In the bohemian-style furnished backroom of the Bootleg Theater, Kyle Morton sits on the lavishly decorated cushions of a sofa next to a table lamp that is much too extravagant to just be a table lamp. The only people around are the knowing regular purveyors of the venue who’ve snuck back for a game of ping-pong, while in the main room and bar area spaces have already begun to run out as the crowds shuffle inside to catch the night’s openers. Morton, the lead singer/songwriter of the Oregon indie-rock outfit Typhoon, has more than a few enthusiastic fans waiting for him in the other rooms–both fans of his band and his own budding solo endeavors, which began with the release of his album What Will Destroy You back in September.
Much like Typhoon, and much like his debut album, Morton’s virginal appearance at the Bootleg Theater last Tuesday night was a loosely put together experiment that focused on the exploration of his limits as a singer/songwriter. The record itself, which Morton played a large number of songs from, including a few deep cuts from Typhoon, was a test to see if he could play all the instruments himself, rather than relying on his bandmates to supplement the sounds for him. “If you listen closely there’s a couple string parts that are totally hackneyed,” he admits with a laugh.
Upon ending a long tour with Typhoon, the band engaged in a much needed break, while Morton used the momentum to funnel his energy into organizing songs he’d written into a brand new album.
“I had these songs that I felt were better sparse and I’d been listening to music that was more stripped down and minimalist. So my aesthetic was kind of leaning that way at the time; what I found was that because it was such a simple and short record, and there’s less of an overarching grandiosity to it, that it was really a fun easy record to make,” Morton said of the record process. “We did it in like a month, and not even intensively, it was like after work I’d go to my friends house to record and then we’d both mix it–and we did this a few nights a week for a month and then we had a record.”
The result was the creation of the at once haunting, if not restlessly melancholic and hopeful world of What Will Destroy You. Unlike Morton’s last songwriting creation White Lighter, which was an autobiographical (if somewhat mythologized) disclosure that used solely a first-person narrator, his solo work came about out of a desire to create songs that weren’t entirely about himself. On the studio recordings, Morton employs his raw, lilting murmurs, which are at times surrounded by the helter-skelter of instrumentals, and others the droning bleakness of silent stillness. Live, alone onstage and lit by only a few lights and shouldering his guitar, Morton doesn’t just channel the vulnerability that comes with folk-acoustics, he embodies the chaotic complexities of emotion and circumstance that twist themselves beneath his skin and his songs. While the themes and movements of Typhoon’s ambitious anthems require the presence of all eleven members and explore elaborately underlying motifs, Morton’s songs, while just as emotionally compromising, are much more simple in nature.
“I’ve always really been influenced by the things I read, and sometimes I feel like I’m more influenced by writers than other music, at least for how I approach a record. The title of this record, What Will Destroy You, is reference to an old Apocryphal text in the Bible that says something along the lines of ‘If you bring forth, what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you'” Morton explained. “I came across that–well I wasn’t perusing the Apocrypha–I was just reading this book called ‘Seven Lies’ by an author named James Lasdun, and he wrote in this way that it had this ambivalence. That maybe everything in your life hinges on this one bit, and for me this record was about love, so maybe everything in your life hinges on love; it can pivot in this way that love can totally ruin a person, we’ve all seen that and experienced it, and it can also be one of the only things that can help you through this strange life.”
Morton engages his songwriting, and in turn his audience, in a way that his songs are never too dense or so consumed by their own lofty themes that they lose themselves within them–they even oftentimes follow a very linear form of storytelling that is both easy to follow, with characters that are given an insurmountable level of depth for so short a period you know them. So while songs like “Survivalist Fantasy” rip and gnaw at your bones with its apocalyptic setting and heavy imagery, it deals very humanely with the two lovers living in its aftermath. There’s humor, irony, and no small amount of bleak sarcasm; “Water Torture” earned a laugh from the crowd by juxtaposing depression with dry wit with the line “How long have you been gone/And where’s those groceries?” That earned a brief explanation to the crowd about the history of Chinese water torture and how it’s actually an American creation. “That’s about as controversial as the show is going to get tonight guys,” Morton lightheartedly told the crowd.
