The Quiet Brilliance of Talons', Ohio's Most Underappreciated Songwriter
All photos courtesy Mike Tolan

The Quiet Brilliance of Talons', Ohio's Most Underappreciated Songwriter

For 15 years, Mike Tolan has been making sad, slow music about heartbreak, listening to Steely Dan, and eating Taco Bell. He knows its not cool, but that's not the point.

It's the morning after a freak snowstorm when I'm supposed to be in touch with Mike Tolan. I check my phone, throw on sweatpants in the absence of a response and walk a few blocks for coffee, only find myself struck by how warm it is just one day after the biggest blizzards of the year. There's an unspoken eeriness in the rhythm of the street as raised plows and piled snow viscously glide along and mistaken birds fly north overhead, perhaps convinced of changing seasons. It's the sort of weather that, of course, feels emblematic of climate change, but everywhere you look, no one's really sure what to make of it.

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Something about the experience feels fitting in conjunction with the music Tolan makes as Talons’. For the last fifteen years, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has struggled to come to terms with changing times, feeling lost and restless in a world of fast food entrées, dial-up internet—finding an eventual outpost in an old Chi-Chi’s at the end of the world. As Talons’, the musician’s always opted to explore ephemeral nature of things, trading the rustic, pastoral claims of the folk music tradition for something heavy on references and destined to be forgotten when he’s gone. “The idea of being timely has always been central to this project,” he says over email later that night. “Part of this comes as a reaction against songwriting that attempts to be timeless and universal in message and idyllic in imagery. This is not meant to be escapist music.”

The last fifteen years have seen over 34 releases from the artist on Myspace and Bandcamp, slowly turning the endless triumphs and heartbreaks of post-collegiate life in Ohio into a fleshed-out portrait of our Great Recession, complete with lottery scratch-offs, Whole Foods employment, and the fleeting fantasy of hiding out in Morocco just to dodge his student loans. His 2006 album Rustic Bullshit represents as good an entry point as any into the music, which finally saw a physical reissue last year as vinyl prices on Discogs soared higher and higher in the hands of an impassioned few. Through the years, Talons’ has always approached the present with dense narrative, meticulous field recordings, and crafty tunings and production to build something as infinitely complex as it is gloriously, melodically comforting. Quietly self-released on Bandcamp this past December, After Talons’ looks back at the project’s often-forward gaze, now adjusted for the countless uncertainties of adulthood.

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“I feel like it’s not uncommon to look back to your early 20s once you’re in your mid-30s and I wanted to approach the awkwardness and also the acceptance of this urge,” he continues. “I feel like much of my adult life I have suffered from this (very middle-class, I know) crisis of options. It’s as though I’m terrified to go too far down one path as it may close off others for me and as a result, I am often treading water. When I was in my 20s, my friends and I lived through this confusion together, along with a shared not-coolness with the state of the world that we were supposed to take over.”

Originally a side project of the modestly successful Ohio eight-piece The Six Parts Seven, Talons’ has held its own as a place for the more somber, acoustic side of Tolan’s writing. Raised in suburban Ohio, Tolan spent much of his time after college committed to life as a musician, living at the Diamond Shiners show house in Akron and working in food service between tours with The Six Parts Seven. “Through the lens of nostalgia, I want to look back on those years as some of my best but in reality, I was deeply depressed, wrecking my body and working at a pizza shop with no real idea where I was going with my life,” he later says of the period.

At the height of this aimlessness, Talons’ began as a project dedicated to exploring the frustrations and shortcomings of everyday experience in a way that the mathy instrumentals of The Six Parts Seven never fully accounted for. “Talons’ has always been a sort of therapy for me,” he says with a slight embarrassment. “The songs are about my real life and a lot of what I say in them is uncomfortable or unflattering for me. Somehow playing these songs over and over to myself helps me get through hard things and manage my generally confused life.”

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There’s a certain discomfort in the honesty of a lot of acoustic songwriting, but much of what makes Talons’ unique lies in the way he turns that folk music excess into something all his own. “I’ve been trying to write songs that contain elements of ‘folk music’ (instrumentation, lyrical delivery) but have discarded the cliche song structures, rhyme schemes, timeless themes, etc. that I can't stand in folk music,” he says.

For one, the structure of a Talons’ track never fits the rigid verse-chorus-verse construction of most songs in the genre. More a medley of hushed lyrics, offbeat acoustic instrumentation, and field recordings that function as expressive instruments in their own right, the songs offer a unique combination of sounds native to what was once called “post-rock,” now matched with equal density in the lyrics. “I like tuning things like wind chimes, keys, etc. to the key of a song and hearing the rhythm in things like footsteps and sirens. I think it’s neat to have these additional rhythmic and melodic layers that you only hear if you are listening closely with headphones.”

