Interview: Mo Troper

Posted: by The Editor

Photo by Maya Stoner

Mo Troper’s fourth album Dilettante is a sprawling, 28 song patchwork in the spirit of GBV but with the ethos of The Replacements’ Hootenanny and the fuzzy effervescence of The Exploding Hearts (a sound some are deeming “Mo-fi.”) Opening with the audio equivalent of a Big Dog t-shirt (an instrumental nu-metal tribute riff entitled “Total Euphoria”) and careening through a veritable diamond mine of power pop gems ranging from 30 seconds to 3 minute perfection.

I was stoked to chat with Mo about writing and recording Dilettante, adjusting to post-COVID life as an artist, expanding the rigid conservative confines of power pop as a genre, and how The Black Parade is the last self-serious rock opera in the culture.

The Alternative: Sonically, Dilettante is very of a piece with your earlier, more fuzzy, lo-fi records, but there’s an elevation in the songwriting and you’re trying new things – treading new territory in terms of your approach. You’ve spoken about how Natural Beauty was essentially trying to make a Jellyfish record on a budget. That was definitely your most ornate and arranged record to date. Was Dilettante’s approach a response to that? Or was it just situational – purely how things came about as you were putting together a new record?

Mo Troper: I guess it was both, kind of. I think the entire experience of making Natural Beauty, spending two and a half years on it or whatever, and then finally releasing it like three weeks before COVID. That whole experience…I didn’t really appreciate how deflating that experience was when it was happening. In hindsight, it sucked to put that much time and energy and money into a record and then for the world to basically end. There was a part of me that was like “Well I’m not going to do that again, because God knows what’s going to happen in the future.” It was a response to it in that way. But, like you said, it was also situational. I don’t really wanna spend a lot of time in a studio right now. It was the easiest type of record to make on my own, or mostly on my own.

I was talking to Sonia from Alien Boy about this. We feel like over the course of the pandemic, our friends have either reverted to straight rock, or gotten like super super into modular synthesizer territory. I feel like I went the other way. After not playing music with people for like 14 months, I was like “Fuck!” I wanna be really loud and just rock again. I was thinking about how it would sound live – records like that.

You wanted to take it “Back to the Shack.”

*laughs* Exactly! It wasn’t a conscious return to anything. There are different kinds of records that I like to make, and it’s been a while since I had made a record like this, so I wanted to do that again.

The fact that it’s 28 tracks is obviously a big talking point for the album. It’s front and center in everything that’s been out there about the record. Self-effacingly calling it a “data dump” aside, I think there’s a lot of really great tracks spread throughout the album. I really like how it has this “playlist as album” vibe by design. How many of those songs are songs you had lying around and recorded for this album as a clearinghouse? How much of it was written under quarantine? Was it meant to be this sprawling, GBV-esque journey?

It’s 60% songs I had written over quarantine, and then sort of like 40% stuff I had lying around. What happened is – I had a lot of stuff that I wrote over quarantine. It’s funny because I originally wanted to record an album that was like 15 minutes and it ended up being this thing where it was one or the other. I had a bunch of songs, but there was no soul or a way that connected the songs in a way that I could present them as an album. So I started thinking about doing this approach instead. It was really freeing, because it made me feel like I could unearth a bunch of songs – some of these songs I wrote when I was 18, and finally finished. Or they were recorded really poorly a long time ago, with different lyrics for my first band Your Rival. I had a friend in Portland text me, “‘The Blood Donor in Me’ – finally!” That was a song my high school band played live. There’s a video from 2012 of us playing it at Sound Off! – the Seattle battle of the bands thing. There’s a lot of song sketches that I’ve wanted to do something with for a long time, and I was pretty self conscious about them or didn’t know how to finish them and I finally had an outlet for that. I could just put it out as it is and that would be fine, because that’s how everything on this record is.

That’s really cool! Were the instrumental songs written before or after you came up with the approach for Dilettante?

No, those were old! Those were old riffs that I had lying around that I thought were funny. “Cum on My Khakis” is like a fake screamo song kind of. As soon as I committed to doing this kind of pacing for the album, I was like, “Welp, I can do all this other shit now!” There were some songs that I came up with as I was recording. “Wet T-Shirt Contest” was just a joke I had and I thought I might as well flesh it out and include this on a record.

I love those moments of levity! I mean, right off the bat, you start off the record with a KoRn pastiche. That rocks! I think that’s fucking awesome. You’ve got the horse whinnying sound effect to start “The Expendables Ride Again” – it immediately sets the record on a fun, funny note. If it had been 15 minutes long, it would have been your Tony Molina record – although in some ways this record did end up being your Tony Molina record anyway.

If you do a record that’s like 15 minutes, or sub 20 minutes – every song has to be phenomenal.

