Plush – Conversation with Schroeder: Liam Hayes meets Jonathan Donaldson

Plush – Conversation with Schroeder
by Jonathan Donaldson

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the work of Plush, let me begin with a little history. Plush is basically the work of Liam Hayes of Chicago, and whatever rock orchestra he can pull together for a given recording project. He began his career with a 1994 Drag City single, “Found a Little Baby” b/w “3/4 Blind Eyes,” which was the best piece of sixties-style pop to bear the mark of a double A-side in years. Holding this single in my hand, I know that it’s a pop classic. But is this Liam Hayes? I wonder, looking at the fuzzy haired cartoon caricature on the sleeve.

Hayes sings with the style and conviction of John Lennon and when he drifts into falsetto, as he often does, it evokes the sweetly feminine quality of Brian Wilson. Instrumentally, Plush’s work could be compared to George Harrison’s first solo record (think “I’ll Have You Anytime”) and The White Album (think “Dear Prudence”) crossed with dead-on Wilson/ Bacharach style arranging. Plush has raised the bar for me on what I thought possible for orchestrally arranging rock music in this digital age where the life is compressed out of most every flat-sounding CD that hits the used bins.

With the delayed release of a follow up, 1998’s More You Becomes You (also on Drag City), fans awaited the second coming of Plush as if he were George Martin himself in purple velvet hunched over a Gretch guitar, with the great ghosts of the past surrounding him for the session date. But instead of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Pet Sounds Band, we got Liam Hayes smacked-out on a grand piano, performing a solo song cycle. In the span of two releases, we went from grandiose to absolutely sparse. The songs on More You Becomes You weren’t as strong as the “Found a Little Baby” singlsbut something of interest was happening here. We were seeing Hayes’ pop smarts unfolding in a very raw form. One gets the impression that he’s making it up as he goes along, finding a little groove and then going for a big, unusual chord change, waxing his most elusive as he goes for the odd Joni Mitchell- style melody. Hayes seems to be playing a game of challenging himself to keep the songs coming; being as daring as he can with his simple, but well defined color strokes, reaching deep into the well of his pop-consciousness for the most obtuse melodies he can find.

Hayes maybe have been attempting to deliver an anti-climax, much like The White Album was the opposite of Pepper with its blank cover, or how the greatest piece from the Beach Boys post-Pet Sounds project, “Surfs Up,” is basically a free-associative unaccompanied piano piece.

Notably on More You Becomes You, Hayes sounded depressed, with lyrics like “I didn’t know life was so sad, I cried.” I even heard some strains of classic torch-pop, ala Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry, showing how easily Hayes is able to tap into the feminine side of his persona with his melodic moodiness and that falsetto. But, man, what is this guy so depressed about? That he has remained relatively unknown? That he just wasn’t made for these times? That he woulda been big time about 35 years ago? That he is a master of one tiny little style of rock that now just has a cult following? Probably all of the above. Or that he has to spend all his dough to make the recordings he knows he’s capable ofs recordings on par with other holy grail-sters like Ron Sexsmith, Fugu, Jim O’Rourke, Jon Brion, Louis Phillipsand half of these other guys are producers, with all the time in the world to sit around figuring out how to make shit sound great!

Now I’m confronted with the big daddy of them alls another four years laters my little shy depressed wonderboy returns with Fed on the Japanese label P-Vine. Let me just say that Mr. Hayes’ proper follow up to the massive single he launched eight years ago has big hairy purple velvet balls. Gone are the slightly smacked out longings. Gone is Brian Wilson cooing paradoxically, and come is the cocaine hangover ofs Robert Plant?!? Hayes leads a laser-tight band on a 1971-sounding tour-de-force. We have a full-on seventies horn sections at times resorting to soulful hits and accentss plus winds on some tracks and, most impressively, a full-on string section. We’re not talking “Eleanor Rigby” though. Think Shaft, straight up. Orchestrations also sometimes echo Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. The songwriting is tight, with echoes of Carole King and John Lennon. But it sounds like the Brian Wilson part of the persona has been exiled for the time being. Apparently he just didn’t fit in at this party; too insecure, maybe.

I conducted this interview with Liam Hayes in August of 2002, via email. I sent him a list of questions which he answered on a jetset bumpy flight from Sydney to Tokyo. In general, our correspondence was extraordinarily friendly, and I found his answers to be pointedly funny, at times sarcastic, and intelligent. Perhaps what was most revealing were the questions that he chose not to answer, most of which dealt with my comparing his music to other artists. If anything, I felt like he was mocking me. To that end, I compare him to Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, who when asked by a fellow architect what he thought of his work, replied, “I don’t.”

