We spoke with David Pajo about cloud layers, psychedelic journeys of the mind, time dilation, viewing the moon as broken and why he views his children as his teachers.
It’s bare-bones in response to listening fatigue from modern music. There’s so much available now. I felt that I had to set really strict limitations.
Part I: Contrast
A Broke Moon Rises is one of your most skeletal albums to date, being written solely on acoustic guitar with minimal drums. Conceptually, this would seem to me like opting for drawing on white paper with a No. 2 pencil, rather than some intricate acrylic or watercolor. Why is this? Did you feel like you could say more this time by scaling back?
That’s a good question. Compared to Highway Songs, it’s definitely more focused. Highway Songs was all over the place, and that’s the way I wanted it to be — I was just purging, riffing out all this shit that I had built up. And then with this record, a lot of it was from just listening to stuff I’d done in the past with Aerial M. With that band, I set parameters; we wouldn’t use guitar effects, we’d plug straight into our amps, basic guitars, bass and drums, standard tunings, maybe drop D sometimes. I felt like there were unlimited options with that basic setup. I liked the Aerial M stuff for that reason, and I wanted to set similar parameters with this.
The concept I stumbled on was: what could you do with four acoustic guitars, each in standard tuning? I did a lot of experiments with polyrhythms — some of them were kind of interesting, but they didn’t feel like songs. So, I used those ideas that I’d messed around with and worked on presenting them as songs. I approached each guitar as unique: one guitar would be the chording, another the main melody. I found I’d start thinking in pairs of guitars; two guitars would interact together, and there’d be a layer on top of another two guitars interacting together.
It was pretty fun. It really is bare-bones. In part, it’s in response to listening fatigue from modern music. There’s so much available now. I felt that I had to set really strict limitations. It works on this record.
A few years ago, you stated you had “lost all interest” in playing or even listening to music. Then, I understand you suffered a motorcycle accident that led you to lay low for a while. Obviously, now I have this opportunity to speak with you today because you’re promoting a record. What changed, internally? What inspired you to pick up a guitar again?
I think I was just not inspired for a long time. I’ll play music until I’m not into it anymore, and I hit a wall where I was just not excited by anything. It’s a sad way to be, because I’ve always had enthusiasm for music. It really is work to be inspired. You have to just keep going at it. I made two other records before this one where I was ready to release them and then I was like “Wait, these suck!” The four acoustic guitar problem to solve got me really excited, just to see what I could do. Also, learning the Arvo Pärt song that I’ve always loved so much — finally figuring out the mechanics of it — gave me a renewed enthusiasm.
You’re a pretty open and communicative guy online, especially since you dealt with all that immense stuff over the last few years. Do the things grieving/recovery folks send you ever tip into annoyance, or mischaracterizing your situation? Or do you find yourself nearly always willing to hear most strangers out?
No one has ever asked me that, and I’m glad you did. If someone has nowhere to turn, I will always hear them out for sure. Nine times out of 10, it was a good thing for both of us. I have had annoyances a couple times, like when someone becomes too needy from me — I can only push them in a certain direction. After that, it’s not me that’s going to save them. I’ve been in that situation a few times where I just had to do my own thing. I couldn’t take on someone else’s life.
There was another time when someone was convinced that my attempt was for attention and that there was a part of me that must have wanted to be rescued. Who would do something so risky for attention? This was definitely my final stand. The fact that I made it through was more of a miracle than anything else. When it becomes annoying like that, I just don’t talk to those people. They follow the misconceptions a lot of people do about suicide — that it’s cowardly, selfish. Those are all old-fashioned interpretations.
You named A Broke Moon Rises after your son commenting on a half-moon. Can you tell me any other observations your children have made that have also sort of burrowed into your work? What insight do you gain from them?
Their worldview is so unjaded, you know? It’s so refreshing. Him looking at the moon and saying, “It’s broken.” That was just such a fresh way of looking at something I’d seen my entire life, you know? I never once thought of it as a broken full moon. They say stuff like that all of the time. I usually write it down.
