Dallas storms, bedroom pop, entropy, depression, perception, collaboration – it’s all here. Soviet Spacedog delves into creativity, history, and life itself for our in-depth, no-holds-barred interview. Here’s the conversation in full.
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Hey – thanks for the interview. For those who don’t know, how would you summarise your creative work?
Hello, thank you for speaking with me.
People call me Soviet Spacedog. Because I asked them to. I’m an experimental musician in the Pacific Northwest. I do a little bedroom pop, a little noise rock, a little synth pop, a little psychedelic. I like making weird sounds, chopping them up into something catchy and then singing really personal stuff over top of it.
What can you tell us about The Dallaska Texantarctica Mutual Aid Mixtape – what inspired it, and what do you hope to portray with it?
That mixtape was a project my friends started to help raise money for relief efforts in Texas after that terrible storm they went through. The project was actually already well underway before I volunteered to contribute a song I was working on at the time, Entropy, Baby!. It was my buddy Burke over at Third Eye Sockeye that wrangled the project together. I’ll let him take these next few questions.
Burke: “I live in Dallas, and at my place we were mostly without power throughout the week of the storm. At the time we saw our senator, Ted Cruz, make a break for the border. His supporters argued that he couldn’t actually “do” anything because a senator isn’t involved in state policies, but we also saw public figures like Mattress Mack and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez use their social platforms to mobilize relief efforts.
It actually isn’t that hard to help people in this life. When Charley Crockett released Lesson in Depression with proceeds going to mutual aids, I figured hell, maybe I could do my part with art somehow. I’m not a musician myself but I reached out to Lightspeed Scooter, who I knew was working on Oregon Girl, and asked what the timetable would be like on releasing that. Wouldn’t ya know it, he was already thinking of releasing it for storm relief, so that got the ball rolling.”
This is a notably eclectic project – how were the tracks chosen for it?
Burke: “Eclectic is my brand for sure, or as close as I’ll ever get to one. I’m not a big believer in genre, but I am a big believer in my friends, so for the most part I reached out to musician buddies back in Oregon and here in Texas. For the most part they’re folks I’ve shot videos for, or they’re people I plan to film in the future. Everyone I reached out to was super down and the tape got filled up pretty quick. I hope I was able to arrange them into a decent flow. I mean, I like it.”
The Grays’ take on Colours of the Wind is refreshingly beautiful. How did the acts throughout this playlist come to connect with one another?
Burke: “I really love bringing people together, and crossing paths with all sorts of walks of life. The DIY recording community on YouTube, including Western AF and A Song Catcher, were huge boons of inspiration when I started filming musician friends, and just as I started thinking about compiling these audios into a little Alan Lomax rip-off record, I instead got to play producer here.
As soon as me and Lightspeed Scooter started spitballing the mutual aid mixtape, Soviet Spacedog volunteered his (at the time) work in progress track; Cam Frontain is an absolute Renaissance Man of a woman, probably best known for her photography but had this unreleased recording with her SMU acting program cohorts; Joe’s Around gave us a track from his upcoming EP KO Lab; Rae is a friend in Portland who I asked to slap down a funky little bassline; and for Jeff Hanes I released stuff previously recorded for his Third Eye Sockeye video, but with a little more juice on it.
The Grays are actually the only act I haven’t met yet, but they do awesome, soulful Disney cover shows across the DFW. They’re friends of my friend Chris Sanders, all of whom are involved in the Dallas theatre scene, and one of those times when it pays to also know people who love to connect people.”
Thanks, Burke. Now get out of my interview.
Lyrically there are some elements of unexpected comedy or shock factor to songs like Entropy, Baby! – what purpose do you think humour plays in music?
I listened to a lot of novelty music growing up—Weird Al, Tenacious D, Flight of the Conchords, Jonathan Coulton—so humor and music have always felt inextricably linked to me. As I got older I started drifting toward bands like Primus and They Might Be Giants who write music that’s funny, but they aren’t comedy bands. You can write about serious things and still come at it from a humorous angle. Father John Misty’s music is very tragic and unhappy at times, but he’s still incredibly witty and can write jokes and clever wordplay that work hand in hand with tragedy.
I always try to keep my sense of humor handy when I’m writing and arranging a song.
