I've written about the work of Joshua King a few times before. I reviewed his first solo album as The Everest Ruin, Operationalization (2011). I reviewed an early solo show even before that. Most recently, I reviewed his collaborative project The Man and the Scientist's The Invisible Hand Is a Hoof (2016). Now Josh has released a new album as Joshua and the Ruins, The Dreaming Season, and it's his best work yet. It's a meticulously crafted album with strong lyrics, solid performances, and a series of guest performers. As soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to wanted to write about it. Instead of a review, though, I decided to do something a little different: I called up Josh and talked at length about the album. What follows is from that conversation.
Patti: There was a long interval between All the King's Men and this album, The Dreaming Season. Did this album just require some more time to write, were you busy with other projects, or just busy with life?
Joshua: It was all three. Each album has had its own very intentional source. Kind of a blueprint for how I was going to approach an album. Each of those blueprints was about something specific. For Operationalization it was about the concept of value and including production as part of the experience of the art. All the King's Men was sort of about this fast process, a more live feel. In the long period off, I was playing in some other bands between 2012 and 2019, like The Last Glacier. Saturday Morning Cartoons was a band I was in in Portland, Oregon. I was also in a band with my friend Joe Graham called Gingham Ark, a jazz duo. For The Dreaming Season, the blueprint was a more polished album that people could put on in the background and kind of ignore as they go about their day, but also something they could really dive into and find new things on each listen.
P: Can you tell me a little bit about the timeline of the composition?
J: The oldest song is "Arms". I think I wrote that in 2005. The newest song is "Hot Air Balloons", and I started writing that in 2017 or 2016, but it didn't really come to fruition until last year. I think that's a more mature song than some of the stuff that appears earlier. The album doesn't go in order from oldest to newest, but it does kind of follow this trend toward a more mature perspective. I knew that I wanted to record the album when we moved to Kansas City in 2013. I worked on these other projects for a while, and when all those other projects came to their own end, or at least dormancy, it was like, alright, well I guess I'm gonna do this. So we started pre-production in 2016. That's when I recruited Evan, my bassist, and he knew Frank. We found a good mix of people, and then in the summer of 2016 we started developing some of it, and we recorded the brunt of it in late 2016. Then we retracked, added stuff, took stuff away, did vocals, and did all our own mixing and editing between the beginning of 2017 and the end of 2018.
P: How did the presence of your bandmates change what could have otherwise been just a solo album? Was it different than working with some of your past collaborators?
J: In the past, being in other bands, I've approached it as: we're all a band and we're all writing this music together. But when Evan and Frank came into the fold, Evan used to always say, it's your gig, so you just tell us what you want us to do. That really gave me the creative control to decide exactly what I wanted in certain places. But I'm not a drummer, and Frank would come up with this stuff that I would have never even conceived of. He brought some stuff to the percussion section that I really think makes the album a lot more interesting. And of course I can't play bass the way Evan plays. I still had the creative control, and I could edit whatever I wanted, 'cause we were engineering it all ourselves. Their contributions are ultimately their own and they made it a little wider in scope. The album is definitely mine, but it has contributions from other people that I'm really happy are there. And of course, they're not the only people on there.
P: That's exactly what I was going to ask about next, some of the other guests on the album.
J: A big piece of that blueprint was also making this a community album. I invited members of my family, my parents, my brother, my wife, to contribute to the record. I wanted to do that because I felt like all of those people had something they could contribute, and then also there would be this kind of community sense to it. I love that. I don't think very often you hear a love song where the backup vocals are being provided by the person for whom the song was written. Maybe Fleetwood Mac. [Laughs.]
P: Were the parts of the other contributors also very intentional in what they played and which song they performed on?
