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Cut to the Chase

The Paper Chase is the Oddest Emo Band Around. And it's Not About to Straighten Up.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/13/2002

After five years, two albums, one EP, and countless accolades from young-punk mags and zines, John Congleton, the 25-year-old guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/producer/engineer of the avant-punk quartet the Paper Chase, is totally prepared to alienate his fans.

"It might be a little too early for me to say this, but I definitely believe, and I've set out with this in my mind, that the next Paper Chase album will be a landmark," he says, his voice sounding brittle over the phone from his home in Dallas. It occupies the upper register of a man's voice, and occasionally cracks in song. And when it does--such as when he splinters through, "we do what we do to fill the empty space/ What do I do I'm running out of space," in "A Liver, a Lung, a Kidney, a Thumb" on 2002's Hide the Kitchen Knives--it infuses his worried words with a fragile but prickly intensity. He doesn't sound much more formidable when he's speaking, even though his sentences are as calmly assured as a scientist's. "I'm not saying that [the next album] is going to be popular. But most of it is already written, and it could very well be the album where we lose a lot of fans but maybe gain a lot of other fans at the same time. It could be the album where people say, 'Oh, I liked the Paper Chase up until . . . ,' or, 'I never liked the Paper Chase until. . . . '"

That's a precocious premonition for a couple of reasons.

One, the Paper Chase's previous output--2000's Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know;the 2001 EP Cntrl-Alt-Delete-U; and Knives--is cinematically produced and conceptually conceived documents of apprehensive intensity, fraught with angular guitar growls, contrapuntal piano accents, and a rhythm section that rumbles like an overworked locomotive. Two, even though Knives came out just this past August, Congleton already has another album's worth of material.

But it's also a baffling boast when you consider why Congleton believes it to be true: He's through writing the kinds of songs that established the band's reputation.

For the moment, the Paper Chase--Congleton, drummer Aryn Dalton, bassist Bobby Weaver, and keyboardist Matt Armstrong (Sean Kirkpatrick handles the keys duties on this tour)--is the oddest emo band in the flock. Its songs are tightly wound, guitar-propelled surges rising like angry waves beneath Congleton's starkly personal lyrics, the veritable blueprint for emotive punk since Rites of Spring. Yet Congleton twists and prods this basic model. Songs rarely explode in a cathartic chorus or instrumental crescendo to release all their pent-up anxiety. Pianos, cellos, spoken word, and samples are sprinkled throughout, dusting the music with textures both pastorally symphonic and horror-movie menacing. Congleton embraces that somewhat sinister vibe with lyrics that walk a wobbly line between Scratch Acid graphic and Philip K. Dick paranoid. And the albums are presented as thematic statements: Young Bodies' exploration of heartbreak and panic attacks, Cnrtl's suspicions of technology, and Knives' mournful ode to strained relationships of all sorts. This brand of emo isn't just emotional--it's damned near pathological.

This tweaked take on today's punk earned the Paper Chase a spot in Alternative Press' list of "100 bands you need to know" last year, as well as a small legion of fans around the country, proving that mid-twentysomething rockers need not be as self-pitying as Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carraba to connect with their fellow Gen Y-ers.

"I think it's unhealthy to think that you can't make an avant-garde album without passion," Congleton says. "John Cage's music is in many ways completely from Mars, but it still moves me. Béla Bartók--the violin piece with timpani drums that was used in The Shining? That's horrifying."

But fans weaned on the Paper Chase's throbbing, fidgety fray may find what Congleton has in store even more frightening. Congleton writes songs on the piano, and he wants to bring the instrument to the fore. "It's not my strongest instrument, and it makes me approach the song from a very skeletal standpoint," he explains.

It won't exactly be Ben Folds or Alicia Keys--Congleton is too fond of minor keys and mixed time signatures to write music that placid. But the Paper Chase's hallmarks--snarling guitars, sparse arrangements mushrooming into hectic density, and an intoxicating roughness--may be shelved for the moment.

"The next album will feature so much more attention on melody," Congleton says. "The songs aren't quite as vicious to the ear. There's a lot less guitar, and it's a lot more piano-focused. And the concept of the album is that I feel that I'm not writing so much about me anymore."

For Congleton, the musical and lyrical shift are intimately intertwined, both the result of his ongoing evolution as a songwriter. "Knives and Young Bodies were much more derivative of personal experience," he explains. "The new album is not so self-absorbed as far as the subject matter is concerned. I just think that has a lot to do with getting older. I'm learning a lot about life and the world, like how I'm not the center of it.

"You have to write a million bad songs before you write your first good one," he continues. "That's one of the things I love about indie rock. A lot of bands, you're hearing them learn how to play their instruments over the course of their early careers. A band that gets signed to a major label, you never get to hear them grow because it gets stuck with this jackass producer who tells them what to play, how to play it, and they do so many takes that the life is just played out of a song. You don't get to see bands mature, and I think that's one of the things that's cool about American indie rock. You see these bands grow. And I think that's pretty fascinating and beautiful. And the Paper Chase is not unlike that. This is the sound of us learning what we can and can't do."

The Paper Chase plays the Ottobar Nov. 17 with Appleseed Cast, the Damn Personals, and the Break. For more information call (410) 662-0069 or visit www.theottobar.com.

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