BILLY CHANGER: THIS LAND OF MUTANT POP
photography by debi del grande
Billy Changer is the bassist of the very formidable Corners, as well as an Echo Park engineer and now the very solo artist behind a just-out self-titled LP on Lolipop that’s part experiment, part self-expression and part shot in the dark—or maybe it’s more a flare fired into the sky in hopes of help or at least shining light on things for a second. It’s lo-fi in a careful way and it’s a home recording that doesn’t sound like it ever had a home, and Changer played every part of it himself. (Even the chorus of responding voices that make him seem like he’s got a bunch of his friends with him—that’s just Changer and the miracle of analog multitrack technology.) The album art and that photo right there both transmit the mood in a moment: the human alone on the streets of the city they live in, looking back at you while you look back at them. Changer’s album is introspective and reflective in a way that perfectly serves the closeness of a recording like this—when it’s done playing, you might feel like someone just left the room. He performs with Moving Units at the Roxy on Dec. 19. Changer speaks now about where he came from and where he—and we—might be going. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Where are you from? What was it like growing up there?
Billy Changer: I’m from Calabasas. People call it Calablackless—that’s the kind of stupid neighborhood I grew up in. Serious conservative shit. I hate it. But my family was different—my dad is a rock ‘n’ roller. Always has been and always will be. He never really played music, but he just loved the scene in L.A. He showed me the Rolling Stones, Hawkwind, Judas Priest, Frank Zappa, Yes, Grand Funk Railroad and Iron Maiden when I was really young. My mom, on the other hand, has been working full time for over 35 years. She’s takes care of us. I’m a late bloomer by nature. Always awkward and very sensitive. I was never the cool kid in middle school—always the one who wasn’t chosen after running my ass off to the basketball court. [When] I decided to go to college, I got hooked up with KXLU and started volunteering at the Smell every weekend and every summer. I linked up with Corners and I’ve pretty much been on and off of tour since graduating last year.
You’re making a lot of solo music right now—why? And why now? What do you get to do solo that would be a challenge in your band?
Billy Changer: I’m making a lot of music because that’s all I really know how to do. I’ve narrowed my skill set so drastically that I probably couldn’t even work a cash register and can barely operate a car. From writing and recording so much, I’ve become a chronic single task thinker—I literally cannot think of more than one thing at a time. Being in a bad is rad, but you really have to give it all up and let the other cats shine on. Luckily I’m with a group of guys who are all in a similar boat—from the same area, the same generations, and same musicianship. It’s easy to let them shine on—it just ends up sounding good that way. That’s the beauty of a band: half of the work sometimes is just getting around everyone’s differences, but the remaining product is just so cool and unpredictable. I’ve started trying to incorporate that into my solo stuff now—even letting people into my private recording sessions.
How solo was this particular album? Is anyone else helping? Like on ‘Stranger Next Door’—are you doing your own backup vocals?
Billy Changer: That song particularly was a hard one. It’s all me performing it. I played all the instruments, I sing all the backup vocals. This isn’t something I’ve done before. I’ve tried to write songs and record them, but I’ve always failed miserably. Or not had the confidence to show my friends to the degree that I have in this work.
What exactly does failure sound like?
Billy Changer: A lot of it was my singing voice. I was a backup screamer in my first band. I’d practice screaming in my bathroom.
Did you wait for your family to leave?
Billy Changer: Of course. I had to seize the moment. One time my next door neighbor called the cops, and the cops came over with their guns out—’Is everything OK?’ Really I was just screaming my ass off, trying to get the best scream I could. It was always really depressing lyrics: ‘Help me, you’re killing me, you stabbed me in my heart, I don’t wanna live anymore!’
What a testament to the power of music—it got people coming to your house ready to kill you.
Billy Changer: Then I’d show up to band practice and I’d try and scream and they’d be like, ‘You’re not doing this right. You don’t sound good.’ That made me realize no matter how much I tried, maybe I was never gonna be good. At singing—I could always play guitar a little bit. That was my main instrument. Singing was where I was most vulnerable. I never could do it! I felt good doing instrumental tracks, but it was like, ‘How do I tell a story with my voice?’ I’m a late bloomer. I’ve been recording song by song for the last year and a half.
This was originally a split cassette with Tracy Bryant—did you mess with the recordings before you put it on vinyl?
Billy Changer: Oh fuck no. I never went back to it. I refused. They haven’t been touched. It’d be smart of me to do that cuz my technique is a lot better now. Frankly, I love the lo-fi sound. I wish that maybe it was different, but I have to stand up for something. As Billy Changer and a solo artist, what’s different is I’m literally trying to capture a moment, a place, a time and an emotion. If I fucked with it, it never would work out the way I want it to be. I definitely tied a lot of knots in my shoelaces recording this. I’m writing as I’m recording. Now I have these worried shoes, walking around as people are listening. My music is not about ‘Lemme try and amaze a bunch of people.’ I’m trying to connect on a one-to-one level.