Candid and ever the conversationalist, Morton pushed through his reservations about playing deep cuts of Typhoon songs, but that nervousness was shattered by the crowd, as they had no problem singing Shannon Steele’s part for a number of songs and stomped their feet to the rhythm (and Morton had equally no problem tossing in humorous quips mid-song, warning the stomping crowd of impending key changes). The sheer intimacy of Typhoon songs being strummed through and carried on the back of Morton’s exceptional songwriting alone was overwhelming in itself, and even the deepest cuts that he pulled from their discography were met with enthused emotionality from the crowd. Morton had a peddle onstage with prerecorded backing music (just very light and simple droning instrumentals), but he eventually even stripped this from the show, preferring to mesmerize with his quick guitar plucks and heart-wrenching warble. It also goes without saying that he has one of the more unique vocal fronts out there right now–listening to him talk you wouldn’t even know it–and he counts Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse as a bit of an inspiration for his signature croon.
The only piece of What Will Destroy You that was missing from the performance was the end recordings to “Survivalist Fantasy” and “Perverse Fascination,” which were created by Morton to jarringly mesh the themes of the album into a dually surreal and tangible existence.
“It kind of glued together the theme of love being ambivalent. It was from dreams I’ve actually had that I kind of synthesized into one dream, mixed into a kind of David Lynch style sequence–it’s a little bit disturbing and kind of a horror movie setup because he’s coming down these stairs and there’s someone at the door,” Morton explained carefully. “I would have these dreams where my girlfriend, now wife, was replaced by someone else, it was her but someone else was in her body and she was out to get me. And I kind of interpreted that in the record as maybe there’s an inherent friction when you start trying to navigate your own self with someone else’s self; maybe the best thing about love is being a self-renunciation. When it gets to that point in the dream, which is when he’s being attacked by his lover and he finds out that she was actually saving him from the spiders–it’s really surreal–but these spiders out of his chest, and so what seemed to be an attack on himself is what sort of released him.”
Even without the recordings, which work terribly well in terms of the album’s cohesiveness, that anxiety and fearful apprehension germinated momentously within the crowd–the silence during each song was edge-of-your-seat suspense, hanging on every word and sound as it unhinged some familiar but forgotten piece of your consciousness. As far as we’re concerned, Morton’s Bootleg experiment was an undeniable success. But he also talked briefly concerning the new Typhoon record which is due out this year, and also how the band is entering 2017 with everything that’s been going on in the country. According to Morton, the yet untitled record will be dealing heavily with memory, both individual and collective, and how it relates on micro and macrocosmic levels within history.
In terms of the future of Typhoon, Morton said that after the rollicking events of the past year he sat down to talk with Steele to discuss whether or not they should could continue making music, or maybe use it to do something more tangible.
One of the main reasons their new album will deal with history is because of the climate right now; to Morton, the “general metaphysics of time [right now] is futureless.” As he put it, we are obsessed with the post-apocalypse, but are frighteningly unconcerned with how we got there–and isn’t that the most important part, isn’t that where we learn how not to go down that path? One thing is for sure, Typhoon won’t be splitting up because of the chaos swirling around them–and us; they’ll be doing what they’ve always been doing, trying to strike a familiar chord within the very real, very important pieces of humanity that bring us together.
“Music’s transcendent in a lot of ways, for me it made me realize I don’t want Typhoon to fall apart; this is our community, it’s our own little social experiment to see if we can all coexist in a van together across country,” Morton said. “And I think people need to really hold on right now to these local communities and local feelings of belonging, because that’s how, when things start getting really scary in the next couple of years if it goes that way, you have people you can trust.”
Words and Photography: Steven Ward