Taking a Deep Dive into Offerings with Kyle Morton of Typhoon

Janice Headley
photo by Eric Tra

If Ray Bradbury had been a rock star and not a sci-fi author, he may have come up with something similar to Typhoon's most recent release, Offerings, out now via Roll Call Records. The 14-track, hour-long opus is more than just an album; it's a full-on saga divided into four parts: "Floodplains", "Flood", "Reckoning", and "Afterparty." And at the center of it all is a man who is starting to lose his memory. It's easily the most ambitious project the Oregon-based band has ever tackled, and, with the absence of the horn section we've all come to expect from the group, their darkest-sounding album to date. 

While the number of band members has ebbed and flowed since they formed in 2005, the one constant has remained the band's frontman and songwriter Kyle Morton. And, at the same time Morton was tackling the complicated and somewhat personal narrative of Offerings, he also found time to release a solo album last year, the self-released LP What Will Destroy You. Earlier this year, Kyle was kind enough to talk to KEXP about the new album under a blistering hot sun at the Sasquatch Music Festival.

KEXP: The new album deals a lot with memory and the loss of memory. With the timing of the release, it could have gone into different directions: one, being a political sort of direction, but then I read that you just recently got married! 

Kyle Morton: [laughing] Yeah. 

So, I could see the romanticism, and I could see dealing with universal tension. 

To me, I tried to write the record on two levels: on a personal level and on a greater... you might say "political", definitely a social level. To me, they both work for getting to a place where you have no memory, you have no frame of reference, you have no historical guideposts, [which] is in itself a bad thing, but — and this is maybe a really cheesy out, but some of my favorite people do it — but something like love — maybe marital love, whatever it is — is one way to connect with the other. This sort of finding out from these like cycles of solipsism, cycles of like — you know, the popular word right now: "echo chambers." 

It's interesting to me that you'd say the loss of memory would be a bad thing. Is that your stance on it? 

I try to be really careful to say I wasn't making a record about clinical Alzheimer's or anything like that. It really was more about a subjective feeling. I started first from this kind of informal survey I had of people my age and younger who were always like, "Oh yeah, that thing that happened? That current event that just happened? I totally forgot about that." That was two weeks ago. This was in 2015 that I started writing for [the new album]. So, this feeling that we were caught up in a timescape that would reset the way the news cycles would happen or would reset. There didn't seem to be a lot of continuity to our lives. I think it has a lot to do with these little cell phones that we're speaking into right now. 

I was influenced a lot by this historian, Timothy Snyder, who has this idea of the politics of eternity. He says it's already something that is taking hold in Russia where there is no idea of the future, it's always like the enemies are at the gate. It's always a position of like the innocent nation is being attacked by the evil outsiders and they have transmission belts inside the country. And you see that playing out here in a lot of really scary ways. The record is a way to kind of try to deal with that, that deals with it in a very kind of abstract, artistic way. 

Performing LIVE on KEXP on September 9, 2013

Is that loss of memory, is it good or is it bad? One of the things that came to mind was that Michel Gondry movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? 

Which I love. Which I'm sure influenced this, especially with the "trying to grasp onto the last memory as it was collapsing." And it's hard to say; in that movie, it's also a little ambiguous. You try to take out this memory, you try to amputate it — which I have a line in the record, I'm quoting the record, which is maybe a total rip-off of Michel Gondry — but this idea that you try to get rid of the thing that's painful, you self-repress in order not to feel. You do that out of a base desire, but maybe if you were to step back, you would say, "no, I don't want to get rid of this thing that really hurt me or really caused me pain, because that's being human." If we numb ourselves to death, anesthetize ourselves to death, and watch CNN or FOX or whatever and have preprogrammed things we say to each other, it's really just like, well, we might as well be replaced by robots. 

That is so true. For a lot of people, that's why they self-medicate, that's why they get blackout drunk. A memory could be so painful, it holds them back from the things that they want to do. So, there's that, where loss of memory could be a good thing, but also, you know, be careful what you wish for... 

Yeah, I think it could be so hard to understand one's life if you forget everything, purposeful or not. I would consult some studies with people with Alzheimer's — again, I wasn't trying to do anything clinical but it's interesting to see and experience with my own grandmother. It's hard to say. It seems like it's different for everyone. My grandmother gets caught in these loops where everything starts over every 30 seconds. It's doesn't seem to be really particularly painful for her until she kind of recognizes it. Using that as kind of a metaphor as is useful because, yeah, you might feel fine if you drink yourself into oblivion all the time — but you probably won't, you'd be hungover a lot — but in the short term, it kind of works. You self-medicate. But in the long term, we see, like, the opioid crisis, which is self-medication run amok with big pharmaceutical companies feeding into them. 

