Greg Mullen snubbed out the joint he’d been smoking just as the bus pulled up. He was wearing a cowboy hat with the sides curled in and big white, heart-shaped sunglasses. He was traveling with only a suitcase and a guitar. High and exhausted, he took his seat and the mystical voice of the bus driver came through the speakers. He said, “Let me be the first to welcome you to the future,” and then the image of everything around doubled, splitting apart horizontally into the cyans and magentas of a 3D image. The bus took off, bringing Mullen to a strange and wondrous place hidden somewhere under the surface of the everyday USA.
On Greg Mullen’s second record, There Are AMERICAS Beyond This America by Greg Mullen and the Cosmic American Band, he assumes the role of the “Cosmic American Bus Driver,” musically guiding you through a land you know well but have never seen before. A place where sculpture gardens grow in backyards and your pockets are full of shooting stars, a place where dogs can laugh, a place with devastating 15-foot waves of molasses, a place where Joan of Ark rides the subway with Mr. Clean and Commissioner Gordon, a place where devils hide in the mountains waiting to snatch your tongue, a place where the Seine, the Charles, and the Zambezi rivers converge into one steady trickle, a place where you can digitize the whole experience on social media websites to make your ex-girlfriend jealous…a place called “Cosmic America.”
The journey begins in Iowa with “Postcard from Des Moines” and travels around the country on a soul-searching vision quest by train, by bus, and in a camper. The style of the songs range from feel-good romps full of new-age wisdom to lulling laments that make you shiver with their honesty and intimacy. Mullen’s tunes are educated by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Charles Bukowski and surely Mullen would become fast friends with acoustic contemporaries like Bill Callahan or Kristian Matsson of The Tallest Man on Earth.
The sound carries a lot of nostalgia for early folk and country music, which makes the title for the second song on the album, “Looking at Pictures of Your Girlfriend on Facebook,” seem weird. Yet, Mullen explains it as playing with textures and creating atmospheres. “It’s funny to me how it’s sort of taboo to mention modern everyday reality in a ‘serious folk song,’ ” he says. “It’s as if some radio programmer or record store employee would characterize your music as ‘Americana,’ then that means you are only supposed to write about freight trains and oak trees. I’ve always been sort of disinterested in genre cliches and revivalist posturing.”
What makes Mullen’s songs stand out most are the lyrics, which always seem to have a complicated narrative to be deciphered just below the surface, full of touching observations, heartbreaking confessions, surreal occurrences and transformations, burnt out wisdom, and overall sorrowful positivity. “I mean, it’s probably really fun to put on a vest and a hobo cap and sing about the dust bowl or something,” he says, “but I’m sort of stuck writing about what I know or at least what I think I know. Not that I think that any images or ideas are off limits, just that they need to be directed towards some kind of honest human experience to be interesting to me.”
Avoiding the aforementioned lazy genre and artist comparisons, Mullen likes to call the sound “Cosmic American Music,” a term he picked up from ‘60s and ‘70s musician Gram Parsons. Mullen explains that when he first heard the term, “I immediately interpreted it as referring to music originating from a ‘Cosmic America,’ which I kind of conceptualized in a way that related to my vague memory of Plato’s allegory of the Cave. I imagined the America that we inhabit in our day to day existence as a shadow being cast from numerous other, higher planes of reality.” The depth of his songwriting is translated well into the album art and even the CD surfaces and vinyl center labels, as they are all in 3D. “That’s why I decided to use 3D artwork,” he continues, “to create the illusion of AMERICAS floating out of the image for the cover.” The idea behind the album title began as something Mullen randomly scribbled down while high and became fully developed after being influenced by French Philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s concept of a holographic and astral America.