Scram: between 1999 and 2002, you disappeared from the music scene. Where did you go?
Liam Hayes: Where the action wasn’t. Part of the time was spent putting this record together.

Scram: I know you appeared in a movie [High Fidelity].
LH: Yes I did. I got to pretend I was playing and singing while the main character pretended to listen.

Scram: Well, I am so glad to see you’re back! I’ve been waiting. Once I thought that I discovered a new Plush record on-line, only to discover it was a Christian band. Rats! Ever heard of them?
LH: That’s interesting. Doesn’t the bible say something about not taking a trademarked name in vain? Time for them to have a prayer session with the lawyers.

Scram: In the meantime, you changed labels, from Chicago’s famous Drag City to the lesser known Japanese label P-Vine. What prompted a move?
LH: P-Vine believed in it, made a serious offer, and were willing to make it a priority.

Scram: Were there issues with Drag City?
LH: They’re a good label. It just ended up costing more than they were willing to pay.
[I’ve since found out the cost of Fed was well into six-figures. Understandably, Hayes was looking for significant compensation from a label to help cover the costs of recording for which he scraped together claw, tooth, and nail, and mostly on credit. A longtime friendship with a higher-up at Drag City could do little to keep Hayes faithful, since a label of that size simply doesn’t have that kind of cash to give to artists with extravagant/ perfectionist leanings. Rhetorically, how much do you think it costs to make a Smog record?]

Scram: Do you have a fan base in Japan? They are notorious for their love of soft-rocks which your work up to this point has certainly touched on auspiciously.
LH: I don’t know… could be.

Scram: Plush is really just you, right?
LH: Yes, I’m the sole survivor.

Scram: But you’re touring with a band?
LH: We just finished a tour of Japan.

Scram: Any big differences you can mention about Japan?
LH: People don’t act like naked savages in public there.

Scram: Let’s talk about people acting like savages. I live in Boston! Any memories of your last show here? I think it was at TT the Bears in Cambridge with Rufus Wainwright?
LH: Maybe that rogue Christian Plush was on the bill, but we certainly weren’t. I’ve never played Boston. We were supposed to. I think it was in ‘98. We had come from NYC and were booked to TT the Bears. I remember reading some piece in a Boston rag… some girl saying she’d heard all this hype on our band and was going to check out the show just to confirm her negative expectations. Namely, that it wouldn’t be up to the hype. I don’t know what she ended up doing that evening, but the venue was closed due to fire damage from an overactive tandoori oven next door. I was happy to drive home.
Scram: That’s Boston. People are so negative here. Look at the Red Soxs the only cheer we have for them is “Yankees Suck!” It’s ridiculous. You don’t want to play here anyway, and if you do, I’d recommend The Paradise. It’s really one of the last great clubs here and the bills are usually pretty solid.

Scram: Let’s dig into this beautiful new album. Track one, “Whose Blues”: you seem to be exiting the sensitive role you played on More You Becomes You and reappearing amid a bashing brass arrangement with a bit of a cocky swagger, ala Robert Plant. Is Zeppelin an influence on you?
LH: No. (…uncomfortable virtual silence…)

Scram: Well, let me milk you for another comparison. The legato string interlude introduced after the three-minute mark has a very Curtis Mayfield, Shaft-like feel to it. In other songs I hear bits of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Are you conscious that you might be moving from a sixties-inspired sound into a more seventies-inspired sound on this album?
LH: It’s partly Tom’s influence [arranger Tom Tom 84 who goes way back to Earth, Wind & Fire]. I heard quite a bit of that music growing up. It was popular, so it was everywhere and left an impression.

Scram: Tell me about Tom Toms what exactly does he do? Score and everything? Where it says in the booklet that you did additional arrangements on certain songs, what does that mean? Did Tom Tom arrange “Found a Little Baby” as well?
LH: Tom worked with me, took what I had written and cleaned some of it up, prepared it for performance. There are parts throughout that are mine that he kept. In many songs he just did his thing… horns and strings and really shaped the tune. A lot of the winds are mine. “Additional arrangements” are the songs that I arranged from beginning to end.

Scram: “Whose Blues” comes to a climax with the jarring lyric, “my creation has drowned me,” which suggests to me Dr. Frankenstein. You also talk about living for “something else“… this may sound corny, but are you talking about being Plush, or growing into a cog in society?
LH: Both. Nobody knows what to do with a wish giving tree. It’s not the tree’s fault.