You mentioned the loop of memory, like an elder with Alzheimer's or something like that, but also, like we were talking about earlier, the loops in American history. Like, the universe is on this constant loop. 

Yeah. I try to push back on that because you know it seems purposeful. We talk about Trump — there's actually an agenda to sort of do that, and it goes into the politics of eternity: "Make America Great *Again*" or "America First," which is a direct reference to the Nazi sympathizers of the '30s. There's all this reference to loop back to the '30s. 

Life can be cyclical and repetitive. But when you break out of that, just how big that can be. 

If you can just imagine a little bit of a future. Like that's the big thing for me. That's where I try as we're trying to go with the record. It's this character who was losing his memory, completely. He's gone to what I what I call "the devil's mansion," which is this other idea of Snyder's politics of eternity, where there are no defining features, there's no grass to hold on to, no details, no facts — it's just kind of floating. And his escape from it is just to remember one thing that actually happened that involved someone else. Like, it can't just be something happened to him. And in that way, there's a way to sort of imagine what is ahead, as well. And that's the escape route. That's the fire exit. 

That's where I was like, I wonder if this was inspired by getting married? 

It's a big one. My wife and I, we have been together for ten years. And you're right, it inspires you to where you want to have something that you want there to be a future for. Right. You want life to be better for the next generation. [The wife] and I were talking about having kids, and I'm scared shitless at the idea because of what we've been talking about. I have this little niece whom I love, and I just want there to be a world for her, and for this whole generation growing up. They get to inherit this. 

It's like what you're saying about the loops. Democracy is just this thing we've always had and doesn't really matter. And every time I see a big budget movie now, it's kind of surreptitiously authoritarian. If there's a leader, it's like they become a leader because of trial by combat. Or everyone's depending on one person to save everyone. 

Which is so interesting because the main character in your album, it takes looking outside of himself to break that... 

Yeah, that's the only way to get out of the trap. 

And that's the part that made me think of a wife or a child... 

Or a friend or a stranger. And I hope this is one of the lessons we learn with the advent of cell phones and technology and the Internet. The first experiment was like, "It'll all be fine! I'm sure it'll bring enlightenment" and all this stuff and I think what one of the lessons should be is: it's really hard to be a self if you only focus on the self, if everything else is just a mirror for you. Like if everything's just a photo op for you. It's really hard to be a person because people are inter-dividually determined, right? 

Recorded by KEXP from the Pickathon Music Fest on August 4, 2012

It's so interesting to hear you say that because you know Typhoon has a career of being a big band. 

[laughing] Our community, yes. 

... but then last year, you released a solo album! After many years of being that community, what was that like for you? 

At risk of pissing off the rest of my band, it was really fun and it was really easy. And we're talking about the Typhoon record which is very heady. And Typhoon records, for whatever reason, I came at this thinking like, "I'll just make a rock record. It'll be fun," and then as soon as I start thinking about it, it became very heavy. Typhoon records always seem to be really heavy. I've got these songs that are kind of orphans. So it was kind of an experiment and I really liked it. I mean, it's not Typhoon at all. And the reasons it's not Typhoon are its weaknesses and its strengths. A self-contained record. 

From a November 3, 2012 session on KEXP's Audioasis

You mentioned that you started writing Offerings all the way back in 2015? There was a little bit of an overlap? 

Definitely. It was kind of my break from Offerings, really. I was trying to be very casual approaching it, like "I don't want to do the white letter thing where I'm just killing myself trying to over-write the songs." I don't know it's a certain marginal utility, if I'm actually just hurting the song by laboring over it too much because Offerings took a really long time, it's a really long record, if we're talking about releasing a record in 2018, and releasing a really long record in the age of tiny attention spans, my own included. 

There is such a narrative and a story arc to the album. How did you approach creating a setlist for this album? I looked and saw what you've been doing live since the beginning of the year, and it's all the same. Which leads me to believe there's a logic to it? 

The first idea was, we just got to play it front to back on this tour, and our manager was like, "No, no, no! [laughs] You can't do that! It's 70 minutes long, and the first couple of weeks of your tour, it's not even released yet." I try to be very intentional about it, so it's not like, "Hey, what do you guys want to hear tonight?" I try to make it so it has movements that make musical sense and from a live perspective, might be different from a record. You know, there should be a chance at one point where I talked to everyone pretty early in the set or else I'll feel too weird and I can't talk to them? So, I gotta build that in. 

I know we have fans that will come out for multiple shows, so it'd be embarrassing for me to play the same set. We had someone in Europe when we played there who came to every single one of the shows, and it forced us to be like, OK, for [that guy], we better play a couple of different songs or else we'll feel kind-of silly. 

