Photo: Rachel Roessler

Track-by-Track: Paul Roessler unpacks his reflective new record The Turning of the Bright World

A Portrait of the Artist. A Painter of Houses.

There is a dance that occurs between a musician and the audience. The musician takes an experience, an inspiration, and expresses the meaning through song. For the artist, the clarity and understanding may only occur while creating, if lucky, that truth reveals itself with each play. The audience, if a track is done right, will – as Paul Roessler describes – be in the wash of the beauty, get to the end and play it again and again. It becomes the object of obsession: repeating until perhaps, what is triggered by the track is resolved. Catharsis through song aids many in overcoming the confusion of human existence whether joy or sorrow. It is why music, as Tolstoy said, “is the shorthand of emotion.” 

Paul Roessler, the former keyboardist of Screamers, the guitar-less L.A.-based musical pioneers, labeled ‘punk rock’ for lack of anything more suitable, has this month released his latest album The Turning of the Bright World, via his label, Kitten Robot Records.

In the 1980s, Paul started the band Twisted Roots along with Pat Smear (Germs/Foo Fighters) and his sister Kira prior to her involvement with Black Flag. Paul also partnered on music with Mike Watt (Crimony) and Dez Cadeda (DC3), as well as joining with a wide variety of artists/bands, including 45 Grave, Nervous Gender, Geza X and the Mommymen, and Nina Hagen. The subsequent years saw him join forces with Mark Curry, Prick, Leah Andreone, and Gitane Demone Quartet. Paul Roessler’s production career has also seen him produce for T.S.O.L., Richie Ramone, Pat The Bunny, and many other bands and artists.

We spent a few virtual hours together discussing his biography, philosophy, and each track on what is both a guide and conscious awakening in the back half of a life. 

01. “Elephant Man”

Paul Roessler is a Jackson Pollack of modern music, anytime he sits down to make music, he makes “splatters of music.” It may start from nothing, originating from years before. “Elephant Man” is just that. It is a song that, if you listen closely, does not repeat, perpetually changing. 

“I have been experimenting with attempting to write songs from free improvisations. So I did this one and I liked it and lay on the couch with the piece on repeat trying to write lyrics. I really wanted the lyrics to be good and what was coming was just vague meaningless phrases. I was frustrated. It didn’t seem to mean anything. But then I understood it and I realized it meant a lot. This is me, and this is really weird that I’m actually confessing this, but that’s actually me: the wisest. The reason I dared to call it “Elephant Man” is that I knew no one would know what I was talking about. I never intended to explain it. I mean, because it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have achieved that state of grace but a person who does achieve that loses the fear of the world going on without them.” 

02. “Maker”

“It’s such a faux pop song! I have to admit…since the Screamers never recorded anything, some part of me has been trying to make up for it ever since. So a little tip of the hat to them here. I confess, I don’t have a ton of deep thoughts about Maker. It states its point so clearly that it doesn’t need much explaining. I remember writing the music. I made a sort of complicated analog set-up with an old organ and multiple fuzz boxes and just jammed along to a beat till there was this very simple groovy thing…very shiny and brassy from all the distortion. I don’t remember writing the words, I think I just went out and they came out almost immediately. I didn’t know what I was saying. Then I listened back and thought “oh I get it, a really happy bouncy song about dying, hmmm…

“It had a Screamerish thing about it. People always ask me why the Screamers never recorded but we sort of did. There was just a general feeling in the band that the Screamers’ sound and particularly Tomata’s voice could never translate to radio, which was the only way to get music out in those days. All I know is people were going crazy for the band and we were getting bigger and bigger so I don’t know why all the defeatism. But I was 19, what did I know? Anyway, now it’s 35 years later and here I have this Screamers-ish pop song forming that was eerily radio-friendly. But I needed a B section. So I did something I have never done. I blatantly stole a part of a Screamers song and just stuck it in there and it worked great. I thought of it as a tribute.

“One of the things that has driven me for forty years is that question: Why didn’t the Screamers record? Well fuck you, I did nothing but record. Death is ubiquitous, inevitable, commonplace. You can’t fail at it. Everyone gets a shot at it. What’s there to be scared of? Oh yeah. Oh no. Get ready.”