Scram: Going along with this sentiment, I wonder if the thing to which you assert: “it’s my time” in track two, “I’ve Changed My Number” is related to your involvement in the music business, or rather something involving a personal relationship or your relationship with society.
LH: It’s my time and how I choose to use it. One way not to spend it: getting caught up in other people’s trips.

Scram: Well, thanks for not changing your number in this case. Are you tired of people interested in Plush trying to contact you?
LH: No. I like knowing that people are listening.

Scram: I get a sense that you have an interesting relationship with the character that is Plush. Are you more “Plush” in real life, or more Liam Hayess or are the two inseparable? Like the Other Music review of Fed states about you, are you are an international man of mystery, like the James Bond of music? Or do you have a real life that is comprised of a job, bills, a lease, pals, a goldfish? Or are you a really a rock star?
LH: Please don’t include the goldfish in all that nonsense. He’s the only thing that’s real, the rest isn’t.

Scram: The bizarre photo montage within your CD features you in a Superman-like stature, a grocery stock boy, and a billy goat knocking down a pyramid of cans in a sterile white installation setting. Is it just for fun, or is that linked to any particular art movement?
LH: Yes, advertising.

Scram: I think I remember reading somewhere that you are like a rock n’ roll vagabond, sitting on the park benches of Chicago as in your new single “Greyhound Bus Station.” Also I have heard that like Mr. Morrissey, you’ve never had a job because you’ve never wanted onsany truth to this, or a bunch of crap?
LH: Never wanted one and never kept one. For me music is the only thing worth doing.

Scram: Back to “I’ve Changed My Number,” the chorus is very Carole King, with the lyric, “They say, isn’t that the way that it feels…” Are you commenting on depression and dealing with people confronting you about depression?
LH: Look, most of the people I’ve met want you to do more than simply acknowledge them and their condition. They want you to empathize. Now you have two depressed people where there was just one before.

Scram: I make this assertion about depression considering that your first single contains lyrics such as “gonna be another lonely day” and “what’s so bad about dying.” Likewise, on More You Becomes You, one can’t be sure if you are laughing or crying when you sing the lyric “it took me so long.” Clearly, yours are not the lyrics of someone perennially happy, like Stevie Wonder for instance.
LH: Do you think that Stevie Wonder needs therapy?

Scram: Maybe he does these days. There is something a little sinister about “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “That’s What Friends Are For.” Sticking with this Motown theme, I want to go back to my earlier comment about Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. The over-all sounds of the first two songs are very similars they were obviously meant to go together, as are “No Education” and “The Sound of San Francisco,” and “Unis” and “Born Together.” Is this intended to get that What’s Going On effect, where the songs actually run together?
LH: I like the idea of a record that has a beginning, middle, and end as opposed to just a collection of songs.

Scram: Were they recorded at the same time as a suite? It’s really neat to see two different songs come from the same seed. If the songs were in fact recorded separately, you all did a very nice job putting it together.
LH: No they were not recorded at the same time. And thanks.

Scram: Incidentally, how long did it take to record Fed?
LH: Years.

Scram: Was it recorded on tape or with a computer, or both?
LH: Tape. Computers take too long to do everything.

Scram: I’ve noticed that Chicago’s finest turned the knobs on this records Steve Albini, John McEntire, Bob Westons so you must not have been living in Japan.
LH: Don’t assume.

Scram: Either way, does being in the Chicago music “glitterati” afford you to work with these engineers? Are they the greatest in the world or what?
LH: Being a seventh degree glitterati prohibits me from discussing what goes on in our meetings. I can however tell you that they certainly do know how to rock the mic collection.

Scram: A fringe benefit of working with McEntire (Tortoise, Stereolab) must’ve been his drumming talents, which he lends so nicely to the jazzy feel of track three, “Blown Away.” The song also has a really enjoyable, slightly obtuse chordal/ melodic structure. The “one man dies” section is really breathtakings it really reminds me of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Bacharach-David), which has that irregular waltz time feel as well.
LH: It didn’t start out that way. I originally wrote it for guitar and then moved it over to piano. I suppose the instrumentation (upright bass, piano, and drums) automatically puts it in some sort of jazz context.

Scram: What is your attitude towards chords? Are you pretty liberated with the movements that you make? Do you use them as the building blocks of the song and then impose the arrangements upon them?
LH: This is a hard question to answer. Chords. Can’t live without them. Chords move. They have to. Up and down they go. It’s very liberating, the movement, you know. Chords are imposing. You notice them when they enter a song.

