Choir Boy Lightens Up with Gathering Swans

Choir Boy interview with Northern Transmissions by Gregory Adams
Choir Boy photo by Karen Judith Davis

Adam Klopp and the rest of Choir Boy are making the most out of a bizarre situation. Like many musicians out there, the Salt Lake City foursome were supposed to be out on tour right now. Instead, they’re grounded at home in Utah because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This Friday marks the release of their much anticipated sophomore collection, Gathering Swans, and while they won’t be hitting North American stages as planned, they’re still trying to connect with friends and fans through an upcoming karaoke blowout over Twitch.

In many ways, Gathering Swans presents a more openly optimistic Choir Boy. Balancing the morbid with the melancholy, the goth pop tendencies of 2016’s Passive with Desire (which was re-released in 2018 through Choir Boy’s current label home, Dais) had Klopp singing of suicidal ideation. He tells Northern Transmissions that Gathering Swans is, in part, a response to Passive with Desire, with new songs like “Complainer” and “Toxic Eye” flipping the script to poke fun at the debut’s self-seriousness. While still big on watery, ‘80s-era bass lines and crystalline swaths of synth, the new album ramps up the sonic romanticism of their earlier efforts with extra layers of woodwinds and saxophone, appealing to Klopp’s affinity for English sophisti-pop.

Speaking over Skype from his living room, Klopp caught up with Northern Transmissions to discuss the long road to releasing Gathering Swans, and how he’s lightened up in terms of lyrical content and karaoke picks.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Northern Transmissions: You were supposed to be playing in Toronto tonight as part of your spring tour in support of Gathering Swans. It’s still an exciting week in that the record comes out Friday, but what are your feelings on how this week ultimately shaped up?

Adam Klopp: It’s fun and exciting that we’re able to finally release it, but it does feel anticlimactic. The amount of effort that every band puts into making an album—whether it’s six months, a year, or two years— everything else is put on hold to focus on that. It’s bittersweet to feel like whatever plans we had got dashed overnight [because of the pandemic]. You have a celebratory push for the records. You go on tour, play a record release show, and hopefully get your record stocked at record stores— All of that went out the window overnight. We’re in the same boat as everyone else. We still have fans and friends that are excited to hear it. That’s a privilege that a lot of people don’t have.

NT: You recently performed an acoustic solo set over Instagram. Were you playing some of these Gathering Swans songs live for the very first time?

AK: I’d never really done a show like that as Choir Boy. When I first moved to Provo, Utah, open mic nights were really big. Both of the all ages venues in town had open mic nights; a lot of it was pretty silly, John Mayer cover-type stuff. I was talking with a friend on the phone recently— he does electronic music— and we were reminiscing about how good of an exercise [performing at open mics] was for songwriting, having a weekly goal of trying new stuff with a stripped down set. [Performing acoustic on Instagram] reminded me of that. It wasn’t completely unfamiliar, but it was weird doing those songs solo.

NT: Did you gain any extra insight through the experience?

AK: It gave me more hope about the format of livestreaming. I didn’t want to do it [originally]. It seemed like livestreaming was a compromise, and I didn’t want to do it without the other band members. You have a version of the songs you want to present, and if you can’t do that, then I thought it was inherently flawed. I think it ended up feeling nice to play songs and see people interacting. I imagine eventually we’ll be advanced enough, technologically, to simulate pretty much anything, but [livestreaming concerts] is still a lacking format.

NT: How long did it take to put Gathering Swans together? Some of the songs, like “Complainer”, have been in your set for a couple of years now.

AK: The record took us longer to finish than we had anticipated, partially because of how much we were touring. I also have a really hard time committing to a final version of a song. In the end, it became a process of me letting go of those apprehensions.

NT: What were some of your apprehensions?

AK: It was the first time I’ve done a record where there’s been any sort of audience. For the first record, nobody was listening; nobody knew who Choir Boy was. And even then, I liked to slow-cook songs and ideas. I don’t know how to explain it, but when you become so emotionally attached to a song that you’ve sat with for that long, you have this really romantic idea of how it’s supposed to sound. During the recording process, if those things aren’t matching up, it starts to feel like work.

I guess it’s also tricky when you have the inevitable head game of thinking about people’s reactions. I’ve heard that the second record is the hardest—you go from not having an audience to having one. There were moments in the demoing stage where I would think, ‘oh, this seems too easy. I should do something more unexpected’. But later in the process I’d be thinking ‘am I overcompensating, being weird for the sake of being word instead of doing what’s right for the song’? I had to learn to shut all of that off.

NT: You’d previously called Passive with Desire a bleak album. What was your frame of mind like with these songs?

AK: I think it’s more hopeful, but there’s still some bleakness to it. “Complainer” is a response to some of the musings on Passive with Desire. That record felt like a fresh emotional wound; this record feels like a light-hearted follow-up. It’s a little less self-serious— self-critical, but in a funny way. With “Complainer”, instead of lamenting whatever emotional tragedy I’d had going on, it’s questioning why someone would feel so bad for themselves. I think that the record is more big-picture, but songs like “Complainer” analyze how self-absorbed that line of self-pitying can.

NT: Is “Toxic Eye” in the same vein, acting as another overview of a negative outlook?

