Last week, Seattle singer-songwriter Chris Staples returned with his fifth studio album, Holy Moly. Created over the course of a year, the record is an impeccably crafted collection of gentle strummers and folk-rock anthems. Due to construction happening next door to him, Staples worked on the album in the wee dark hours of the night. Luckily, his mind was clear and creatively stimulated due to a year-long break from drinking. Unlike previous records in Staples' discography, which have tended towards the melancholy and heartbreaking, Holy Moly is an optimistic look at the world that projects the notion that maybe, just maybe, things can get better.
Staples and his roommate/Barsuk Records colleague Adam MacKinnon stopped by the KEXP studios to chat about the making of the record, leaving Seattle, and giant hyper-intelligent lizards.
KEXP: Your fifth studio record, Holy Moly, came out last week. How does it feel to have it out?
Chris Staples: It feels really good to have it out. It seems like it took a long time to make it. Took like a year to make and then I did a long press run of promotion that lasted a couple of months. So it feels really good to get it out.
Is that unusual for you to take your time like that?
Yeah, I wrote a lot more for this record than anything I've ever done. So yeah, maybe like twice as long as I typically would spend on an album.
It definitely has the cadence of someone who took their time. Kind of like you’re basking in the sun letting thoughts trickle into your head about life and art and the world around you. To me, it seems like simultaneously the most and the least personal record you’ve made because the subject matter is so broad and relatable to if not everyone then a large group of people who are living in this region of the world in 2019.
Yeah, I wrote a lot of songs and I threw a lot of songs away so I feel like I kind of picked the best ones and maybe they're kind of vague and they can be applicable.
You quit drinking last year during the making of the record. I’ve heard other artists who got sober say they initially worried that sobriety would negatively affect their creativity or their art, that maybe they couldn’t even create while sober. Were you worried at all about that and how has sobriety affected your craft?
It was interesting, stopping drinking. It kind of reminded me of when I was a teenager making music and stuff just sort of spending my evenings and late into the night just making music. It was hard to write if I was drinking, so my nights and evenings became like really clear headed. So I started writing a lot more and it was actually really productive. I've heard that notion about drinking sort of being important for creativity but I've just never found that to be the case. For me, personally, it was nice to put it aside for a while. I just found myself being way more creative than I typically would be.
The title track of Holy Moly feels like it's pointedly directed toward Seattle and how much has changed over the years. In it, you suggest that maybe it's time to go. I'm curious whether that's something you're considering or whether it's just more of a thought that passes through your brain.
Yeah. Well, I've been in Seattle since 2005 and I love the city and I was very enamored with it before I moved here and I still am. I think it's a great place. It's the only place I wanted to live before moving here. And, you know, it's been through changes and everyone knows that. But I'm actually moving to Richmond, Virginia in a month with my girlfriend.
So maybe we'll come back but I don't know. The song is kind of generally about people's relationship to the city they live in. I feel like it's kind of a common story for people to live somewhere for a while and then sort of commiserate with other people about how things have changed.
Absolutely. But to take it to the direction of Seattle because I do think it's important to talk about the fact that Seattle is changing and artists are leaving. I personally feel like everyone should stay in order for it to thrive. But it makes sense with rent skyrocketing for people to leave. Recently, a friend of mine who’s moving to New York explained the choice as “Well, the rent’s the same so why not?” And I think that's completely understandable. But what do we do? What would you need as an artist to want to stay in Seattle?
That's really interesting that you brought that up because it’s something I've thought about a lot. It's like the people who are making art here, which is a big part of the appeal of Seattle, are not making much money. Maybe they're serving coffee or whatever and making art. It's really hard for those people to stay here and it’s one of the things that makes this place really special. It's really hard for those people to stay in a place that's expensive. As well as lots of other people too.
Yeah, it's a real problem. If we don't have any artists in the city or they can't afford to stay here anymore then how do we keep the culture thriving?
Yeah, it's funny, it's kind of a slow thing, at least for me. I was just thinking the other day about all the people that I've known that have moved over the last five or six years. I never really thought about them in one sitting and I was like, “Holy crap, a lot of my friends have left.” So it's kind of crept up on me. But yeah, I don't have any answers. It's just kind of an inevitable thing almost.