I think the batting average on this record is really good – and a lot of the songs are pretty short! They’re just fun little ditties. Stuff like “Sugar & Cream” – it’s such a sweet melody. They’re all cool songs – even though it’s 28 songs, the record still comes out to around 50 minutes long, and it just flies by. You had already recorded and released “The Perfect Song” last year – what made you want to revisit it for this album?

When it was originally written, I had always intended to be record it this way – in a very electric, rock band style. I thought it was a good song and even when I was considering doing a 15 minute record I still wanted to do a re-recording of “The Perfect Song.” I think the experience of practicing – we started to have our first band practices again around the same time I started making this record. “The Perfect Song” was on our set, and we thought it sounded good and good enough to re-record. I wrote “The Perfect Song” with the intention of not singing it. At the beginning of quarantine, I wanted to start a band with some other people. I think I was feeling pretty depressed and wanted something new to focus on instead of having to cancel a tour. Originally Brendan – who plays guitar with me – we were going to start a new band and write the songs but not sing. This Portland musician named Tuesday Faust was going to sing. That was going to be a rock band, but it never materialized. I just wanted to do “The Perfect Song” *the right way.*

I love both versions of the song! It’s a good taster for the next Mo Troper tour. Speaking of, you’ve alluded to not really wanting to tour anymore – are you ruling that out? I know you’re touring with Floating Room next month.

It really depends on the circumstances. The Floating Room tour is opening for Citizen and these bands that are just massive. It’s different from a DIY tour where you’re essentially losing money for no reason – unless you love driving through the badlands. It’s just like…the 25 day tours I was on where I would never get East of Denver – what the fuck was a I doing?! “2 shows in Flagstaff!” For a while, I haven’t wanted to do that. COVID and being pushed to go on a tour as soon as everyone got the green light and thinking “is this really worth it?” Assessing it – I kind of have a bad taste in my mouth. It’d have to be an incredible opportunity for me to want to do that. With this whole rollout, I didn’t send the singles to DSPs because I wasn’t expecting any pre-release *anything.* I just wanted to be really casual about it, and it’s ended up exceeding my expectations. I just spent all of my 20s listening to other people, and desperately searching for a label, and desperately searching for a manger, and having people tell me “Well, you should really play South By!” and I think that I have always had the most success and felt the most gratification when I’ve just done whatever I want. That doesn’t really include touring. I’ve been on a lot of tours, and it’s never really paid off.

From a lyrical perspective, you have some classic Troper tropes in play. Withering critiques of the scene seem to be a recurring theme in a lot of your songs. In “All My Friends Are Venmo” you kind of do the Cheekface or Kiwi jr sprechgesang that’s very social media driven and conscious. I have no idea what the fuck “Velvet Scholars Line” is about – that’s just pure Pollardesque phrases being spun together. That’s one thing I was particularly interested in – what the fuck is that song about?

It’s a bunch of Instagram pages for kangals and, like, large central Asian dogs – it’s captions on those pages translated. My instinct was that those translations looked a lot like Guided By Voices lyrics, so I wondered what they would sound like with a Guided By Voices style song. Originally the record was called The Famous Rat Mitali Straight Daughter of the Velvet Scholars Line – that was the original title. The cover art that Maya drew is inspired by one of those Instagram posts.

I love that! It’s reverse-engineering a GBV song. I guess I had clocked that! It’s very deliberately a GBV style song. Going back to “Venmo” – that’s a really fun and interesting new style of song for you.

It’s funny that people like that song. To me, that song is so clearly me doing an impression. My friend Nathan from Cool Original was saying it sounded like “if Jeffrey Lewis was an idiot and really into no wave.” He got it. Some people have been like, *affects voice* “Woah, that one just really knocked me out, man!” That’s cool.

I feel like I try and stay away from topical lyric territory. I wanted to do something that was very extreme and extremely unnatural for me – making every word was somehow topical. There isn’t really anything profound to me about that song.

That’s one thing I wanted to follow up on that was also percolating in my head while listening to the record. You’ve mentioned doing an impression as a song. You’ve got “Velvet Scholars Line” as this GBV impression, you’ve got “Wet T-Shirt Contest” as this Elvis Costello impression, you’ve got the math rock/screamo impression, you’ve got the KoRn/nu-metal impression. Are there other tracks where you’re just doing straight up pastiche?

“Sugar & Cream” is very obviously a fake musical theater song.

The word “musical” keeps getting thrown around with regard to this album – I’m assuming self-effacingly. How much during the process were you thinking “This is my American Idiot?”

*laughs* I don’t even know anymore! It’s funny how musical theater is eternally campy – it was campy then, and it was campy now. I never really understood the theater kid thing – there wasn’t really a theater department in my high school. What high school are these people going to – are they going to private schools??

