Activity Guide Us Through Spirit in the Room Track By Track

Music Features Activity
Activity Guide Us Through Spirit in the Room Track By Track

Brooklyn-based quartet Activity began writing their sophomore album, Spirit in the Room, “to keep from losing our minds.” Entrapped in the endless haze of the pandemic, the group shaved down their sound to its essentials, making heavy use of electronica instrumentals to make up for their enforced separation. At the same time, lead vocalist Travis Johnson underwent a number of life-altering personal metamorphoses—namely, losing his mother to pancreatic cancer.

In the darkness of this personal tragedy, Johnson wove his grief into the musical patterns that would comprise Spirit in the Room—an eerie, philosophical tome on life and death. It’s a massive undertaking, and one the band has wrestled with for three years. “The grief was (and sometimes is) this colossal thing,” Johnson notes. He had to make sense of it somehow, and the sprawling synths and elemental noise rock of Spirit in the Room trace his trajectory toward peace.

With Spirit in the Room out now, Johnson gave us a guided tour through the sprawling sonic landscape of his 11-track wonder. It was no small feat to write the album, and explaining it proved just as complex. Explore Activity’s descriptions of heavy hitters like “Department of Blood,” “Where the Art Is Hung” and “Susan, Medical City” below.

“Department of Blood” 
In the darkest parts of 2020, when there was very little to do, we started doing new and individual songs for anyone who bought stuff from us on Bandcamp Fridays. This one started as one of those. Lots of samples. I don’t think there was any guitar. I can’t remember what I said it was about when it was released as a single, but it’s mostly about people only hearing what they want, being alienated from everything else and someone else making lots of money manipulating that situation. The day Trump lost the election there were parties in the streets of Brooklyn, and driving out east on the Long Island Expressway I saw people walking back and forth on the overpasses with Trump flags. Hours later, on my way home, they were still there. Just the weirdest fucking thing.

“Heaven Chords”
Written the day after hearing that David Berman was dead, I started playing these chords that reminded me of parts of a couple of his songs (“The Right to Remain Silent” and “Pretty Eyes”), thinking about him hopefully feeling some peace. That’s why the lyrics are so direct and literal and, arguably, silly.

“Careful Let’s Sleepwalk”
There are probably a dozen or so samples on this, all played around with and fussed over and manipulated until no one could tell where they came from. The lyrics are just a bunch of little dream fragments that felt like they all worked together. Most of the lyrics I write aren’t really about anything specific, just some feeling or dynamic getting walked around in. I like the idea of songs not having to be about anything. The last line though, is about my mom (and it says the word “mom” in it, so you know).

“Where the Art Is Hung”
Maybe my favorite song of ours. Jess [Rees] brought in the bones for the rest of us to play on. I think she said it’s about making your peace with all of the insane technology we’ve let into our lives—even though it’s pretty icky and scary. Hope I’m not misquoting you, Jess. I remember being in the control room when she was doing the vocals, how perfect I thought they were.

“Cloud Come Here”
Fairly proud, when I listen to this, at how we recorded it. The rhythm guitar and vocal are from a demo, and then everyone else played on top of that. I love when the hi-fi part drops in over the thin demo sound. The lyrics mention a “David” but I don’t think it’s about David Berman. I think the way I sing that word is locked into my head from when I saw A.I. as a kid and someone says that name like that. It’s another one that makes me think of my mom, but it’s not really about any one thing. “Walk among the elected. Spray paint a halo on a horse head” is just a (maybe facile) anti-hierarchy, anti-meritocratic sentiment, wanting people with generational wealth and power to be laid low. I want a leveling.

“Ect Frag”
Another [song] made up of samples, a fragment of something that was like eight minutes long. So glad Bri [DiGioia] sang on it. “I was here before. I will not be long” is such a nice thing to tell someone, or hear from someone. “Evil everything” is countered by that sentiment. Basically, I guess, “it’s all fucked, but don’t worry, I’ll be back.”

These lyrics are literal gibberish. I think underneath all the reverb it’s just syllables that felt right when I was trying to come up with a melody, but then we just kept that vocal take. That should be all you need for a song! The feelings are all there whether you can understand the words or not, or whether there even are words. There might be some words, though. I think I say “In a summer way” at some point. The synth bit existed for months and we just couldn’t figure out what to do with it until Steve started playing that beat that we sampled, and then everything about it seemed to make sense.

“I Like What You Like”
I have to be careful here, because I don’t know who will read this (though I suspect I’m safe). Trying to find fondness or at least common ground with someone you have no interest in getting to know better or even ever being around, but that you don’t really have any option of avoiding (not politically or religiously or hobbies, just seeing the other person as a person). I guess I’m selfish and I like my world to be what I want it to be, and sometimes that’s just not possible. That world got all torn up in the last two years and this was part of it—but oh well, I guess. Can’t close myself off completely.

I want to say this was one Jess wrote for one of those Bandcamp Fridays that we all thought should get used. Other than Sophia being Greek for “wisdom” I’m not sure what she’s getting at lyrically, which I prefer. Things, especially songs, shouldn’t be too explicit. Bri is singing harmony and then her voice is resampled to mimic the theremin-y guitar on the first half of the song. I like that Jess’ songs have halves.

“I Saw His Eyes”
My dad got cancer and, when I saw him next, the treatments had caused him to waste away. He was slight to begin with and he’d lost, like, 30 pounds. “Hey, under the blinding glare, I’ll meet you there” is a reference to this book I read called The Great Divorce, and imagining seeing my dad again “on the other side.” An advance apology for all the times I’ve been petty and short and cruel with him. But he got better! And he’s doing okay now, thankfully.

“Susan, Medical City”
After my dad got better, my mom got cancer, and then she died 24 days after the diagnosis. I like that the one song leads into the other here, even though that wasn’t narratively planned or anything. My mom was Susan and she died in a hospital in Dallas called Medical City (I was born in a hospital in Houston with the same name). I was reading, when she died, a book she’d given me along time ago called Up High in the Trees about a boy whose mom died. This was one that just came about really quickly and easily, sitting with the guitar, as soon as the chords were there.

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