The video for “Maker” was directed and edited by Kent Holmes, cinematography by Jason Valdez, and graphics by David Schneider.

03. “The Only Thing that Matters”

He was a classically trained pianist, had a prog rock band, and wrote a 47-minute rock opera but found his voice at 50 (well, perhaps it was at 40) when off drugs and leaving the “cool guy” behind. He describes the transition from keyboardist to vocalist as finding the physical place in his body where he didn’t have to be the greatest singer, take Nick Cave or Lou Reed. He found this way to say something in a way that you want to listen. He had 8-tracks in his garage through the 90s where he recorded hundreds of songs and finally found that it was singing softly that was his sweet spot. 

“My friend has a group called the Freethinkers Philosophy Club and I told him I might do an album based on philosophers that I embraced and identify with. There are a couple of them rolled into this song. I remember a point in my life where I was having a lot of problems with my ex-wife. She was a really bad drug addict. She would do something really terrible and I would scream at her for doing it and afterwards, I was the bad guy every time because I would yell at her. Now she might have gotten arrested, she might have emptied our bank account, she might have dropped syringes all over the floor in front of our children, she could have done something so bad and yet, when I yelled, all of that was forgotten and I was the bad guy.

“This was back when I was painting houses. I would paint houses for eight hours a day trying to figure out a philosophy, the truth. I was raised an atheist and in my household if you believed in God, then you were weak. It was a crutch. Without religious training I just thought philosophically. So during those long days, I realized if you really want more good in the world, you have to address hate with love. When I realized that, I was like, oih my fucking God. That is Jesus’s philosophy. It’s not about Christian metaphysics or a savior. It’s only the teachings as a philosopher. I was kind of stuck with it, and it came out in that song. I find myself at my most courageous when I write a song that dares to be ridiculed by all the cool edgy people.”

04. “Possibility of Psychic Phenomenon”

Part of the magic of Paul is his perspective of how great his life has been. Whether it actually is minimizing trauma or just pure gratitude and staying present, he has learned to let go of the wounds. 

“I had the idea to write a song exactly describing the moment that was occurring. I decided it didn’t really need any instruments; leave it like an utter demo. It was one of the first songs that I wrote off this record and the two albums I did before, 612 and Match Girl, were breakup albums. “Possibility of Psychic Phenomenon” was a song describing sitting in my house: microwaving my food, reading a book, you know, just as mundane as I possibly could make it. In the end, I was still haunted by this relationship. I was devastated and having a breakdown because I had been in relationships for 35 straight years. This was the first time I’d ever been alone. I had pretty healthy doses of codependency going back to my childhood, like, mom tried to commit suicide, stuff like that. So, I was pretty uprooted and I came to this line: lose the one/and you go on/anything can be done. I thought, oh, that’s about as miserable as it gets. It doesn’t sound that miserable when I sing.”

05. “Awake”

“The thing about writing songs from free improvisations is that supposedly it will subvert the typical verse/chorus structure and force unexpected forms. Apparently in this one I improvised an exact verse chorus structure. First I free-formed a Steiner Parker Synthecon track, then a piano track. The song hides two or three minutes in. Being topical is a dangerous place to be, but I’m right alongside it.”

06 “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time”

Paul admits that much of this album is getting things out that he wanted to say. Perhaps that is why so many of the lyrics are literal. 

“We look back on people in the past with horror at the awful decisions they made, and I suddenly had a feeling that their mistakes might not hold a candle to ours. This is a letter of apology to the future. When the people from the future just say, why did you do this? Why didn’t you? Why did you destroy the planet? Why did you do it? And all I could say was well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, you know? Yeah, having my coffee in the morning was more important than the jaguars, the ecosystem, we all just thought it was okay.

