Youth Lagoon: Mapping the Mind

Music Features Youth Lagoon

Trevor Powers’ favorite part of his hometown of Boise, Idaho isn’t even in Boise at all; it’s Idaho City, about 40 miles northeast into the mountains. He likes its bars, its culture and how it’s covered in snow in the winter. “There are places to hike and places to just disappear if you want to be alone,” Powers says. “You can just drive 40 minutes and escape from everything.” This as if living in Boise, five hours away from the closest major city in Salt Lake, isn’t enough of an escape already.

For Powers, though, getting away from it all is everything. It’s why he couldn’t dream of living anywhere but Boise, his sanctuary; it’s why he can’t even think about writing songs while on the road, where distraction surrounds him; and it’s what fuels the sense of isolation and deeply personal introspection that characterizes the music he makes as Youth Lagoon. It’s not hard to imagine why Powers likes living and writing among Idaho’s mountains and rivers as well as under its legitimately awe-inspiring sky, which at any given time of day can contain multitudes from one horizon to the other. “I find that nature as a whole always plays a huge part in finding that inspiration for getting things out of your subconscious,” says Powers. The region’s expansiveness is, ironically, the perfect environment in which to turn inward.

Youth Lagoon’s 2011 debut, The Year of Hibernation, is stark and somber in tone, comprised of homemade drum beats; simple, looping piano lines and Powers’ childlike voice, a soft murmur crying out—sometimes with wistfulness, sometimes with hope—in an attempt to fill the expansive geography of his surroundings as well as the inner caverns of his own isolation. Thick reverb combines with lo-fi home recording quality to put the music at an appropriate remove from listeners, almost as if it’s being trasmitted from another era. On Wondrous Bughouse—”bughouse” is an old-fashioned word for an insane asylum—Powers isn’t so much trying to fill the void as he’s already occupying it and attempting to describe it. He approaches the album from a more cosmic and existential perspective, dealing with life, death and the intricacies of the human mind, particularly those of certain mental patients, hence the album’s title.

“I started thinking about the idea of people deemed crazy by society and how their minds take them to so many different places that sane or quote, unquote normal people can’t experience,” Powers explains. “Most of the time it’s a nightmare that they don’t want, but at the same time they see things from a very, very different perpsective than sane people do. Thoughts are basically electronic impulses that fire and fire and fire. With certain people, their minds are wired in totally different ways. To us, it’s like, ‘Oh, that person is crazy,’ but to them they live in a totally different reality and they’re seeing things we can’t see. I find that fascinating.”

Powers didn’t necessarily set out to write an album about the complexity of the mind, it’s just a thread of inquiry he stubbled across while mentally cordoned off in Boise during the writing process. “I was just trying to channel my subconscious,” he says. “Trying to break down barriers and not think about it too much and certain themes just kept reoccurring.” As his mind began to latch onto the themes that ended up informing Wondrous Bughouse, Powers got as far inside of them as he could, using what he found to shape his writing. His immersive approach is evident in the story behind the album’s cover art, which was done by a teenage girl Powers discovered while studying a book that examined teenagers in the ‘70s who had taken too many drugs, were hospitalized and then asked to paint and draw. Powers was so intent on using the painting that he ended up going through a long ordeal of tracking down who owned its rights (the original West German publisher of the book had folded). “I had this emotional connection to [the painting] and what she was trying to say back then,” remembers Powers. “I was ecstatic [when its use was approved] because it was really influential in the direction that it pushed me.”

Wondrous Bughouse is a three-, or maybe even a four-, five- or six-dimensional album sonically. Powers aimed to create a dynamic, living-and-breathing arena for his songs to play out in, exploring and coloring all of the nooks and crannies of the human psyche. The album leaves an impression that embeds itself deeper and is more difficult to describe than simply getting a hook stuck in your head. For guidance he turned to a number of musical touchstones that hold melody secondary to creating a soundscape so vivid and detailed that it transports the listener to a different world entirely, specifically This Heat’s 1993 album Repeat, which consists of only three tracks but runs for just under an hour. One listen to Repeat and the similarities to Wondrous Bughouse are readily apparent in terms of its use of unconventional effects that come and go as they please. The atmosphere the album creates can be likened to living in the creaking hull of a ship in the apparent randomness with which unfamiliar sounds bubble up and die down from every direction. “It’s taking you somewhere else mentally,” Powers says in reference to the type of music he was listening to while writing Wondrous Bughouse. “That’s what I really started to get into, the emotion behind certain kinds of experimentation sonically and what all that could do.”

But Powers wasn’t going to be able to translate the grandeur of his vision in a home recording studio in Boise. Fortunately, the success of The Year of Hibernation afforded him the opportunity to record Wondrous Bughouse in the Georgia studio of producer Ben Allen, known for his work with Animal Collective, Cut Copy, M.I.A. and, perhaps most importantly, Deerhunter and their 2010 album Halcyon Digest, which leaves listeners with a lingering, unified impression while still containing memorable individual tracks. The entirety of Powers’ writing and recording experience had, up to that point, been confined to Boise, where he had total control over every aspect of his music, and he admits that traveling the length of the country to work with a well-known producer was, at first, a “nerve-wracking” experience.

“My biggest fear was not being able to explain myself fully as far as the things I wanted,” Powers says. “As soon as we started talking about things I could tell instantly that everything was gelling. It was an amazing experience because he was the easiest guy to work with. With him it’s like a healthy wrestling match where I would have these certain ideas and he would help me wrestle with them to a point where they would be the best ideas possible. He just has a gift for stretching ideas.”

It was in the studio where much of Wondrous Bughouse’s vibrant texture was pieced together, or, more accurately, where it revealed itself to Powers. The pings, the beeps, the boops, the creaks, the rumblings, the ethereal ebbing and flowing—it all, as Powers says, “started to guide itself.” The instrumental opening track lays the groundwork, and for the rest of the album the listener is taken on a wild, unpredictable and poignant carnival ride through Powers’ subconscious and through the imagined consciousnesses of the inhabitants of his wondrous insane asylum, perhaps even of the girl whose art adorns the cover. The most striking parts of Wondrous Bughouse, though, are the stirring moments of pathos that spring up throughout the album, moments that weren’t present to such an extent on The Year of Hibernation and which bring to mind Youth Lagoon’s Boise indie rock fore-bearers, Built to Spill. Songs like “Raspberry Cane,” “Pelican Man,” and initial single “Mute” contain deeply moving instrumental turns of phrase, crystallizing organically out of the seemingly chaotic plane of sounds floating in and out of the listener’s aural periphery. Similar effects occur, of course, throughout our own lives—these unexpected and poetic emergences—just as they did when Powers sat down to write his sophomore album in Boise, his mind cleared of distraction, just waiting for his subconscious to play itself out.

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