I don’t think people necessarily have to see all my warts. But I am human and I don’t care anymore. I’m myself: take it or leave it.
Do you find value in presenting your whole self — the darkness and the light — to the public, or do you try and project your “best self” to your friends and fans? How much of our daily lives should be “curated” in the digital era for other people?
I still want to show my best side. I don’t think people necessarily have to see all my warts. But I am human and I don’t care anymore. I’m myself: take it or leave it. Sometimes I do stupid shit and sometimes I’ll do something cool. That’s who I am and I accept it. I’m not afraid that if I reveal myself they’ll find out what a monster I am. I really don’t have secrets. There’s nothing that I don’t talk about with my close friends.
Did you once feel way more self-conscious?
Oh yeah. I’ve always been super private, at least about my interior feelings. I think that’s why when my attempt happened, it was such a shock to a lot of people, especially the Slint guys. We’d just been on tour together and they knew what was happening in my life, but I was so good at downplaying things and not showing how much it was destroying me.
Does that give credence to the notion that what you don’t bring forth will destroy you?
I do think that that stuff tends to layer upon itself until it becomes overwhelming. It’s not that you have to pour yourself out to everyone you meet.
Right. That’s the opposite extreme.
It does relieve the pressure, hearing yourself talk about it. That’s a good thing. I think now, if there’s pressure, I’m not ashamed to admit it in the early stages. It doesn’t build up anymore.
I’m interested in how psychotherapy works for myself and others. To me, a great therapist won’t necessarily give you all the answers, but help you steer your own thoughts and reach your own conclusions. Do you find value in hearing yourself ask the questions so that your own internal dialogue can answer?
It’s always good to have an outside third party willing to listen to your shit, even if they’re doing it for a paycheck. The best realizations I’ve had in therapy were always me saying it, you know? It was always me coming out with something that I hadn’t realized before. It was weird to hear myself say something profound. Those moments are what therapy’s for. I know therapists who go to therapy just to maintain objectivity! It’s never really a bad idea.
How would you define a bad therapist?
When my brother died when I was 16, my parents sent all of us to therapists. It was a wise choice, but I had a child psychologist who would fall asleep during sessions. Granted, I was probably super boring — all I did was talk about guitar. That was all I did back then: play guitar. But that, to me, is a bad therapist. Someone who just doesn’t give a shit.
I’ve also played guitar my whole life, and I’ve been thinking about what Thurston Moore said: “If you play in standard tuning, things start to sound, well, standard.” Though this is a cliché in the guitar world, sometimes I feel that new guitars and new tunings simply contain new songs in them. What keeps the instrument refreshing for you?
You always have to challenge yourself. To me, Thurston Moore is an example of a great guitar player because he had an unlimited view of the guitar. Putting drumsticks under the strings — that’s going to make you rethink your approach. I try to do that, too, by figuring out different ways to play stuff I already know, or I’ll retune a string for different harmonics.
Lately I’ve been playing on an eight-string guitar a lot. Meshuggah style. It’s super challenging. It’s still standard tuning, but trying to make the extra strings work in a way that doesn’t sound like Meshuggah but still sounds like me isn’t easy. Sometimes, I’ll just use a wacky effects pedal and see what happens. It’s always good to challenge yourself, and I think that’s why I lost my enthusiasm. I felt like I was just playing the same shit over and over. You always have to shake things up.
Nowadays, there’s a limitless amount of guitar knowledge, guitar tabs and guitar effects available, but the refrain today is that “guitar music is dead.” Is the wealth of possibilities just strangulating guitar music?