“You know, we went to the gallows with a smile and a wave, you know, we murdered it innocently. It was originally called “Letter to Greta”. And then I thought, I don’t know, I didn’t want to make it so specific. So I changed the name of it to “Letter to the Future” and that’s a stupid name but I felt like if you’re gonna do a record and you’re 60 years old, then hopefully, you’ve learned something that you can pass on. That doesn’t sound preachy, like I just said, I have to just go ahead and say, This is what I’ve discovered. And I think it’s important and I didn’t always believe these things but after living a long time.”

07. “Heaventree”

We talked about meditation and how it sometimes works, others not so much. When it works, it makes us feel good. Paul just wanted to make people feel good with this one. It is remarkable what a little groovy guitar and sweet melodies can do to let those tormented thoughts go away. 

“My friend Chaim Rochester wrote this music and I wanted to try to write lyrics to it that would make someone who listened to it happy. I’m always going to James Joyce for inspiration, here I just ripped him off.”

08. “A Quiet Night on the Mooncam”

This one is about influences, not something common on this album. 

My friend, Paul was like, we gotta get Paul to quit writing these sad piano ballads, learn how to get him to rock. And so he booked the recording studio, hired a drummer and bass player. He sent me some little fragments and I wrote the music.

“I was super influenced by this Neil Young song called “Cortez the Killer”. I don’t really like the song that much. But it’s got a three minute intro, where he is not singing. It just goes on. And it’s sort of a guitar solo, I was listening to it over and over and it’s in such a mood. I liked this idea of this really slow, gentle build. So I was kind of into that. 

“I was really influenced at that moment by a song by Bo Burnham called “That funny feeling” which has a lot of words and is really fast. I was also listening to a lot of Phoebe Bridgers and I was really struck by the fact that young people under 30 have an incredibly bleak and pessimistic view of the world. You could totally see why: their first thing that they were aware of was 911, a huge stock market crash, there were the Trump years, there was COVID. I think pessimism is sort of self fulfilling and pessimism doesn’t contain a solution.

“I never record my songs with musicians. Occasionally I’ll have someone add something here or there, but they are never derived from a live band setting. My friend Paul Boutin wanted to hear what would happen if I was forced to write from a more traditional template. After the music was done I stared at the empty page for a week. Finally I decided I wanted to write from a position of pessimism. I almost never do that. I’ve put out so much stuff. And there’s all these new people and I’m a cisgender white male, who gives a fuck? Really, like, it’s really a good time for me to just shut the fuck up. You know? It’s just not my time anymore. Maybe for the first time in 10,000 years, all those oppressed groups get to be center stage so I kind of came to grips with that and can just be of service and facilitate other artists.”

09. “The Last Time my Head was Right”

The little voice inside our heads. Some think it’s a homunculus sitting in there, just watching our life on a movie screen. Whatever your belief, often those voices are little demons that you just need to shut up. 

“Some of the studio projects I produce become incredibly complex and take months. Maybe from sheer exhaustion or impatience, my own stuff is done very quickly, basically demos. Okay, I agonize over the lyrics. But found objects, first thought best thought, happy accidents, spontaneity. All those excuses. This is another of the philosopher-songs. I had them all in a folder named “Someday you will be Dead.” I think it’s super obvious. You know, /this voice in my side/my head/that voice is not my friend/. I used to listen to its bullshit and the remedy was to tell it to shut up. It tells me what I can’t love and it’s never right. Stop listening to that, and what happens if you stop listening? You’re just present. I feel I’ve had my opinions that I’ve settled on proven to be wrong so many times at this point. I am suspicious of every opinion I land on.”

10. “They”

No words can describe how special this one is. 

“This is a collaboration with my dear friend Rowan who was 12 or 13 at the time. I thank my stars for all the young people in my life who have dragged me kicking and screaming into the future so I might not be a reactionary old bastard. We have to take care of each other. This one is about my non-binary grandchild. Wwe wrote the music together. It’s called “They” because that is their pronoun. When your 14 year old grandchild, granddaughter says no, I’m not granddaughter, like there’s some processing that has to happen. I had to do some processing. Because, you know, the family name and my genes, all this fucking bullshit. And it dawned on me what a powerful political statement it is. For a 15 year old to say, I’m not going to play this game anymore, it was so powerful. I just came up with this line to make room for the new generation. /Now I can go walk underneath the canopy/listen to the grass as it grows up over me/Because people like you will do it better than me/. The younger generation will do it better.”