The new record contains more country elements than Mullen’s first, The Hungry Ocean, which is an excellent debut that leans more on Dylan than Cash. Similar to his new album, it shows the skill of Mullen’s songwriting in that it not only contains the tropes of cowboy hats, heartache, and harmonica, but it also features another type of “folk.” There are magical realist allusions that are informed by folk tales from Zimbabwe, where Mullen grew up. Elements like a pair of 10,000-year dead lovers, one with flowers around his neck and fire for hands, dreaming of becoming a ship that can brave the all consuming ocean where river gods sleep, waiting to rise and tear apart everything mankind has built as if it were nothing more than paper. Any fans of There Are AMERICAS Beyond This America should check out The Hungry Ocean as well.
It’s hard to say exactly where Mullen is from. The Hungry Ocean sounds like a record from where he lived after Zimbabwe, namely Boston or more specifically Jamaica Plain. The place is given its own song on the new record, “Barely Living in Jamaica Plain.” Yet AMERICAS, is a little bit more like a homeless hobo with a vest and a spindle, setting out from the dust bowl of Mullen’s most recent home, Austin, TX. “I really like the notion that records are informed by the place in which they are made and I think there’s a lot to be said for that idea,” he ponders and then settles by saying, “I don’t think my music hails from any particular state other than a state of charged consciousness.”
From May 10 to the 25, Mullen will set out on a tour of the northeast and back around to Texas. If you want him to visit your neck of the woods, send him a message and some support by buying his record on bandcamp. For more info, check out the full interview below where Mullen gave thoughtful answers to questions about hidden Americas, the making of the record, molasses floods, Facebook, being thrown in jail for weed possession, and one lone Prada store in the middle of the desert.
THE BOMBER JACKET Can you explain the idea behind the album title? Did you find hidden Americas in your travels?
Greg Mullen: Well I wasn’t traveling when the title came to me. I was stationary on a couch and extremely stoned. I picked up a pen and wrote down “There Are AMERICAS Beyond This America” on a piece of paper. My friend “the Professor” was looking over my shoulder and Instagrammed it, cementing the concept in the first half of the second decade of the 21st Century and preserving it from drifting out of sight into the chaos of my pockets and the dense fog of my pseudo-memory. I see the title as sort of an extension of my thought process around the phrase “Cosmic American Music,” which is a term that I first encountered while skimming a biography on Gram Parsons in a bookstore somewhere. Those three words really stuck in my head and impacted me in an instinctive and significant way (obviously significant enough to inspire a band name). When I first read the phrase “Cosmic American Music,” I immediately interpreted it as referring to music originating from a “Cosmic America,” which I kind of conceptualized in a way that related to my vague memory of Plato’s allegory of the Cave. I imagined the America that we inhabit in our day to day existence as a shadow being cast from numerous other, higher planes of reality. That’s why I decided to use 3D artwork to create the illusion of AMERICAS floating out of the image for the cover. I think it creates an interesting demonstrative effect. Weirdly, right after coming up with this whole concept my friend Josh gave me a book by Jean Baudrillard called “America” where he talks about America being holographic and sort of mythological but entirely real, with the entirety of its reality contained within each of its elements. It really blew my mind. There’s even a chapter in the book called “Astral America.”
How much of the album art is in 3D?
For the vinyl and CD versions of the album all of the artwork is in 3D. My good friends Erik Gatling and Vineet Gordandhas helped me photograph and create 3D images for the front and back covers as well as the center labels for the vinyl records. We even used a 3D image for the CD surfaces. The tape cassette, which Accrue Cassettes put out, had to use some plain typed text because of the nature of cassette tape production but we were still able to use a modified version of the 3D front cover image. All physical formats come with 3D glasses.
What are the audio recordings on the first and last track?
Those are excerpts from a recording that I made of a Greyhound bus driver speaking over the intercom one early pre-dawn morning sometime near the end of Winter in 2011. When I left Boston (on the trip that would eventually lead me to Austin) I initially headed for the West Coast on a solo tour via Greyhound bus with a suitcase and a guitar. This man drove the stretch between New York and Pittsburgh and every time he would come on the intercom to make an announcement I would get chills from the sound of his voice and the sort of mystical playfulness of his speech. He was the original Cosmic American Bus Driver. At some point I turned on a small digital recorder that I had in my bag. I wasn’t planning on using these recordings for anything at the time. I was extremely sleep deprived and I think that I just wanted to have some future reference for how real he actually was. Incidentally, those recordings are the only part of the album that were not recorded to tape. I should really invest in a cassette recorder to preserve my analog credibility.
