A catchy melody doesn't just get stuck in your head – it lives there. You sit with it, sometimes for days or even years, ruminating on it whether you want to or not. Writing just one of these songs can be an accomplishment. Portland songwriter Mo Troper does this 15 times over on his latest album, Exposure & Response, out November 17 via Good Cheer Records. Resounding string arrangements, chunky guitar chords, and booming drum patterns coalesce, coming and going at a rapid pace before Troper moves on to his next big idea. Just try and get the single "Wicked" out of your head, with it's snapping rhythms and undeniable chorus.
In true power-pop fashion, Troper's music maintains catchiness without losing an aching, emotional core. Troper's skills at arrangement and melody are only paralleled by his deft lyricism. Throughout the album, he plays both cynic and romantic. One minute he's shouting undying love on "Jumbotron," the next he's calling out Ivy League elitism on "Big School." He takes on the absurdity of the music industry on "Your Brand" and frequently calls himself out on his own bullshit on songs like "Clear Frames" and "The Poet Laureate of Neverland" – peppering self-criticism throughout the record. Listening to the record is immersing yourself in the dysfunction of the world through Troper's eyes. He doesn't claim to have the answers and is candid about his own flaws throughout.
The world can be a fucked up, demoralizing place. But there's always been a catharsis in being able to belt out about the things that bring you down. Exposure & Response offers that up again and again. Who else other than Troper could make you want to dance and shout about the twisted nature of marketing off of personal tragedy or coming to realizations that, "oh, maybe I'm the asshole?" We caught up with Troper to learn more about his love for hooks, his background as a music critic, getting older, and whether or not "rock and roll can change the world." You can also stream Exposure & Response in its entirety ahead of its release below.
KEXP: It’s pretty clear early on listening to Exposure & Response that you love big hooks, each song feeling catchier than the last. What got you into power pop and got you into writing such melodic music?
Troper: I love pop music and always have. It's in my DNA. I spent the first six years of my life in this sanctuary of '60s and '70s pop ephemera. My family lived all over LA in small one bedroom apartments, and all of my father's records and weird Beatles bobbleheads and stuff would take up the entire bedroom and we would sleep on the living room floor. My parents were younger than I am now at the time, and it was probably a really dysfunctional dynamic in some ways, but it was also the happiest I have ever been. I spent all day listening to music that was really great or watching the Jackson 5 cartoons or shows like Ready Steady Go! I was obsessed with The Beatles. I brought a copy of the White Album to a preschool show and tell, and could make the distinction between the band's US and UK releases by the time I was five. I was a sponge of useless information.
I'm fine with claiming the power pop tag, although that's not the only kind of music I like. I appreciate how earnest and obstinately uncool power pop is. It's just a bunch of people who want to sound like The Beatles, and I think most power pop bands are pretty transparent about that. It's this weird continuum like folk or country, where being derivative is sort-of the point.
KEXP: Your records often fly by at a rapid pace with your latest blazing through 15 songs in about 30 minutes. Is there something appealing to you about writing shorter songs and albums?
Troper: My first big love after The Beatles was video game music, particularly the work of Nobuo Uematsu, Yoko Shimomura, and Koji Kondo. Before you could find every game OST ever on YouTube, I would listen to MIDI covers of this stuff on VGmusic.com constantly. Even when video game music got grander and more symphonic during the PlayStation and N64 era, it was still super melodic and repetitious in a way that's very reminiscent of pop music. Before repeating, a lot of these pieces are only like a minute long, so I think that left a big impression on me. I also get pretty bored with myself after three minutes. I subscribe to the Robert Pollard school of thought, which is, why spend an endless amount of time on one song when you can just write a new one? I am very much a "first draft" songwriter.
KEXP: Aside from being a musician, you also write about music. How has your experience listening and dissecting music as a journalist/critic effected how you approach your songwriting?
Troper: Both of these things have affected each other. I think musicians come from a unique place when writing about music. A good example is that piece Mitski wrote about Weezer recently, which is great and probably couldn't have been written by someone who doesn't play music. The musician part of me gets pretty annoyed at music writers who just exist at the periphery of "the scene" and aren't actually involved in any meaningful way. That doesn't feel like journalism to me. But then the music writer part of me also gets annoyed by musicians, because they can be pretty annoying. I can be annoying, too, and so I get annoyed with myself. They're dual lives that can be hard to reconcile. As far as it affecting my songwriting specifically, I think it's had the biggest effect on my lyrics. I approach writing lyrics the same way I approach writing anything, and usually have some specific topic in mind before I start writing a song. I love wordplay, but I still think my lyrics are pretty prosaic.
KEXP: Throughout the album, there’s a sort of theme, not sure what the best way to say it, but “calling out bullshit.” Sometimes it’s the world and industry around you like on “Your Brand” or it’s pointed at yourself like on “Clear Frames.” I read in an interview for your last record that feelings of frustration became a creative outlet. Would you say that’s still true on Exposure & Response? What appeals to you about writing from this perspective?
Troper: I think if there's a theme to this record, it's of getting older and being lonely and maybe coming to terms with normalcy. I wrote these songs while I was living in LA, and I wasn't really doing anything there. I was playing video games and getting takeout. I had basically no social life, and it was a big contrast to my life in Portland, where I was running a record label and constantly going to shows. Maybe some of the lyrics on this record amount to "cultural criticism" or whatever but I am mainly making fun of myself.
KEXP: Between the soaring melodies and the irony and insights infused in your lyrics, there’s a really fascinating dichotomy going on. Do you intentionally think of this juxtaposition when you’re working on material?
Troper: I do to a certain point. I always like when there's a contrast between music and lyrics. I admire lyricists like Randy Newman and Andy Partridge from XTC for that reason. But it's never too calculated with me.
KEXP: So much of the record feels like it’s taking on the world, but you also have these moments where you really bring it inward and open up about some really personal feeling and collections, like about your father on “Old Man” and your mother on “Waiting Room.” What made you want to pull back the veil on some of these songs and how do you feel the fit into the larger themes of the record?
Troper: I don't have a good answer for that, other than I wouldn't have written songs like that when I was younger. Maybe it's fitting that I reflect on my parentage at the end of an album that's about growing up.
KEXP: On the opener to the album, you seem to be lamenting the naivety of the idea that “rock and roll will save the world.” If it can’t save the world, what do you hope your music does for people?
Troper: I want my songs to get stuck in people's heads. At the most, it would be cool if my songs moved them. I think "Rock and Roll Will Change The World" can be read both ways. It's me recognizing that rock music is anachronistic and inherently kind of masturbatory. But I also play a guitar solo in that song. Despite its flaws and all the baggage that comes with it, I think rock music can still be transformative.
Portland songwriter Nathan Tucker shares the third volume in his series of home recordings and chats with KEXP about home recording and his hometown inspirations.
Every week, KEXP features a new local artist with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. This week we're highlighting Seattle children's band Recess Monkey, who play KEXP's Deck The Dock this Sunday from 2 to 4 PM.
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