Across releases, these elements come together to form what he calls a sort of “post-folk” songwriting, one that feels more akin to the early work of Phil Elverum than anything from the ‘60s folk revival. “The Microphones were definitely a foundational influence for Talons' and without him and Carissa's Wierd, I'm sure that I would have never went down this path,” he says. “As far as field recordings go, I feel like The Lemon of Pink by The Books was really the one that blew my mind specifically in the use of cadence in vocal samples as a source of rhythmic counterpoint and the use of non-drum samples (door creaks, slams) as percussive accents.”

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Alongside former Six Parts Seven bandmate Keith Freund (whose work as one half of husband-and-wife duo Trouble Books is just about perfect in its own right), the two have flooded the internet with countless projects on their label Bark & Hiss Records. With a careful attention to the affective qualities of ambient music, acts like Rolling Acres and G. S. Schray have established a sort of small-town midwestern regional sound on the imprint, Talons’, in the meantime, has carried its songwriter to Chicago, New York, and eventually Madrid for grad school. “We had a tiny apartment in La Latina, which I spent a large amount of my financial aid on and there I wrote the songs for Songs for Boats, as the Great Recession was setting in,” he says. “After college, we moved back to Akron briefly, got married and couldn't find work so we moved to Chicago with no jobs or money. We got lucky, partially with help from friends and ended up staying there for 4 years during which I worked at Whole Foods and eventually wrote the songs for After Talons'.”

While ostensibly an album about looking back on his 20s, After Talons' is still steeped in references to the present, trading Star Crunch and Zebra Cakes for nods to Netflix, Amazon, and Instagram. “As far as pop culture references go, I do like the way that they immediately date a song but they also hold a huge amount of weight—emotional, political, economic, etc. So I feel like referencing something like Netflix or Whole Foods brings a lot with it. It means something specific to me but I feel like it also immediately forms an image for whoever's listening.”

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The endless referencing also adds a bit of comedy to an otherwise fairly bleak release. “Honestly, I think it’s funny. Talons' is a pretty heavy project and the peppering in of these brand names can somehow lighten the weight of introspection,” he says. “Ultimately too, this is our reality now. I understand the desire to construct a world out of idealized snippets of the past, literary references or heady thesauric meanderings, but that's just not my thing. I'd rather just write about Taco Bell because I like Taco Bell.”

At the same time, much of his latest album looks beyond simple brand names to grasp at bigger-picture struggles of life in the 21st century. On “Milwaukee,” Tolan writes about his fading prospects for homeownership, trying so hard to resign to indifference as time slowly eats away at everything. “But for now I'm just wandering around, wondering if it's too early to drink / Past the Bucktown graystones, the type of places we'll never own, it kinda makes me sad but I don't know,” he sings.

Elsewhere, Tolan gives up the sneering, ironic sensibilities of his youth only to finally admit that he really thought Fleetwood Mac were great the whole time. “As far as Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan go (along with a lot of other 70s folk and rock that I entirely wrote-off at my most pretentiously post-rock self), I just reference them because it's something that I've noticed in my own listening,” he says. “I'm thrilled that they have been accepted by the indie world, because they’re great bands. I do always find it interesting how the trends go and how my unique path somehow syncs up with my broader ‘generation.’”

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The album continues its obsession with changing generational themes on “NYHC,” a song reminiscent of John Darnielle’s recent explorations into the life of the aging goth, as Tolan is reminded of playing bass in the mirror as a teen while reading an article about hardcore bands in the New Yorker (of all places). “Never thought I'd end up like this / Generally trying to ignore the fact that the world's going to shit / Rolling my eyes at the kids,” he finally concludes. As much as it’s filled with images of dejection, the album always resists the sort of preachy, generational hand-wringing of a Sun Kil Moon or Father John Misty record to look back on difficult times as forgivingly as possible.

“The world makes less sense to me than ever and now I have to consider delivering this world to my son. It feels as though once I turned 30, these conversations went away and more and more and now I just try to project this OK-ness with things,” he says. “Along with this, I am less active in trying to ‘change the world’ than I was back then. Generally, I roll the windows up and try to get home. I don't take a stand. I don't believe that I can change things. I miss the casual optimism of those years, the dichotomies in everything, the solutions that seemed within reach.“

The album concludes with “Tired of IPAs,” a song that he’s come back to again and again over the years that feels central to a lot of these themes of changing times. Missing his wife’s pregnancy while working overnight just to keep his health insurance, Tolan meditates on the self-absorption of earlier songs and the way that hardships have changed his perspective. “I used to write songs about being 21 and lonely, guess I'm an old man now,” he sings. “What am I gonna do now at 32 without a plan? I guess I'll keep making things / try to make do and find the good where I can.”

As much as this feels like resignation, there is a lightness and fluidity to these uncertainties that feels comforting in the face of despair. “The dichotomies of the reality of our 20s dissolve into endless grey areas, which are not good for writing songs,” he says. “That is the world that I live in now…It is strange and tough, but so is being alive in 2018.”

Talons' new album After Talons' is available on Bandcamp for a price of your choosing.

Rob Arcand is on Twitter.