I thought so, too. This is a very … not-extroverted record. It’s not trying to convince me or sell something. It’s more like, ‘This is me, take it or not.’
Billy Changer: I was purposefully doing that the entire time. I have a story about every song I’ve ever written. Unless it has something that moves me, it won’t come out. I’m not a realtor trying to say, ‘Hey, my art is great! You need to listen to it!’ I don’t know how it’s going to affect people. I’m hoping somebody can connect in a personal way. I recorded in a 4-track in my old apartment—my bedroom at times—with equipment I bought from playing local gigs, or a little money I got from my family to live. I’d spend it on gear you could buy from a local music store. I wanted it to be something that didn’t really involve computers—that was organic in that way. So I could push myself to this like … a musician who doesn’t really know how to sing, who never really wrote a record before, but he’s basing it off his emotional responses to how he’s living in this really crazy time in his life. And I was hoping someone would connect with that.
Do you feel at risk making something so personal? If someone doesn’t like this record, that means they don’t like you.
Billy Changer: There’s a difference between worrying and caring. I care so much about what I do and the people around me that for some reason I don’t worry if people like it or not, or if they like me or not. I heard the other day there’s a group of guys who don’t like and they actually burned a Corners record! And almost burnt down their apartment while doing it.
See, physical media is the best.
Billy Changer: And these are people I know—with music out on labels I’m associated with. I know they think I’m a douche or I come off in an unpleasant way, and it does bother me. But at the same time it fuels me. It’s the cycle of life—that’s where it all stems from in the first place. It fuels the fire.
What is ‘mutant pop’? You sing about that on ‘Island Fever.’ Is it pop for mutants? By mutants? Pop that somehow mutated?
Billy Changer: It’s more from outsider art. I didn’t know how to categorize my own music. But if I created this own world, I could name it and make it into something and feel free to roam in this land of mutant pop. I can be as weird or cool in my eyes as I want.
It’s like your nature preserve.
Billy Changer: Exactly. You can tell I’m a very sensitive person. I like creating a world I can roam in. I’m scared of people, you know? I don’t know. I think of pop as an actual burst. Or a lollipop. Something I can enjoy. Color. Obviously it’s popular music. I wanna form an association between my music, maybe outsider music, and songs structured in a way that could be pop songs. They have standard structures, the melodies are singable.
What do you mean when you say ‘outsider art’? Who are you thinking of?
Billy Changer: I love Daniel Johnston. He introduced me to music that was very personal. Other people who loved his music got him known. It wasn’t this big machine, this PR campaign … it was him and his drawings. And it was because he was weird and he talked about things he really cared about just with him and his little keyboard or whatever. The world was strange to him. I could relate to his lyrics. That’s what I’m talking about. It’s mutant, it’s weird and it made me feel like I could be myself.
What do you mean by ‘weird’? You’ve said that a few times, too.
Billy Changer: I’ve never heard something so intimate in popular culture before. We’re talking about popular culture cuz everyone knows who Daniel Johnston is—or he’s impacted a lot of people. It’s weird because it’s not well-oiled, it’s intimate, it came about in a different way than normal and he challenges what it means to be in a band, an artist, a musician. It’s not like growing up and listening to the Rolling Stones and seeing glamour and big concerts. Like my dad showing me Queensryche or Hawkwind or these other bands that’d play huge massive concerts. That’s what I thought rock ‘n’ roll was all about, growing up as a kid. The Beatles! Taking over the world! This was something different. That’s why I consider it weird. Everything I thought I knew was not in this guy. It was not about that. He didn’t care, as far I know.
So you want a direct connection with the person you’re listening to, and you want to make an album that can offer that same kind of connection to your own listeners. You want to send and receive an answer.
Billy Changer: I know Corners is known cuz we love Joy Divison, and that’s why I love Joy Division—’Atmosphere:’ ‘Walk in silence / Don’t walk away, in silence / See the danger / Always danger / Endless talking / Life rebuilding / Don’t walk away.’ These are all very isolating personal feelings. That’s what I like. Trying to hit me—actually hit me—instead of hit the masses or some general area.
So what would it look like if you did connect with people one-on-one like you talk about? How do you know when the goal of your music is achieved? And once you achieve it, then what? In The Devil and Daniel Johnston documentary, he has so many songs about the girl Laurie that he loves. But when he finally meets her after all those years, it’s just kind of anticlimactic.