I write about a lot of emotional distress, struggles with depression, anxiety, tough subjects in general. But it really helps to take these dark subjects and sing about them in a way that’s humorous—sometimes sardonic would be a better word. I love using out-of-proportion comparisons in my lyrics, juxtaposing wildly different images feels overly dramatic and funny to me, even if I mean it quite sincerely. On Entropy, Baby! I sing about the heat death of the universe, the unstoppable wheels of biology and fate, and how watching my sister turn 21 made me feel really old. I’m being genuine when I sing about these things, but even just drawing the comparison between something astronomical and something very personal is really funny to me. I’m such an insignificant speck and if I can’t laugh about it I’ll go insane.
I think arrangements can be funny as well. I love taking unexpected twists and turns in my production, trying to keep the listener on their toes. I want my music to have a sense of… oh, I don’t know quite how to describe it, but like, comedic timing? Sometimes just the way an instrument is played, or the way a sample is chopped up can be funny. I love the bassline on Radiohead’s Airbag. The staccato performance is really stilted and goofy, it’s hilarious to me.
Sometimes I’ll be listening to a song where the production suddenly takes a wild left turn, or maybe the band jumps genres unexpectedly to match the narrative of the lyrics, it catches me off-guard and all I can do is laugh. I love making eclectic choices like that in my productions, like I’m challenging the listener. I set up a groove for them to get used to, and then I’m like “oh, you liked that? Alright then, what do you think of this?” and then throw some unexpected and stupid-sounding synthesizer at them for a few bars. I think my best productions are the ones where I keep laughing while I’m mixing. There’s a really syrupy, overproduced saxophone bit that appears in my song Fragile Machine for like 4 bars and then is never heard again. I honestly think it sounds cool and adds to the moment, but it’s also so fucking funny to me when I hear it.
Hm. Maybe I’m just confusing “funny” with “annoying”.
Oh well, Ween gets away with it.
Where did the name Soviet Spacedog come from, and what’s the song-writing process like – music first, concept first, or simply jam it out and see where things go?
My name refers to the Soviet practice in the 50s and 60s of firing canine-carrying capsules into outer space to test if human spaceflight was possible. Not to say that the Soviets were the only ones, in fact there’s a whole Wiki page of animals who have been shot into outer space. It’s just such a wild image to think about and is also incredibly tragic and distressing. Flinging animals into space and seeing what happens is so… human. You know? That’s just so typically us, of course we would do something insane like that. And having the most famous practice be from a state that no longer exists just lends the name a touch of ephemerality that I really like.
Usually when I’m writing it’s lyrics first, followed quickly by music, and then the concept later in the process. I love collecting 10 dollar words, wise quips, and intimate imagery to use in my lyrics. My phone’s notes app is full of these little bits of language that I’ve collected over the years from personal experiences, things friends have said, things people on the internet have said, or an interesting word I saw in a book.
Here, let me grab a couple for example:
“The present leaves identifying marks on the future, the future does not leave identifying marks on the present.”
the window I saw an empty chair rocking”
“A voice in a well”
“In For a Penny ‘N Out For a Pound Burger” (I dunno, thought this was funny)
I have hundreds of these scraps accumulated from years of collecting. A lot are gibberish and I don’t remember where they came from, but I like that abstraction.
A song of mine usually starts when one of these gets stuck in my head, repeating over and over again like a hypnotic mantra until a rhythm or melody starts to stick. I grab an instrument, or maybe a preexisting demo, and start trying to fit the words to a musical structure. From there I do a lot of free associating new lyrics, or I’ll grab something from my collection of fragments and try to connect the two images in some way. In this beginning phase I try not to worry too much what the song is about or what I’m trying to say with it, if I do that I’ll just end up strangling it before it gets anywhere. Once I’ve got something that feels like a complete song, that’s when I start to examine it for themes.
Sometimes I’ll write something that feels unstructured and random, but then when I look back on it later it’s like “oh, I was actually talking about this thing and didn’t realize it” and then I’ll start making edits to make the prose more elegant or the narrative a bit clearer.
Once I’m confident in the narrative I bring it into my DAW and start throwing different rhythms and textures at it to see what accentuates the message best. This is my favorite part. I love song-writing, but I think production is where I really get to let myself go and just follow my creative instinct for a while. Arrangement and sound design are a core part of the process for me, just as important as the lyrics themselves. Every song is a unique story or perspective, and I want them to feel like it too. I try really hard to push myself and try new things on every song I do.
Your retro-electro production injects a nostalgic vibe to an otherwise contemporary writing style and vocal clarity – what has been your greatest inspiration in making music of this nature?
Thank you, it means a lot that you say that.
