Youth Lagoon: Out of the House, Into the Bughouse

Published March 5, 2013

ABOVE: TREVOR POWERS, AKA YOUTH LAGOON

The great irony of bedroom pop is that if it’s good enough, eventually it forces the musician out of the house. Trevor Powers spent nearly a year touring to support his 2011 debut as Youth Lagoon, Year of Hibernation—his first extended period away from his Boise hometown. The experience informed much of his sophomore effort, Wondrous Bughouse, which is broader in scope than Hibernation‘s whispery confessions and incorporates dense, psychedelic elements.

“When I wrote Year of Hibernation, it was like, ‘Oh, I won’t ever have to talk about this to anyone,'” Powers says. “Going into this record, knowing that at least some people are going to hear it was kind of a weird feeling… Like, ‘Oh, people are going to ask me questions about this, what am I supposed to say?’ I was just going with it: ‘I’ll worry about that when the time comes.’ And here’s the time!”

We called Powers at that same house in Boise on a snowy Saturday morning. Despite still being a little uncomfortable with talking about his music—and the added impediment of a bad cold—he was in very good spirits.

ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: The last time that you talked to Interview, it was with John Norris right before The Year of Hibernation came out; you hadn’t toured or anything yet. That was only a year and a half ago, but your life must be different now.

TREVOR POWERS: Yeah, it’s completely different. It’s pretty crazy. The biggest difference is just traveling in general. I had traveled around the Northwest of the US, just with buddies and stuff, mainly just Seattle, Portland. That was really about it, just a couple big cities. I went on the road to Seattle. And I was born in California, so my family used to take road trips to San Diego and stuff. That was really it; I had never really done much traveling. And music really just opened up the door to seeing new things. You always picture a place totally different than how it actually is.

SYMONDS: Yeah.

POWERS: Like the first trip to Europe—I don’t even know exactly how I pictured it, but when you see it, it’s just completely different than what you’re picturing. It’s kind of like if you hear someone’s voice, like a radio DJ or something, and you picture them a certain way, and then you see them, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what you look like?” [laughs]

SYMONDS: [laughs] Totally. Wondrous Bughouse feels like an album that has more breadth of experience behind it.

POWERS: Yeah, exactly! I didn’t know exactly how to approach writing this record. I ended up just having the same process as the first record, where I tried to strip down my filters. There are times I’ll be like, “Oh, I want to try to write a song about this,” and it just always comes out terrible, because it’s too much of my conscious instead of my subconscious. And so with this record, I really tried to have my subconscious guide it. I’d start with the foundation and think of ideas to build—try to almost sing stream-of-consciousness-type things and see what came out. And then after I had this certain direction that I felt like the song was going, then I would pare it down and really start moving pieces around.

SYMONDS: When you sit down and try to zone out and let the subconscious take over, do you record those experiments and go back? Is it ever really surprising? Or do you kind of see what direction it’s taking and then go back and edit from that? Or how does that all work?

POWERS: Yeah, I start off with the basic idea, the skeleton, and that’s where everything really starts. I’ll record that basic idea, and then usually wait a day and go back and listen to it. And if I hate it instantly, then I don’t even take time with it—I just throw it away. When you build something bit by bit, if the foundation is weak, then obviously everything’s just going to crumble, so there’s no use even building on it. I’ve realized the most effective way to write, for me, is knowing what to throw away.

SYMONDS: You’re lucky that you have the capacity to write that way.

POWERS: Yeah, it’s cool. It kind of sucks at the same time—instead of just being content with, “Oh, I’ll pick a topic and make a song about it,” my brain just works differently, to where that’s just not enough.

SYMONDS: The announcement for Wondrous Bughouse says that the album is concerned with “where the spiritual meets the physical world.” People mean a lot of different things by that word, “spiritual.”

POWERS: Yeah! I mean, that’s the biggest thing, is a lot of people—I feel like a lot of people believe, “Oh, there’s something else out there,” and everyone’s trying to search for it in their own way. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I consider myself a very spiritual person. I would say I have a relationship with God, I believe in God, I do. If I go outside late at night, I feel that presence, you know? But there’s so many things with, I would say just, religion in general, that kind of screws everything up. It’s so based around being judgmental. And for me, it’s something that’s just so much deeper—it’s this topic that’s just endless.

SYMONDS: The Year of Hibernation felt like a very specifically personal record, whereas this one feels like you’re trying to get at more of a general human experience.

POWERS: That’s totally true. Instead of just pouring out personal thing after personal thing, it’s a lot more of a record where I’ll take a personal experience—and some of them are still super-personal topics to me—and build on it. It’s taking things that are part of me and taking ten steps back and really seeing how that applies to everything else.

SYMONDS: There’s also more of a sense of playfulness to it. It’s true of a lot of the songs, but I’m thinking specifically about “Attic Doctor”—which is actually, honestly, kind of a terrifying song, but in a playful way. It sounds like something that would’ve been on an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?.

