Artist Interview/Album Review: Greg Mendez – ‘Greg Mendez’

Hallways decked in “blood red and gold,” a memory of jumping out of bathroom window to avoid the cops when “earlier that day we were both clean,” sweat-soaked clothes on a 93-degree day—Greg Mendez’s self-titled record is packed with lyrical snapshots, like disjointed stills from a life story cut together in a way that feels both casually indiscriminate and painstakingly calculated. There’s a musical path here that goes from dreamy to chaotic to quiet, but the lyrical images seem to seep through at random, like a cloud of smoke rising up from the crowd at a show and passing through a stage light before drifting into the darkness. This transitory feel to the record leads to countless replays, as a line about the possibility of finding a friend in the obituaries in “Hoping You’re Doing Okay” may catch you on first listen, while on the tenth pass you may get stuck on the “tool in a shed” metaphor that Mendez lands so adroitly in “Clearer Picture of You.”

On putting these songs together, Mendez said “the recording process was pretty long, about a year start to finish. I recorded it by myself at home, except the drums which were tracked with Evan Bernard at his studio (Jamtown). For the first chunk of it I had a lot of free time—I was out of work with an injury, collecting worker’s comp, collecting foodstamps. I was able to spend a lot of time working on it, and was also able to give myself breather periods, sometimes days or weeks, where I walked away and then was able to come back with a fresh view.” In regards to the album’s influences, Mendez cited “60s pop, Silver Jews, Elephant 6 bands, Elliott Smith, Margo Guryan, medieval art, and church music.”

More so than on his last record, Mendez seems willing to rely on his performance as a singer and acoustic player, stripping away much of the hazy accompaniment present on Cherry Hell. This approach seems to have grown out of Mendez’s decision to record on tape, as he said “I built the songs up from the acoustic/vocal takes, which were done live. Everything was tracked to tape except drums. This made it easier to be intentional and decisive—there’s no saving multiple takes on a tape machine, no comping stuff together or editing, you can’t be as fussy. I think that had more of an impact on the record than the ‘tape sound’ or whatever. In terms of the songs and arrangements I tried to be as minimal as possible, only adding parts that felt absolutely necessary. Whenever there was ever a question of whether something needed to be there, I would cut it and not look back.”

That minimalist method is clear in opener “Rev. John / Friend,” which starts with a solemn organ—the most common adornment to the acoustic and vocals throughout—before fading to just Mendez’s vocals and the acoustic. A rhythm section kicks in after a verse, shifting the song to one of the most crowded on the record, but everything is still relatively sparse, adding emphasis where needed but never getting too busy or pulling the attention away from the track’s breezy pop melody. A song that seems to reflect the sonic range of the record as a whole, Mendez said the track was almost left off, revealingI had tried recording an earlier version of this for Cherry Hell but it didn’t make it! It almost didn’t make this one either. I guess it’s maybe the most lyrically straight forward song on the record and I felt like it couldn’t go anywhere but first in the track list, it was inspired by two of my friends who were dating. Sometimes it’s hard for people who have been friends to break up.”

“Shark’s Tooth” and “Cop Caller” are the most dreamlike tracks here, with the atmosphere of “Shark’s Tooth” coming from an ambling acoustic pattern that reflects that feeling of loneliness and loss that permeates the lyrics. The electric guitar lines gives “Cop Caller” a surreal psychedelic feel, making it the track most reminiscent of Cherry Hell with its catchy repetition of “woke up to sweetness again” sneaking through head-spinning instrumentals.

Those more somber tracks lead into “Maria” and “Goodbye / Trouble,” the centerpieces of the record both in the literal track sequence and the album’s musical arc as the melodies are at their purest here and the instrumentation its most chaotic. Both songs feel like contradictory thoughts forced together as light, catchy vocal lines are countered with jumpy electric guitar lines. On “Maria,” Mendez said “I feel like a lot of my songs that describe addiction end up likening it to a toxic relationship with a person. Or maybe it’s the other way around idk. Probably both. Social stigma. I wrote this one pretty quickly, I had a concussion at the time and the melody, chords and lyrics just came out like vomit. One of my favorite basslines on the record.”

“Goodbye / Trouble” runs through memories of spending $60 on a metal t-shirt, chain smoking, and dealing with “shady bros” under one of the record’s most immediately rewarding instrumental landscapes. On the track, Mendez said “I like how upbeat this one feels while the lyrics are kinda dark and weird. Had a lot of fun with the guitars and bass. Inspired by some time I spent in New York City in 2010 or ’11. Back when the juggalos used to hang out in union square park.”

Mendez immediately pulls that energy back on “Sweetie,” as if the previous two tracks were a storm that passed through suddenly, but brought only momentary chaos. That chaos is answered with an organ that feels both sacred and demonic, unsettling yet comforting, while Mendez intones lines like “fuck I’m paranoid, like my mom” in his most reserved and monastic delivery on the record. “Clearer Picture of You” replaces the organ with an eerie silence before a slick electric guitar line comes in and the song morphs into one of the record’s lighter pop moments. Mendez described the track, saying “this one was written in 2011, I was living at my friend’s parent’s house (I think this lasted a couple months), working as a laborer for her dad (he was a deckbuilder). I forgot about the song for years, never got a good recording of it, but came back to it and edited the lyrics a little for this record. Inspired by the dynamic of some people I was friends with at that time.”

Continuing with the comedown from the album’s more hectic middle, “Best Behavior” and “Hoping You’re Doing Okay” find Mendez at his most alone, feeling like songs recorded in the dead of night alongside the flicker of candles. “Best Behavior” is a perfect example of what makes Mendez’s songwriting so enticing and easy to return to again and again, as he almost hypnotizes you with steady fingerpicking, allowing lines like “here’s a photograph where I look like I’m having a good time / but I’m not / and I know you can notice the difference” to naturally bubble up to the surface. 1970s rambler “Hoping You’re Doing Okay” closes out the record with a chord pattern that feels like a warm embrace from an old friend. Indeed, on what he hopes people get from the record, Mendez simply said “I guess the only thing I can hope for is that it will feel like a friend to people when they listen to it, it felt like a friend to me while I was making it.”

Disappointing / Average / Good / Great / Phenomenal

Greg Mendez is out today with vinyl and cassette available through Forged Artifacts and Devil Town Tapes.

Aaron Eisenreich | @slobboyreject

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