Hustle And Drone Bio (2019)
There are moments in life when you’re forced to confront the dark things you’d love to avoid. Be it through substances, ignorance or vanity, the potential to lose sight of who you really are is ever-present, and the potential to confront those demons is typically shelved.
In 2014, Ryan Neighbors was in the midst of redefining his artistic focus. Having bid adieu to his post as keyboardist for Portugal. The Man not long before, there were expectations to ignore, and a new musical identity to carve out with his electro-pop project, Hustle and Drone. With the release of Holyland, the band made an immediate impact in the Pacific Northwest, holding court in major venues and selling them out, as well as touring Europe. Once the dust settled, the band returned to woodshedding beats and synth sounds, confident of a competent follow-up.
The process that followed, however, was anything but easy.
Writing and recording 25 songs over a two-year period, Neighbors and fellow hustler/droner Andy Black established a promising songwriting partnership, eventually flying their producer, Sonny DiPerri (who’d worked on Holyland, as well as records by Animal Collective, The Drums, and My Bloody Valentine, among others) to Portland to dig into what they’d accomplished. The response wasn’t what either songwriter was prepared to hear.
“He asked, ‘If you didn’t write this, would you listen to it?’” recalls Neighbors. “We thought he was flying out to Portland for us to put the finishing touches on our record, but then he told us we needed to start from the beginning. I was pissed.”
DiPerri sensed an inauthenticity with the record that wasn’t mirroring the pain or the dark places that he could see in Neighbors’ and Black’s realities, and pushed the duo to identify and dig deeper into a more representative expression.
“He knows me well, so he was also well aware that I wasn’t really in a happy place and had been struggling with depression,” explains Neighbors. “He wanted those feelings to bleed out through the songs; we aren’t trying to be a fun dance band.”
The band started over from scratch, learning new synths, softwares, and digging into new sample libraries. The tough love DiPerri dispensed on Hustle and Drone began to yield a darkly cathartic collection of songs, which after more polishing and refining, would eventually become What An Uproar. The hard work and change in work ethic is immediately evident on the band’s sophomore offering, which they finished up in the remote town of Talkeetna, Alaska. The solitude of the small town contributed heavily to the focus with which the band took on the finishing touches of the record.
On Holyland, Neighbors says he and his former writing partner “would kind of operate in a ‘well, that’s pretty cool’ type of recording process. With Uproar we would say, ‘well, that’s pretty cool, how can we make it better? OK we just made it better; how can we make it perfect?’ It was a huge change in approach.”
What An Uproar is the sound of clarity through the shadows, maturity in the face of heartbreak, and the uproarious catharsis of being boldly defiant when it matters most.
Repeated listens reveal a record at once enlightening and even a bit scary to hear what it sounds like to allow the truth out, no matter how badly it hurts. As soon as there’s no easy way out, there’s nowhere else to go but forward.
Album opener “Dark Star” reflects the gloom accurately, subdued synth beats anchoring a minor-keyed melody, Neighbors singing, “There’s a nightmare inside my head.../There’s a dark wall inside my head.../I’m fading away.” It was the first song that came together for the band after the artistic redesign, and served as blueprint for the tone of the rest of the songs on What An Uproar.
“Uproar isn’t as accessible to the average listener as Holyland, but it is the record we wanted to make, and it is a true expression of where we are as artists,” declares Neighbors.
“The atmosphere of What An Uproar is a direct result of us freeing ourselves to make the music we truly wanted to make, not necessarily the music that was expected from us,” adds Black. “If we found ourselves wading into waters that felt vulnerable and uncomfortable, then we knew that we were being honest and on the right track. The vulnerability in trying to be as authentic as possible is always scary, but being honest and upfront was what we wanted to accomplish.”
Even the catchier numbers emerge as stylistically divergent from the band’s first LP, which waded in dancier waters. What An Uproar seems to battle itself from song to song, the combination of introspective lyricism from Neighbors, and a veil of moodier, bleaker electronic pop that recalls Joy Division, vintage Nine Inch Nails or The Faint than it does other electro-forward artists.
“Never Sleep Alone” bookends the record with a heartbreaking farewell to a lost love, Neighbors’ baring his lyrical soul in a synth-lite ballad that exposes a key component to the recording process for DiPerri: disallowing Neighbors to hide behind elaborate double-vocal takes. DiPerri stressed the power of being able to “hear the pain,” in the vocals, as he put it. Boy do you ever hear it.
“I have always hid behind vocal effects and vague lyrics to mask what the songs are really about,” says Neighbors. “Not this time. A lot of the lyrical content is about anxiety and depression. Too much boozing and a broken relationship. For a long time I wasn’t trying to feel better and just accentuating what I was going through. I wrote all of these songs while I was still sitting in that dark place.”
There’s pleading vulnerability on the mournful “Stuck Inside of the Rain,” which finds sparse piano twinkles guiding a lonely vocal that laments a relationship gone sour with lines like, “I lost my heart but have my soul.” It’s the sound of healing, even when it’s draped in the raindrop melancholy of the rearview mirror.
“Fame,” easily the most buoyant of the record’s tracks, is a recollection of Neighbors’ time as keyboardist in the Grammy-winning Portugal. The Man. The song writhes in a twisted pop milieu, anchored by wormhole synths and a drum-machine backbone, with Neighbors offering a “tongue-in-cheek jab at myself, wondering how things would be if I never left.”
“Chambers” offers something of a sonic palate cleanser and a clear demarcation line from the first half of the record to the second, as a meandering solo piano vignette hisses like a ghost from a groove in a gramophone platter. When the clouds clear, a trance-y beat introduces “Raw As the Sun,” a gloomy banger and a sonic exposé into Neighbors’ psychoses with revealing lines like, “I wanna breathe and I wanted to waste my time/I wanna see all my imperfections/It’s breaking me, beating me, eating me down all the time.”
In the end, What An Uproar is a maelstrom of an synth-pop brooder, and served its purpose as artistic relief for the band. More than that, it’s destined to emerge as a fateful companion for others facing the void and deciding, even after some hesitation, to hit it head on.