I like music with real “texture” to it; tape hiss, warbly wow and flutter, strangled sounds, stuff that sounds old and deteriorated. I like playing with effects that make instruments or passages sound like they’re played through an old, crappy device, or like digital audio that’s been corrupted and glitched out. The sound of technology—analog or digital—having an effect on the music that it’s playing is really attractive to me. All of my production is done digitally, but I do a lot of sound design work to utilize elements of analog textures, even as just a little extra “spice” to help accentuate a section of a song. The medium a song is played through (vinyl, cassette, CD, Spotify) is really fascinating to me, same as the space that it’s played in (a grand hall, your shitty car, a dark void, etc.) I try to imagine my music in these spaces and hear how that space would affect it. Sometimes I visualize these songs traveling through different spaces that reflect the narrative as it unfolds.
Rostam is a producer who has such a great ear for texture. Modern Vampires of the City is an album that you can really feel the texture of, it adds this whole dimension to the music that is beyond the songs themselves, it’s a whole other level of tactile quality that can be used to breath new life into your music.
The song My Attention is brilliant, a personal favourite. Passionate vocals, addictive melodies kept short and concise, unexpectedly honest lyrics. What inspired this song, and what do you hope people take away from it?
I’ve heard from a few people that this song is particularly good on the ears, it’s always lovely to hear that.
This one is about trying to be present in the moment, even the difficult moments. These past couple years I’ve been working on improving my mindfulness in everyday life. I—and so many other people, I’m sure—spend so much of my life on autopilot, just kind of floating through the present in a rush to get to the Next Thing.
I think I’ve let a lot of precious time slip through my fingers because I wasn’t present and aware enough to actually, vividly experience it. My default state has become to mentally check out of things that aren’t immediately gratifying to me, or experiences that are difficult to face. My mind wanders so easily now, I don’t always feel like I have control of it. I tried meditation for years but it never really stuck until I started seeing a therapist who could guide me through the practice and really learn to get the most out of it that I can. I still have a long way to go, but I’m learning to separate myself from the places my mind tries to go without me.
I wrote My Attention after a difficult breakup where my struggle to be present kept tearing me away from the moment instead of really experiencing it. That was the first time I consciously noticed the issue, and it led me to re-examine a lot of other times in my life and explore the roots of the habit.
What is Perception Music Group all about – what’s the new perspective?
Perception Music Group? Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time. A long time. I know mostly whispers, but I can tell you this:
Perception Music Group is a twinkle in the eye of an unborn lamb. They are the dark spot in the night sky where the stars have disappeared—or perhaps where something is hovering ominously above you. They are the face you’ve long forgotten though it belonged to someone you once loved dearly. They are the end of everything and the beginning of none. When your last memory fades and your matter returns to the universe they will be there, with a link to our Spotify playlist.
What’s your plan creatively for the rest of 2021?
Keep making music everyday. I’m very lucky to have a hobby that I can do in my bedroom, lockdown or no.
I’m planning on taking some time to just release singles and leave the album format behind for a little bit. I love albums, and I’ll definitely get back to one soon enough, but I’m looking to shake up my creative process a bit. Working on one song at a time lets me put all my focus into one project all the way to completion instead of juggling ten songs simultaneously. Also this way I can write something as a reaction to my present moment and then release while it’s still relevant to my life. Usually by the time I release an album, the songs on there are about things that happened to me months or sometimes even years ago.
In the fall I released Mass Exodus Underground because my whole state was on fire and it had me feeling so depressed and hopeless. It was cathartic to just immediately take those emotions and turn them into a song instead of sitting on it until I had a collection of music to release. I’ve got a couple tracks in the works right now that will be seeing the light of day this spring and summer. I’m currently working on a song with a rapper in Portland that I’m very excited for people to hear, it’s going to be wacky as hell.
If you could collaborate with anyone at all, who would you choose, and why?
I really want to collaborate with a female vocalist! I love arranging music for someone else’s voice and I’ve never produced for a woman before, I think it’d be a lot of fun to work with someone who has a different vocal range, a different lyrical perspective than me.
If I could collaborate with anyone it’d probably be Grimes or St. Vincent, the two of them have a tremendous influence on my music. Oh, or Fiona Apple, she’s my song-writing hero.
But honestly I think I’d really like working with someone local, someone I know personally whose voice I can support with my production. Once restrictions start lifting I’ll be back at the open mic nights, making connections and looking for folks who want to make weird shit with me.
Is there anything else we should know?
I have a website I need to update: caninecosmonaut.com.
I have another band: radiomacbeth.com
And my friend does really cool music: lightspeedscooter.bandcamp.com
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Check out the charity mixtape via Bandcamp.