The Surprise of Chase Pagan
By Matt Conner
July 27, 2009
One of the notable things about the songs on Chase Pagan's latest release, Bells & Whistles—and his 2007 Militia Group [Records] debut, Oh! Musica—is their musical scope. The album's variety of sounds will surprise anyone with its easy movement from somber piano to quirky acoustics to Vaudevillian antics. And then, the moment of discovery: the instrumentation was played (almost) completely by Chase himself.
Pagan's sound is hard to pin down; credit should be given for his originality, but that's not always a good thing—it makes for difficult categorization. But fir those who unearth Bells & Whistles, the eclectic album might easily find a home on their Most Played list. Chase recently sat down with RELEVANTMagazine.com to discuss the upcoming album and why the range of sonic effects is so varied on his projects.
Looking back a bit, did Oh! Musica receive the reception from people you hoped it would? The album was so surprising in its scope and the shifts within musical style, tone and instrumentation.
You know, I didn't have any expectations. What happened with it was fine with me. The reaction seemed positive for the most part, [at least] from what I heard and saw. I don't think about the [the sound shifts] while I'm writing the songs, but I do when I'm out playing on tour and I'm shifting around to different kinds of songs. That's when I really start to notice it. I notice it's hard for me to compile a set of songs, or at least a short set. If you do a broad variety of music, picking out what to do in 30 minutes can be tricky.
How do you choose then? Your album is so diverse, so how can the audience get a proper glimpse of your music in a short amount of time?
I think it's depends on whether or not I'm playing solo or with a band. If I'm playing with a band, I have to sit down and think about the songs. I usually just pick a couple from Musica and then try to focus on the newer ones. It's usually just songs that will come together the easiest and that you can pull off live. I did a lot of the instruments on the new CD, so you kind of have to pick the songs and players carefully and figure out what they can do best. There's a lot that goes into it.
What informs the musical scope of your albums? Is it a byproduct of your own tastes?
I think so. Most things I like are pretty varied. The Beatles are my favorite band, for sure. Even in just one album, they're all over the place—especially if you're listening through 10 years of music from them. The White Album, for example, has tons of different music, but I listen to their whole catalog so you get a lot of different eras. So my tastes are pretty broad.
Is part of it also about challenging yourself?
Not really. Most of the time when I sit down to write a song ... well, actually I usually don't sit down and say, "I'm going to write a song." Usually it's anytime that I'm playing music and I pick up a guitar or sit down at the piano, I end up playing something that might turn into a song a little later. I think it's that moment when sometimes a song just happens. Whatever style it ends up being, it's sometimes a surprise to me, too.
I wasn't properly trained at any instrument or anything like that. So I learn new things all the time. As a songwriter, you want to use all the new things you learn, so sometimes you sit down and say, “Wow, I've never played anything in a salsa rhythm before” and then you have a new song.
What songs on Bells & Whistles were the most surprising in that way?
Some of the lighter songs with a bit of humor in them were the ones I wasn’t sure about. Those are the songs that come to me in split seconds, you know? I like them and they entertain me, but I don't know if I should put them out in the world and try to entertain other people with them. That was probably the hardest part—finding a balance of moods and vibes and to go from something very serious to something that holds humor.
What do you mean about being unsure whether those songs will entertain others?
It's the kind of stuff I sit around and play at home, but I'm not sure if others will like. I guess it got to a point where I feel like anything and everything I write, I should just go ahead and put it on a record. I actually had 25 songs in mind for this CD and then we went in there and I only had three weeks. So we ended up doing 17 songs and 13 of them are on the record. There are three b-sides and one of them we didn't finish. That's one of my problems, too, is that I write too many songs.
Did you do anything different in the studio on Bells & Whistles?
Yes, very different. On Oh! Musica, I got together with a couple guys beforehand and we learned the songs. It was a really short period of time. We had less than a day to learn the whole album and then recorded in two-and-a-half weeks. But this one, I went in by myself and I approached things backwards. I recorded whatever the main instrument was first and then did vocals and then I would go back and do the drums afterward and then the bass. So it was a way different approach.
Why was it important to play all of the instruments this time around?
It's not that it was important—it was really just the convenient thing to do. I've always played all of these instruments, so I've always had it in my mind that I'd like to do it all. But then again, I didn't do all of it. Two of the songs have a different drummer named James McAllister. Then Chad Copeland did some organ and various other things. So it wasn't all me all of the time. But mostly it was.
I think one of the things that can be a good or bad thing about it is that everything is my "feel" on the instrument. It's exactly what I do when I pick up that instrument. That is a good thing most of the time, but then also you get down to doing that many songs, so on a lot of songs, I didn't know what I was doing beforehand. So when you're laying down your tenth drum track, you're thinking about what you want to do on it and eventually your ideas are all the same. It's just what you do on drums. And it would be the same for somebody else doing it, but when you know yourself well, you know exactly what you're going to do so it's definitely not as surprising.