Named for Eero Saarinen, the Finnish architect who designed St. Louis' gateway arch and the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport, The Saarinens is Mike Chapa's (Whiskey Ships) newest project and his most collaborative effort to date.
Chapa, a gifted singer-songwriter with a knack for sparse yet penetrating lyricism, told the San Antonio Current in a phone interview that the name felt appropriate because Saarinen's "Simple and sweeping aesthetic, coupled with a machine-like rationalism, strongly connects to the kind of music we make."
Like some dusty Texas midnight, unsure if you're staring into the darkness or if it's staring at you, The Saarinens début album Modern World is unsettlingly serene and wrought with sublime tension between contrasts. Musically, while culling influences like Yo La Tengo, Wilco, The Velvet Underground and Pavement, the band successfully crafts a cohesive and passably unique aesthetic.
The album's finest song, and title track, said Chapa, is inspired in part "by the life and work of Texas eccentric and visionary artist Forrest Bess." Bess' strange presence here — established through allusions to his biography and his Jungian art, steeped in his own rich and off-centered understanding of archetypes and the way to the collective unconscious through self-exploration — acts as a foil to the identity-crushing alienation the song cryptically elucidates.
Beyond the power of individual songs — there are some great ones here — Modern World is a unified and tightly-crafted work that plumbs the depths of our contemporary troubles with living.
Chapa, who "think[s] that songwriting can help you understand your world better and relate to people more," writes poetic lyrics that capture emotions, worldviews and bits of memory in finely-woven word-webs that, when set against the emotive movements of the music, send the listener into a kind of luminous anxiety.
"You have to find ways to write about stuff like love and family relationships that makes it fresh," he mused. "It is important for me to be real and write about the real concerns of my life."
Of the band's formation, Chapa explained that "the timing was just right with Brant [Sankey, guitar] and Darren [Kuper, drums], because they were looking for a band project and I was thinking of recording this set of songs on like a solo album, but it turned out so much better this way."
Chapa, who also recruited Raul Alvarez (Cartographers, Whirlybirds) to play bass, was frequently eager to point out that "Whiskey Ships was more [his] project, whereas The Saarinens is way more of a group effort, a collaborative process."
For his part, Sankey, who does most of his musical work as a producer (The Please Help, Rosedale Highs), told the Current that he happily ceded production duties to Lucas Oswald early on in the process.
"I didn't record the Saarinens record, by choice," Sankey said. "I was enthusiastic to get that distance, so I could just enjoy being a part of a band." Going further, and citing the need for an outside perspective, Sankey explained that he's seen too many recordings botched when someone in a band tries to also handle the production.
Sankey described the group's collaboration as an exploratory process of embellishing Chapa's songs. "Mike lets us pull the songs into a lot more strange territory than some songwriters might be comfortable with," he explained.
Chapa, 40, played in a few bands (Burt Reynolds University, The Craze) in the late '90s and early '00s before he "started having kids" and took six years off, from 2004 until the first Whiskey Ships album in 2010. Now, Modern World is Chapa's third album in five years, a remarkable feat considering the dude's juggling music with family life and a "really boring day job" that keeps him busy up to 50 hours a week.
Chapa admitted that "it's not easy" to accomplish this sort of balancing act. Cheekily, he added, "the way I figure it is that I'm not golfing or hanging out at bars, so this is my hobby. And yeah, it's an expensive hobby, but how much do golfing and therapy cost?"
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