9 True Stories Behind Teen Suicide’s Big, Joyous New Album

Frontman Sam Ray explains It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir The Honeypot, track-by-track.

April 01, 2016

Teen Suicide should really change their name. They always say they’re going to, but they never do—one of a few confusing, even frustrating, things about them. I've never really understood the difference between Teen Suicide and Julia Brown, a band with a similar lineup and a similar sound. Or a similar range of sounds: frontman Sam Ray’s many remarkable projects always seem less like distinct entities and more like overlapping blobs on a weird Venn Diagram that encompasses every genre.

The 26-track It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir The Honeypot is aptly titled: said to be Teen Suicide’s final album (or maybe, again, just the last under this name), it is an all-inclusive, incredible LP basically only bounded by its running time. So, so, so many things happen: vocals are normal or hollow or pitched-up or Auto-Tuned; some songs are just dusty piano, while others have full bands, and some have only synths, or are almost house tracks, and yet others—my personal favorites—somehow combine all that into some of the best sample-based rock & roll in a decade.

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Perhaps it is no surprise that the prolific musician behind Teen Suicide is also a somewhat prolific writer. Sam Ray’s releases often accompanying by considered exegeses of their themes and their complicated creation. To mark the occasion of this Big Joyous Celebration, available today via Run For Cover Records, here he leads a tour through some of the album’s most deeply affecting songs.

1. “Living Proof”

SAM RAY: So this was the first track written for the record but the last song actually finished for it. Originally, I wrote that weird kind of angular riff and the opening part with the time changes when everyone in the band was steady listening to that Ava Luna record “Electric Balloon” nonstop—incredible record, listen to it if you never have before it’ll blow your mind. I waited about a year to record it, until Sean Mercer, the drummer, joined the band for the last stretch of the album, and I went over to his house one day and we played it through maybe two or three times, and then tracked guitar and drums for it live in about two takes, which is crazy to me still.

After that, we just kept adding to it and deciphering new parts of it bit by bit for the next couple months—we’d do vocals and some mixing one day, add guitars another, pianos when we were in the studio one night. It really came together when we had this very downcast, rainy day in March or April and I went over to his house again and was really depressed that day and didn’t feel like working at all, but wasn’t going to waste the time we had, so we set about really just fleshing out that middle section of the song and came away from it with the Auto-Tune, which Sean sang through the T-Pain app on my iPhone, and then doubled with proper autotune in Logic, and the keyboard solo, which Sean loves to make fun of me for because I played it with one hand while just looking at my phone, bored, he says. I improvised maybe two takes and just cut them together a bit. After that, we had Max Kuzmyak add some more—also improvised—trumpet leads and pads and cut those up too and suddenly it was our favorite song.

Also, it really sets the tone for everything to follow not just musically, but lyrically, as it’s a song primarily concerned with death, and the mundane, dull way the afterlife might reveal itself. The song is from the POV of someone who’s already dead, the great highs and lows of their life behind them, and this endless, innumerable stretch of sober, low-key days and nights ahead of them forever. They just have to accept it rather than fight against it, cause ultimately, what can ya do?

2. “Obvious Love”

I love “Obvious Love.” The lyrics were collected from a draft folder on my phone where I wrote down different overheard conversations in passing, and also copied over particularly engaging Facebook posts from friends of friends. Someone was going on a tirade about the way the state of Maryland was ruining the Chesapeake Bay (they said “they’re turning it into a graveyard!” as well as “words besides heartbreak fail me”) and I loved both of those lines so much that I had to build a song around them. Environmental concerns have always been a low-key but important factor in my music—from the ambient/drone work I do that’s so largely inspired by the kinds of beautiful, empty places that are becoming less and less as we charge straight into ecological oblivion, to the more pastoral tracks on albums like Strawberries by Julia Brown which contain all these love letters to the woods and parks I grew up wandering around and smoking weed in before they got replaced recently by strip malls and housing developments.

The music of the song mirrors the ‘sampling’ approach to the lyrics, as it’s pulled from any possible source I could find: vibraphones and yelling in crowds and church bells and synths all tracked found-sound style to my iPhone in public restaurants, shopping malls, and music shops, etc.

3. “Bright Blue Pickup Truck”

I had to single this song out because it’s probably my favorite on the album. I wrote it at home in one day, and then a few days later Harmony added all of the vocal harmonies. My manager Dexter sent me a loop of some cool synths and stuff, upon request, and I built this weird, super slowcore-aping song around that with guitars, organs, drum loops, pianos, etc. Not a big deal, musically (though as someone who grew up listening to Red House Painters, Low, and, more recently, Bedhead, I love it innately), but lyrically it’s one of my two or three favorite tracks on the record.

The whole song is this obvious allegory for depression and the sheer Sisyphean task of trying to manage and deal with it (let alone predict and operate around it). I’ve been depressed my whole life, members of my family have struggled hard with the same thing, as well as many close friends, some of whom never found a way to properly deal with it and became heroin addicts or attempted (and in some cases, committed) suicide. It’s a horrifying thing to think about for too long, or at all really, but when I’m in the middle of it I can’t think of it as anything but inevitable, like an immovable boulder. This ends up lending a certain kind of flippancy to it. It’s like, “Ah, here we go again”; it becomes it’s own kind of routine.

I’m in the shallow dark water again/ Three movies a day in bed mirrors that feeling of sinking through a long unending swamp, and it also mirrors the specific and routines you fall into with it all. The pickup truck itself is a desiring of freedom from this all, something you want to come and ‘fix’ you somehow, but it’s just a fantasy in and of itself.