Yeah, maybe we need to find someone else who can actually fix it. Maybe not for us to say!
Right, I just make records so I don’t know!
That actually kind of ties into the song “Horse and Saddle” which is about living life as an artist. I actually recently spoke to your labelmates Charly Bliss about this as well. They’re living solely off their music right now but, like, barely. Like just enough to make rent. I know you used to do carpentry but I believe you also are solely making money as a musician right now. Is that correct?
Yeah, over the past three or four years I've been mainly doing music.
How do you make that work in 2019 where an album has to be streamed 1,250 times on Spotify to account for one album sale?
Yeah, money from music comes from a lot of different places. For me, I get a little bit from streaming and record sales and I do a lot of touring. I play a lot of house shows. The house shows have been really really great for me actually to pay my bills because I work with this company Undertow and they help do these ticketed house shows. Undertow was kind of made popular by David Bazan in Pedro the Lion. He was doing house shows for a long time so that's a big part of it. And I just live frugally but it's not easy and it's not as a steady of a thing that you can count on all the time. I'm sort of up and down. It's not very predictable.
I definitely did want to talk about those house shows because I think that's really cool. You’ve been doing pretty much solely house shows for the past couple of years and I'm wondering what the benefits of that vs. a traditional venue are for you.
Yeah for this music that I'm making, I call it bedroom music because it's very quiet, kind of chill, so certain venues work really well for this type of music. And there's this David Byrne book How Music Works. In it, he talks about how certain music works better in certain venues and it got me thinking a lot out about that. These songs just go over really well in houses, it's kind of strange.
So my shows have just been a lot better and audiences are more attentive. It just works better. It's been a lot of fun playing houses, it's just been really cool. And there's a lot of expenses that are cut out where there's not a door person, there's not a sound guy. A lot of that ticket money is freed up for the artist so it works out pretty good. But it doesn't work for everyone. If you’re in a louder band it's gonna be harder to make that work in a house show environment. So it's not perfect for every situation but for me, it works out great. I love doing it.
Yeah, that's great. You also probably get to know your audience members and your fans on more of a personal level.
Yeah definitely. It's kind of freaky a little bit. It's kind of uncomfortable at first. I'm just going into a place where there's not any separation. But it actually feels really good and feels more communal than a rock club or whatever.
Have you created friendships through them?
Oh yeah definitely, for sure, and I've played a lot of repeat houses like I'll go back to the same house sometimes. It's really cool because the places you can play are innumerable like there might be like 30 or 40 houses in the city alone. So, spread out across a whole country you can tour a lot more or not burn out your audience because you could play in a new place every time. Also sometimes the hosts will have friends or their own community that they bring to the show so there's the possibility to play for new people which is a cool aspect of it.
I definitely appreciate the fact that you really go big for your album release shows. For your last record, Golden Age, you threw it on a 100-year-old steamship and for Holy Moly, you’re putting on a circus. Tell me all about what is going down at The Holy Moly Circus.
So on July 6th we're having a release show for Holy Moly and it's kind of a circus theme and it's in a big backyard. This really beautiful backyard that overlooks Lake Washington and there's a view of Mt. Rainier. We have this world-class acrobat coming to perform her name's Brittany Walsh. She tours the world and there's a statue of her in the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. She is really great.
There is an animal educator coming and he's bringing like this really large owl and an armadillo and some goats and some snakes and this South American lizard it's called a black and white tegu. What's interesting about this lizard is it's very emotionally intelligent, like a dog almost, and you can like house train it and teach it to fetch things.
That sounds terrifying. I don’t know if I feel good about an intelligent reptile.
Yeah I mean you wouldn't have to like pet it if you didn't want to or anything. But yeah, there’s that, and then Sophia Duccini, another Seattle artist, will be playing. I'm just calling it a variety show basically. It'll be weird and I don't really know how it will work because it's kind of like a gumbo of a lot of different things that might just be totally weird. I guess we'll find out.
So are you gonna wear a whole circus ringmaster costume?
Oh, I don't know. Maybe I will. That's a good idea. Didn't think that far.