J: Yeah. But I'll say broadly, I guess I like faking people out. There's what the song means to me, and then what I'm pretty sure it sounds like to everybody else, which has a very different meaning. For example, in the song "Arms", the chorus is "Don't go like this / don't go like this / don't go like this / just go like this". The verses are about a person that I had been dating, and we had recently parted ways. I had come home to visit my family. I was talking with my mom, and I was feeling like I was going to write off love or something. You get that feeling every once in a while after a breakup. She said, "Don't go like this", and she put up her fists. And said, "Don't go like this", and she crossed her arms and made a pouting face. The third one was like flipping people off or something. But then the fourth one was, "Just go like this", and she opened her arms, like being open to a hug. She did these four motions with her arms, and that's where the chorus and the name of the song came from. It was very intentional to have my mom be the backup vocals in that part of the song, and so she sings that part with me. Then my dad plays harmonica on the song. Originally I just thought, I think this section needs a harmonica solo, it's gonna be really cool. But I could see how somebody could read into my mom saying don't go – and then my dad responding with a harmonica solo – as being kind of on the nose, but that was not intentional at all.
P: It's obvious where the voicemail is and I think Brad's noise is fairly easy to identify. But I can't actually identify your brother's vocals or Asher and Kevin's guitars. Did you intentionally obscure who played on what?
J: Kevin played on "Life of Plenty". His guitar part is just the brief, very minor key blues kind of vibe in the middle of the song. It's very short. It's after the second chorus. And Asher plays at the end of "Hot Air Balloons", and kind of in the middle, too. It's just a very, very light soundscape. There are three or four guitar parts going on there at the end. The one that doesn't sound like a guitar, it kind of sounds like a synth pad rising up out of nowhere, that's Asher. On that subject of the intentionality of what people do on the album and where those things occur, I think you don't know anybody in just one context. You have a lot of different experiences with people. You have a relationship with somebody for any period of time, and you're going to experience a range of human emotions in that relationship together. It's like, here's the dominant narrative of this relationship, and here are some other threads of narrative that kind of go in different directions that are also part of that relationship. With my family members and close friends being involved, it's not just, this is the truth of it, and that is some smokescreen. It's here's the truth of it, and then here are other parts that are also true, but not for the dominant history of the relationship.
P: You mean you're presenting other directions a song could have gone, or you're intentionally making the meaning ambiguous?
J: Neither. The song "Hot Air Balloons" is not about Asher at all, but he and I have experienced in our relationship tensions that map onto that song really well. So it's like this song was originally written about somebody else, but 5% of it could be about a specific time that Asher and I experienced. So having him contribute to the song in the way he did creates multiple layers of narrative. It's actually about this person, but also, there's like 5% of this other relationship that could also be described by this song.
P: Is it more like combining experiences from multiple things to turn it into one story, or is it that this one story actually applies to multiple experiences?
J: Maybe it's both. "Life of Plenty" is my most concerted and intentional effort at creating a song influenced by sociology. Kevin performs on that song, and he's a person I met in my sociology program; I don't remember if that was intentional, but it sure does feel that way now. I wrote that back in 2012 with my band in Madison, but having Kevin perform on it, and combining that very critical sociological perspective that we both share as a part of that song, and both playing lead guitar on it, I think the song related in a couple different ways to experiences I had in Wisconsin and also experiences I had in Kansas City.
P: Speaking of that song: "Life of Plenty" is a new version of "Vita Copiae" from All the King's Men. What inspired you to do a new version, and what makes it special or different?
J: Well, from Operationalization to All the King's Men, I did "Life Emulates Decay". There are certain songs that I kind of retool over the years based on my experience, and "Life of Plenty" just seemed fitting for the political climate we're in. In Wisconsin, I was mortified by the stuff that Scott Walker was doing, and I've been continually mortified since that time, especially with the absurdity that is Donald Trump. It seemed timely and it also works pretty well in the context of the trio that I have.
P: Is that Evan who does the spoken parts?
J: Yeah. I gotta tell you, the first time I heard that stuff, I was just about crying with laughter. I was so happy with it. He did that on his own at his home studio.
P: I'm curious about the album art. I like the presence of both the sun and the moon, and the weird ambiguity of the mountains and the sky. Is that a tornado? Is it actually related to a dream you had?