11. “A Shallow Shadow Complete”

Possession. The state of controlling something. Paul ruminates on this unhealthy pathology but finds his answer. 

“I wanted to make the rhythm track out of incredibly soft sounds, with the mic amped way up. My finger, very lightly tapping a tobacco tin. Barely brushing over the strings of a detuned ukulele. Turns out volume doesn’t matter. It was totally rocking and I was excited about that. Then I thought, what am I singing about? I started singing the consonants and the vowels and words that came out and the word was “mine” which sings very lovely. 

“Then I started thinking about my own possessiveness as a person about, my girlfriend, my wife, my stuff, property and the idea of ownership, we think it’s ours, but it’s never ours, it just goes through our hands, it goes alongside of us, maybe for a while and then it goes away. Realizing how we try to build up this wall of things around us to make us feel safe. I was really at the time thinking that this person had left me, and I might be a shallow shadow of who I was before, when I had this person that I thought was mine, and maybe only a shadow of that person, but I’m complete. Then I started growing in a healthy way after that, because I used the person I was with to make myself feel like I was more than I thought I was, and to make other people think I was more than I thought.” 

12. “No Time”

The album finds itself grappling with the theme of life and death, consciousness and its illusion. Paul shared his basic philosophy in life: imagine yourself as a giant snake: the tail being a baby, the end an old version of yourself and in the end it wakes up and somehow flies away. A metamorphosis of sorts. He explains some of this philosophy in “NoTime”.

“Vaguely based on the book Tertium Organum by P.D. Ouspensky. Being of this age, I sometimes feel called upon to stop bullshitting and just tell the fucking truth. It can be very scary. I read his book when I was a kid, and doing acid. It’s about higher dimensionality.The idea is that if you really read this book and understand it, you release yourself from the timeline. The timeline is an illusion of consciousness, time does not pass. If you are removed from the timeline, a lot of things go away: beginnings, endings, life, death, hellos, goodbyes. Everything is just still.”

13. “The Late Show”

Song order does matter even in these days of streaming. Closing out the album by taking 60 years of life on earth retrospective and creating a devotion. That is “The Late Show”. 

“I did a long improvisation on the piano and didn’t really get anything good. But there were a few bars here and there so I made this echoey collage. It is my personal take that these things are very easy to do and they sound very nice. The degree of difficulty of turning something like that into a song with words is off my charts. But I’m rarely accused of being lazy at least.

“Originally, music had sacred origins, I have read somewhere. This song did become a prayer of sorts, like a mystical spell. There are strange events that happened around it which make it dear to me. I am comfortable with mystery. When I was writing “The Late Show”, I wanted to create a prayer that a close friend would get sober too. It’s not a secret about her. I started using the force of my entire duration on Earth, which means going back to my earliest childhood, and using images from when I was a baby, black and white TVs, Gemini rockets, the Kennedy assassination, and Marilyn Monroe, and a show called The Late Show. It was my prayer of me sitting here, taking the whole 50 or 60 years of my life, and invoking it in that moment. It sounds like the wielding of magic.”

This one has become a part of my biography. My own meditation. We ended the interview with Paul reading some of his lyrics. It brought him to tears. We all have an idea of what others are made of. We pass our judgements. Artists are in a particularly vulnerable place of revealing the intimate parts of themselves to audiences who are oftentimes oblivious, insensitive and cruel.  Without being self-indulgent, Paul has mastered the evolution of an artist, the evolution of a human, the freedom to reveal himself through his art. As he said, “there’s some false optimism there, no doubt. You can see how important the songs are to me, obviously, a song, it’s like a thing. You know, it’s like this invisible thing that exists all over the world. Someone’s listening to it in China, and someone’s listening to it in Los Angeles. What a dream.

Paul Roessler’s The Turning Of The Bright World is out now on Kitten Robot Records. You can find him on Facebook, Instagram, Bandcamp and his website.