People latch onto weird things about the songs that the Bay Area musician Tony Molina makes. His songs are very short, topping out around the two minute mark. He plays in hardcore bands, and he makes beautiful, arcing, epic guitar pop songs under his own name, two modes that for some people seem at odds. He used to bury his hooks in distortion and now he doesn’t. These are all talking points around his music, but after trading emails with him last week, I’m pretty sure he’d rather everybody just quiet down and listen to the songs themselves. In his mind, it’s all just kinda instinctual, the natural result of just kinda making music with friends when the occasion allows, and on his own when it doesn’t. The songs come out the way they do and that’s essentially all there is to it.
Since 2013, when he released his breakthrough solo record Dissed and Dismissed—a 12-track 12-minute collection of bleary-eyed pop melodies and cheekily harmonized guitar solos—he’s been tasked with explaining his weird world to the press every couple of years, and every time he does, he seems to get a little hung up on the way people perceive his work. He lamented, with a laugh, a few years ago that he gets “sick of that shit” when people talk about how short his songs are. When I reach him over email, on the eve of the release of his new album Kill the Lights, due July 27 on Slumberland but streaming in full here, he’s resistant to other narratives that have been applied to him too.
Molina doesn’t really like that Dissed and Dismissed got interpreted as a breakup record, despite the fact that he naturally gravitates to forlorn songs about losing love and losing touch. Kill the Lights, like his 2016 EP Confront the Truth, leans more heavily on acoustic instrumentation and more lushly realized arrangements than Dissed and Dismissed did. He doesn’t say this exactly, but it’s as if these easy stories—the ones that people tell when they want people to listen to new songs by a good band in 2018—are just a little too calculated. He wouldn’t make a concept album, or impose rigorous restrictions on his songwriting, he just does what he does, and that’s enough.
“I still play the exact same kind of music now as I did as a child,” he writes. “I don’t think I was born from any scene. I would go to every Donnas or Groovie Ghoulies show years before I saw Capitalist Casualties or Life’s Halt. There is also the same songwriting and acoustic guitar playing on the first Ovens recordings back in 2002 as there is on this new record. The 'hardcore guy finds sensitive side' angle that people tried to pull in the past doesn’t apply to me. It’s also corny and not interesting.”
Molina just kinda is who he is, and it almost seems like a cosmic accident that he’s become embroiled in a system that forces him to be put in the awkward position of having to sell his work in these marketable packages of paper and plastic. Like past records, Kill the Lights came together casually, spawned from playing with a friend, Jasper Leach, just for fun. That’s how he works. “No one was trying to make a record,” he says. “At some point the demos sounded decent enough, so we decided that they could be an album. I think having Jasper and a few other friends there with me made it very loose and care free and enjoyable to make.”
Molina’s related in the past that even though he has torrents of his music under his belt, as the driving force behind Ovens and a nigh uncountable number of other bands, he has this self-critical streak that makes it hard to actually release records.
“I am still wildly uncomfortable with releasing music to the public but I try to shut that off, especially when my friends are so supportive of whatever music I am working on, it kind of convinces me that it is decent or listenable enough to put out there,” he says. “I usually leave it up to other people to decide. I am perfectly OK with and used to shelving recordings and never releasing them.”
But fortunately, he’s decided to do so again. Across Kill the Lights’ 10 tracks, Molina spins some of his most memorable melodies and intricate guitar passages—tossing them out and then moving on to another, as if once he’s gotten the idea down he’s content to forget about it and move on. One of the most perfect moments is “Now That She’s Gone,” a desperate ballad that opens with a multi-tracked harmony about romantic dissolution before spiraling into an acoustic guitar solo as intricate and painterly as the delicate plucks of a lot of classical guitar work. And then after a minute and sixteen seconds of fragile beauty it’s over. Onto the next one.
Molina is full of these sorts of moments, whether in the winning 12-string soloing of “Give He Take You” or the simple mantra-like lyrics of his songs, where loved ones are always leaving, and he’s existing on the brink. There’s a pureness in these songs that you can’t teach, which is probably why Molina downplays his abilities so much—something about these is innate or intrinsic. Which is why he says he doesn’t feel like there are “any riffs to be found in any of my music” and he doesn’t hold his lyrics in high estimation either. “I honestly don’t give a care about lyrics when it comes to writing songs,” he says, matter-of-factly.
But even if he’s not willing to buy into his own mythmaking, that definitely doesn’t do anything to undercut the songs, which to me, truly, as as movingly brittle, and vibrantly realized as the best Big Star songs. That’s a comparison I don’t make lightly, but one which Molina will find a way to downplay in one way or another, because that’s just how he is. He’s a guy that writes songs, with seemingly little ambition for much more than that. He just happens to be incredibly good at it.