Billy Changer: Every artist is scared to think about that. A lot of people believe that you write the best music when you’re sad or depressed or going through a hard time pursuit of something. All those fucking crazy things in your mind making you feel like you wanna die and you don’t know what you’re doing … that’s what people want to hear. As an artist, I realize I’m going to have to keep challenging myself to create. There is a way to do it. I have a grip on what I want to do and I have to hone in on it. You have to be aware of who you are and what you’re feeling and what’s going on in society around you—and how do you participate in that conversation? No matter what, if I can do that—and I’m trying—there is something unique I have to offer. It’s a different time, a different place, different people and I’m influenced by different things. I hope just by … suffering in that way I can offer something! (laughs)
When it comes to making music, are there things you always try to do? Or things you hope you never do?
Billy Changer: Writing songs and making music is my form of meditation. On a planet in a universe I don’t understand, surrounded by people who vary from self-righteous intellectuals to empty-headed bots, I don’t believe anyone has it figured out yet. Somehow songwriting keeps me sane and provides me a pathway to enter into a place I truly want to be, where music is the most important thing and the sole means of expression. You really think when aliens finally find our civilization that they’re going to want to talk to the president of our military industrial complex or the lawyer politicos ruining the planet? I believe they’re going to talk to people who actually create something important—the ones that can’t just burn up in a rebellion or some amendment. Music is forever and truly pure. But rock ‘n’ roll is dying one lazy payola campaign at a time. So my responsibility, I guess, as an original songwriter is to just try something different—to give rock ‘n’ roll fans something to feel and listen to when tuning in, something they can dim the lights to and relate to someone else about. I’m putting as much life into it as possible. That’s my job as an artist—a vessel that someone can question, dig in to, and appreciate what we as a society take for granted every day.
Why is rock ‘n’ roll dying? What is gone, and why does that matter to you?
Billy Changer: It matters to me cuz I’ve chosen this as my life. I’m a rock ‘n’ roller. I’ve listened to that music since I got my first cassette player. That’s my roots. People who grow up differently with different music have different ethics, morals … like what constitutes a song? I don’t think it could ever be a real song if it didn’t have a little bit of guitar, bass and drums into it. Other artists don’t even need that when they write. Lolipop is a rock ‘n’ roll label whether its garage or synths or that band Part Time which is more 80s—it’s all within the same roots. The problem I see is these well-oiled machines in the music industry. I don’t have anything against that. I’m sure it’s always been there. But I feel people are relying and dreaming upon the machine more than they’re really focusing on who’s driving it, or what’s driving them to go towards that? L.A. is crazy—you see all these people moving to Los Angeles, all these people doing things to try and get known, be heard. Really, they coulda started where they were from! Make music that was true to them where they were from and then let it emanate from them so people have to pay attention! It’s this constant wanting of acceptance, wanting people to go to your shows—who cares if they’re putting on the best show they can? Or whether people are there are not? I see that as death to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s hard. You don’t see a lot of people coming out to these shows. My friends aren’t making a living, working part time or full time. I don’t see a lot of success.
Is this a symptom of something bigger manifesting in this part of music? Or is it something starting here that’s going to flow into wider society in a few years?
Billy Changer: I grew up just in the time people were getting cell phones. I had a pager when I was young, and I had a cell phone that had ‘Snake’ on it. The only entertainment the phone got! I felt lucky to have one of those. I’m on the cusp of all this craziness. I think people that are leading rock ‘n’ roll now are probably my generation. The problem is when I turn on the radio to 98.7 or KROQ or any big rock ‘n’ roll or ‘alternative’ station, you just don’t hear fucking rock ‘n’ roll anymore! You hear stuff that was done in the ‘90s—they’d rather play a song from ‘94 than a band big in rock ‘n’ roll now. That’s the sign of the times. Something is not right. It’s on a personal level for me too. I love my friends and their band, but on whole, there’s a reason why rap and hip-hop and R&B has really taken off—when you hear it, there’s something undeniable about the beat and the sound they’re making. Maybe it’s the lack of budget—maybe there’s no budget for a band to make a good recording. What I find most is a lot of bands don’t have the resources to experiment in the studio. That’s where the magic was, and has always been. Bands just trying different vocal effects, drum sounds, different bass … now it’s expected like, ‘What budget can get the best sounding recording?’ Well, it’s not about that! Fuck—I’d hate if some labels told me, ‘We’ll give you this money to give us the best-sounding album you can.’ What the fuck does that even mean? I don’t know what to even do with that. There’s all this pressure to do very well with very little for rock ‘n’ roll musicians. I don’t even know the last band that had a huge budget that’s on the radio now.
So do you think being in a garage band now is a luxury, in a way? That’s tragic but bitterly hilarious.