AK: Absolutely. I think that the record is meant to be more constructive than Passive with Desire. A lot of the songs are posing existential questions. There’s more intent to find resolve than Passive with Desire. It’s hard to retroactively think about where I was with the first record, but with “Toxic Eye”, “Complainer”—“ Eat the Frog” even— I’ve joked that the record is a sarcastic self-help manual to overcome a cynical worldview.

NT: What does it mean to eat the frog?

AK: It was originally a term coined by Mark Twain. The idea is that if you’re having trouble getting work done, you’re supposed to ‘eat the frog’; meaning you do the worst thing you have to do first so everything else seems easier.

I feel that even if you’re a productive person, sometimes it’s hard to feel happy with your achievements, or to feel like your life is valid. The phrase ‘Gathering Swans’ refers to defining your own purpose in life; “Eat the Frog” refers to productivity. Somebody told me about a self-help book called Eat the Frog, based on this saying by Mark Twain I thought, ‘wow, that sounds stupid. I’m not going to read that book’ [Laughs]. There’s a line in that song that refers to how I haven’t read the book: ‘Fill your head with all the clever phrases from the books you’ll never read, because reading is dumb’.

I don’t think the person who told me that is dumb. I guess [the song is] encouraging myself to be more productive, but also not be down on myself [when I’m not]. Everyone is self-deprecating to some degree. It’s supposed to be cheeky. I don’t know if it comes off that way.

NT: Can we talk about some of the instrumentation on the album? There are a number of wind instruments thrown into the mix this time around, from the trumpets and woodwinds on “Toxic Eye”, to the saxophones on “Nites Like This” and “Gathering Swans”. What drew you towards these sounds?

AK: Jeff [Kleinman], who plays synthesizers in Choir Boy, wasn’t in the band when we recorded the first album, or the 7” [2017’s Sunday Light]. Before the first tour that we did together, he casually mentioned that he played saxophone in high school. I told him he should find a saxophone and work it into the songs. Gradually, it became part of the live set, and a part of the band’s instrumentation. We’d always planned to incorporate it into the album. I think he plays on “Nites Like This”, “Gathering Swans”, and “Happy to Be Bad”.

And then the woodwinds—that was something else I was imagining for this record, to have flutes and clarinets. I was listening to a lot of China Crisis and Blue Nile, stuff like that. China Crisis, they’re mostly a guitar and synth band, but there are a lot of songs like “Here Comes a Raincloud” where they use woodwinds, these more symphonic instruments on sophisti-pop records from back in the day. It happened to be something I really enjoy. Our friend Bly, who recorded and produced the record, is self-taught. They were able to help us out with cornett on “Toxic Eye”. They played on the first record, too—a little bit of trumpet. We were lucky to be working with Bly, who is a super talented engineer and instrumentalist.

NT: How about the church bells that appear on both “St. Angela Merici” and “Gathering Swans”? They’re both ending pieces of a sort, since “St. Angela Merici” closes out side one.

AK: We sequenced the record so that there’s a call-and-response relationship [throughout]. Song one on the a-side is “It’s Over” and “Sweet Candy” is song one on the b-side—those songs have a call-and-response relationship with their themes that make this non-linear, disjointed narrative showing how people can oscillate between infatuation and disillusionment within a romantic relationship. That kind of continues with “St. Angela Merici” and “Gathering Swans”. “St. Angela Merici” is an instrumental song, so it’s not super conceptual; it’s more of a sonic mirroring. That was a sample of some church bells that I just pitch-shifted to the key of each song. St. Angela Merici was a Catholic church that was near my childhood home. I could hear the bells from my house whenever they’d be ringing. The recording wasn’t actually from that church, but it’s supposed to be a mental image of a wedding or a funeral.

NT: Is there comfort in thinking back to that time?

AK: I think it was supposed to be nostalgic, just reminiscing on a beautiful time. But church bells can both be symbolic of beauty and a great sense of foreboding.

NT: What’s next for Choir Boy? Are you going to try another online concert?

AK: We’re doing a karaoke party on Friday, which is [Gathering Swans’] release day. It’s been a struggle, because we can’t really do a live performance with all of the members. We’re all isolating separately. It seems irresponsible at the moment to get together. Our workaround is we’re going to do a livestream on Twitch where we’re going to sing karaoke together. It might become a reoccurring thing where we’ll have karaoke versions of Choir Boy songs that
people can call in and do, but not the first night.

NT: Do you have a go-to karaoke song?

AK: I used to like doing Roy Orbison songs, but they’re kind of slow. I think what I’ve learned is that they’re impressive songs, but they’re not fun. Nobody has fun when you do a Roy Orbison song…. maybe if you’re doing “Crying”.

NT: “Crying” doesn’t necessarily play into the communal vibe of Karaoke, where people are singing along with you, but it is an impressive performance piece.

AK: My opinions on karaoke have changed over the years. When I first started, I thought it was the diversity of what people sing that was really interesting. You get a sixty-year-old retired construction worker that’s singing disco songs, or a guy in a kilt singing “The Promise” by When in Rome. I was thinking, ‘Roy Orbison, that seems like something people might not expect to hear’, which is probably valid. In the end, my go-to tends to be something fun, like Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun”. I also really like to do “I Love the Night Life” by Alicia Bridges. It’s fun, poppy, and silly.

Choir Boy’s Gathering Swans is out this Friday (May 8) through Dais. Their karaoke party starts on Twitch that night at 7 pm PST. You can join the party over here.

Interview by Gregory Adams