Chromatophore – second EP from Floridian quartet Stella Splendens is out now.
More track-by-track breakdowns in our archives.
This was the first song Conor, Cory and I wrote, the first time we ever played together, if I remember correctly. Cory’s guitar in the beginning always reminded me of the first track on Swans’ “Glowing Man” album, but I know in reality it doesn’t sound like that at all. Having it in my emotional body while writing this song was helpful in building it, though; I find that band extremely intimidating, as well as interesting, and I really loved bringing that feeling into my own process. This song is about a couple of things: it’s about soul recognition, recognition of another person beyond the physical, and the kind of allegiance to and emotional nakedness you feel with those people; it’s also about grief. And it’s about a long walk I took with someone one afternoon in 2016 that involved all of those things. All of these songs were written in Gainesville, Florida, hence “that afternoon walk, with hawks and flowers”, because you’re bound to see both of those things on any walk there.
I don’t usually sing high. I have a pretty low singing voice. But I was inspired by my friend Dena Rosenberg, who had just shown me a video of her old band Kalte Sterne. Something about her high singing really stuck with me, and when Cory started making those spooky high sounds in response to Conor’s gorgeous, ominous bass line, that high sound just came out of me unexpectedly and matched his pitch. It totally shocked me to hear it come out of my mouth. It was always a white-knuckle ride getting through that part; I never knew if I was going to be able to sustain it. Then I’d come back down into my comfortable range, and that experience of moving between scary and safe was a big part of the song for me.
Like “No Flag”, this song is about more than one thing. It’s about recognition and empathy, the hubris of empathy, how you think you can help someone and you can’t, and the pure force of having empathy you can’t control, and ultimately don’t want to. It’s also about being the thing itself, rather than a description of the thing. The line “I am the wilderness you wander through” came from something I said to a group of fellow cartoonists, in a conversation about how critics and academics see our work. I said, “We’re the wilderness they’re lost in and trying to describe.” I reworked it a little for the song.
This song was a beast to wrestle into a composition, in the best way. I like to play with randomness in how I write lyrics, the way meaning arises from the seemingly random, and in this case some of the lines are things people have said to me in very different contexts: my Arabic music mentor once told me, “You have wine in the desert”, and a friend once told me, “You’re not nice, you’re kind.” The lyrics overall can be read in a few different ways. It’s about where we do or don’t feel safe, on the most intimate level and the most public and collective, and the sense that we’re responsible for each other’s safety and protection. It’s also, of course, about blame and disappointment, but whether that’s between individuals or on a larger scale is up to the listener. It’s where I started writing lyrics that were as much about fascism as they were about love. In fact I wanted to publicly refer to this whole ep as being “songs of love and fascism”, but Cory (rightfully) talked me out of it. I stand by the statement that we will pay. We will most certainly pay.
Leela: This is the only song on the ep that I didn’t write the lyrics and vocal parts for. Cory wrote them. This song is, as they say, a velvet glove cast in iron. We used to close with it live, and Conor’s bass made the entire floor rumble. It unites Cory’s shoegaze side and his relentless-squall-of-noise side. My interpretation of the lyrics is that they’re about a certain kind of depression. This song reminded me so much of Swirlies. I used to share an apartment (a haunted one!) with Seana Carmody, and I love her singing and songwriting so much, so I tried to make my singing here a little bit of an homage to her.
Cory: The song for me is essentially a melancholic meditation on time, perspective, and the sort of frailty or transience of memory and how that colors our social interactions, I suppose. Sonically I wanted to convey that through a duality of lush, warbly sounds juxtaposed with deliberate, biting, heavy sounds.
Conor: With the rhythm section, we tried hard to make it THICK and LOUD, while also navigating Cory’s tricky chords/riffs and Leela’s sinuous vocals…
I once described the first part of this song as sounding like the Velvet Underground running for a bus. That first part largely came to me while I was standing in a long line in pouring rain outside of the Guggenheim Museum, waiting to get into the Hilma Af Klint exhibition. I was processing some heavy things that day. Later that night I went to see one of my favorite bands, Come, play a reunion show, where I danced like a person at an exorcism, and these lyrics all fell out into my notes. In the last part, the line “Every time I hear ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, I think of you” is directly from a text message I sent a friend once – this friend is very into particle accelerators, and that Nick Cave song reminds me of him. But that part is, like the rest of this song, a multilayered attempt to process a series of very heavy experiences. I wanted the music at the end to build repetition into something punishing. I didn’t want to leave the listener in a place of redemption. I am amused that this song begins with the closest thing to pop we ever wrote, and ends up in a very different place. We took you from the crosstown bus to the darkest sub-basement.
There’s a ghost song here too. I have a ritual in every band I’m in where we have to cover a Rowland S. Howard song. This is always a challenge for the guitarists I work with, though it’s real easy for me! In this band, we covered These Immortal Souls’ “Black Milk”, a beautiful song I’ve loved forever. I loved sharing it with people that way. I’m sad we never recorded our version of it, the band really did it justice. His songs are never easy to re-create, and they worked their asses off on it, and on all of these. I like to think that the dead are happy when we sing their songs.