With his debut as Youth Lagoon, 2010's The Year of Hibernation, Boise, Idaho native Trevor Powers became a breakout blog darling. His grand and swelling indie pop anthems shimmered their way onto festival lineups, opening slots for Death Cab for Cutie and across-the-board acclaim from the music press.
And while his first release was aimed at listeners' hearts, Powers, now 23, is taking aim at the cerebral cortex with his second release Wondrous Bughouse. It's a trippy, heady album with deep layers of sound and experimental samples, lyrics about psychological afflictions like sleep paralysis and whiz-bang production from Ben H. Allen (Animal Collective, Deerhunter). It's also a hyper-personal endeavor for Powers, who tells Fuse that it was inspired by a bout with depression.
Fuse spoke to Powers from his Boise home, where he was rehearsing for his just-launched spring tour.
“"I was going through a lot of sh-t at the time," says Powers. "I wasn’t suicidal, but I’d thought about it."”
What is the most personal track on Wondrous Bughouse?
"The Bath." Sometimes you write something and record it, then regret it because it’s too personal. I was going through this bad depression. I wasn’t suicidal, but I’d thought about it. The song is about me taking a walk along the Boise River, which at the time was frozen. I started writing the song a while back, the same year The Year of Hibernation came out. I was going through a lot of sh-t at the time, so it was one of those moments where your mind goes to dark places, then snaps back, but you still remember where it took you. That song is hard to look at because of that experience.
Were those the most difficult lyrics to write?
Yeah. It was therapeutic to record it and get it out of my system, but in a sense I regret it. It will be there forever for me to look at and remember. I’m not even playing that one live, because it’s just too… yeah… I was just going through a lot of personal stuff at the time.
Musically, the new album is much weirder than your debut, The Year of Hibernation, which was full of more straightforward and grand indie pop songs. What pushed Wondrous Bughouse in that direction?
I was trying to eliminate any songwriting filters. I always try to not have an agenda with writing. If I go into songwriting with a vision, or want it to sound a certain way, I usually end up pushing and forcing it. I went into Year of Hibernation with a similar mindset and just let it all come out. With this new record, I tried to do that even moreso. I opened up my mind a little more and just let it happen, especially sonically. I’ve been exploring more ideas sonically... there’s just so much possibility out there.
Did any albums influence this new direction?
A lot of this is from [avant-garde art-rockers] This Heat, especially [their 1993 album] Repeat. Their stuff is all about repetition. The straight-up experimental vibes of creating whatever they wanted to create was influential. I’ve always been into dream-pop stuff, too. I don’t cling too closely to other records. I try to zone out and let myself speak the way I want to speak. But sometimes influence is unavoidable. Certain records naturally draw you in.
Can you tell me about "Sleep Paralysis," the lead single? It's the lyrical and musical center-piece of your new direction...
“Sleep Paralysis” is probably my favorite track. That song was one of the last I wrote for the record. I had been doing research about sleep paralysis, and some of the spiritual themes that can go along with it. I read about this lady who would go under sleep paralysis a lot of nights. Her mind was still awake and her eyes were open, but she was asleep. She would see and talk to her boyfriend that was killed. I was fascinated and did more and more research.
You do most of your writing at home alone, late at night. The Year of Hibertation sounded like you could sit down at the keyboard alone and play the songs. But this one sounds more layered and fractured...
The songwriting process was pretty similar. But I definitely experimented a lot more. I got into trying to find new sounds that I hadn’t worked with before. So I just sat down and messed around.
How did you hook up with Ben H. Allen?
We started talking when I was halfway through writing the record. He was one of the producers I had in mind, especially because of his work with percussion and his hip hop background. We hit it off and every time we talked, I’d explain to him what I wanted from this record…
What did you envision before recording? Did it meet that vision?
Yeah. My vision was essentially the way it turned out. I told Ben I wanted to experiment in more realms. I wanted the album to have one foot in reality, grounded in something you can grasp and it’s not totally like, "I don’t know what’s going on here." And I wanted the other foot in this other place that’s unfamiliar, but has a familiar feeling. So that’s how I’d explain it to him. At that point I started sending him demos. then when I finished writing, I went down to Georgia. I ended up spending about two months down there, starting in October.
You never write on the road and after the release of The Year of Hibernation, you spent a lot of time touring. Did you write Wondrous Bughouse all in one spurt?
There would be two- or three-week breaks between tours and I’d write some then. But, yeah, the majority was written in the last chunk before recording. I ended up having three months off before going in to the studio. That was my biggest writing chunk.
Considering the breakout success of The Year of Hibernation, was there a lot of pressure to deliver a better, more successful follow-up?
When I first started thinking about writing the record, there definitely was a lot of pressure, but once I started writing, there wasn’t. I wanted to put a part of myself in these songs. I tried to not over-evaulate what people were going to think of it and just for it. Sometimes you just have to swallow the fact that, yeah, people are going to hear this.
Before Youth Lagoon took you around the globe, you hadn't been outside the Northwest. Have these new experiences of the last two years helped shape this album?
Oh yeah. A lot of it was seeing things I hadn’t seen before and meeting new people. That all changes your mindset. I hadn’t done much traveling before; my life was here in Boise. But after the record, I started to do a lot more traveling. It sounds cliché, but you see yourself growing. You grow more when you see certain things, more than if you stayed stagnant and stayed in the same place.
Will these songs be more difficult to perform live? Do you have to play with a larger band?
Yep. Once the record was done I held auditions and hired three members. It’s coming together really well. We’ve been rehearsing for the past month and a half and it’s going really well.
What are you listening to or watching at home during downtime?
I'm really into AMC's Walking Dead. I love that show. I’m not sure what the obsession in our world is with zombies, but that show is so good. As far as new music, I’ve been really into Blue Hawaii. Their new album comes out soon. They’re a great band. I love Breaking Bad, too. I can’t wait for the new episodes. I’m all caught up. I’m just waiting now. Oh, funny story about Aaron Paul, who plays Jessie on Breaking Bad. He’s from Boise. I know people that are friends with him. I’m jealous! People see him around at this dive bar in town. He has family here, so he comes and hangs out.
Get him to star in one of your upcoming videos!
Dude. That would be so cool.
Listen to Youth Lagoon's Wondrous Bughouse album in full below: