La Dispute have never done things by halves when it comes to lyrics. Their first album, Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair, was – loosely – based on an Asian folk tale, while the songs of their second, Wildlife, took the form of a series of short stories and author’s notes/interjections. But with their third record, Rooms Of The House, vocalist/lyricist Jordan Dreyer has really outdone himself. Ostensibly a tale about a couple breaking up, the album’s 11 songs span decades, mixing together real-life occurrences taken from Dreyer’s family history with totally fabricated ones, while also using actual places and events in the context of the fictional tale. What’s more, Dreyer has mapped out – in his mind and only his mind – real histories for each of his characters. The song “Stay Happy There”, for example, references not only things that happen in the other songs on the album, but also events that Dreyer didn’t write about but which he envisaged happening to the characters. Confused? We were. But, as it turns out, Dreyer’s still working it all out, too. What follows is a mere fraction of the long, rambling conversation we had about the themes and lyrics of Rooms Of The House which, as it happens, isn’t really about rooms at all…
Noisey: OK, so this is all about the lyrics and themes of your new record, but I’m not entirely sure where to start because the whole thing is so mind-boggling. Why don’t you tell me what it means to you.
Jordan Dreyer: Let me think about where to start! As far as the thematic elements and the primary narrative on the record, it means a lot to me that there are fictional characters. It’s almost entirely fabricated, which created a need to mix the process up a bit and not rely purely on factual instances, but try to have a longer stab at developing characters and different scenarios and different difficulties. Slowly, they become like real people in your head in the process and you become part of the story yourself – so the characters and the house and the scenery are all very vivid to me after however many months we spent putting the thing together and recording it. Some of the elements are culled from experience, and some of them are my own and were altered to fit the characters, and some of them were people around me. There’s three songs on the record that are all, for lack of a better term, historical fiction – about people in my family and my family history. Brad, the drummer, is my cousin, so it’s his family history as well. So that was tricky, but tremendously rewarding to travel backwards and delve deeper into something that happened to people you love before you were a part of this world and their lives.
That’s interesting. Because your first two records had a fictional setting that could be applied to personal experiences in the real world, whereas this one, then, seems more like it started from personal experiences which you then fictionalized…
To a degree. I hesitate to say completely, because I don’t want to give the impression that the story is based on something that I’ve gone through. I’ve never lived with another person and that was a big thing I was thinking about at the time – what happens when those objects become shared property and then that relationship disintegrates. But I saw a lot of this happening to people that I knew who had fallouts and were in relationships, and it was good for the subject matter to make it not about me but make it about characters. I think when you write about your own personal experiences, they tend to be focussed pretty specifically on emotional content, but when you push for other characters and put them in different scenarios, you really have to think about how they would react.
In terms of chronology, the album starts in 1956, but the narrative isn’t exactly linear. There are those three songs of “historical fiction,” then the actual narrative of the two main characters. Is that correct?
Yeah. With Wildlife, we had a pretty specific direction and outline. I had all the stories I wanted to tell and I had an idea and we put the pieces together based on that. This time around, when we first started, I had just a general theme, a general idea about what I wanted to discuss. We just threw it into the pot and all watched it develop. Later, we decided to chop and splice and move things around so that it could be reassembled to tell a full story, [but] also capture the way that objects retain history and a shared memory and can kind of create this sort of time travel when you consider them.
That idea of objects having history – was that a lyrical device you had in mind when you started writing the record or is it something that just appeared out of nowhere?
A little bit of both. I was moving and packing things up and I started thinking about how everything that I have collected in the years that I’ve been alive has a memory attached to it. Sometimes more than one. And I’m a really sentimental person which makes packing things up pretty difficult. So there was this time period of picking things up and suddenly being 18 again or in a different location or remembering something I had always planned on doing and never got around to. So that was when it first started developing, but it wasn’t until I sat down with Brad while we were in the cabin and trying to get a firmer grip on what the record would be for structural purposes that I really felt how important it was to capturing the themes.”
Presumably that’s what the last track, “Objects In Space”, is about – because in that song you go through all these objects and lay them all out side by side.
Partly, it was based on me moving. But also, a couple of weeks before we went to record, I was experiencing a fairly severe bout of writer’s block. So one of my really good friends – he shot the video for “For Mayor Of Splitsville” – and I went to a few thrift stores in town. I’m a bit of a hoarder and a perpetual collector of pretty pointless things that I, for some reason, find myself attached to. So we took some of those things and went to the stores and bought a bunch of items that felt like they might have been part of somebody’s story, and we took them back to my folks’ house in Grand Rapids. We cleared out a whole room in their house and we spent some time arranging these objects and taking pictures, partly to document the process but also trying to delve deeper and get myself out of that funk. I remember my mom came home and asked me if I was making a shrine to someone. It felt like this odd grieving process for something, for someone. So the initial impulse of that song was the same as the initial impulse for the whole record, which was picking up and moving things and thinking about friends I had and didn’t have and relationships I’d been in and no longer was in and family members and whatever else. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that day seeing pictures of these random animal statues and photographs and all these weird things we’d just bought or dug out of the attic. It felt like an appropriate way to conclude everything. Because it’s a record about moving on – or if not moving on, learning to re-appropriate these things and incorporate your past into your present and then into your future, instead of just completely throwing it away or always being at odds with it.
Let’s talk about “Stay Happy There”. Because not only does that song reference most of the other songs on the record, it also contains stuff about the characters that only exists inside your head, stuff that isn’t on the record. Why did you choose to do that?
I wanted to create compelling and believable characters so that people could relate – there’s a universal truth to those situations, but I didn’t want it to seem hokey or too obvious. Part of the reason I decided I was going to do that was by creating a pretty extended description of the characters, like a companion history, but also, with the objects in the house, just be very specific with the details that I shared. So I wanted to put things in there that created that extended universe and that didn’t need to be explained, because that wasn’t the purpose. The purpose was in fully realizing these people as they are. And I don’t know if I could play songs about those things that I alluded to, but in order for me to make them believable I had to think that I could. That was a lot of alone time in the cabin, sitting there just kind of on auto-pilot and just constantly thinking all the time about these people and what they might have done and where they might have gone. I wanted it to be about history and about the past, but I also wanted it to be about the future you envision, because if you are involved in a serious relationship with another person, you don’t just have what you’ve shared together, you have what you intend on sharing and you have these fantasies you figure will one day be realised. And when you lose someone, that’s off the table – as well as what you had and still have, because it doesn’t go away. But there’s also the things you planned and the future you envisioned for yourself based on that affection and that companionship.
Let’s go back to those historical tracks. The imagery of “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963”, in particular, is incredibly powerful and really sticks out to me. Tell me about that song.
That song is about Brad and I’s grandpa and grandma – my mom’s parents and his dad’s parents. It’s from the most part written from the perspective of Brad’s dad, my uncle. My grandma is not doing particularly well. She’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, so it’s been…it’s an interesting thing seeing death in periphery where it’s my grandma, but it really affects the parents and Brad’s parents more. Brad’s dad is a really talented writer and he’s published a book of short stories here. One of the stories is what the song is more or less based on, so I kind of borrowed from his personal experience. Because it’s this thing that all the kids, all the grandkids, have always known about – the stillbirth. My grandma is an incredibly stoic woman – she’s born and raised in farm town Michigan and she has a very antiquated, traditional view of herself and she’s always been that way – she’s very slow to show emotion and very withdrawn and it was the perfect foil to my grandpa, who passed maybe five or six years ago, who was the life of the party and was a very boisterous man who loved to laugh and talk. It’s interesting because we’ve always known about this stillbirth but we’ve known about as much as our parents did, because it was never talked about in the house and they all have these faint recollections of the death and coming back from the hospital. So it was this thing that, to my parents, to my mom, to my uncle, it was this thing that was always present but never discussed until my grandpa passed. I remember going to the house on that day – this was when I was a teenager, so it must have been more than five or six years ago – but we went to the house after my grandpa had passed and I just remember, for the first time in my life, really seeing my grandma open up to us and to the family. It was a really profound moment, this woman who had been so quiet and so reserved around us, who we knew loved us but who was never very outwardly affectionate.
Anyway, my uncle wrote a short story and it’s incredible, it’s very moving, and before the book came out, I had been talking to Brad about this and he forwarded me the first draft of the story. After reading it, I knew immediately it had to be a part of the record, and it was a perfect partner for the song that became the first track, “HUDSONVILLE MI 1956”. So I think when I read that story was when I knew that those songs needed to be there – the historical songs, the dated songs – so that was a pretty important event in the writing process.
We should probably touch on the title of the record, because I haven’t even mentioned that yet. Yet the ironic thing is that this record isn’t so much about the rooms of a house as what happens outside them. Talk to me about that concept and why you named it something that’s almost the opposite of what happens on the album.
Part of it was just the idea what a thing means in the context of a home. When you share a space with another person, the house at its outset is framework – drywall and roof beams and whatever else – and it becomes another entity when you dwell there and decorate and collect things. Then, after it falls apart, those things are taken down and put away and I guess that image was important to me – taking things out of context – but I think it was also one of the first things I wanted to do was, where Wildlife focuses on so many different stories and locations, I wanted to make everything more central. I wanted to explore very specifically about one environment, just as I wanted to explore about two specific characters. So it was just a good place for the story to take place. I saw everything happening in different places in the house – in the kitchen or in the living room or wherever else – it’s a home but it’s also a house, it’s a shared history.
I can never shake the idea that people you never knew would have lived in the same house or the same room many, many years before and others will do so many years after you’ve left. The room will continue to live, even if you’re gone or you’re somewhere else. The life within the walls will prevail.
Definitely. And there’s little moments of that on the record, but in some ways, that was a theme that I didn’t have enough space to develop as much as I’d initially wanted.
That can be for the next album – Rooms Of The House, Part 2.
There we go. We’ve figured out the next record!