Philly noisemakers Taiwan Housing Project talk balancing pop and chaos for Veblen Death Mask
Back in 2013, Kilynn Lunsford and Mark Feehan collaborated for the first time, sitting on his couch with instruments and a computer and piecing together abstract sonic ideas and vivid vocals into their first, self-released LP as Taiwan Housing Project. Both had previous band experience under their belts — Lunsford in the Portland garage rock outfit Little Claw, which was active across the aughties, and Feehan in the 90s noiserockers Harry Pussy, which released a couple records on local imprint Siltbreeze.
Based in Philly, the two experimented in fusing extremely fun, infectious rock and roll with nihilistic sonic textures on a run of digital singles and EPs, and today its label debut Veblen Death Mask is out on venerable Portland label Kill Rock Stars. It boasts a ferocity that echoes no wave adjacent artists like Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch — particularly on the dissonant breakdown of “What’s It All About” and the sinister tone of “Eat or Be Eat” — but the album is also profoundly catchy, a trait noticeable in the Cramps v B-52s face-off of “Authentic Alien Perfume.”
Lunsford and Feehan have an impressive roster of collaborators in the Taiwan Housing Project family, drawing members from Tyvek and Writhing Squares on Veblen. They have an advocate in punk icon Ian Svenonius (his new project ESCAPE-ISM opens for their album release party at Johnny Brenda’s tomorrow). I caught up with them via phone last week (Lunsford in Drexel Hill, Feehan in South Philly) to discuss the project’s attraction to compelling sound, its ever-evolving creative process process and why Svenonius doesn’t ever want to take the stage after them.
The Key: The record balances these very catchy rock songs with total chaos. As writers, how do you achieve that – finding the pop in the noise and bringing noise to the pop?
Mark Feehan: It’s all pretty accidental. We both have a pop sensibility, me especially. I like pop, but then we have amplifiers. [laughs] And we don’t tune too much, so it just melds into this thing.
Kilynn Lunsford: I would agree that it’s all really organic and that it isn’t [deliberate], aside from the tinkering aspect when we get in the studio – “let’s make the guitar sound even more unhinged!” In general it just sort of happens because of all the different personalities coming in to play, and the way in which we’ve developed as artists and musicians. We just gravitate to music all over the spectrum.
MF: About all those different personalities, when you write a song it’s a very basic, skeletal thing. A rhythm, or a few notes or whatever. And everybody just piles on and it turns into this totally other thing.
KL: And even when I write a song, like “Multidimensional Spectrum” – which obviously then ends up being one of the more pop songs, or maybe the most pop song on the album – it’s a place in time, and that’s where I’m at that moment. But five minutes later I could be writing something that seems way more abstract and more percussive, or basically using the guitar as a percussive instrument.
I’m not a trained musician, I never took lessons. Or maybe for two weeks I took lessons and was like “Make me sound like Chuck Berry!” This was when I was 14, and I quickly realized “You have to practice? And pay attention?” It’s just al our really, tastes, even within each person. Like Mark said, he’s into pop; me too, I’m into so many different types of music and I love purely shimmery pop music, and I love white noise and complete chaos.
I’m really attracted to sound. That’s where I’m coming from, maybe: putting sounds together that I like, because I don’t know technically or scientifically about the golden ratio or this or that about composing music.
TK: Veblen Death Mask is your label debut, as far as Kill Rock Stars putting it out, but Taiwan Housing Project has been a project since 2013. How do you view that early work now that you’ve got a few years distance from it?
MF: Oh, I love it! That stuff was truly inspired. Kilynn and me had just met and we started right off the bat, sitting on the couch and recording stuff. It was a lot of fun, it was great. Yeah, I guess it is different. But that’s the thing – we always want to be different, both of us get real bored real quick.
KL: I guess that’s the thing for me. I don’t really see it as separate, I just see it as a progression and as far as the creative energy and the thought processes that went into those different periods in time and what came out of it, it’s all just really continuous. Not only is it pushing in one direction, forward into the future, we can always access that and go back. It’s not that we won’t do things like that again, we definitely will. We have a lot of stuff that we have recorded and it’s sort of sitting on our computers.
But a lot of the songs started out like that, and then we brought them to the band and jammed them out, figuring out different ways to play them, different iterations. I had that in Little Claw, the other main band I’m in, and I feel like Marky has that too. He’s always taking things and morphing them and mutating them.
