Some records have lyrics so ambiguously specific that one can’t help but notice hints of a storyline or something that ties all the mysterious pieces together. Such albums inspire listeners to spin the record endlessly, trying to decode the messages into some kind of concrete interpretation or narrative. Emperor X‘s latest album Western Teleport (Bar/None) is a perfect example.
Emperor X is the noise-pop project of Los Angeles’ Chad Matheny. The musician’s sci-fi affinity for imagining alternate realities is omnipresent in his music. For fourteen years, Emperor X has been releasing independent records and embarking on guerilla tours across the US. He’s even in another dimension when it comes to promotion and marketing, as he has been burying demo cassettes all across the country for a number of years now.
A scientific flare is immediately evident in Emperor X’s style. At times the lyrics read like poetry inspired by a chemistry textbook, with referenced terms ranging from phosphate to force fields. The most telling example is probably “Compressor Repair” from Western Teleport, which is a love song about a broken air conditioner. The cover for the song’s record looks like some kind of subatomic experiment. Even the music’s lo-fi sheen and moments of static industrial noise experiments sound like they were concocted in a laboratory. It’s all bonded together by Matheny’s pop sensibility which fills every song with addictive hooks and melodies.
Yet, the music is anything but formulaic. Matheny is sort of at a loss to describe how he creates the organized chaos that occurs within each song. “When I write an album, things seem to come together of their own volition. That sounds like a tremendous cop-out, but it’s as accurate a description as I can give of what it feels like to make music,” he says. To clarify (or perhaps confuse further) he gives an analogy, “It feels to me like the themes that emerge are discovered, not invented…sort of like making a fossil rubbing with crayons and wax paper when you’re a kid, remember those?” If it’s a subconscious method, like free association lyric writing, it only serves to make the music more organic and genuine. The scientific façade and glossary are the result of Matheny’s interest in the subject as he even previously worked as a high school science teacher.
Even so, Western Teleport certainly seems like it has a story to tell. Right away with the first track we are introduced to a girl whose name might very well be “Erica Western” and we know that the narrator has already lost her somehow. She is a mysterious character who gets “tasered in the ruins” in “Erica Western Teleport,” but in the same song is studying for the LSATs. The album seems to follow her exploits through the lens of the singer, who she meets on the bus back from Canada. She has a revolutionary spirit as she “threw a brick with a note through a ticket counter window” in “Canada Day.” After some apocalyptic natural disasters and/or terrorist attacks, in the last song, “Erica Western Geiger Counter,” she is running around the country, possibly planning to blow up a bridge and fleeing from some unknown pursuer.
Matheny says that he notices the repeating themes and motifs as well, but it bothers him when people assumed he had a clear agenda in mind before he even picked up a pen. “I get really fussy when people confuse identifying themes,” he says, “with identifying me attempting at the outset to write music with lyrics about that theme.” It brings up an interesting issue that interpretations (such as the last paragraph) can be completely subjective to the listener. “This is a difficult subject for me, because I believe in linear narrative and I believe in meaning in poetry,” Matheny says, recognizing his own expectations from art, “but I don’t think the particular words I write lend themselves productively to fixed, concrete interpretations.”
In the end, Matheny embraces that his works are open to interpretation, specifically using another scientific term that fits quite well, “malleable.” Yet it’s evident that the songs have strikingly vivid imagery. “That’s what’s so strange about what I write, to me,” he said, “that it’s malleable and yet comes across so specifically.” He gave a few examples, saying, “LSATs? Air conditioners? Football teams? What? Why?” (For curious readers, the songs are “Erica Western Teleport,” “Compressor Repair” and the last “Go – Captain and Pinlighter” from 2009’s The Blythe Archives.) In trying to answer his own questions, Matheny says, “I’m a user of the media too, a creator-consumer, and even as I write the songs I’m making my own user-defined and non-binding narrative. That’s not necessarily THE narrative of the work, though. Hopefully this response serves to answer the question rather than confuse the hell out of you.”
Some other strong themes on Western Teleport that appear quite often are references to Middle Eastern and Islamic culture as well as to Al-Qaeda and terrorism. From grenade attacks in “Sig Alert,” to the setting of rural Pakistan, to having a song titled “Allahu Akbar.” Why? “The 2000s!” Matheny explains. “Writing about Islam as an affluent Westerner in the early 21st century is like writing about nuclear war in the ’80s.” He continues, saying, “Unlike nuclear bombs and totalitarian socialism, Islam is also a really beautiful spiritual structure when you strip away all the patriarchal bigotry and Old Testament wrath.”
