We all have to grow up, and some of us do it better than others. For the Glaswegian punks in PAWS, 20-something malaise is something to make into songs that pack an immediate punch, but also have plenty to discover under their surfaces. On their 2012 debut LP Cokefloat!, they exemplified this with “Bloodline,” a mosh pit-starting ripper that also happens to be about coming to terms with mortality. On PAWS’ recently-released second album Youth Culture Forever, grief shifts into themes of isolation and longing. Feelings are feared and embraced, and singer/guitarist Phillip Taylor really hits his stride when both approaches come together on “Owls Talons Clenching My Heart.”
The new record takes its name from an Adventure Time quote, a sentiment that conjures up the idealism that permeates even the most resigned of PAWS’ songs. (If just saying “Forever” wasn’t enough, Taylor and drummer Josh Swinney sport matching tattoos spelling out YCF across their knuckles.) Their songs are just as hook-packed as ever, but they’re given more breathing room here than on the no-frills Cokefloat!. PAWS really show a taste for ambition on Youth Culture Forever’s closer “War Cry,” a driving, largely improvised track clocking in at nearly 12 minutes that shows they’re not just in it for garage glory, though cuts like “Give Up” and “Narcissist” prove that the trio can accomplish plenty in two minutes.
I sat down with Taylor, Swinney, and bassist Ryan Drever to talk Adventure Time, recording, and finding fulfillment.
So, when did you get the matching tattoos for the album?
Josh Swinney: Dunno, we just woke up one morning and they were there.
Ryan Drever: I did it to both of them, but I couldn’t do it to my own hands.
Phillip Taylor: We got them in LA.
JS: We met Phillip’s brother that he hadn’t seen in years and he recommended a shop, so we just went in.
PT: It was just a silly situation, silly to us that we were in a ridiculously sunny, picturesque place, somewhere in LA on the last day of our last American tour. We just decided to do it.
RD: I was too broke, so I couldn’t get it. It’s a relatively cheap tattoo, but I couldn’t afford it, so these two look cool and I look like a prick.
PT: You’re only young once, and I want to remember when I was young. I’m trying to make it to be old. So, why not?
I think I’ve actually seen a lot of Adventure Time tattoos on Tumblr and stuff.
PT: I don’t really associate it with Adventure Time. It’s just a phrase that they said. I just feel like it’s a pretty incredible kind of ideal for a children’s television program. It’s pretty cool, we kind of just got sucked into it. It has no influence on the band’s music at all, it’s just that phrase. I just remember when I saw it, I was like, “Oh shit, that’s a really cool thing.” The main character, a bunch of old guys are telling him, “You can’t do this, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you’re young and an idiot” and he just kind of saves the day and proclaims “Youth culture forever!” It’s a pretty cool idea for a kid’s TV show. Every episode has some kind of incredibly deep moral, a really subtle life lesson for kids. Most of the cartoons I watched when I was a kid were just mind-blowing, I watched like Ren And Stimpy and ate cereal. Now there’s not a lot of great cartoons I’ve seen these days, but that one’s just kind of incredible, the content’s really positive a lot of the time and that’s really cool. It teaches a lot of basic human morals and stuff, I like it a lot.
Going into the actual themes of this record, your first album had this kind of shadow of death hanging over it. I noticed that you continue that in “Erreur Humaine,” the first track of Youth Culture Forever.
PT: Yeah. I suppose on the first one, half of that album was written just before we recorded, and the other half was a collection of older songs that we liked the most and wanted them to be somewhere. I guess at that time, there was a lot of crap going on, and I didn’t get to process it all at once. This new record is a very big thing, in terms of the subject matter, it’s just another side of the stuff that was happening to me from that time that I was still processing. I couldn’t process it all at once. I think that’s the one link, the start of the album linking the two together. Bridging the gap.
What else would you say are some of the main themes of the new one?
PT: Just kind of like, adapting to moving on periods, adapting to situations for a certain amount of time you’ve become comfortable in, and all of a sudden you’re placed in a new perspective. A lot of it’s just a moving on thing. I can’t make a concept album.
It seems like there are a lot of new perspectives involved, because you recorded it here in New York.
