At the End of Everything, Mega Bog Remains
Erin Birgy talks personal trauma, the expansion of the Mega Bog universe, dressing up in the studio and Thin Lizzy's influence on synth-popPhotos by Amanda Jasnowski Pascual Music Features Mega Bog
The latest Mega Bog album—End of Everything—is a triumph in more ways than I can count. From the very first rain of synthesizers on “Cactus People,” it’s clear that bandleader Erin Birgy has crafted something of a masterpiece. Since the early 2010s, Birgy has remained a mainstay in the avant-pop world—often preceding and outlasting many of her peers. From the days of Gone Banana to, recently, Life, And Another, her work has often been genreless, absurd and, consistently, indescribable in most instances. End of Everything, her pivot to synth-pop, is the first time I’ve ever been able to describe a Mega Bog album to anyone. It’s glitzy, personal, accessible and heavenly.
Born from a place of sobriety, personal trauma, a dying planet and violence, End of Everything awakens every itch in my bones and immediately scratches them. Initially teased via lead single “The Clown,” it was clear that Birgy had found a new chapter in her artistry. The track was both present and hypnotizing; the “every little wonder leaves you” outro has me in shambles every time I hear it—which is regularly and, usually, on repeat. Even with half of 2023 still yet to unfold, I am confident that few songs released between now and 2024 will arrive more celestially or gracefully than “The Clown.”
Over a year ago, I caught one of Birgy’s sets on her tour with Cate Le Bon in February 2022. It was immediately after Le Bon’s latest album—Pompeii—arrived to a bounty of critical favor, and the venue they were tapped to play at oversold its own capacity in response. But the sardine-packed room didn’t deter Birgy from delivering a light’s-out set packed with tunes from her entire career—though she did give a special focus to the cuts from Life, And Another. She hasn’t played much since last summer, opting to tend to her poetry and float into the cycle of End of Everything. In what has been the quietest era of her career thus far, it only makes sense that her return to the limelight comes wrapped in colorful, eruptive packaging.
Whether it was across the tracklists of something like Happy Together or Dolphine during the last decade, I’ve often returned to Birgy’s Mega Bog albums as a place of sanctuary. From her modernist vocals to her band’s communal expression of instrumental witchcraft, I find myself entranced by the mystique of it all. Birgy’s “haunted rodeo town” roots aside, she is a living document of folklore soaked in blood. And, as talismanic as End of Everything is and will remain, this feels like our first real glimpse into who Birgy is beyond the shield of the Bog. The album’s cover speaks volumes: A painting of Birgy, naked, splayed out atop a bed. End of Everything, despite its apocalyptic title, is a reclamation of autonomy more than it is a past door being pulled shut.
I’m glad we all get to sit with this album at this very moment. To experience the Mega Bog universe if a gift, especially as it continues to grow towards the century mark in membership. From Meg Duffy of Hand Habits to James Krivchenia of Big Thief, the footprints on End of Everything are cast in solid gold. For some, the album will be a delicious, biblical reference of electronic refuge; for others, a 33-minute purging of catastrophes near-and-far.
Last month, I rang up Birgy while she was at home in Los Angeles to talk about End of Everything. Read our conversation below, which transformed into a vulnerable hour of discussing trauma, her forthcoming poetry book, the expansion of the Mega Bog universe and how Thin Lizzy helped shape the ethos of synth-pop.
Content Warning: This interview contains mentions of assault and drug and alcohol use.
Paste: Tell me about how End of Everything came together after Life, And Another.
Erin Birgy: I’m always writing. I actually took a little break while we were wrapping up Life, And Another. I started writing End of Everything before Life, And Another came out. It’s just a batch of songs from a phase after that batch of songs. And a lot of the stuff that was going on was just very intense and tragic. “Anthropocene” was the first song that was written in this batch and that was at the end of 2019, when the Amazon was on fire. It was a bad part of the year in that way, too—a lot of personal traumas, old ones re-emerging and new ones occurring kind of shockingly. It’s maybe the shortest record I’ve ever done, aside from an EP. It just needed to be made, we had to go into the studio. Otherwise, I feel like we were gonna—especially me—just fall apart. “Tbe Clown,” specifically, a couple months ago, I went through the old voice memos that were the first versions of the song. It’s very pitiful and soft in the corner of a room on guitar and I think, because of the madness that was happening around the time we decided to record, we just hyped up the energy 400%.
It was really refreshing to tap into the record—it’s pretty much a dance record—and listen to it around the third anniversary of the pandemic. Was there something specific, personally, about the catastrophe of the last three or four years that really, when you sat down to put these tracks together, beckoned the upbeat hooks and punchy arrangements?