J: The different places in the album art are different places that are meaningful to me. It's actually ten or twelve different places. The big white tower is this abandoned building here in Kansas City that I think is really cool. It's the first dilapidated building that I remember really being drawn to when I was a kid, when my dad would bring me to Kansas City. And it's still here, all these years later. I don't know the history of it, but I've always been drawn to it. In general, I've always been really fascinated by places that are sort of falling apart. Next to the tower is a little A-frame house that actually exists in Marshall, Missouri that I've had a lot of dreams about. It's my literal dream house that I've thought about buying, and it's currently dilapidated and not occupied as I understand. And below that, there's the train station from Marshall. A lot of it's from Marshall or around Saline County, Missouri. There's a quarry, there's the Missouri River near Columbia. All of these places depicted in the image are either places that I've dreamt about, or places that I've been really drawn to, or places where I've felt like I had an experience of pure joy. They're all kind of "hot sites", all mapped into one world. There is a tornado involved, harking back to Tornado Head. Thematically, The Dreaming Season depicts four different seasons in the landscape. It's bright and green on one side, the other side is supposed to be fall, then it's winter on the hill and summer in the valley. All of that kind of maps onto the concept of the dreaming season, that cycle of coming to terms with something. That's really what a lot of the album is about, this coming to terms with some kind of change, or waking up from a metaphorical dream. There's this natural progression, this progression through different phases, or different seasons of coming to terms with something. I originally drew up a version of that, sort of a pencil sketch, and then I ran into this artist, Margaret Anne Seiler, from St. Louis. I really like her architectural studies, so I asked her if she'd be interested in doing it. She sent me some drafts, and I sent her photographs of each place I could find, saying, here's what it actually looks like, but have some artistic license, and change it up a bit. I don't want it to be a realist rendering of all these places at once, you turn it into a common place. I thought she did a really good job. She even painted stuff that I wanted, but that I never told her about, so I don't know how we got there.
P: Sounds like a cool process.
J: Yeah. And my brother did the Joshua and The Ruins logo, and I used that same artwork that he did to create the album title.
P: There's a line in the liner notes where you're referring to different types of dreams, and one of them is "realizing you're the backbone to someone else's pipe-dream project". Is that connected to the song "The Dreaming Season"?
J: That's exactly where that concept came from. Maybe you've felt this, where in real time, you're like, I am part of a sinking ship right now. I am holding this thing upright, and I need to get the fuck out of here, before I get sued, before this person gets sued, before they ask me to invest any more time and money – just have the courage to walk away from this. And that's really hard to do. I don't like quitting on things that I commit to. But then all a sudden you realize, yeah, the signs were here, but I didn't see them. Now I'm gonna look like a schmuck, but I gotta get out of here. I had that experience again recently, just in the past few months, and I was thinking about that song a lot. The dreaming season as a concept is that sort of time period in one's life – I've had it too – where you think this major aspiration that you have is going to end up being this incredible thing that makes you famous and successful and wealthy or whatever, and you're just completely deceiving yourself. Some people handle that gracefully, and some people can pivot and grow, but some people can't, and it's a real catastrophe. And it's like, well, it's my dream to do this, and that dream changes or it doesn't stick around, or it completely falls apart. That time period of going through that, and that naïveté, that's what I referenced when I came up with that phrase, "the dreaming season". I had that when I got out of college, I had it when I first started making music as a professional pursuit, I had it when I got out of college again. It's happened a number of times.
P: That hits some personal meanings for me, too. It's heavy stuff. That's the point of writing it, I suppose.
J: Yeah, it is really heavy. The whole album is really, really heavy. There's a musician that I absolutely love named Stephen Steinbrink. Brad turned me on to him. His music sounds very bright and beautiful, but when you actually listen to the lyrics, they're extremely personal and very heavy. It creates that kind of tension there. I modeled part of the album production process along that kind of approach. Especially "J. Edgar Prufrock" was designed to be an appreciation of Stephen's approach.
P: I think "J. Edgar Prufrock" and "Predator" are the two most immediate, dare I say, radio-friendly songs. "Prufrock" has a sort of comforting 90s indie rock sound but yet is also slightly challenging, slightly edgy. And lyrically it's quite an interesting song. The peach and the claws appear to be referencing Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", but is Edgar really a reference to J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI?
J: Yeah. J. Edgar Hoover was kind of a quirky character, also potentially not very happy. There's this sort of apocryphal question about his sexual orientation, his gender identity, and it seems like he had at least some aspect of his life hidden from other aspects of his life. That resonates with me. I feel there's this tension in hiding the different parts of your individuality from other parts where you shine. It's not an ode to J. Edgar Hoover or anything. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is already about self-reflective inquiry and lost meaning, but I felt like the song I was going for was a little edgier than that. And that's J. Edgar, like, I'm not comfortable necessarily with sharing or being everything I am with the world all at once, so I'm going to get angry about it. That's where the idea came from. And then I thought it was just kind of funny as a title.