Billy Changer: Garage was born in the garage, right? But their access to equipment was at a way higher standard than what’s available now. Whether their families or they got lucky with a record deal … there was money, still, in music. You were able to put out a single, sell a bunch if it became a hit, and make a living. Now it’s not possible. I don’t know what’s going on with the consumer but people are not willing to invest. Say you’re a fan of a band here in Los Angeles. I don’t see people giving them everything. Give ‘em your money, buy their t-shirts, buy their records, go to all their shows, make sure they have enough to make a great album! As the saturation becomes overwhelming, the fans spread across the spectrum. You like my band? Then you like that band, you like that band, you like all the bands. You don’t know which one to throw your money at. You just throw your money at the scene—buy whatever cassette comes out. But there’s not a deep investment. That’s why none of these bands have any fucking money. There’s nothing for them to work off of. They’re scrounging change to record on low equipment. It’s not ready for the rest of the world.
It’s this weird collision of saturation and scarcity. It seems there are more bands—and the things that go with bands—than ever. But so many people are struggling.
Billy Changer: I’ve found a lot of bands get their money from licensing—but the difference with getting your money from a corporation and not the consumer is exactly that. Every band wants to be trendy and cool-looking and sound great cuz those are the people who will buy your music: the trendy cool-looking people who have money and are in that market. When people were buying records because there were only records … you’d be getting money from the fans! People who were listening to your music—who expect more from you! Who want to see you be a rock star! Now it’s completely different.
What’s something you love spending money on—even when you shouldn’t? And what’s something you wish was free all the time, and why?
Billy Changer: Ha—I just had a fortune cookie that advised me to watch how much I spend. I have a spending problem when it comes to audio gear. All the money that comes in goes out the other end in the form of recording gear. I just bought a Toft ATB mixing console. I’m always happy to buy cool percussion instruments if I come across something. Recently I’ve been buying all sorts of weird things from Richard Robertson, an amazing audio engineer in Echo Park. Just anything that’s not an 1176 [limiter] or a clone of something that has been abused billions of times. I wish recording music with super nice custom consoles was free or at least not so expensive, like how recording studios ran before the 80s. But the romanticism and money just isn’t there anymore. So everyone is recording and writing in smaller groups with shitty gear and computers. That’s where rock has it all wrong—there’s no money in rock ‘n’ roll anymore and the government invests nothing in music. I say stop funding the army and war on drugs and starting making science labs—and music, art, cinema, and dance studios—more available to the public. The library is the only free creative environment I get to utilize at this point. That needs to change.
You seem to have a very clear idea of what your songs are ‘for’—to communicate directly with select people. Do you think it’s important for writers to have a purpose for their songs? Or can a song just be a song, and that’s enough?
Billy Changer: I do and I don’t. That’s what makes a great band and not an OK band. You have to live the life of what you’re writing about. ‘I want our new music to be really dance-y and cool and great!’ But are you the kind of person who goes out and dances and drinks and has fun every night? Or do you have different things in mind? You have to figure out who you are a person and how you can reflect that to other people. There’s nothing wrong with what is song is intended for as long as it’s genuine. As long as you’re living it, there are people doing it—you know it’s gonna be around in a couple years because you’re doing it! People are still rollerblading! Going to roller rinks! And you know what they play? Disco! Disco’s dead, but when it comes to a roller rink, that’s the coolest fucking song you can hear.
You say you feel like an outsider in many places, but when it comes to music, you feel at home. Why? What makes this fit?
Billy Changer: I didn’t for a long time. Then it clicked. With practice and meditation and thought and just sitting there … sometimes I’d just sit there and look at my tape machine. ‘How can I use you in a different way than I have done before?’ Each song on my record was like that. Like I’d record drums first without a melody at all—’Sweet Time’ had no melody or guitar. I recorded a drum beat I liked and then formulated a song about it. Or I’d put the input into the output and put it through the tape return and see what that would do. Just experimenting—I felt at home. No one was telling me this is wrong or right or sounded good or sounded bad. It was really up to me to decide what felt good inside. That was one of the first times I’ve been able to connect with myself. Writing and recording a song is one of the only ways I really know what I’m doing. That’s why I feel comfortable doing it. And then you listen to it, and the human part comes in. It’s one long connection.
BILLY CHANGER WITH MOVING UNITS ON SAT., DEC. 19, AT THE ROXY, 9009 W. SUNSET BLVD., WEST HOLLYWOOD. 8 PM / $15-$20 / ALL AGES. THEROXY.COM. BILLY CHANGER’S SELF-TITLED ALBUM IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM LOLIPOP RECORDS. VISIT BILLY CHANGER AT BILLYCHANGER.BANDCAMP.COM.