Oh yeah, it’s all about the clothes. Sets the tone. Let's talk a little bit more deeply about music. This is kind of a loaded question but why does music matter to you?
That's a good question. I think music is cool. I'm really into lyrics a lot. There's a lot of shared traits with like comedians to me because comedians can talk about things and they can broach a lot of subjects. I think songwriters are kind of that way. They can talk about a lot of things and symbolize things for people that maybe aren't spoken in other parts of the culture. I guess that's what I like about music. I just like the way it makes me feel. I mean that's like very vague but that's why music matters to me.
When do you leave for Richmond?
In like a month a little more than a month like a month and a week or something like that. But I'll probably come back and I'll be touring through here a lot and stuff. Also, I want to give a shout out to Barsuk Records. Adam is here with me. Adam's my roommate. I've known him the longest, we've been friends for like 20 years or something. Barsuk’s been a great label and they've helped me a lot in getting the music out. They're like real pros and I appreciate all their help. It's really hard for musicians these days and to have a team of people working with you is such a blessing.
Oh absolutely. It takes a village to put out a record.
Why does music matter to you? Can I turn it around?
Oh! Sure. Gosh. I think, for me, as someone who's not a music creator and only an appreciator, it's something that's always there for me. Times when I need help working through anything I'm going through. If I'm sad it can help me either like revel in the sadness if that’s what I want or, if not, then it can help me get me out of my mood. Or make me think about things in a way that I’ve never thought about. I really just appreciate good songwriting. When something is phrased in a way where I'm like, “Wow, that was a great and really interesting way to say that." I just really appreciate that.
Yeah, I was just thinking recently about how like I love books and podcasts but music is just so different. It's like so much deeper than that.
Yeah and it's really interesting, it's like a snapshot in time as well. You know like something that was really powerful when you heard it once. You hear this song and then think of like 2006 and this one city and that's like a cool way to frame your life. That's a cool aspect to it.
Yeah definitely. That's a for sure thing. That kind of reminded me of how I was initially a music listener and, obviously, I still am but that was my primary or my first love with music was just being you know like a consumer of music or whatever. Making music is kind of an extension of that almost. It's almost like the same thing to me. Like I don't really distinguish between them and I think that might be kind of weird if you don't make music but I think my experience of listening to music almost feels like I'm creating it or something or like they're both the same experience almost if that makes sense.
Do you remember who your first favorite artist was?
I don't know. I listened to a lot of Tom Petty when I was a kid because I grew up in Florida and he grew up and he came from Gainesville which was like a few hours away from where I grew up. So he was kind of like just an anomaly coming from Florida. I didn't realize until later but in a lot of his songs, he's kind of down on himself and stuff. He's kind of a rock star but a lot of his lyrics are really humble and they're very dork centric. So that was a big early influence for sure. But I don't know how that plays into my music now.
Do you still listen to Tom Petty often?
Not really. Yeah, not much.
Kind of worn that one out?
Yeah I mean I definitely go back to it sometimes.
What are you listening to now?
I really like Sonny and the Sunsets a lot. They're awesome. I like Karl Blau a lot. I like Luke Temple and Here We Go Magic a lot. There's so much stuff I could keep going if you want. I just need to look at my phone because I sometimes it's hard for me to remember the stuff I'm in jamming on.
Oh yeah, go ahead. I love to know what people are listening to. What did you listen to on your way here?
Yeah, actually there's this guy from Tacoma. He's a bus driver. His name's Jacob John and he's an excellent musician and songwriter. He records his own records. He’s kind of a mix of like Granddaddy and Elliott Smith.
That sounds right up my alley.
Really really really good and I'm trying to tell people about him because no one really knows about him. His name is Jacob John. Trying to get him out there. I think people will really like his tunes.
If only there was a record label around here to help him out…[laughs]
[Laughs] Or a way for people to hear his music!
Someone needs to give this guy some love!
Just need to get the music out there someway.
Huh yeah, hopefully we can figure out some way...
Holy Moly is out now via Barsuk Records. The Holy Moly Circus will be held in a secret Seattle backyard on Saturday, July 6 from 5:30-9pm. Tickets are limited and the event will sell out. Purchase tickets here.
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