A problem nowadays is that there are too many options. You can get every effect pedal in the world and these huge racks of gear. But it forces you to be more creative when you’re limited. With Slint, I had a solid state amp that I bought in a mall in the ’80s. When we did the reunion tour, you could get the half-stack version on eBay for $150 — it’s still so unloved. I had to make it sound cool somehow. It worked with Brian McMahan’s warm tube sound. We wanted each guitar to have its own identity, and that was part of the sound.
Part II: Clarity
From what I’ve read, it seems like the members of Slint had a sort of chaotic energy between you in the beginning. Forgive me if this has been reported inaccurately, but I read Brian checked himself into a psychiatric hospital after Spiderland was finished. Do you feel that was a more unknowing time in our culture about mental illness? Do you feel, collectively, you could have handled mental issues differently back then?
We were really tight friends, but we didn’t talk about our personal shit. It wasn’t a surprise to me when he did that. I thought he was just taking a break from life. He was so entrenched in this dramatic situation that he needed an escape from for a while. That’s how I took it at the time. After my attempt, he came to visit me. We talked about all kinds of stuff that I didn’t even know had happened around then. It was really great to finally have all of that stuff out in the open. It’s amazing how much we didn’t talk about it back then. Even when Brian had his car accident, he downplayed it so much.
When Lance Bangs wanted to use it in the documentary, he asked “Why didn’t you tell me about this? It’s kind of a big deal.” I said “I don’t know, he seemed fine. He was in the hospital for a little bit.” I never even thought whether he was a different person after that. All the traumatic shit that went on in both of our childhoods just wasn’t discussed. We were too busy having fun.
Since the dawn of psychedelics, it’s been murmured among researchers that such drugs are useful in the fight against numerous mental illnesses, including alcoholism and bipolar disorder. This idea is still broadly unacceptable to the public, but it’s kind of incredible that some pharmaceuticals are readily dispensed, given how destructive those can be. Thoughts on using legal chemicals to change our brains?
People do have chemical imbalances. That’s a real thing, and science has made it so that they can correct some of those imbalances. It takes a good psychopharmacologist to get the right cocktail that treats the issue with minimal side effects. It can be done, but you have to guinea pig yourself to get to that point. I wish there was a better way of discerning that other than trial and error.
Before my attempt, I was doing ketamine therapy through an IV drip with a doctor. It’s supposed to be better than other medicine, because you don’t have to wait 30 days to see the effect. I was advised to get that because I was at a critical stage and I needed something immediate. It’s still a progressive therapy and I don’t know how beneficial it is, but I’d do it again if it was free.
I was having technicolor hallucinations that were really bright and detailed. Slow-motion, crumbling blades of grass.
How would you describe the journey you took on ketamine therapy?
Each time was pretty different. It is hard to explain, but I had sunglasses on while listening to music. I was having technicolor hallucinations that were really bright and detailed. Slow-motion, crumbling blades of grass. It was really textural. There were a couple of moments where I realized stuff about my situation. Something had been telling me that “When the worst happens, you’ll still be okay.” Afterward, you talk with your doctor about the experience and they take notes. I can see how it’s a good thing.
I feel like a big part of panic disorder is just feeling like your world is going to be snatched from you at any moment — that your happiness will be taken from you if you don’t protect it. Do you feel like that realization gave you more of a core? That pain is temporary?
That was a really nice realization I had. That no matter what happens, you’ll be okay. It’s taken me a really long time for that to feel true to me. I was in a bad motorcycle accident where they probably should have cut off my leg. I went through 13 surgeries and at some point I realized, “I have nothing to complain about. I’m lucky I’m alive.” I have to remind myself when I get complacent that things are going so well. I have to remind myself that I should really, truly be thankful — just the fact that I’m still here is so great.
Speaking of that accident a few years back — what has your whole journey with recovery and physical therapy been like? Where are you at with all of it?
I was in a wheelchair for a good two years afterwards. It was grueling. I have other friends who have had motorcycle accidents with similar injuries, but nothing as bad as mine. When I was in the emergency room, they wanted to amputate. I convinced them to try anything else first. They told me I was in for a long haul. A part of me thinks I still should become a peg leg. I’m out of the wheelchair, but there’s pain and it’s still really disfigured.
