If the Twin Cities has an answer to the literate, charmingly tuneful pop songcraft of Belle And Sebastian, or the Kinks songs that populate Wes Anderson movie soundtracks, it’s surely Walker Kong, which enlivened the Minnesota music scene with four albums of breezy indie-rock in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The band took a long break after releasing the stellar but underheard Deliver Us From People, in part because bandleader Jeremy Ackerman and his wife, backing vocalist Alex Ackerman, moved to Wisconsin, where Jeremy is a high-school art teacher. But over time, a new album began to piece its way together, and the group is now set to re-emerge with the new Phazes Of Light. Optimistic and elegiac by turns, Phazes reflects on the journey through life from childhood to adulthood and beyond, a theme inspired in no small part by the untimely death of founding member Sara Vargas in a traffic accident in 2009. In advance of Walker Kong’s upcoming shows June 2 at Bryant-Lake Bowl and June 22 at Amsterdam Bar, Jeremy Ackerman talked with The A.V. Club about the new album and the new phase of Walker Kong.
The A.V. Club: It’s been nearly five years since Deliver Us From People. What have you been up to in the interim?
Jeremy Ackerman: With me living out of town, we’re in a situation where we either work on songs or play shows. It’s been difficult to balance those things out. We had [our daughter] Sasha, so it wasn’t easy for me to get back down to the Cities for rehearsals. So we took a year break, and when you do that it’s not easy to get back into the cycle, especially when your practice schedule is once a month or so. But I’d been continuing to write stuff. In 2010, we started doing the basic tracks for the album at [Minneapolis studio] Crazy Beast. It seems like it shouldn’t take so long. The Minutemen used to record an album in a weekend, and for some reason it takes us three years. I don’t really have a good excuse for why that is. It’s a different time for us. I think it’s funny when a band ages. Your priorities have to shift a little bit. You don’t have that carefree lifestyle you did in your 20s before kids and jobs. It becomes a challenge to meet all the needs of your daily life plus your creative needs as well. But we continue to get together and rehearse. It’s actually more fun now than ever to be in the group, because the pressure is off. We have a good time hanging out with each other, which is why the band started in the first place.
AVC: The things that inspire you to write songs have probably also changed quite a bit as you’ve grown older.
JA: For sure. There’s quite a span between “Goth Kids” [from Walker Kong’s first record, The Early Years] and “There’s A Light.” I don’t think our songs have gotten more complex over time, but there’s maybe more of an emotional complexity than there was on that first record. That was pretty bare-bones and all about having fun.
AVC: Phazes Of Light definitely feels more reflective and a little slower than Deliver Us From People.
JA: I’d agree. I think Deliver Us tried to concentrate more on the fun pop live sound that we’d never really captured on our previous records. All of our records have a ’70s soft-rock feeling, and we wanted Deliver Us to be more caffeinated, more high-energy. I love that record, but of our records, it’s probably the one I’d go to least because it’s so hyper. My life is not so much like that. I always go back to [2004’s] Transparent Life. That’s the one that fits into my life over the years. With this newest record we tried to do what we were doing with Transparent Life but with less orchestration, depending more on the bare-bones quartet.
AVC: So you think Deliver Us is less representative of who you are as a person?
JA: Every record reflects the times, your intention at the time. That record wasn’t overly reflective, it didn’t take itself all that seriously. It was playful and fun. Phazes Of Light is more of a coming-of-age record. A lot of that probably has to do with that a lot of the songs were written around the time that Sara passed away. It was sort of the closing of a chapter: Even though she hadn’t been in the band for a couple of years, she was a core member of the group and a good friend to all of us. It was a difficult thing to wrap your head around. If you’re a songwriter, those kind of things get processed through your songs, and I think that’s what happened on this record. Even when the subject matter doesn’t refer to her, I think the tone refers to that kind of understanding, that you can’t be alive forever. This is our mortality record.
AVC: The most direct tribute to Sara on the record is the closing song, “There’s A Light.”
JA: I wrote that just a few days after it happened. It came quickly—one of those songs you write in half an hour, and that was it. I didn’t have to labor over it too much. ... [Sara’s death] was a tragic instantaneous thing that none of us were prepared for. When I got the e-mail, I didn’t even know how to process it. She was far too young, and far too cool. She was one of the kindest people I ever met. Every quality you respect in a person, she had, and I think everyone who knew her understood that about her. But the record was a good thing to make to come to terms with all that. It was made over the course of years, but whenever you go back and start recording the music, you always return to the headspace [you were in when you wrote it], even if you’re in a different place in your life.
AVC: The songs on Walker Kong’s albums have usually been loosely linked together by a common theme. Your first record was about childhood fears of the apocalypse, and Deliver Us From People was about animals. Is there a uniting idea behind Phazes Of Light?
JA: A lot of it is about transitions. Different pieces of your life, and experiencing the gateway from one thing to another thing. It think it’s about common questions, for instance, I would ask myself, am I happy doing this? Am I challenging myself enough? Simple questions that come up that if you’re really trying to live your life are going to come up on a daily basis. ... Each song reflects that theme of movement and reflection and transformation—all those things that songwriters probably do anyways. The album could be called Phazes Of Life instead of Phazes Of Light. Although that sounds like a soap-opera title. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does the title song tie all those ideas together, then?
JA: “Phazes Of Light” was the most painful song both to write and to record, [but] I feel like it has to be there, because it’s sort of the summary of the entire record, in a sense. “There’s A Light” was the easiest to write, and “Phazes” was its opposite in every way. It went through five different lyric rewrites over the course of years. It started as almost a Pat Benatar song—it reminded me of “Shadows Of The Night,” it had that anthemic quality. I ended up breaking it down and restructuring it, and turned it into something different. ... I wanted it to be bleak and hopeful at the same time. The chorus in that song is one of the most important I’ve ever written. It’s about this whole sense that as you get older, you get squeegeed out, all your ambitions and dreams and creative hopes dissipate because you’re trying to function in a system that doesn’t give a shit about what your impulses are—you just have to find a way to get into it. It was a statement to myself that you have to be conscious about that part of yourself, because it’s a part that has really allowed you to explore life and enjoy things. I think that’s what the song is about: Honoring that need to be creative and produce and make a statement, even if it’s ambiguous and you don’t really know what it means.
Maybe [this album is] some sort of midlife crisis thing, a series of messages to myself about how I should be living my life. It’s good that I’m talking about this, because I haven’t really talked any of this out yet and I’m starting to see the seams. I think when you put together a record, you’re in the flow and it’s all coming from a certain place and time, but the last thing you want to do when you’re making it is to be overly analytical. You try to capture a feeling and bottle it up. You try to protect that. During our last interview [in 2007, just before Deliver Us From People’s release], we talked about our mutual love for [R.E.M.’s] Murmur, and I feel like every record I make, my mission is to try to create that feeling that Murmur gave me. Even though our records don’t have anything in common with Murmur, it’s about creating that emotional landscape that captures a certain time.