PT: It was pretty cool, but that doesn’t change the perspective on the record that much other than that we had someone play cello on it to make things a bit more textural. The last one was kind of like, bashed out in a couple of days. We found the settings that we liked and knocked all the songs out one after the other. This one, we had a bit more time on it to really sit and think about what parts of certain songs needed, to fatten out or put more emphasis on production. It’s textured a bit more, I think. There’s three tracks [with cello on], the first one, “Erreur Humaine,” track six, “Alone,” and track four, “Owls Talons.” The girl who came to play cello, we just put up an ad.
JS: At some music school here.
PT: And a girl responded to the advert and it was kind of cool, because we didn’t know who was going to come to the sessions we were doing. It was really special because the girl who played with us, Isabel [Castellvi], it turned out she’d worked with so many artists I really love. She’d worked with CocoRosie and she’s touring with Diane Cluck, who’s an incredible folk singer. She was a really good part of this, she came in for a day and played the songs with us for like ten minutes and was done. She’s an incredible musician.
JS: She’s about half the size of the cello, but she just rips it.
You really wanted to go bigger with this record, yeah?
PT: I think on the first record, me and Josh had a really strong idea of what we wanted it to sound like. I love the sound of the first record, I’m so happy that that’s our first record and I’m really pleased with everything written on it, but I just don’t quite think we got to exactly how we wanted it to sound like. You never get exactly what you want, because that’s the point you’re always striving to change and make it something new, but this is the closest we’ve come to being the happiest with our overall sound. The way Ryan described it to someone who interviewed us while we were recording was that it was quieter than the first record and louder than the first record. It’s a lot more dynamic and stuff like that, too. It’s a more extreme dynamic; when it’s quiet, it’s quiet, when it’s loud, it’s loud. It all changes.
JS: Not to exaggerate, but it underlines certain aspects of songs more fully than before. It’s a little more layered.
RD: The last song, “War Cry,” started as something Phillip was just doing by himself and was maybe just going to be something that was acoustic, but to hear it now…we tried to make it as quiet [as possible]. I think that song, if you haven’t heard it before–it’s hard for me to say, because I’ve played it a million times–but we tried to make it so quiet that when it [really] comes in, it’s like heart attack material. You go from the quietest you can get to just something as bold and as big as possible.
JS: We’re just trying to make something sonically pleasing.
PT: Without sounding like, bougie, I like the idea of the record being about change. I think a lot of that change has to do with being really subdued and then being really angry. I think that’s why I wanted the definition between the loud and quiet parts to be really extreme, because the whole alternating of quiet into loud is just to the ends of the earth now, everyone seems to do that. We try as hard as possible to make it really distinguishable, rather than just the same old.
RD: “Oh, you know the chorus is coming up here!”
PT: I just wanted it to catch you unawares. A couple of people have said that they put in the record in their car or stereo and on the first one, they turn it up because it’s so quiet and then when it’s really kicked in, they’re like, “Holy shit.”
RD: They almost crash.
Everything’s mastered for iTunes now.
PT: Yeah, I like the people idea of interacting with it and turning it up and turning it down to suit them instead of just sticking it in and it feeds you the same thing.
Coming back to “War Cry,” I wanted to talk about that one. I assumed there was a hidden track, but no, it’s just 12 minutes long.
PT: It’s funny, I don’t know how it evolved into that.
JS: We didn’t mean to make it that long, but it just felt so nice playing for that long that we couldn’t stop. You know when you just get really into something, you just don’t want it to stop.
RD: Phil had showed it to me before, and it was just quiet and acoustic. I said, “This bit, I just think it should be louder,” and then when we played it all together, it was so loud and hard it kind of sounded like the Melvins or something. It sounded like Sabbath. The more we played it, we got the definition between the quiet parts and the loud parts, it was really cool. The one day, we did it, the second or third time, and nobody said anything, no one had tried to suggest that this was going to happen. We just kept playing.
JS: There wasn’t any, “Oh, it should be this long” or anything. I remember, when we were in Glasgow and we first started playing it, it would have been maybe three minutes long just going between the quiet part and the loud part and the quiet part, getting used to it. Then it just turned into a jam.