The record’s jacket says that the album was recorded using a completely analog process and the digital version is a recording of the vinyl pressing. What was that process like?
Relative to a digital recording, mixing and mastering process it was expensive, time-consuming, fun, inconvenient and entirely worthwhile once I heard the final result. There were plenty of times when I questioned my own commitment to doing everything within the analog domain but ultimately I am really glad that we didn’t compromise or back down from that idea. It made sense to eventually release the album in a digital format but I took some comfort knowing that the digital version is just a transfer from an actual vinyl copy of the record playing on a turntable so you’re kind of forced to hear the “record,” even if it’s just a digitized abstraction of that experience.
I remember when we were talking about “Telephone” from The Hungry Ocean you mentioned that you either lived or grew up in Zimbabwe, I think it was. It seems like you have an interesting backstory. Do you want to give a quick bio?
Yeah, good memory! I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, where my family had been for around three generations. I grew up listening to a lot of American music and that was my foundation when I started playing guitar and singing as a kid. The first songs I ever learned when I was 12 or 13 were Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (courtesy of Guns N’ Roses) and the traditional “House Of The Rising Sun” (courtesy of the Animals by way of Bob Dylan by way of Dave Van Ronk and so on). When I was 15 my family moved to Massachusetts where I lived for almost a decade. Those were the formative years, psychological birth and all that. From 2004-2007 I was at Emerson College. After that I was heavily involved with a music and arts collective called the Whitehaus Family in Jamaica Plain in Boston. I made my first and only other record with my Boston friends in 2010 and did some solo and small group touring in the midwest and on the east and west coasts. Then I moved to Austin a couple of years ago and started making music with some new friends. I keep thinking I’m gonna leave but I haven’t yet.
I met you in Boston, but I knew you moved to Austin. It’s funny because your first record feels like Jamaica Plain and the new one is what I imagine Texas feels like. Where do you say your music hails from now?
I really like the notion that records are informed by the place in which they are made and I think there’s a lot to be said for that idea. In some ways though, the feel of this record has origins that pre-date my move to Texas. I think the most noticeable shift from the sound of the first record reflects a constantly evolving appreciation for Country Music. I always liked the older stuff like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Porter Wagoner and Loretta Lynn but I think like a lot of folks in my CMT jaded generation, I wasn’t compelled to explore anywhere near the tainted realm of “Contemporary Country.” Then, during college while I was living in France of all places, I was exposed to some more recent artists that really blew my mind, most notably Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Gram Parsons (solo as well as his various projects). From there I got into some ’90s alt-country stuff that was obviously greatly inspired by those records and I began to see a new kind of musical path forming in front of me. When I came down to Texas I was lucky enough to befriend some amazing Austin musicians who had grown up hearing and playing country music and were capable of creating and informing those sounds that I had in mind. I felt and continue to feel extremely lucky that these guys wanted to play on my record and help me realize these songs. The band on the records all grew up around Texas, so yeah, there’s certainly a regional component to the sound but it’s not “Texas country music” or anything like that. It’s “Cosmic American music.” Who knows where it comes from. Africa? Outer Space? AMERICAS beyond this America?! The Rolling Stones are a bunch of British guys, but they made some of the greatest Cosmic American Music I’ve ever heard. It’s ultimately not a regional or cultural thing. It’s something a lot more beautiful and mysterious than that, I think. I don’t think my music hails from any particular state other than a state of charged consciousness.
Is the song “Barely Living in Jamaica Plain” a sad dedication to your time in Boston?
That song is about living in an apartment next to a dog park, hating the neighbors and their dogs and constantly feeling very anxious and isolated to the point of paranoia. That state of existence is a real but very small part of my memory of Boston. I remember a lot of really wonderful parts about living there as well but I was starting to feel a little burned out and crazy near the end.