When I’m in public, I walk with a cane because I’m so slow. I can walk without it, but stairs are still tricky. I have one more surgery where I can get the hardware taken out, but that’s when I feel like if I had a prosthetic I could run and jump again and be free from this pain. But I still want to give it some time. I’m still getting used to the way things are different.
That’s great that you’re out of the chair, though. I remember reading about it when it happened and imagining how frustrating it would be. You couldn’t walk for a couple of years, right?
I definitely got frustrated sometimes when I’d get stuck in a corner or something, like, “Fuck this!”. But I never really got depressed about it, because I knew that I was going to be out of the chair. It was temporary. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to someone who has to accept that this is the rest of your life: you’re never leaving this chair. That, to me, is mind-blowing, a real hurdle to come to terms with.
I pressed pause on life. My sense of time changed to where months could go by and it wouldn’t feel like months. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s like if you prepare yourself for a long drive or a ten hour flight, you get your mind set that it’s going to take forever, and then you’re surprised: “Oh, we’re landing now. That’s great!”
After enduring these twin incidents, do you feel yourself having more day-to-day appreciation?
You have a choice. You can either dwell on things and brood and be miserable, or look at it a different way and be happy. If you’re going to be dealing with a lot of shit, you might as well find the silver lining in it. It’s not going to hurt; it’s going to make things more bearable. It’s a coping mechanism. I don’t even necessarily feel positive. To me, it feels more like a fact. I spend time looking more at nature, observing and thinking, you know? This cloud formation will never exist again, and I’m honored to be observing it. It’s a different perspective than going into your backyard and thinking “I need to mow the lawn.”
Can you describe the last instance in which you observed something arbitrary or everyday with a new sense of wonder?
Oh yeah, that happens almost every day. Last night I was lying in my hammock, looking at the stars. There were some clouds, and it was really cool: I could see the layers. There was a bluish-gray layer closer to me, and the white clouds didn’t seem like they were moving at all. But this layer underneath was moving back and forth, affected by the wind a lot more. And it was a really cool thing to watch, this little display that was kind of hypnotizing. I knew they existed but I only thought about them when I was in the window seat on an airplane. It was cool to watch it in my own backyard.
Were you an observant kid, as far as the elemental parts of daily life? Do you remember any instances as a kid where you would have noticed the clouds moving differently?
This is stuff that I did as a kid. I would lie in the grass and look up at the clouds a lot. It was mostly because I played a game where I imagined that the clouds were the ground and I was looking straight down on the ground and could fall into the clouds. Like, instead of seeing the street when you looked over the edge of a tall building, you’d see the clouds. It would be thrilling; I would hang on to the ground and think “Oh shit, I could fall!”
Part III: Understanding
That reminds me of what you said about ketamine therapy — that sense of childlike rediscovery of the world being “alive” for the first time. Does that ring true?
That’s one great thing about having kids. I get to see things through their eyes more and remember how everything was new and full of wonder. You lose that in adulthood. I’m super interested in getting my kids’ take on things and seeing the things they’re amazed by. As you get older you get more jaded and I’m trying to have a less jaded perspective. It’s hard to do that because I’m always going to be a misanthropic asshole, you know? You just have to stay open to it.
I’m amazed by parents who don’t have any interest in what their kid is doing, yet they still say they “love” them. I’m not sure if I’ll have kids, but if I do, it wouldn’t matter how far out of my wheelhouse their interests end up. I would study what they’re into. I’m sure you value whatever intellectually stimulates your kids?
I do think a lot of parents view kids as dumb midgets. They think “I’m the wise one; I’ll be teaching them, and their interests are just childish, but I’ll be the one that gives them wisdom.” I always look at what I can learn from them. I do have to instruct them, but they’re my teachers as well. I feel like we’re equals. I don’t think that parents and most kids feel like they’re equals. I am interested in their viewpoints, even if it’s about a show or video game I know nothing about. What’s interesting to me is that they’re so interested in it.