P: Are you describing different career paths, journeys, or alternate paths your life could have taken?
J: Yeah, that song was written while I was living in Portland. I was going through kind of a tough moment, being a musician full-time in Madison, and I was trying to find a job. Portland is a really uncomfortable place to try and find a job, because everybody goes there, and everybody's trying to find a job. The temp agencies are filled with people with master's degrees. I was working this really weird job and I was not having great success with it, feeling really uncomfortable with some of the things going on in the job. I was just like, what the hell do I do now? I was liking cooking. I was liking electrical engineering. I was thinking about going to medical school for maybe ten minutes. When you're not happy and you don't know what you want to do, anything can sound good for maybe five minutes. The "woulda, coulda, shoulda been there" thing at the end, I really like having all of those different voices approach it in different ways, and saying different things, because that's how it feels in those moments where you're going through that self-doubt. You hear all those whispering voices saying not quite the same thing, so you don't know which one to listen to.
P: That really speaks to me, just thinking about those imaginations of the directions I could've gone on. That feeling of: what am I, what am I supposed to be doing?
J: I think that's very palpable for everybody in our generation. That's maybe more relatable now than it ever has been for a previous generation. I don't know if that's true, but there is this peculiar contemporary trope of criticizing semi-young people, i.e. people who are in their mid-30s now, which I find kind of supremely ahistorical. We were told for a long time: "You can be whatever you want, you have to go to college to be successful, and you're going to college so you're going to be successful." And then everything turned upside down, and those people are ridiculed for being kind of confused or malcontent. For me, I graduated in the summer of 2008, and by the fall of 2008, the entire economy was in shambles. So what better time to feel completely malcontent? The sociologist C. Wright Mills talked about the difference between a personal problem and a social issue. A personal problem is something that one out of 10,000 experiences. We don't really have talk about that from a perspective of sociology. But if 7000 out of 10,000 experience that, it's an actual social phenomenon that's related to our society, so we need to look at that. You can't blame that one individual for those feelings.
P: I see some similarities in "Maybe That's What It Means", "True Colors", and "Predator". In particular, I see the struggle of writing and making music, which is something I can relate to. Is that something you had in mind with those songs?
J: "True Colors" is another one where there's the foundational narrative, like, this is who the song is actually about, but then this is who the song is sort of about. With all of my songs, I try to reflect on all of my music as if it was written about me. Like, if I'm pointing fingers at people, I always point them at myself. In the writing process of "Hot Air Balloons", I had the first two verses figured out. And then I thought, what am I doing here writing this song? What if this song was written about me? What am I adding to this situation? That led me to write the third verse of that song, about "when I got on a roll, I have to wonder what role I play." To look at how have I done something like this to somebody else. "True Colors" is pretty on the nose, I think. There was a moment in the production of that song, in terms of inviting contributions from others, where I very nearly lived out what I was complaining about having seen someone else do – threatening the integrity of a relationship, in an ironic lack of regard or respect for boundaries, for the sake of the art. It was this moment of pure hubris on my part. So I pivoted, and instead I ended up writing the last part of the song about myself: "When everything is just fuel for the fire, I can't believe you got me again. The ruins left by each tornado's spire, why couldn't I see?" I very nearly cost myself relationships by pushing too far for the work, which is exactly what I'm indicting in the song. This whole idea of sacrificing everything so you can create something with it, that you have to suffer in some way, I don't believe that. But the proclivity is there, and you have to be very aware of and intentional about avoiding it, or at least keeping it in check. If you're going to build a fire, you probably want to have a good fire pit, and some rocks, and you keep the stuff that doesn't get burned away from it.
P: "Predator" might be favorite track on the album. Is it also about the struggle of making music?