4. “Neighborhood Drug Dealer”

I’ve said this album is as concerned with urban legends as anything else, and this song is the best example of that. It’s about how a story can spread among a certain group of people and the truth of it becomes obfuscated in favor of dramatization or sensationalism. The story at the core of the song is, as far as I know, fairly factual, though it could also be something I’ve carried with me all these years as a half truth, and that’s the beauty of an urban legend I guess. A lived, shared truth doesn’t matter as much as the more innate truth that the story represents.

In this case, the story is about how a group of people I know (all names changed) used to buy Dilaudid from a high-school friend until he went to jail for something supposedly trivial, and rather than bail him out, his father stole all his clients because he also sold Dilaudid, and wanted to make more money. It’s a very, very funny song (in a very dark way) but it gets at a lot of sad truths about the way addiction allows otherwise good people to compromise their morals so heavily, as well as the corrupting power of greed on the other end of it too! Woo!

Nick is sick he needs it quick/ We let him fix up in the car/ Catching up with my old friends/ That’s what the holidays are for is the funniest line on the album to me, and it does the best job of capturing that previously mentioned ‘innate truth’ at the heart of it all. Laugh until you cry.

5. “Have a Conversation”

This song, unlike “Neighborhood Drug Dealer,” bums me the fuck out. Have you ever hung out with someone who was so strung out you couldn’t even talk to them? Like a really old friend you just want to catch up with—you might only see them once a year or so—but they’re so fucked up you can’t even talk to them about the simplest things: what movies they’ve seen lately, what books they’re reading, what albums they’re into? You drive them around and you have to brake-check them to get them out of their nod long enough just to say another sentence. It’s very, very sad.

I think this is the only song on the album that was recorded completely live, just with a boombox in a garage where we kept a piano for some time.

6. “The Things I Love Are Killing Me”

There’s this movie, I’ve never seen it, but I always loved the idea of it. It’s something about a station between life and death, where you have to decide which single memory you get to carry with you into the afterlife. I think Roger Ebert was a big champion of it; it’s an older movie, really can’t remember the name. Anyway, this song kind of runs with that idea of “what single memory will I take with me when I die, and will I get to choose it?” and it comes away with that worry of “Oh God I’ve wasted my whole life” that everyone has.

7. “I Don’t Think it’s Too Late”

This song continues that idea of “Oh God I’ve wasted my life,” but in a much more positive sense, or at least in a more flippant, irreverent way. I was driving through the Rocky Mountains into Utah a few years ago and pulled over to this beautiful overlook spot and sat for about an hour and wrote the song. I set all the lyrics down into my email and recorded a voice memo draft, and then didn’t come back to it for a few months until Christmas, when I spent the night setting it together: piano, drums, samples, yadda yadda yadda.

It has another one of my favorite (and funniest) lines on the record towards the end, with the I wish I’d read more of the books I bought/ Unless heaven’s as boring as we always thought/ And then I hope they let me read all the books I brought part. It also continues in that idea of the afterlife set about in the opening track (and referenced less obliquely again in “It’s Just a Pop Song” among others).

8. “The Stomach of the Earth”

This was the last song actually written for the record, as I think I’ve said before in some interviews or something. I had the lyrics and I loved them—they tied up the “afterlife/purgatory/etc.” theme so perfectly that I had to include them, but I had no music for it. I had this somber guitar thing, kind of like the druggier Wilco stuff (as noted by Sean when I wouldn’t stop playing it at his house one day), but it just didn’t really work. It was such a pointless thing to add to an already overstuffed and (at that point, to me) repetitive record. When the house vibe clicked and I added in the guitar solo and the Auto-Tune coda and all that, it just felt like the world had opened up to me in every way. The record finally made sense; it finally had a really good arc to it, a really great closing section, etc.

The lyrics all relate to being dead, again, just like the opening track. It’s like waking up in purgatory every day, what do you do? You get a haircut; you get drunk and go to the bank. You curse God’s lack of empathy (an idea on the record/song that I don’t really subscribe to in real life, but there’s a few of those!). The Glee Club is vicious; we’ve spent literal millennia at this point describing the viciousness of it. Does that make sense?

9. “If I Don’t See You Before You Leave”

This track ties up the “heroin/addiction/urban legend” side of the record, just as “Stomach of the Earth” ties up the “afterlife/purgatory” part. The song is a factual list of all the things my friend stole from my mom and I when he was living at our (at the time, shared) house. We’d let him stay after he came back from rehab and some sober living situations out of state. For a while it was wonderful, as I hadn’t seen him in years, but after some time he relapsed and then things fell apart quickly.

It’s too easy to dwell on the anger you feel towards someone in that situation, but if that person is more or less family to you, you just feel sad about it. No one wants to rob anyone, steal from anyone, betray anyone’s trust in that way (except an outright sociopath, I guess!). Addiction is a horrifying, horrifying disease, one that fundamentally changes who people are against their will, and often without them realizing it. I have to see that for what it is and forgive that, as anyone who cares about other people should. It’s too easy to be mad at things.

Anyway, I thought I would never hear from the friend in question again, but he showed back up one day to visit and surprised me. He’d been clean for a few months and came to apologize for what had happened and make it right. He repaid and replaced everything that had been taken, and is now over a year sober, and I couldn’t be happier or more proud every time we talk and catch up. I wanted to put this song on the record as a sort of “please hit me up if you’re OK, I don’t hold anything against you” message in case he heard it, but I get to include it as a testament to what he went through and came out the other side of, instead, with his permission. It’s a very wonderful thing. It’s too easy to be mad at people.

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9 True Stories Behind Teen Suicide’s Big, Joyous New Album