I never invalidate my kids’ feelings. Even if they’re throwing a tantrum about something ridiculous, it should be taken as another opportunity to start a discussion.
Do you ever think it’s really valuable to make a kid feel judged, even when they’re off-base and need correction? I’m starting to really question that. I don’t feel judgement or guilt has utility with kids. It’s always negative, and even if it’s over something you completely disagree with, coming at it judgmentally might drive them further into it.
Kids have an intrinsic desire to make their parents proud of them, you know? It’s a hard road to go if you’re being judged. I don’t want my kids to ever feel any of that. Maybe I do it on some level and don’t even realize it, but I try to be accepting and encouraging of whatever they’re into. I don’t want to force interests on them.
My mom made me take piano lessons for years and practice every day, and I hated it. But I’m glad she forced me to because I did learn a lot. Having that background on piano has benefitted me with the guitar and drums and everything, you know? I think it’s okay to force your kids into stuff they don’t want to do, especially if it’s going to have a long-term benefit.
No one’s ever necessarily taken a college course on being a parent. Do you feel like you’re winging it and learning as you go?
Some new parents should have a college course! Being a new parent is a frightening thing. You’re so afraid you’re going to mess things up really badly. But at the same time, it’s the most natural thing; I was surprised at how natural it was. There’s no handbook at being a parent, outside of talking to your mom or grandma, or someone with experience who can help you.
There are some shitty parents. I was at a truck stop and saw this lady smoking a cigarette and holding this baby that was naked except for a soiled diaper, and ashes were falling on the baby. You should have to pass a test before you’re allowed to have kids.
You hit on a really simple truth here: it’s scary, but it weirdly comes naturally. Did you feel like a computer system where the info was stored in the back of your mind, ready to go when it was time to put it into practice?
Totally. Childbirth is the most natural thing and being a parent is the most natural thing. We’re a species and we’re supposed to do this. My whole life, previously, I never wanted to be a dad. I felt like too much of a kid. I could barely take care of myself, you know? And then when it happened, it was like something completely turned over. This helpless, innocent being relies completely on you. There’s no choice. You have to be responsible now. Something else kicks in.
We were talking earlier about mental health, and I think older generations — especially of men — are under the impression that anxiety and depression simply don’t exist. Given our current understanding in 2018, do you feel like you might be more well-equipped to help your kids explore their emotions, feelings and fears?
I never invalidate their feelings. Even if they’re throwing a tantrum about something ridiculous, it should be taken as another opportunity to start a discussion. Imagine what it takes for tears to come out of your eyes at our age. It’s something that you’re passionate about. Just because they’re kids, it doesn’t mean they’re any less passionate. I take their feelings very seriously.
There’s always a deeper meaning. The toy they didn’t get just might be the thing that set it off. Maybe my son feels like I love my daughter more than him because I didn’t get him the toy he wanted. They’re just triggers, but they can’t articulate it; they don’t have the words to express emotion. Missing those moments is a really bad thing.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: September 3, 2018
Total questions: 27
Word count: 4175
Reading time: Fifteen minutes
airplane, Arvo Part, bare-bones, blade, blueish, Brian McMahan, crumbling, David Pajo, detail, discussion, disfigurement, documentary, enthusiasm, fatigue, formation, grass, gray, hallucination, hammock, harmonics, innocence, interest, interpretation, invalidation, jaded, ketamine, Lance Bangs, lawn, layer, limitation, Los Angeles, Meshuggah, misconception, observation, opportunity, Papa M, perspective, prosthetic, responsibility, ridiculous, Slint, slow-motion, stars, tantrum, technicolor, therapy, Thurston Moore, video game, viewpoint, wart, wheelchair
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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