On the opening line of Philosophical Zombie’s debut album, Loneliness Is Blue And Not Blue, Ted Billings sings “I have traveled ’round all kinds of sorry states.” Over a heavily distorted guitar and bass that sound like they’ve exploded through the speakers, this line could be heard as a mission statement for an album characterized by its raw, visceral sound and lyrics.
That raw sound, which often reminds me of Bob Pollard putting Wilco’s latest record through hell, is the product of Billings recording the tracks in true lo-fi fashion with only a guitar, bass, one mic and a laptop. Intended only as demos to be fleshed out with a band, Noel Heroux and Jessica Zambri of Killer Wail Records convinced Billings he had a finished album.
Rock and roll was never meant to be clean and polished, and this record is a reminder of the days when stolen guitars and blown amps filled the space between the grime stained walls of 70s NYC clubs like CBGBs and Max’s with an undying energy. Billings finds balance between the tremendous melodies of Big Star, Indie sensibilities of Pavement, and even tosses in a riff reminiscent of AC/DC on “Liar.”
Listening to Loneliness Is Blue And Not Blue countless times, it’s hard to imagine the songs any other way. When Billings sings of battle scars, dark clouds and desperate times, it’s only fitting that the accompanying melodies sound like they’ve lived a life filled with plenty of rough patches.
I recently reached out to Ted Billings of Philosophical Zombie to talk a bit about the new record. Here’s what he had to say:
Mecca Lecca: The story is that Loneliness Is Blue And Not Blue was not originally intended be anything more than a self-recorded collection of demos to further develop with a band. How did Noel and Jess (of Killer Wail Records) convince you that it should be released in its raw state? Were you receptive to the idea from the start, or was it an idea that took time to warm up to?
Ted Billings: It didn’t take much convincing really. They were in Boston for a party at Editbar we were all going to. I was staying at a hotel that night and they came over and hung out before we all went to the party and we just talked about it. They’re just really good friends and I respect them both so much artistically so when either of the suggests something I listen. And I just hadn’t considered it was good enough, even though during the period of recording I was literally obsessed with it. It was all I thought about or did. So I tried to listen again a few times objectively and with a “deny the error” attitude. I ended up hearing the charm. And after Rick and Heba did their thing, I really really loved it. It’s my favorite piece of work.
ML: How would you say you’ve grown as a songwriter since your days in Age Rings?
TB: Just the normal, boring things that come with age I guess. Your instincts get a little sharper, you get to know yourself a little better, finding your voice in a deeper way, what’s honest and true to you, etc.. Sometimes you forget how odd it is to sit in a quiet little room with nothing but your mind and try to pull a tune out of it. It’s a weird thing when you think about it. But the mind is endless and when you successfully express some abstract feeling or thought in 3 and a half minutes it’s literally a thrill. I just love doing it.
ML: One of the defining characteristics of Loneliness Is Blue And Not Blue is your guitar. How’d you get that “crunchy” sound?
TB: My guitar and the way it’s tuned and the gauge of strings I use is the main reason I think, but I just plugged it right into the computer and used like amp simulators. But I also didn’t used monitors when I was doing all this so the only thing I heard was an un-amped guitar and the click track and any playback was through my laptop speakers. So I didn’t even really have a great idea as to what they sounded like at the time. Its wasn’t until Rick mixed that I really heard what everything I had done fully sounded like. I’m not an engineer and if you asked me to make it sound like that again I probably couldn’t. It was all instinct and turning things all the way up and basically just fucking around until I like it. But “liked it,” I don’t even really know what that meant. Again, I was in an obsessive state when I was did it so I don’t really remember a lot.
ML: How have your own music tastes changed over the past decade, and how has that been reflected in your own work?
TB: It’s pretty much the same I think. I’ve always enjoyed a pretty wide variety of artists and genres and still do. As far as my work, I’m not really sure – people say they hear this band or that band when trying to describe and some I haven’t even heard. Books and movies are the things that usually inspire me to write. And I like to meditate now, I guess that goes back to what’s changed since Age Rings. That’s been really something that’s opened different parts of my mind. “Peace Be” is about that. Though sometimes I just end up taking a nap.
ML: How’d you end up practicing meditation?
TB: I decided to put more effort into taking care of myself a few years ago and it just helps in many areas of my life. Like most people, my mind can be a very un-fun place to be and slowing down once a day or whenever I can offers some relief. and that word practice is definitely correct because it’s fucking hard. but I try my best and really like it. it’s like giving your brain a shower.
ML: Are there any specific books and/or movies that inspired songs on Loneliness is Blue and Not Blue?
Hadn’t really thought about that till now but I was reading mostly short stories and poems during that fall–probably because I was working on the thing. “Dubliners” by James Joyce and a collection of his poetry. And I re-read “The Informers” by Bret Easton Ellis. And “Oblivion” by DFW. I almost named the band Good Old Neon but someone else already had it. That’s my favorite story in that one.
And “Synecdoche, NY” by Charlie Kaufman has been my favorite movie since I saw it in like 2009. I always watch it when I’m stuck on something. I could and often do go on forever about that movie but I would recommend just checking it out. It’s the greatest and truest depiction of human life I’ve ever seen. And Jon Brion’s score is gorgeous, haunting and just otherworldly. That movie has had a profound affect on me and I strive to something even close to that great someday.
ML: Have you attempted to keep a similarly raw aesthetic to your live performances?
TB: We’ve only had 2, and yeah it’s very raw. It’s a 3 piece – guitar, bass drums and it’s been great so far. I’m playing with a couple of awesome, talented guys and we’re very tuned into each other right now. The set is extremely cathartic.
ML: Do you have any tour plans?
TB: Not yet, but I hope next year we can put something together.