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Pageant Boys – Photo Credit: Roni Norbury
It’s a time of profound restlessness: intellectually, culturally, and musically. People are challenging foregone conclusions, and revolting against status quo in surprising and often opposing ways. Artistic statements have a way of capturing the mise-en-scene of their times. Perhaps, no album that has landed across my desk has captured the COVID era quite like Pageant Boys’ Haunted.
Pageant Boys is the brainchild of Alexander Sheppard, creating is synonymous with breathing. Sampling, writing, painting, living — these are all somehow meshed together through his songs. Sheppard has mixed clever melodies with dark soundscapes to create truly original pieces of American art. And he has gained success through his work, earning a record deal with The Record Machine and having songs used in European TV shows.
What’s truly great about Haunted is that its creator never feels any sort of debt to that success. This is a weird piece of art; a sort of uncanny and post-modern de-creation of American genre tropes. Opener “Effortless” is nearly five minutes of sonic experimentation ranging from jazz to new age to harsh noise.
Even the songs that have pleasing melodies, like the second track “Past Life,” are set on a backdrop of disparate, yet somehow coalescing sound bytes. Its truly a 21st century record, reflecting the isolation of the plague years and late-stage capitalism.
And while we can wax poetic about Sheppard’s collage-esque production process, the songs, melodies, and lyrics on Haunted are damn good. On the resplendent “Vultures,” Sheppard sings, “Happiness will only break your heart.” Anchored atop stirring synth strings and subtle drum machines, Sheppard sounds like a prophet-turned-songwriter.
Again on the next track, “Saint Peter,” Sheppard declares, “I close my eyes / but the world’s still there.” With its simple guitar arpeggio and pleasing vocal melody in the chorus, Sheppard is really able to pull blood out of stone. The emotional impact of these songs is giant, even if the world Sheppard creates feels cripplingly small and isolated.
There’s no end to the highlights on this record. From the sprawling ballad “Black Light” to the skewered pop of “Soft Cell,” you can hear Sheppard’s dedication to his craft. Growing up in Kansas, Sheppard had to learn music production on his own. However, I still think you can hear that big Midwestern sky in the swirling soundscapes of Haunted. Even in the gilded age of influence, we never fully lose our roots, do we?
Alexander Sheppard generously digs into the details of his creative world in the informative Q&A below:
Even though this is a record of soundscapes and processed sounds, it feels as American as a patchwork quilt. What does it mean to you to be creating American art?
“To me, the greatest American music shares, in equal parts, dissatisfaction and debt with the music that came before.”
“We’re a very individualist nation, and while that attitude has done fuck all to advance social programs, it has given us some remarkable music. I think as Americans, we care less about musicians that perfect traditional or classical modes and more prize musicians that seem to reinvent everything and create whole new forms. The best American artists (Chuck Berry, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Young Thug, et al.) seem to have taken very familiar ideas and molded them into something truly unique.”
“Personally, my first memorable experiences with music were with early American music. My Dad is a folk musician and his repertoire includes a lot of traditional folk music from black musicians in the 19th and early 20th century. Those were some of the first songs I attempted to learn on guitar. And what’s great about that music, is that it’s essentially pop music and there’s a lot to learn from the melodies of popular music that endure for 150 years.”
What is your songwriting process like? Do the songs start with simple chords and build into the orchestral, stirring works we hear on record?
“I would say that most of my songs start with a few chords and a simple melodic idea. Once that melodic idea is down, it gives me the freedom to build whatever I want around it, or strip as much as I want away from it. Most of my songs will go through five or ten completely different incarnations but that melody typically won’t change.”
“Sometimes, I show a draft of a song to a friend, then months later, after I’ve changed almost everything, I’ll let them listen to it again. Invariably, they always prefer the version they heard first. To them, it sounds completely different, but to me, the different versions always feel remarkably similar; because I try not to hold anything sacred in the songwriting process—especially in the world of non-destructive editing. The only thing sacred in a song is it’s melody, and even that can be changed—it just becomes a different song at that point.”
There’s some religious and mythological themes on this record, with titles like “Saint Peter” and “Icarus.” How does myth fit into your songwriting?
“I use religious themes in my songs as a way to frame big questions and big anxieties. By invoking Christian and Greek mythology, I can access a shorthand that most people in the Western world are familiar with. When I talk about heaven, I’m talking about anxiety and uncertainty around death. When I sing about Saint Peter, I’m talking about this internal part of me that’s constantly weighing my sins. Complacency, hubris, redemption, and judgment are all deeply personal themes of the album but they’re also universal and we’ve been writing about them for time immemorial.”
Do you have a favorite song from Haunted?
““Vultures.” It’s kind of hopeless, it’s a demanding song as a listener, it doesn’t have any sort of chorus but I think it’s sort of comforting.”
What’s next for you?
“Writing and recording more music. Working on a chapbook of poetry and art. I have a lot of tracks I’m looking forward to getting out next. Then maybe working on putting out some acoustic songs.”
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