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Bobby Conn's gift to the world

Chicago performer and songwriter Bobby Conn has built a career with his off-kilter perspective on the events, people, and emotions around him. Conn’s latest effort for Chicago’s Thrill Jockey label, King For A Day, takes his epic, thematic approach to making records to the next level with a song-by-song video accompaniment by director Usama Alshaibi. The grainy, ’70s-soap-opera feel of the videos paired with the songs’ dramatic orchestration seemingly reminds listeners that everything from the world at large to the mundane routines of everyday life can be both shitty and pretty—and that there really is beauty in the breakdown. Before Conn played his record-release show, he talked to The A.V. Club about current events, making videos, and his big marketing scheme.

The A.V. Club: You’ve said that King For A Day is about losing yourself “in a fantasy land of freaks and fairies.” Any particular inspiration for this fantasy land?

Bobby Conn: Well, I don’t know if you’ve read the papers recently, but real life, the so-called “real world,” is sort of shitty right now. Not to be too clever about it, but I think we’re living in one of those magically depressing times of war, death, and despair, and that’s why there’s this yearning to escape into this other time. I made a quasi-political record the last time out, and that didn’t help, so I felt like it would be better to just sort of wallow in complacency. Oh, and do it in an entertaining way. All of my records are kind of about how Americans don’t react to the crises around them. Whether they are spiritual, moral, or financial, there’s this whole narcissistic avoidance in the way that we handle things here in this country. I’m not saying that I do it any differently, but when it’s absurd, I like to comment on it.

AVC: Are the videos your way of encouraging listeners to come with you to this fantasy world?

BC: In a way. When I watch the video [for “King for a Day”], I’m fascinated and horrified at the same time because I kind of look like a wax corpse. To me it doesn’t reek of glamour at all, and that’s the point. It’s a poor sales job for debauchery, but that was the intent. I’m sure of myself on records, but the videos are definitely a work in progress. The video for “When The Money’s Gone” is a lot more intimate, where I’m just singing it. I was looking at the footage of it, and my face is wrenched up like I’m gonna bite someone’s head off. I don’t remember singing it in that anguished way, so then I’m like, “Is that the way I come across to people on stage?” It’s horrifying! No wonder I don’t sell too many records.

AVC: When you were making the album, were you already conceiving the videos?

BC: Yes, I thought of it that way. All of my records are made with a sort of soundtrack attitude, and they all have an emotional arc to them. It’s interesting to work with [director Usama Alshaibi] to visualize that. I feel like my music describes a place and a situation, and it’s interesting to see that. I don’t really have the budget to do what I really want to do, which is more along the lines of a Jodorowsky movie, with birds flying out of people’s heads and things like that. But those things are harder to pull off with, you know, no money.

AVC: You’ve also said King For A Day is “the definitive Bobby Conn album.” Why is that?

BC: I threw that in there because I feel like this is the last record I’ll make like this. Past this record, I feel like I’ll just start making bad versions of the previous four records. I don’t know how much further I can take my mastery of whatever genre these have been. [Laughs.] Also, from a marketing perspective, I was thinking that people would say, “I neglected to buy the previous three albums, so I’ll just get this one and take care of the whole [Bobby Conn] genre.” Then, of course, they’ll hear how great it is and go buy the other ones, except that no one even buys records anymore.

AVC: So it’s a good thing you’ve got the videos.

BC: Yeah, and those are free as well. It’s basically my gift to the world.