Matheny may not be writing linear narratives, but listeners can discover a world within the music and it might have something to do with his interest in alternate realities. “Thinking obsessively about those kinds of alternative world states generates a lot of the topics I sing about on Western Teleport.” He continues with an example saying, “What if instead of Sunnis running the show Sufism was the dominant Muslim sect? How awesome would that be? It’d be like replacing Catholics with Quakers or Unitarians, but with more of an emphasis on ecstasy and transcendence and starker desert imagery.”
The same is true for his interest in Canada as a motif. “I just have this immense respect for Canadian society. It’s like crossing a border into the future. Going from Buffalo to Toronto is like stepping into a time machine, or–again, alternate universes,” he says. “A sidereal time machine in which English-speaking “North American society makes better decisions. And this sidereal time is here and now! In Canada! How great is that, to have a friendly alternate universe across the river from Detroit?”
These types of naturally occurring themes reveal the true relevance of Emperor X. What emerges from Matheny are major social, political and economic issues as filtered through a “affluent Westerner in the 21st century”: issues like massive protests, oppressive governments, revolutionaries, terrorism, child soldiers and natural disasters. In simply writing about all of the things Matheny has absorbed over time, he provides a genuine account of the everyman in the modern age. The lyrics provide the perspective on the current state of global culture and how it affects people. The music becomes the emotional resonance of those effects. What makes the music stand out is that it’s through the lens of a very unique, intelligent and multidimensional personality.
For example, Western Teleport has a number of references to natural disturbances like ground slides, boiling oceans, wastelands, ruins and waves of sludge. It is the subject of the ironically catchy “A Violent Translation of the Concordia Headscarp.” Matheny explains the song as a combination of two ideas. First, a group of ten universities run by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod called the Concordia University System. The second is the Kelso head scarp, a disaster in the state of Washington where a whole neighborhood collapsed into the earth and slid down a mountain. Matheny explains, “A lot of the concepts that define these two disparate things grew together in my mind and started to form a cohesive meaning-block that related to my life at the time and some good people I care a lot about, and the song coalesced.” The relation between these universities and this natural disaster isn’t clear. However, pairing a church-run university system with a devastating natural disaster could make for an interesting commentary about those universities and possibly the state of higher education as a whole.
If his music exists in another dimension, it only makes sense that Matheny would envision an alternate system for public relations. In reference to a random poster he saw of what he called a “top 40 twentysomething songwriter robot,” he notes that “marketing like that is weak, because while it might attract bovine droves, it will never get people who really think about things on a deep level or know WHY they listen to what they listen to.” He calls it Pavlovian, saying, “It will get people to come to concerts in the same way that the Trix rabbit gets people to buy cereal.”
Matheny was never interested in promoting himself using normal methods. “Releasing records and letting people promote it the old fashioned way is very boring and I don’t enjoy it,” he says. To coincide with the release of each record, he planned a country-wide scavenger hunt for demo cassettes, or what he calls “nodes.” There’s a special website that documents each location and publishes an MP3 for everyone to download once a code from the node is entered.
His philosophy revolves around artists being more involved in the marketing process. “Marketing campaigns and the art itself are not distinct,” he says. “They’re oozing together so much right now because of how huge of a role mass media and expensive advertising plays in creating the public consciousness. We have to find a way to interact with this system without playing by its rules or art will cease to be distinct from advertising.” He might not be attempting to overthrow the system, but he is doing things the Emperor X way. “Is burying tapes in the ground the best response to that?” he asks. “Of course not. That’s an experiment to see what alternative methods could work”
After last year’s Western Teleport, Matheny is already working on a new record called UURRVV that will be released sometime in the fall. He’s noticed that it too has reoccurring themes and that a lot of them focus on the economy, which should make it all the more relevant. “It is going to be a huge departure for me,” he says. “I talk a lot about economics on it, economics in the abstract, kind of an emo economics record if it were recorded by a high life band in Lagos or at King Tubby’s studio in Jamaica or something. Lots of soca beats and computers. Really odd stuff.” An abstract emo economic record with digital steel drums is hard to imagine, but quite enticing.