J: "Predator" was a tune that I did with Andrew Hall in Portland in Saturday Morning Cartoons. We never really went anywhere with it in that band. It's not just about music, but it's like any sort of thing you produce, any sort of project you create, and then not getting the recognition for it. I think people can feel that way whether or not what they're creating is artistic. In a lot of my songs, there's this sort of changing of voice between feeling one way and then shifting positions and responding to that feeling and that thought. "Life of Plenty" does that, "Predator" does that, "The Dreaming Season" does that. It's more globally that feeling of being let down, and then coming to terms with not having all that recognition you thought you deserved – whether you deserved it or not. If the song "Dreaming Season" is somebody who doesn't get it, "Predator" is about somebody who's started to get it, but they're not happy about it.
P: It sounds like there are several things going on in "Predator". There's some tension in that line, "When will I have my reward". Sometimes you feel like you deserve something, and it's just not there. You have to just accept that it's never going to be there. If you feel it, then it is there, and if no one else does, maybe that matters, but maybe it doesn't.
J: Right. And the reward versus the revenge, those two kinds of voices. That's where my brother sings, by the way. My brother asked me what that song's about, and I told him that it's sort of me just talking to me. I think everybody has that conversation: oh man, I should have this recognition. There's this kind of ego trip expectation when you create something. If you're lucky, you can kind of keep yourself in check, and say, no man, that's not what we're here to do. That's not why we're doing this.
P: "When It's Published" sounds like a bizarre story. What happened there?
J: It happened when I was much younger, right out of college. I figure it's pretty obvious, but nothing happened with this person. That song is a lyrical adventure. It's verbose almost to a fault. None of my other band members perform on it. It was a production choice to have all the guitars be a little bit loose. And there's this thing I'd always wanted to do with this song. I sang the vocals, and then I reversed the vocal track and applied a very long reverb on it, and then I reversed both of them back. So the reverb is a preverb that sucks into the word rather than coming out of it. The whole idea is that the timing is off. If I had been just a little later, or you had just been a little earlier, where would it have wound up? The production of the song reflects the subject of the song with this person who was much older than I was. I like doing things like that.
P: "Hot Air Balloons" is another song that sounds pretty heavy. It could be about a breakup, but it sounds like there's more going on, like you have gone through some change, and that you're acknowledging some mistakes that you want to move past. That song is full of great lines, like, "The winds are unrelenting on the moral higher ground."
J: Thanks! Again, this song means multiple things. There is a little piece of it that could apply to Asher, there's a little piece of it that could apply to various other people. It could apply to a romantic breakup. And I thought about those things while I was recording the song. Some of the guitar parts are played with this sense of loss, intentionally pointed at multiple different people. So it is about multiple different people. But the foundational narrative is one of those fake-outs where you think it's maybe a romantic breakup. It's actually about a band breakup.
P: I've been in enough bands that I think I understand. It's a bit of a cliché that the breakup of a band, or really the whole experience of being in a band, has parallels to being in a romantic relationship, but it's eerily true.
J: It's a cliché because it's accurate. So that's the foundational narrative, but it's about some other people as well. I think that's my favorite song on the album to play. Once I had that one ready to go, there was no question that this would end the album, because this song is, for me, a testament to personal growth. It also has this theme of growing from anger to letting go. In that way, the song, the lyrics, the whole thing grew outside the bounds of its original intent, that foundational narrative, to be about a lot more than just that band. That band broke up right at the same time that I quit graduate school for the first time. I experienced a lot of anger at that time of my life – a bitter, confused air of resentment that blew toward a whole lot of people, including myself. I finally had to say, "I'm going to pray for peace and to be released, and I'll adjust, and I'll just leave you alone". Getting to that place can be very difficult. And I've had to get there a number of times. What started off as a really angry song about a breakup of one kind or another ended up being about a lot more. It feels like the right place to end an album that's about coming to terms with things not going as planned. Musically, the chord structures, some of the counterpoint, the playing styles, the technique, that was all new for me, too. That's kind of a testament to growth.
P: There are a lot of great lyrics in this album. What's your favorite line?
J: Well, first let me start with my least favorite line. It's in "Double Helix". I like that song a lot, and I love playing it, but it has my least favorite lyric in it that I've written since I've started The Everest Ruin/Joshua and The Ruins thing: "what you thought was a doughnut turns out to be a whole-grain loaf of bread."