Scram: Track 5, “Greyhound Bus Station,” is perhaps the happiest song you have ever released, a clear choice for a single, a relationship song for a relationship that didn’t quit get off the ground. Yet is the sun coming out here?
LH: I think it is a happy song. The other person that’s being addressed won’t sing along, but that doesn’t stop me from harmonizing.

Scram: But it’s the happiest song and you still have to ride a Greyhound? What gives?
LH: Who cares if it’s a Greyhound? Sure, it’s depressing, but at least you’re out of the house having an adventure.

Scram: I really think that lyric is funny: “sitting in the park for lack of ambition.” Very Lennonesque, and the melody on the big chord change is bizarre in a Lennonesque way. You obviously don’t suffer from lack of ambition if you composed and produced this album together with some thirty people.
LH: It was a major undertaking. Everybody was challenged and we did what seemed impossible

Scram: Is that what you like to think of Plush, if you will forgive my pandering language: do you keep the rock star fantasy of Plush seated on a park bench too cool for school?
LH: Fantasy?
[I suppose I should acknowledge that I am projecting here. I think Liam is fantastic, so I must think he thinks he’s fantastic. Or something like that. Plus, I wouldn’t mind achieving his level of rock stardom, which to me, is fantasy.]

Scram: Or too smart for education? As we see in the next song, one of my favorites, “No Education“s it really just has such a beautiful lyric Never read a book in my life, but I feel just fine, I’m alright/ Now is the time that I feel so inspired.” It makes sense that a creature of the soul would never read a book, but turn instead to song, for music is pure emotion. Comment?
LH: I’m not saying that I don’t read, never read, or that it’s not a worthwhile activity. At the time I’d just met somebody who was very intellectual, a brainiac, and they were applying that to their music. Maybe it’s interesting in small doses, but I don’t want to be a brain in a jar. Many do. This song is not for them.

Scram: I hate to bring them up again, I’m not even a big fan, but “No Education” kind of has the same subtle sexy power of “No Quarter” by Led Zeppelins or maybe it’s just the chorus on the guitar. Do you think that effects pedals are coming back in for guitar players, or is that just you experimenting with that sound?
LH: I don’t know what’s in or out. I’ve been playing with the same set-up for the last twelve years.

Scram: This is in fact a different version of the “No Education” single that was released in ‘97, correct?
LH: Yes.

Scram: What motivated you to re-record it?
LH: I’d always wanted to do it with an arrangement.

Scram: “No Education” really has a fantastic outros you dueting with the French horn (or is it English?). Also, the strings are splendid on the “feel alright” section. Really an outstanding tracks very powerful. By now you must be starting to learn more about what the different horns and winds sound like specifically, how and when to use them in an arrangement. Can you impart some of your discoveries on me?
LH: What you are refering to is a French horn and a Flugel horn. It’s really just what sounded good. I can recommend a book: “The Study of Orchestration” by Samuel Adler. That’s what I taught myself with.

Scram: You must be happy with track seven, “The Sound of San Francisco?” (which along with the diabolical title track, “Fed,” will really reward fans of “Found a Little Baby” / “3/4 Blind Eyes” with lush strings and horns, prominent organ and a chugging chorus-driven guitar). The way you say those “yeah’s” really makes me feel good!
LH: Good.

Scram: There’s actually some Christ imagery here, am I right? Mention of bread and the lyric “Woke up today, said who’d gonna be my keeper?/ Said on the way, who’s gonna feed these people?” Any explanation for this? Is this designed to go along with some of the other spiritual/ philosophical references on the record?
LH: It was taken from a dream. San Francisco was and still is a weird place. In the dream it was even weirder. There is a Christ-type figure, yes, but he’s really just as disconnected as everyone else. It’s not really religious.

Scram: I want to mention track nine, “Born Together,” the ballad of the album. It’s a lovely, bittersweet song that grows on me with each listen, as I am able to absorb some of the frightful originality of it bit by bit. It features an acoustic guitar with what sounds like a string trio. The feminine side of your songwriting really comes out here. I imagine Phil Spector arranging a John Lennon song like “Julia” from The White Album. All the little pieces, how it is put together, very unique. Do you have any special feelings about it? Did you arrange the strings here or did Tom Tom?
LH: I really like the song and always enjoy playing it. I did the arrangement

Scram: My last question: What is next for Plush?
LH: Breakfast.