“Postcards from Des Moines” was the first song I heard from you on the Whitehaus Family Record Family Record. What’s the story behind that song? Did you live in Des Moines?
I would rather not comment publicly on my relationship with the city of Des Moines.
Does the new record have any connection to the Whitehaus?
Not in any direct way. They were kind enough to buy some copies of my record to distribute among that scene, but I put the record out on my own label (Songs With Homes). They are my family and we are supportive of one another. I will always visit when I’m in town and hang with all the Queen Mausers and Top $hrimps.
It’s weird seeing a song about Facebook on a country/folk-esque album. How do you feel about the style’s relationship (or clash, maybe) with modern times?
Well, the song isn’t really about Facebook but I know what you’re saying. It’s funny to me how it’s sort of taboo to mention modern everyday reality in a “serious folk song.” It’s like if some radio programmer or record store employee would characterize your music as “Americana,” then that means you are only supposed to write about freight trains and oak trees. I’ve always been sort of disinterested in genre cliches and revivalist posturing. I mean, it’s probably really fun to put on a vest and a hobo cap and sing about the dust bowl or something but I’m sort of stuck writing about what I know or at least what I think I know. Not that I think that any images or ideas are off limits, just that they need to be directed towards some kind of honest human experience to be interesting to me. I enjoy attempting to impart some sort of grace onto dull, non-poetic subjects in a song. Hopefully it works sometimes. I don’t think there’s anything inherently old about the forms that I’m using on this record. These are just very simple songs that employ sounds and textures that I like working with and with which I am trying to create some kind of atmosphere for the songs to exist in. Maybe it sounds old because a lot of current music seems to place so much emphasis on innovation and originality.
Why did they throw you in jail in Belton?
The fine officers of the Bell County Police Department threw me in jail for the criminal offense of Possession Of Marijuana under two ounces, about a bowl and a half worth of dried up trim that a friend gave me and which I forgot was inside a backpack in the back of my camper which was parked overnight in an empty church parking lot where I stupidly decided to camp with the person to whom this song is addressed. I shouldn’t have let them search the camper but they woke us up and sort of psychologically bulldozed me with the fact that I was trespassing. Learn your rights! You never know when it will be helpful to exercise them! It was a dumb and depressing incident but at least it yielded a song.
Is “The Great Molasses Flood of 1919” really, really a true story?
Well the song is its own story. I hope that one’s true. I was trying to be truthful. The song also contains a reference to an event that history tells us did actually occur in the North End of Boston on January 15, 1919, when a gigantic storage container burst and sent more than two million gallons of molasses rolling through the streets in an 8-15 foot wave of destruction. Over 100 people were injured and 21 people and several horses were killed in what Wikipedia refers to as the “Boston Molasses Disaster.”
In the video for “Happy Birthday #2” you’re singing in front of a lone Prada store in the middle of a deserted highway. Did that video concept evolve from an inside joke?
Well maybe, but not my inside joke necessarily. My friend Erik Gatling shot that during a trip we did to Big Bend National Park and Marfa, TX which is a tiny West Texas town with a really interesting modern art presence. There’s this contemporary art center called the Chenati Foundation out there and It’s kind of a magical place in a lot of ways. The Prada store is a permanent sculpture installation just outside of town. It was made by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. It’s a wonderful and surreal location and the light was nice so we decided to record a video of me playing the song there. It was a spontaneous thing.
[Watch the video for “Happy Birthday” below.]
Where’s “Happy Birthday #1?”
Oh that’s the one they sing at birthday parties. It used to be called Happy Birthday but they had to change the name on account of me and my stupid record.
Is there going to be a tour soon to support the album?
Yes! From May 10-25 I will be traveling with my full on Cosmic American Band of mischievous miscreants up the middle of the USA, over to New England, down the East Coast and back west to Texas. We’re scrambling to get some stuff together still but we’re gonna post our tour dates real soon at our Facebook page.