P: No! That's one of my favorites!
J: Yeah!? And I lived it! That's how I actually conceptualized things at the time. I'm glad that it's one of your favorite lines, because it's one of my least favorites, but it's genuine, so I left it. You give me credence! I almost cut it from the recording, and I'll be honest: I do tend to cut it when I play it live. It wasn't like I needed something to rhyme with head and bed or whatever. That's actually just how I made sense of having some intermittent cold feet right before getting married. Obviously, in both the song and life, things turned out well!
P: It made me laugh, but it made me stop and think. Doughnuts and whole-grain loaves of bread have a lot of connotations, so you can read into it in many different ways.
J: I'm glad you like it. Of all the things we've talked about, that makes me feel probably the best. My favorite line, though, is in "Life of Plenty", when I say, "we finally got ourselves a piece of the Occupy". I was real proud of myself when I came up with that. [Laughs.]
P: There's a lot less deliberate humor in The Dreaming Season, especially compared to Operationalization, but there is still some humor and wit. Was this album intended to be more serious, but you still wanted to have some fun with it?
J: I didn't really have to try to do either. It just sort of happened naturally. I think it's a more mature sense of humor, because I'm older and I have also, I hope, matured a little bit. But the songs were more serious, and when I released those older albums, I hadn't had all the experiences of personal questioning that have fueled this album. "Cardboard Box" is indicative of that older humor for me. There are so many reasons it's a bonus track. For starters, it's maybe the meanest song I've ever written. But it was also recorded differently than any other song on the album. That one was recorded live with all three musicians and vocals. All done in one take. We set this whole song up to be about the contributions of each musician in real time. It's a different philosophy of production that didn't fit with the rest of the album. The rest was very intentionally produced, and if I didn't like something, I fixed it, or I retracked it, or I'd apply effects, or whatever I needed to. But this one, it was like, I'm not going to mess with the performance integrity here. It's from a different time in my life. It reflects a different writing style and a different incorporation of Frank and Evan's contributions. And I love Evan's bass playing on that! He did that in one take, and Frank and I were floored. We were really impressed. The dynamics that Frank plays with, too, it sounds like a fade in and out in post. There's no automation, that is all him, fading himself in, in the way that he hits, and fading out. Production-wise, that's actually where we're going, but musically, it's not. So I put it there as kind of a hint to what's next for us, but then also, it doesn't fit with the rest of the record. And the whole album being very intense, it's kind of nice to have the end of the thing land on a joke.
P: Do you feel like The Dreaming Season is a weird album?
J: Well, when people close to me have listened to it, they have tended to enjoy it, and after their initial reactions they immediately say the same thing: "...and it's you."
P: I think that's the first thing I said to you!
J: Yeah! It's me! So I guess the question sort of becomes, am I weird? I don't go through life thinking that I myself am weird, but I'm probably objectively a little weird for people. The album is also my drawing on experiences with other people, and artists I respect, and paying homage to all those people. So I don't think it's weird, but somebody who's never listened to noise music (which I played for a long time), or who's not familiar with production techniques, could just be completely thrown off, or at least surprised. I really like Red House Painters' album Songs for a Blue Guitar, and that album was a big influence. I think between Stephen Steinbrink and Red House Painters you can hear a lot of the marriage between ambience and acoustic pop-folk that happens here. It's not weird for me because I've heard it before – I just brought a lot of different ideas that have been influential to me and put them all in one place. At the same time, when I decided what songs would go on the album, I originally thought they didn't go together at all, but in recording them I was surprised by how well they hang together – both thematically and musically. I also was thinking of the production technique of the band Spirit, which resulted in a slightly older production style that may sound a little less modern than what people have become accustomed to hearing. I guess overall, weird isn't for me to judge. But I will say this: I spent three years producing this record, and every piece of it is deliberate. There are no accidents I had to convince myself to leave, and I love it. I drive around the city playing the CD in my car, rocking out and singing loudly with the windows open, or just listening intently with the windows closed. Perhaps the weirdest part is that even after all that work, I'm just really happy with it. It brings me continuous joy, and a sense of contentment about some of the weirder challenges of life. I hope it does for others as well.
The Dreaming Season is available on Bandcamp, among other platforms.