MF: Yeah, we do a lot of that. We’re very malleable.
TK: “Luminous Oblong Blur” is basically a spoken word piece over violin and noise. That’s not something you’ve done a lot of in Taiwan Housing Project before. Why, for that song, did you take that approach, and is that something you think you’d do more of?
KL: Yes, we would do more of that in the future. But will it sound like poetry being read over abstract sounds? Maybe not as much. “Lumionous Oblong Blur” is really just, I wanted to do something with metal pipes, and there very fortuitously happened to be these big metal tubes in the hallway where we were recording. The studio was basically in an industrial building, with workshops and woodworking and metalworking. So there were these tubes laying on the ground, and we thought “Oh, let’s do something with this!” We put a mic out in the hallway and Pat [Ganley], our drummer, started messing around and would tinker with them, drop them on the ground and hit them, and I played violin over it.
TK: And the spoken word / poetry end of it, what inspired that approach with that song?
KL: I have actually done things like that in the past. A lot of it maybe hasn’t come out or been heard by people, but I like tracks like that. I love sounds, like I said, and contextualizing sounds. But I can’t get away from language and the human voice. That really needs to only be incorporated for me. That, even if I loved the sound, is never going to be an instrumental track, because it’s missing something for me. I write the lyrics – if you want to call it prose, poetry, whatever — and they always go somewhere and end up being put to music, even if for a long time they are just on a page and end up in other artwork, or a collage or something. If they’re worthwhile, they end up being put to music.
TK: How did you connect with all the collaborators? I know Gwendolyn Rooker, for example, from Acres of Diamonds and Tygaton.
KL: Gwen I met through a Craigslist ad searching for a housemate. I was looking to move out of the place I was living, saw their ad, and it was written with a lot of flourish – they talked about a puppet clinic — and I was like “oh, these people sound interesting.” I ended up moving in there, we became friends, and she’s a multitalented person. I wanted to do stuff with her for a while, and I think we’d talked about it before, but I never was necessarily like “come join Taiwan Housing Project.”
I’d been bugging her for a while to do backups, and when Veblen Death Mask was being recorded, I wanted a lot of different people to do different things on the album. I asked Gwen to do vocals, and Gwen asked one of her friends, and [saxophonist] Kevin Nickles got one of his friends. Though that, she ended up being on the album, on multiple songs doing vocals, and I kept trying to get her to perform live with us and do the vocals live. Through that, I was just like “you should be in the band.” That’s kind of how it happened with most people.
MF: The thing with the band is people move around a lot. Our lineup changes all the time. Gwen can play anything, so she’s good to have around. I call her the Jack of All Trades.
KL: Mark and I don’t want to turn good shows down and not be able to do things, but it’s difficult with so many people. Some people have really serious jobs and some don’t, some have more flexibility in their schedules. And again, going back to being fluid and getting bored easily, it’s kind of cool to have a different lineup, and I’m always happy with what comes out. It’s not like one version is the inferior version of the band, it’s just different.
But certain things get intensified depending on who’s playing with us. With Joanna [Kessler] and Cameron [Healey], Joanna had never been in a band before, but I like to collaborate with people who have interesting thought processes or have interesting ideas, or are approaching things from a different perspective. Or a regular musician. Kevin Nickles is a sax prodigy but he’s still a person who approaches the instrument from a different angle. He still has a very interesting way of approaching the instrument, and that’s the thing about all the people we collaborate with.
TK: For the release party at Johnny Brenda’s, Ian Svenonius’ new project is playing. They’re actually opening for you. That’s gotta be awesome, probably surreal in a what. How does it feel for the two of you?
MF: We’ve played with him before, actually.
KL: And he opened for us before. The last show where he played and opened for us, he told Marky he didn’t to play after us.
MF: [laughs] Well, this is a two-pronged thing. I toured with him back in the 90s in Harry Pussy. And he was in The Make Up. We were first, The Make Up was next and Sonic Youth was the headliner. And he said he never wanted to go on after us because we made music feel less relevant. “What do we do after that?” So that night Taiwan Housing Project played Hazzard Hall, he basically did the same thing – “I don’t want to go on after you guys, so I’ll go first.” I love that guy, he’s great.
Taiwan Housing Project performs at Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, May 6th; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar. Veblen Death Mask is out today, and can be ordered here, via Kill Rock Stars.