SJD on Elastic Wasteland

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music
The singer-songwriter otherwise known as Sean James Donnelly with the stories behind the songs on his latest album, Elastic Wasteland.

Since 1999, Auckland musician, singer, and producer Sean James Donnelly has released a steady stream of memorable singles, EPs, and albums under his recording and performance acronym SJD. Working an interzone between electronica, pop rock, soul, and folk, over fourteen years of recording and touring, he’s regularly traversed the scope between bedroom production and full flight studio work, and equally, one-man performances and full band shows.

In late 2012 Donnelly released his sixth studio album, Elastic Wasteland. Stepping away from the collaborative paradigm he worked in on his last album, Dayglo Spectres (with James Duncan), Elastic Wasteland finds Donnelly singing, playing, writing, and producing every single note on the record himself. Working to a fine arts-style set of restrictions, for this record Donnelly painted his soundworld with synthesisers, drum machines, vocoder, and the human voice, again representing a break from past creative approaches, in the process stepping away from the acoustic instrument tones that have been a keynote part of the stereotypical perception of his sound. Prizing conciseness through working with these restrictions, Donnelly has created what could perhaps be the most purely distilled expression of his singular voice as a songwriter and beatscape arranger.

Earlier this year, I spent some time with Donnelly on the telephone and asked him to give us a full run-through on the stories behind the ten exceptional songs encased in Elastic Wasteland. Friendly, thoughtful, and generous with his time, Donnelly’s thoughts offer a fresh lens to view the Elastic Wasteland soundworld through, one which, while clarifying some areas, raises even more questions in others.

The Lizard Kings

‘The Lizard Kings’ was the first single I dropped, purely because it was the first song finished [on Elastic Wasteland]. I was mucking around with tracks and found that I liked what I was doing. This was one of the first signs of what was to emerge. It had a good little hook in it. I don’t know about the lyrics, I just polished them and polished them, while thinking inside of them. I was listening to Louis CK on the Internet. He was on one of those radio shows with Donald Rumsfeld. It was on the Opie & Anthony Show. Donald was talking to them and Louis was the phone in guest. He had a persistent line of questioning with Donald. Are you a lizard? Do you eat your young? He just wouldn’t shut up about it. The DJs were getting really embarrassed, but he continued with that line until they turned him off. So that was the starting point for the song.

Make Love And Ask Questions Later

The title of this song is just a conflation of make love, not war, and shoot first, ask questions later. I took that and shortened it. I had some other daft lyric with that song for ages, some protest lyrics in a similar vein to ‘The Lizard Kings’. I couldn’t get with it though. I always thought I just had a cool simple three chord pop song. I persisted with the lyrics and one day I got this idea of writing a lyric from the point of view of a terrorist, or a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim. They’re all interchangeable really aren’t they? Blowing up abortion clinics, blowing up infidels; whatever. It didn’t work though. It just sounded negative. I had the idea of flipping it on its head. Instead of blowing things up, forgiving the infidels and befriending the infiltrators. That was the idea. Once I flipped it on its head, the lyrics flowed really easily. Love by any means expect bombing.

Empty World

I was coming out of being unwell when I made this. It accompanied my improvement in health. I think that it is really simple to the point of being simplistic, the lyric that is. I had that lyric straight away. I had that whole sequence from the second half of the first verse to right where it turns around again, and I never quite knew what to do with it. I often reject lyrics like [the ones in this song] because it’s a bit of a simple image. Anything with the word world or the word love in it are lyrics that will potentially need to be revised at some stage. You’ll [usually] have to go deeper, because they are big abstract nouns. Don McGlashan is always saying, be careful with using the word ‘we’ in songs, as it sounds like we’re all in this together. Having said that, I never quite evolved out of that. I think it suited a really simple lyric because I let the music do all the work. It’s about depression. It’s got that quality of life just completely losing its flavour without the people that you like, or the person that you love. The crazy thing is lots of people; well some people like the song best of all. It’s uncompromising in its gloominess.

These Are The Names

‘These Are The Names’ comes back to that little riff. I’ve had quite a few people say to me that it’s their least favourite song on the album. Some people say it is their favourite as well. I like that sound. To me, it’s got a Kraftwerk kind of vibe, mixed with a weird not quite eighties Duran Duran look, which I never really liked. It’s a sort of maverick rabble rousing synth pop with a techno vibe. It’s a bit combative. The other thing that is important to the song is the BBC Radio Workshop elements.