In the selection of the setlist, are you looking for things that fit into the existing Offerings narrative or are you leaning more towards stuff that lends itself in a musical way? 

I try to strike a balance there. I think we resigned to — until we really want to build a tour —  like, this is the whole record front to back, no talking, sound collages throughout... Until we do that, I want to do like movements from Offerings. What's kind of fun about it being about discontinuity of modern memory is that you can sort of like move things to different orders because you know the parts in the record that are like "OK, here's a moment from his life eight years ago" they are, in a way, interchangeable until the end. I feel the beginning and end have to be where they are, but everything else could thematically work. It's like one of those kids books where you have three cut-outs and you make different monsters. 

You definitely have a cinematic feel to the album. 

Yeah. I'm a failed filmmaker. 

As you were making the new album, you probably had some sort of visual in your mind? How have those matched up together with the music videos? 

To be honest, at first, I was like, oh no it's not right. But then I told myself, it's its own work. Our dear friend Matt Ross made the video. We had this discussion internally, so it's okay if I say this, but I was like, "No, this isn't what I had in mind." But no, actually this is probably better than what I had in mind. Unless we make the whole thing a movie — which we had originally talked about, but we had neither the budget nor the time. They've been really cool. In this last video for "Remember" — oh my gosh, the ending it's so, it's so beautiful. [The director] Jordan [Halland] is so talented. 

Are you pretty hands off with the directors when they start their videos? 

I was really hands-on with the "Rorsach" video at first. It's hard when you have a director who has their own vision. We butted heads butted heads a few times, and then I was like, you know, I should step back a little bit. I think it's always something that's a little more like curated from the start, which I would like to do. I'm happy with the big standalone videos that are kind of like, "here's a take, here's a hot take."

Are there more videos in the works? 

Only if they're volunteer-based because we ran out of money. [Laughs] I have a feeling that's it. We have had a couple really cool volunteer videos done. Micah Gardner made a very cool animated video for a song off our first album titled "Sickness Unto Death". 

That's really cool that it was just created by a listener. It kinda draws from that sense of community. Typhoon is you, but and not to sound like a hippie but it's also bigger than you. 

I don't even understand it really, because yeah, I write the songs but it's out of my hands almost immediately and then becomes something else. It really is like... like the thing with the music video. Maybe it wasn't exactly what I had in mind, and yet at a certain point to me... and this is where I differ from so many artists I read about, but I would rather keep all of my friends close and have a community where there's some compromise rather than to be like the auteur who's going you know agonize over it if it doesn't realize their vision. It's a little bit too authoritarian. 

Well, one of the things I loved that you did towards the end of last year was the Typhoon Family Concerts. 

The anniversary tour. 

Who came up with that idea? What was that like? 

I wonder who came up with that idea? [Laughs] We had talked about doing a small venue run, and I should give credit where credit is due — our manager Mark Jordan, he took that idea and ran with it. He was also sort of the brains behind the listening tour. We went out with tape recorders and had people listen to it. He's a smartie. 

It was kind of like test marketing for one, to play the new songs in small contained settings. One of the venues we played at used to be the restaurant my father owned for like 21 years. I worked there from like age 12 because when your dad owns a business, there are no child labor laws. That was really fun, but it was weird for me, doing a piece about memory and being in what used to be a nice little bistro turned into a rock club. 

So, yes, people have been asking, "oh, where are the horns on this?" I'm not gonna ask you that 'cause I'm sure you've been asked that a million times. But, the aspect I do want to ask about is... okay, the analogy that comes to mind is, you're a chef and someone says, hey, we need a dessert, but you can't use chocolate. 

Indie Rock Iron Chef. 

Exactly! How did you overcome that challenge to not use horns? 

I'll have to answer that horn question in passing here because early on, our horn section either quit or decided they didn't want to play horns in Typhoon anymore, they wanted to play something else. It was about the same time that I was more interested in these darker sounds, and the trumpet — which I love — is a very bright specific sound. And we're going for something a little sludgier, a little more porous. So, that was a rule early on, that this would be a guitar rock record with string orchestrations, and yeah, it was different. 

I was actually thinking about this recently. White Lighter [their 2013 LP] was so arrangement based. On this last record, I was trying to arrange with the mix with the textures, which is a different way of doing things. I would always [approach] arrangements as an answer to the, "oh I'm bored here, what do we do, where does it go," but for this, it's much more, "OK, what texture is happening there?" 

There's a lot of effort trying to give this feeling of like the waters of oblivion rising and consuming everything, you have chaos, you have some sort of noise, and then the tide goes out again, and you see these little formations. The first time you listen to the record, it's like, imagine all of these are flooded artifacts, but every once in a while, the tide goes out you get to see them again. 

Offerings is out now via Roll Call Records.

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