Ages and Ages: The Best of What's Next

Music Features Ages and Ages
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It’s a reverent, almost psalm-like chorus that wafts in on simple acoustic guitar chords and looping handclap percussion, then grows into a cathedral-majestic crescendo of voices: “Do the right thing, do the right thing/Do it all the time, do it all the time/Make yourself right, never mind them/Don’t you know you’re not the only one suffering,” sings Ages and Ages bandleader Tim Perry on “Divisionary (Do the Right Thing),” an irresistible track from the ensemble’s new sophomore outing Divisionary. One listen, and you can’t help it—you’re compelled to sing and sway along. And if the track’s zen-like lyrics feel like wisdom dispensed by some mountaintop sage? Hey—Perry won’t argue the point.

You can sense it in every uplifting Divisionary paean, like the sunny “Big Idea,” a galloping “I See More” rocker, the gospel-flavored “Our Demons” and a spooky, wah-oohed strummer “Calamity is Overrated”—Perry is no average selfie-snapping pop star. With professorial authority, he’ll expound at length on our technology-obsessed society—so perfectly documented in Mike Judge’s eerily prescient Idiocracy satire—and how we all need to sever the 24/7 newsfeed umbilical.

“The Internet is creating all kinds of very real problems for all of us,” he says. “And I’m just as guilty of it—you’re constantly checking your shit, like ‘What’s happened? Whats coming to me? I need a cool email that tells me something cool happened! Or somebody to mention me on Twitter!’ It’s this tool that really cashes in on our weaknesses.”

Singer/guitarist Perry—whose sprawling combo also features bassist/vocalist Rob Obendorfer, keyboardist/vocalist Becca Shultz, vocalist/guitarists John McDonald and Annie Bethancourt, plus percussionist/vocalists Levi Cecil, Sarah Riddle and Jade Brings Plenty—came up with the word “Divisionary,” in fact, to summarize how he and his fellow members were feeling. Isolated. Disaffected. A ghost in the zeitgeist machine.

“It’s a constant struggle to appreciate the reality of life, without getting too sucked in and attaching myself to these things that aren’t me, because none of it is me,” was his attitude before writing and recording this album. “And it’s definitely hard to abstain from all these social-networky things when the world is becoming that, but none of that has made me happy. So I needed a way to break off from that, while at the same time appreciating it. Because it’s not going anywhere—it just doesn’t need to define me.”

With a mostly different lineup, Perry had skimmed the surface of such topics on Ages and Ages 2011 debut Alright You Restless. But he dove deep this time around. And he employed a suitably spiritual method to do so. For 10 illuminating days, he swore a vow of silence and disappeared into a vipassana-meditation retreat, an isolated environment free from any outside influences. “And it’s interesting, because one realizes how addicted they are to distractions, essentially,” says Perry. “Anything from just grabbing a snack when you don’t need it, or just checking your phone, looking online, calling someone, or even producing stuff, like writing music—it was amazing to spend time where none of those things were available, and the only thing you could do was observe, inside and outside of you. It’s honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever willfully done.”

On Day One, the frontman thought he’d gotten the message. Why stay another nine days? He asked himself. Why not just check out early? He found the meditation itself physically demanding. “Because you stay in one position and don’t move, and it’s exhausting,” he allows. “But it’s also an exercise in what you, personally, are going to do to parse this out and get as much as you can out of it, while also being aware and forgiving of the thoughts that you’re having, like ‘Jesus! When is this going to end?’ It’s about not judging yourself, just letting yourself feel the feelings you have and not trying to push them away or pull them toward you, either. Just being observant.”

Perry began to notice subtle things about himself at first. “Like how I would look forward to meal time as if it were a theme park visit, like ‘Sweet! Time to eat an orange! Fuck yeah!’” he laughs. But it wasn’t funny for long. The time in seclusion started to affect him, physiologically, as well, even down to simple communication skills.

“During that time I was going through some vocal issues,” is how he downplays it today. But at the time, it was terrifying. And transformative. Unfortunately, he adds, he can’t share any details of his experience. “That’s why communication is not permitted there,” he says. “What you’re trying not to do is hear other people’s experiences that may or may not be similar to your own, and then seek that out. Like ‘They said they’re experiencing this – why am I not experiencing that?’”

When the man emerged, he was wiser, more grounded, and quite clear on the direction he wanted for “Divisionary,” which was finished in eight rapid-fire days with Dandy Warhols producer Tony Lash. He’d learned key lessons in the process, such as taking a more laissez faire attitude toward life, that things would rise and fall, come and go, and there was really nothing he could do to control it. “The only thing that matters is your own consciousness, and how you live amidst it,” he reckons. In retrospect, his vipassana enlightenment looms even larger.

“It’s strange when you think about the fact that the majority of us will go through life without ever doing this,” Perry says, somberly. “Without putting ourselves willfully into a situation where we’re not communicating, where we’re literally just spending time within our own minds. So it was weirder to me at the end of it that I hadn’t ever done that – that I’m in my 30s and I’ve never once spent that many consecutive days in silence. I would hope that everybody would think about trying it themselves.”

Perry chuckles over the old joke, where a man becomes a monk but can only say two words every 10 years; His first set: “Bed hard”; His second: “Food cold.” His third? “I quit!” “Well, it’s no wonder!” sneers his abbot. “You’ve been fucking complaining ever since you got here!” The Ages and Ages maestro would sign up for another life-changing retreat in a heartbeat, he swears. “It’s the same as getting back from a jog and somebody says ‘Jesus, man – you’re sweating and you’re exhausted! Are you ever going to do this again?’ And it’s like ‘Fuck yeah! I’m not going to run another four miles right now, but when the time is right…’”