Lena

‘Lena’ was one of those songs that comes in one lump. I set up my drum rhythms and had a jam with myself. I recorded ten minutes of drums, and then I played the bass line through and some sort of resonating synth thing. Then I did a solo over the top, but it sort of wasn’t a solo per say because it just followed from the root of the chords the whole way though. I listened and thought it was a really good jam. It just had a really good feeling about it. It felt very much alive and then the lyrics came over the top. The music had the feel of a lost lover. It had a burning, smoldering feeling of desire to it. That was the central object of the song, just to encapsulate that. It had very little done in the way of revision once it was done. Everything is a dynamic, and in the palette of synth colours, there are some very warm sounds and some very cold sounds. ‘Lena’ is for me, one of those songs that sits in the very cold. So, to have a very heated emotional lyric coming out of the middle of it provides an interesting contrast. Not that it’s very conscious of course.

Jumping Over Fences

I had that groove. I had that vocoder line. I had the “jumping over fences” thing; it was the first thing that popped into my head. The sound of the vocoder, something that adds electronic voices is a bit of an intruder. When you’ve been having relatively sweetly sung songs, it’s quite an intrusive thing to come in. It was really a matter of just polishing that lyric after that. Not to wax pretentious, but too me, that intruder is a metaphor for death. For me, that does relate to when I was very unwell. You can be feeling safe, sitting in your lounge at home with your two bar heater, your heat pump or your fire. Then somebody that you don’t know is in your house. You don’t know what they are going to do with you. You really don’t know what they’re thinking. It’s a metaphor for death; it will come for you like a thief in the night. To me, that line that says, “what’s next comes easy, don’t be afraid,” is the pivotal line in the song. I don’t know if people get it when they listen to it. It’s saying, “You don’t know what I’m going to do with you. I might leave you alone. I might kill you.” The switch from vocoder to singing, that is just the mask coming off for a moment, when you can hear what’s behind that person.

Hypnotised By Roads

‘Hypnotised by Roads’ is an instrumental that I had early on. In terms of the structure of the album, it is probably the one song that doesn’t stand up on its own, but it needed to be there as a palette cleanser. It takes you into the last three songs. It’s an unusual one. It’s a bit on the doofy side, and I’m not a big fan of the doofy thing. I like to think of it more as a colour disco. It doesn’t quite sound like that, but it is also reminiscent of other instrumentals that have been on other albums. It’s about traveling; it’s just that last point. I didn’t totally know what the album order was going to be like, but I somehow knew these last three songs were going to be the last three songs on the album. I just felt like the listener really needed to be taken there somehow.

On The Driveway

‘On The Driveway’ is another song that came out in one lump. I had those sounds, which had an elegiac quality to it and the lyrics came quickly. This was around the same time that I wrote ‘Lena’ and for me, this time was the zenith, the pinnacle of the process. I was lost in the process and I was achieving the most. Everything else around me was falling apart and I was completely in that moment. ‘Lena’, ‘On The Driveway’ and ‘Song Of Baal’ were songs that came out in the middle, probably about three quarters of the way through making the album. Everything just flowed. I think it is a truthful song for a lot of New Zealanders. I don’t really know if that is the case, but everybody I know, when they hear it, they say, “That’s my childhood. I know that feeling exactly.” I don’t know, I guess it depends on how you grew up. In that sense it is really specific. It’s a joyful song, but it’s joyful in the midst of darkness.

Song Of Baal

‘Song Of Baal’ is my favourite song [on Elastic Wasteland]. It probably points the way forward for me. The lyrics came first in this song. It is not often that I do that. I had a set of lyrics that I had written in this case. I was looking for the music for it and it came up. It was the last song I wrote for the album. The song gets inside a certain type of character, a mythical character. I like that idea. I have this crazy idea in my head that I would like to make an album that is all like that, where the whole album is an epic poem. I’d love to have a lyrical drive that tells a story. In a way that’s different or not quite like a concept album, although I do love the idea of creating a concept album. I’d like to do something that tells the story of a life of a person, in as many words as it takes to tell the story. So it would possibly be quite wordy.

Wolves

‘Wolves’ is a back to reality song. The sounds in it are quite refined. Musically they’re influenced by [Hayao] Miyazaki movies and their soundtracks. The first wad of lyrics all have Miyazaki references in them. It’s a vague feeling that for me is about growing older. Do you know that feeling when you are in nature and you really want to lose yourself, but you can’t? You have this internal sense of self-preservation that stops you from really losing yourself. You walk around a cliff and there is a big hole that goes down into a pool of water and you think, I just want to dive into it, and some people do, but your own self-preservation stops you. You are walking along the beach at night and there is the beauty of the beach and the stars and you want to be lost in that beauty, but you can’t quite be lost in it. You still can’t escape your concerns. That’s what that song was. There is a crazy imaginary magical world that is just waiting to be transformed by your imagination, but you just can’t quite enter into it. We are 21st century beings with all our attachments.

Elastic Wasteland is out now. Martyn Pepperell is a Wellington music journalist. Brannavan Gnanalingam previously profiled SJD in 2007.