POWERS: Yeah. [laughs] That was kind of my goal in writing that. But you can finish your question.

SYMONDS: I wanted to know, I guess, whether you felt on this album like you had more license to make something that sounds like a fucked-up jack-in-the-box.

POWERS: Yeah! It goes back to what I was saying—I didn’t want to write with an agenda, and so I was just like, “Well, I kind of just want to see whatever comes out of me,” and be more free to experiment. I had this broad idea of someone not being able to have children. I haven’t dealt with that personally, but it’s kind of creating this story around that, and the surrealism—how surreal that feels, to be able not to create. And so I kind of made this story around it, and I wanted the sounds to reflect that and be something that doesn’t sound real, that sounds like it’s from another place, another world. And so that was a really fun song, because it was just kind of trying to be as free as possible to just create, while the song is about not being able to create.

SYMONDS: I want to talk about Boise, but I think in a different way than people have asked you to talk about it before. I know that you’ve done a lot of interviews where you’ve been like, “The scene in Boise’s really cool!”

POWERS: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.

SYMONDS: Since you’ve been doing music for a couple of years, at this point, and people know you for it, does continuing to live in Boise start to feel like a statement? Obviously, you could move to Brooklyn. I love your Twitter—

POWERS: Thank you!

SYMONDS: And I think what I like most about it is that there are all these things that feel really Boise about it to me. You tweeted something about breaking up a duck rape, which is something you’re not going to have the chance to do in Brooklyn. So now that you’ve traveled a ton and seen all these other places that you could live, does continuing to have this really capital-A American life in Boise feel different than it did before you set out on this journey?

POWERS: It does, and I’m actually more thankful for it. I love seeing new places, and New York is actually one of my favorite places I’ve ever been to in the world. All these places are absolutely amazing, and they all have their own heartbeat, and everything about it is different. But Boise was always, like, since I grew up here—I was born in San Diego and moved here when I was like, three, I just rode my tricycle from California to Boise—

SYMONDS: [laughs]

POWERS: I grew up here, and I always wanted to move. After graduating, that was my goal—”I just want to get out of here.” And after seeing other places and being gone, I saw the things that I had to be thankful for here. All my friends that I’ve had for years and years and years are here, most all of my family is here—it’s all those things you just take for granted because you always have them. Boise’s one of those places that’s still so open, you know? I’m really big into hiking and camping and all that kind of stuff, so it’s cool to have those areas that are so wide open, and you can get away, while at the same time, there’s things to do—there’s cool bars and cool shows. So it’s mainly just been realizing the things that I really have taken for granted most of my life and now just being thankful for them.

SYMONDS: You were an English major in college, before you dropped out to work on music. Do you still read a lot?

POWERS: I do the most reading—this is going to sound super weird and nerdy—but on just like, there will be different topics I want to find out about, just because I’m curious about it, and so I just do a lot of researching online. Just random things, I’ll look it up. I know it sounds super dumb.

I wish I had time to do more reading, but I just haven’t had much time. But I still find time for writing. I’ve always preferred writing over reading, even though those things do go hand in hand. But when I do have time, even if it’s not writing music, just writing in general—ideas and stories and things like that.

SYMONDS: Do you think any of that will ever see the light of day? Or is that more genuinely just for you?

POWERS: Yeah, that stuff’s more genuinely just for me. If I have some kind of story or something that I feel like people could relate to or people would be interested in seeing, then I might think about it, but most of the stuff I write is just for me.

SYMONDS: To go back to spending a lot of time doing research online—is what you’re describing falling into the Wikipedia k-hole, where you start out looking up Archduke Franz Ferdinand and then three hours later, you’re reading about vivisection and you don’t know how you got there?

POWERS: Oh, yeah! I do that all the time!

SYMONDS: Do you have any memorable ones lately?

POWERS: Just recently, I remember reading—have you heard of casterium?

SYMONDS: No.

POWERS: Casterium is—you know, like, if you read on a box or something, it’s used often for raspberry flavoring, so it’ll say natural flavoring. And usually, when it says natural flavoring, especially when it refers to raspberry, there’s this substance called casterium, and it actually comes from, I think it’s a beaver’s ass. [laughs]

SYMONDS: Oh, my God.

POWERS: Yeah! I heard about it, and I was reading about it just the other day. And it’s true! So they actually use, it’s taken from the anal glands of, I think it’s a beaver, and they use it in a lot of natural flavoring.

SYMONDS: Well, thank you. Now you’ve made me a more aware consumer.

POWERS: Yeah, just a little fun fact!

SYMONDS: Yeah, that’s horrific, and a great note to end our interview on.

POWERS: Yeah! [laughs]

WONDROUS BUGHOUSE IS OUT TODAY. FOR MORE ON YOUTH LAGOON, VISIT THE ARTIST’S FACEBOOK PAGE.