Musically, there is a strain of musical theater albums that cross over into a rock or dare we say power pop territory. Little Shop of Horrors, Rocky Horror, pretty much any 70s musical that features a murder.

For sure. I think that’s a really passé idea. Very few people think doing a rock opera is cool right now, unless you’re My Chemical Romance.

In a way, Black Parade is the last major rock opera. Fucked Up did David Comes to Life but that’s more of a deconstruction or satire of the concept. Any modern “rock opera” has been a self-aware deconstruction – more like a post-rock opera really. I’ve never really considered that before! That’s kind of fascinating.

I haven’t really thought about that either! I think it’d be a lot more fun to turn an album into a musical than to go on tour *laughs* but I don’t have serious aspirations about that. It’s just a fun way of thinking about the album.

It’s totally funny! It’s 100% in line with the spirit of the album – it’s a musical! Why not?

We were talking about pastiche and song impressions. Some of it is just my friends’ bands in Portland. I think for a lot of it I was inspired by something specific. It makes it a lot easier to finish songs that way, when you have a clear template.

This is your first record since you made your [since deleted] exhaustive, ranked list of the 100 best power pop artists last year. Not without some controversy from the old guard of power pop! Was there any kind of influence from you compiling that that went into the songwriting on this album?

That’s a really interesting question. That was my first real post-COVID project, where I finally had some time where I wasn’t working. After writing that and seeing the response, I was kind of turned off by power pop, and turned off by myself and my own sensibilities. I do think that kind of pushed me into doing something that was more modern or raw, or just getting further away and distancing myself from whatever *that* is. I don’t want to become that – the Jon Wurster, Power Pop Pop-Pop. I don’t want to become a facsimile of this thing that already exists and was done a lot better 20 or 30 years ago. Some people are really embedded in that world and they really do orbit the Des Moines Popathon.

The power pop burnouts.

*laughs* Yeah. It just made me feel like I had more in common with people who were into like punk and indie rock. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced that. One of the things that inspired that list was that there are a lot of people who arrive at power pop from Motion City Soundtrack, or whatever, and then they discover Fountains of Wayne, and Fountains of Wayne namedrops The Raspberries, and so on. I’m on new medication now and I’m not as easily chafed, but I was really annoyed for a while when there would be, like, some true blue pop-punk band and some publication would call them power pop. That’s a really dorky thing to be annoyed about, but I wanted to set the record straight.

New Found Glory: Not power pop!

*laughs* Exactly! I guess somehow I wasn’t stringent enough, for some people. That’s the one really cool thing about those playlists that Brad [Shoup] made – how nondiscriminating they are. That’s how I feel too.

I totally agree! Earlier this year I did an interview with Matt from Hurry and we talked about how conservative a genre power pop is. It may be conservative in terms of the confines of how you specifically go about creating a power pop song, but pretty much anyone can do that regardless of what type of artist they are. A band who’s nominally not power pop can write and release a power pop song. “Little Black Dress” by One Direction is 100% a power pop song in any era. It has every touchpoint of the genre and sounds like The Raspberries! It’s a generational thing, I think. A lot of us as millennials and Gen Z don’t have the same thinking with regard to genre. Millennials through the tumblr era were obsessed with genre to the point that they were creating microgenres – an excuse to compartmentalize genre to the nth degree and pave the way for our genreless future. Approaching power pop in that capacity – it’s the poptimist approach to power pop.

Yeah, totally!

Speaking of the Power Pop Gods, this is also your first album since recording and releasing your Revolver cover album. Did unlocking the keys of The Beatles’ arrangements give you any juice for this record, or was it incidental? Just limbering you up to make Dilettante?

It limbered me up, and that’s another example of something I did because I just wanted to do it. I wanted to do it really quickly, but it was something I did entirely on my own terms, and the response to it was pretty cool. I think in that way it was inspiring. It was like “Wow! I just decided to do this thing, and I put it out, and people seemed to like it – why don’t I just do that with my real music?” In that way it was freeing. I just think that I’ve spent so long not doing fun music stuff like that – every album needed an annoying rollout and then I’d have to go on tour and it doesn’t result in anything. After I thought, “I should do this kind of thing more!”

So what’s next? Are we going to see a modular synth Mo Troper record? You mentioned different kinds of albums you could make – is there another album you think you could put together that you still have in the chamber?

*laughs* The only “type of album” that I’ve wanted to make that I haven’t had the chance to is like an album that is totally acoustic – like a Dear Nora or Nick Drake type of record. I love that stuff but I’ve never made it. I think that’s a really challenging kind of record to make. That’s something I’m interested in making at one point. But also – it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to put out a piece of music and just chill, and I feel like I can do that this time around because of these circumstances. I don’t have a new album written and I’m not really thinking about it. It feels good.

Dilettante is out now


Luke Phillips | @EldoonLDP

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