January 24th, 2011 | Live reviews

Like an overcast Sunday or a poorly-timed stiff drink or the process of filling out the paperwork for a loved one’s emergency orotracheal intubation, Eric Lindley’s songs have the power to infuse the stretch of time they occupy with a sadness that’s incidental but devastating. He sings with a hushed, almost guarded apprehension, as though he’s trying to keep from bothering someone. This might be the literal case on his last album, Oh, Light, most of which was recorded in a closet—but it carries over into his performance as well, a quality that might be grating if it wasn’t executed as it is, with an intimate and mindful warmth. These are songs that demand to be leaned into, but their bleakness could drown you if you’re not careful.

It’s not the sadness of an accidental pony shooting, or the sadness you might feel the moment you register a pilot’s face before he dies at an air show, but it is specific—as redolent and quietly haunting as any ritual that necessitates candle-lighting. On the song “I Shot Smaller and Smaller Fruits Off Her Head,” Lindley sings, “Let’s make a monument to memory,” and somehow, with his latest collection of songs, he’s managed to do just that.

Lindley’s set at the Roxy was accompanied by violinist Ysanne Spevak and vocalist Miwa Matreyek (the animator responsible for Oh, Light’s brain-bending cover art) whose delicate harmonies mirrored the ones on the album, while bringing the songs’ occasional hooks into sharper relief. The dusty acoustic rustling chimed like bells heard on an old car’s AM radio as Careful sang about swimming, ghosts in summer, and tenuous post-apocalyptic human connections. It’s worth noting that the weight of the subject matter was sometimes surprising, considering Lindley’s gregarious on-stage presence. I asked him about this incongruity, and about his upcoming residency at Machine Project.

Amalia Levari: [Long rambling question mostly concerning a genre my friend Jack calls ‘sad bastard music’].
Eric Lindley: There’s humor buried in a lot of the songs, and I actually get away with saying some bleak things on stage with a smile or chuckle, but it’s definitely two different worlds. I think the kind of fleeting social interaction that we have with most people is really non-conducive to sharing sad thoughts, of course, for a lot of biological, as well as simply social reasons, so the songs are a way to convey sad emotions in a more or less safe, contained, package… but I would really feel strange, and like I’m misrepresenting my inner life if I didn’t joke around a lot on stage, and only played these depressing songs. And the stage is a strange place. It’s weirdly more and less intimate than a one-on-one conversation.  You have permission to say incredibly bleak things that would just result in awkwardness… but then you can also joke around in a way that would have just resulted in awkwardness, too. You don’t expect a response or sympathy or anything, so the people you’re conversing with aren’t pressured to empathize, but just to observe and think about what’s happening.

Do you usually mention the fictional quality of the content? Or was that just so that your family wouldn’t pull you aside after the show and say, like, “what the hell, dude?
EL: Hahah… I don’t usually. I had a moment with my mom maybe a year ago where she said all my songs and writing were so sad, that people would think weird things were going on at home (she didn’t put it that way, but that was the gist), and I felt like I should make it clear for her sake. Also, some of her friends were there, so I wanted to make it extra clear…

EL: Yeah, zero awkwardness, when you’re talking about depressing sex on a beach, and abusive relationships.

Just wear a shirt that says “I was not molested.”
EL: I mean, that’s usually how I introduce myself. […] I think as a kid I also used to say that I only liked sad art. Sad movies, sad music, etc. My mom used to read to me and my siblings every night, before we went to bed, and they were older than me, so it was Kurt Vonnegut stories, and Holocaust survival memoirs before I was 8 or 9 (though it didn’t freak me out as a kid—my mom had better judgment than to subject me to purely upsetting stuff). I think a lot of that became my experience of art—that if it didn’t make me empathize so much that I felt like crying, or at least thinking about death or trauma, then it wasn’t really worthwhile art. I’ve broadened to like purely formal stuff since then, and to appreciate the effect of art that can make you happy, but ultimately I do come back to the more cathartic, sad types of things.

What’s going on at Machine Project? Will we see more or less sadness?
EL: Ah! Yes! It’s going to be a single puppet show, performed for people one-at-a-time, hundreds of times (so people can see it, but it’s also going to be a foil to gather data for a psychology experiment). So, a person can walk in, sign a waiver that explains that they are going to be in an experiment. Then they see the show (which is pretty sad, it turns out), take a short survey, and once we’ve collected the data, we tell them about what we’re doing and what we’re exploring with the experiment. And there will be talks from scientists about their research, and other events related to the thing.

If I was Robin Williams I would make a Tourette-like joke about the Stanford Muppet Experiment at this point.
EL: Hahahah

No, don’t laugh.
EL: Yeah, Robin Williams is going to assist. He’s just going to run around the room picking up things and making jokes about Madonna.

He’s contributing chest hair for the puppet fabrication.
EL: That too. It’s a little coarse, but we can use it to stuff things. And scour stuff.

So. Will there be lab coats?
EL: Yup! We’re getting a costume designer to do lab coats.

Also, what’s this about physics?
EL: Ah—physics was my major in undergrad (along with music—a double major). Which was awesome, but I didn’t have the patience to do the problem sets. The ideas were so good. But the problems took forever.

[We talk for a minute about Neil Gaiman’s fantastically depressing Punch and Judy book, which I ordered used, and which arrived puffed up like an accordion, because someone had spilled what must have been an entire pitcher of coffee on it.]
EL: I just got the idea to sell strangely used items on Amazon. Like, what’s the most bizarre way an item could arrive when someone finally gets it? If all the ‘e’s have been blacked out, or the pages have been painstakingly rebound in a slightly different order, or forged and replaced with a slightly different version. Or a clarinet with a soft, fake tongue as the mouthpiece.

We do need, as a society, to make our consumer exchanges more amusingly passive-aggressive.
EL: Absolutely. It’s what makes us human. (Or so I think—you don’t have to agree. I know that SOME people don’t agree).

Well, I agree that part of what makes us human is the ability to conceive of clarinets that the player must—must!—make out with in order to play them.
EL: No truer words have been spoken.

This article is just going to say “Eric Lindley prefers his woodwinds slutty”, and then it’ll have a picture of you with an instrument Photoshopped to your face.
EL: You know, that picture already exists.

In the hearts of all men?
EL: Yeah… only there.*

When is this Machine Project thing happening?
EL: The residency starts on January 23, and we’ll have an opening the following Friday, I think. I should mention that all the songs are true and rooted in very real and exciting and traumatic events that are very interesting to hear about.

No need to hear about those.
EL: Good, I figured not.

(clears throat, shuffles away)
(grins creepily)
(neck craned forward)
(steeples fingers)

(high-fives the wall, for some reason)
(passes out)
(wakes up cranky)
*[Update: No longer only there.]

—Amalia Levari