Yeah, a lot of Bog music, historically—and even in this case—comes from a place of desperation. A month before we went in the studio, I was writing a batch of songs and had gone through a pandemic breakup and was finding my bearings writing music again. But I only had as many songs as you hear. I usually have 30 songs, minimum, to choose from. I think everybody got a bit feral and scared in a really intense way, no longer sure of who they were. My personal experience with that was, right before we went into the studio, a stranger came into my house and assaulted me. I didn’t cope very well with it, and it felt like the culmination of all the fear. And I kind of understood that. I was like, “Well, what else would have happened?” It’s not like I’m safe in the world and it’s not like they felt safe in the world. I guess that is what it is.
It was the destructive force to propel that transformation sooner than later, because I didn’t know how to deal with it any other way than to just surround myself with friends in the studio and bang [a record] out. And we did really well, considering what kind of time it was for everybody. But, especially, I think it was pretty hard on my friends—the band—to watch me go through that. [End of Everything] is that process of figuring out what to do with that energy and deep transformation. We had to be much more straight and powerful than anything we’ve done before, because of that.
I’m very sorry you went through that, that’s horrible. I know that you got sober while you were making this album, too, which makes the personal and ecological themes of destruction much more immense. When personal and societal disasters are happening concurrently with each other, what does a creative spark look like alongside that—when you’re trying to navigate through your own grief and trauma at the same time?
It was just so chaotic, all the things I just talked about in the last five minutes are pretty chaotic. I was struggling to access my creative spark; I felt like I was totally out of pracitce. I didn’t have a routine that felt healthy at all to the creating, which I’ve always had, even in chaotic moments. But I didn’t anymore. I still had something in the back of my mind, saying: “You’re worthy of structure and healing. You have this talent and these gifts, are you going to let them disappear?”
I feel like all of my desires were fear-based desires. I’ve just been on tour my entire adult life, doing cool shows and rodeos and stuff. I never really had to sit with many of the feelings that were processed in the time that we took to make this record. That was an empowering thing, knowing that space for that needed to be made. There’s a whole set of unknowns and, just the idea of, like, that party’s over—that isn’t serving me anymore, and we’re capable of more. You can do anything, just making space for a new mystery. I knew that I wasn’t gonna be able to get my shit together to complete the creative side or the social side of forming alliances with [my label] Mexican Summer or my new manager. I didn’t feel like I was able to treat people the way that they deserved to be treated, and that seemed like a good first step.
Absolutely. And you mentioned that you’ve spent a lot of your adult life on tour. The pandemic happened and then you went on tour in 2022. I caught your set when you opened for Cate Le Bon in Columbus, actually. But you were on tour for a lot of 2022 and you haven’t played a show since last summer. After the cycle of Life, And Another finished, what was the comedown like for you?
We did a tiny record release tour just off the West Coast and a New York show in the fall of 2021. And that was my first time going back and playing, and it was challenging. I was newly sober and nobody else on the trip was and that was complicated. There’s just so much fresh clarity and awareness. I had a feeling, in my gut, like, “Well, I love Cate and I love touring. I know I should do this.” I’m finding that, now, I don’t really believe in the word “should.” It really can be destructive. I felt like I had to do it, though, because, being off the road for so long, so many venues and promoters and people in the community were changing their lives dramatically or shutting down. I just restructured everything a little bit. Support tours don’t pay a ton, so I had to be creative with the presentation. It was challenging, for sure. But, I learned so much and focused way more on gratitude. In the past, I felt more demanding, especially with drugs and alcohol. I’d get to the venue and demand my bottle of tequila before I’d do anything.
This time, it was just like, “We’re here. It’s cold. But it’s exciting. And the music we’re gonna play will be wonderful. And even if, for some reason, it’s uncomfortable, there’s so many joyful, playful, experimental expressions to try to share with an audience in different cities.” The purpose of playing music is to encourage others to see the magic in themselves. That was the focus for those couple of months of touring with Cate. “The circumstances aren’t perfect, but we have something to share and I’m confident in my ability.”
And you’re pairing End of Everything with a book of poetry, The Practice of Hell Ending, which I personally love, because the first writing that I did in a professional, creative sense—before interviewing musicians—was poetry. What inspired you to couple an album and a book together?
I always wanted to, but I never had the organization for it, I suppose, or the confidence. It’s quite scary, the words are not blanketed in anything else. I studied journalism and poetry, but I dropped out of high school early. But I really wanted to be a writer and a lot of stuff happened, as it does in life, especially when I started music and touring. I just put that kind of writing on the back burner for the last decade. I picked it up again, as a practice, but not specifically meditation. Just another function to ground and process. And a flex, where you can say “I can do this thing that makes me happy and I can do it regularly and reliably.” Sharing it, I thought I would make a companion book to the record.
But, as we were wrapping up the mixing, I was looking at all the writing I had done and it was newer than when we were writing the record and I think it was for the better to use things that weren’t written during that chaotic time. The album is so severe, titled End of Everything. And then [the book’s] title, The Practice of Hell Ending, it’s like, “There’s something else, too. And I wrote about it and here it is.” And it does fit really well, in the context of having the same release. It’s the other side of the coin.