RD: We didn’t even have definite parts or format for the song on the album, we just started it and we knew that when the vocals ended we would carry on.
PT: The whole song’s on two [tracks]…there’s no overdubs except for one other guitar thing I did, while all the other songs have multiple overdubs and other stuff on them. That song’s just like, you can’t really completely recreate it by going over it, because I can’t really remember, it was just a thing that came out. If the guy was like, “You need to double it now and do a second track over it,” I wouldn’t really have been able to do it exactly because it was just made-up and free-form.
JS: We did it as close to midnight as we were allowed to do it, we decided to go in late at the end of the day and do it, have a couple beers.
PT: It was really cool, but weird. The length, that turned out like that because the big difference between this album and the first one is that we did on tape reel instead of digitally. We had a certain amount of tape left, and that was the length. The guy Jeremy [Backofen], who was recording it, he said, “This is the amount of tape left, so this is how much you have to play with.” We were just playing and he would give us a signal to let us know how long we had left to wrap it up. I don’t think we ended up doing that, we just kept playing and we had like a minute left. That’s how it ended up that long. We didn’t want to waste tape because it’s expensive, so we just kept playing and that’s how it turned out.
JS: It just kind of came out of nowhere, we were just improvising…Now I just can’t imagine it any other way. Every single bit that went into it, what was so cool was that we didn’t change anything, what you hear is just exactly how we played it. We kind of just jumped in and did it from start to finish, I think that’s cool.
RD: Hopefully everyone else thinks it’s cool.
Was there a particular feeling or sense that really got channeled into that song?
PT: I don’t know. Personally, the only thing I feel when I’m playing that song is that I love the feeling of the three of us pushing each other as far as we can. I feed off that song so much, how hard it gets and how soft it gets and how it can change at the drop of a hat. I have to be ready, I go wherever I go depending on what part is hitting me. It all changes as soon as [Josh] decides to change.
RD: [to Josh] You throw us some fakes sometimes, as well.
PT: I think that’s the energy or emotion I guess. It’s just a thing with us reading each other musically, without any eye contact or signal or anything. The whole time, I’m just focusing on how well we know each other as musicians, that’s the total energy in that song.
RD: Every single time we do it, it’s different. Sometimes it’s the end of the set and you’re so shagged that you’re like “That’s it.” Other times, we’ve played it for 20 minutes or something.
So it’s all about breaking out of the 2-4 minute pop/rock format.
PT: Not consciously, we have short songs as well. I mean, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a pop song.
JS: I don’t even know what that means, “pop.”
Have you found yourself improvising more in general?
PT: It’s funny though, because when we play, it’s cool, but I guess we hadn’t played the [new] songs before all as much as we had now. Now that we’ve played them so many times, we’ve added in bits. [On the album] it’s more basic, so you can just add to them live. In the live shows, people are interested and you can add in stuff…But I think it’s like muscle memory, your hand plays the same thing over and over and over again and it looks for something new to do to keep it fresh. We all kind of end up doing that, so I guess that’s kind of improvising.
JS: It kind of teaches you the things you can do for the next record as well. You know how you can make something better.
RD: When you play something, it makes me go, “Oh, you’re doing that, I’m going this way” and then someone else will pick up on that and we’re all putting stuff into it.
PT: We’re basically just like every band ever. (laughs)
JS: But to do that stuff live when you’re not a band that does that normally, every song has already been written and you’re essentially making something different every time, that’s kind of fun.
So you guys are already thinking ahead to a third album?
PT: Yeah, I could start working on it now. I’ve started writing more songs.
JS: We kind of have an idea of what we want it to sound like next, which is weird.
PT: It’s funny, we’re doing press for an album that we’ve heard a million times now, but no one else has heard it. Again, every band ever probably has this. Maybe some bands just record an album and are like, “Whew, don’t have to do that again for a while,” but we just really want to keep making stuff. I don’t know if you’re creative, but if you’re a really creative person, I don’t think you’re ever fulfilled by one thing. Even if I really love it when it’s finished, I want to keep doing stuff. I don’t really have anything else to do, anyways.