idea of the song well enough to hold its place.
You decided to self-produce and mix the record this time around, recording it with your brother [Stephen Paulson, bassist/programming] in your parent’s basement? Is that correct?
Yep. We had sort of a quick turnaround time that we were shooting for. I would show up to my parents’ house, and work on it from anywhere between 9 AM to 9 PM, or noon to 9 PM, every day throughout the winter. It was just me doing the mixing and producing because, after the initial full-band-in-a-room session, it kind of turned into working in isolation, just to pile the ends together.
I don’t know if there was much of a reason, aside from that, I think just for me, making music sort of helps me. After our last record, I took some of the criticism pretty hard and I figured I should just dump myself into something. So, I didn’t let it bog me down too much, and it really did help, lifting me back up from being kind of sad for a while.
That makes a lot of sense. And, I’ll just say personally, I really enjoyed the last record, and I thought a lot of the criticism was mostly unfounded, but that’s just me.
Thank you very much. I think that was probably the biggest motivation. Just feeling kind of down and wanting to make something, to have some fun and feel fulfilled, and just be creative.
Purchase A Portrait of An Ugly Man here.
Photo Credit: Connor Peck