I think that, sometimes, poetry and lyricism and songwriting get lumped together as similar mediums of art. But I’m curious about what you were able to explore in your poetry that you haven’t been able to really explore in a song and then vice-versa. What can you find through a song that poetry might not be the right outlet for?
For sure, there’s self-inflicted inhibitions with either one of them. I write on a page, it’s not all the thoughts at once but it does feel like there’s a flow—versus crafting lyrics to fit within the confines of a musical arrangement. When I make instrumental music, it feels similar to when I’m just writing a poem on a page. And I write a couple of poems a day, to continue the grounding process. It’s the same with music, I will sequence it just to understand it more. Writing something that will become a piece in a book or a piece on an album comes from a desire to explore, and curiosity is a beautifully reliable thing.
On [End of Everything], in particular, there’s repeating choruses and the lyrics are simpler. They’re not stretching vocabulary and they’re not stretching the listener’s attention. They’re straight and sincere. And I think the poems are similar, but there’s more freedom to just go off on an idea that’s not wrapped around a piece of a song that repeats over a three-minute marker.
I read that you had changed the style in which you wrote the songs for End of Everything, where you switched to writing them on piano instead of guitar. How does that change the way that a composition comes together or what its potential can be for you?
It was exciting, because it was something unfamiliar. I felt like it was a good thing that was useful to my spiritual development, as well as humbling—because I didn’t learn how to play piano at all. I think, because I love music so much and my spirit is still deeply in these songs, the structure had to be different, because I wasn’t just subconsciously flying around and using a lot of experimental chords. I didn’t know how to do arpeggiations, I had to learn how to use my hands totally differently. It hurt, physically, and, trying to have compassion with yourself for not knowing how to do this thing, it was strange.
I played some synths on the record, but Aaron Otheim filled out the parts that I left open for him to do some arrangements, because I didn’t know what I was doing. We have so much to offer one another in different ways. That was great, too, because I collaborate a lot. I have many friends who have made music with me for a long time, but I’ve never really surrendered in that way, like, “Here’s my idea for the arrangement, but I don’t understand that. We need your help.” Asking for help, with all of the things, is pretty new. I feel like I was born a pretty prideful person, but the last couple of years I have learned that I need help with a lot of stuff. And that’s very cool.
Much like other Mega Bog records, it’s really an all-star lineup on End of Everything. I was glad to see Meg Duffy return to play some tunes. And then Jackson MacIntosh is on there, James Krivchenia. Real incredible players lending a hand. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted a big team in the studio again to bring the vision of End of Everything to life?
This was actually my attempt at a smaller band. [Laughs] There used to be 10 people in the studio at any given time, which is a lot when you’re trying to do an overdub session. But we wanted that camaraderie to be present on the record, and it is. And it’s, comparatively, very chaotic to End of Everything, I think. These are just my friends that have been my friends for the last decade, or more. Whenever one of us is making a record, we’re on call—just to talk or to lay out a demo. We all knew each other from very different places, and I guess I do still feel a lot of pride for bringing all of them together. But we all lived in the same place for the first time. We don’t have to fly out, it’s just like, “bike over to Tropico [Beauty] and deliver the sweetest licks.” It was just so fun.
The first session was pretty somber and intense, and then we tinkered with it for the following year. We would just call Phil [Hartunian] and be like, “Is the studio open today?” It was really nice to relax and, not to go too deep on therapy language, co-regulate with these people who have always been good friends and been around for each other’s growth and healing. It was so awesome, being able to do this together.
We would show up and make tea. We’d all dress up, too. James was really adamant about playing the producer role. He is the suavest person among all of us. He has a producer outfit and he usually asks me to lay it out for him. He’s on tour right now [with Big Thief] wearing this wild space suit he asked me to design. These are elements of ourselves that are there, we just don’t always know how to nurture them. And, I think dressing up is a good first or second step of that awareness. We are actually deserving and we are special people and we can deliver music in the same way that we love to listen to music. It doesn’t have to be soft. We’re going to show up and be as loud as we want to be. And that was really fun, and it was good practice with these people that I’ve been with through so many phases.
I think it was back in 2015, during your KEXP session, where you said that there had been about 65 people that have played in or with Mega Bog. What do you think that number is up to now, in 2023?
[Laughs] So many! There’s so many amazing musicians in the world who want to show up for each other, and that will never end. I remember tallying up the number seven years ago. I think it was at 80 [Mega Bog members].
Thinking about influences, is there a pipeline from Thin Lizzy to synth pop that not enough people are talking about?
I’m not sure if the pipeline is the same for everyone, but I think the obvious tie is the shameless passion and the will to explore that and experience the guilt and shame for being ourselves. I live a life that I really love at this point, but I have always felt really out and uncool and I think that is the unifying factor with music, as well. These people were treated like shit to the point where they resorted to practicing magic to feel okay on Earth, which I also did. It resonates—I have to take only the essentials, because nobody understands how much violence I’m enduring on a daily basis. The music brings all the other outcasts out. We’re all gonna meet and be free.
Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.