Last week, “sort-of Chicago” band, (Really Chicago suburb, Evergreen Park, Illinois,) City Mouth, released a new EP via Take This to Heart Records titled, Hollows. A seven track effort that is, in many ways, definitively pop punk in style, Hollows does not simply go all out toward conforming to the pop punk school of sub-cultural and songwriter thought. Its overtly religious subject matter isn’t exactly typical for the style and, even addressed outside of a musical context, can leave people with lots of questions about interpretation, personal standing, and implications about many aspects of everyday life.
Luckily for anyone new to City Mouth’s corner of the musical world, lead vocalist Matt Pow is one approachable artist and with all the flexible meaning and interesting potential metaphors strewn throughout Hollows, an already fascinating batch of carefully written songs only gets more interesting with insight directly from the songwriter himself. Pow offered to have a candid conversation talking about and shedding light on the many mysteries ushered in through Hollows – some artistic and some downright personal to Pow himself.
I Christen Thee…
Going into writing a review of Hollows with no prior insight or education from City Mouth beforehand and only going by what played on the record, it was hard not to make some assumptions of intent and meaning based on the lyrics throughout the EP. “One of the biggest things I cannot stop thinking about when I listen to any of the songs” I said, “is the abundance of religious and spiritual references. Right away, I was curious to know if you and-or the rest of the band are Christian, Catholic, Lutheran, etc. and past that, what size of a role that may or may not have played in your lives.”
Pow’s reponse not only provided additional information in reply to my question but also was informing as to his perception of my isolated take on his music. “So I found your review very interesting in that respect. I wouldn’t consider us to be a Christian band at all, but I also wouldn’t say that you’re completely off. I would consider myself to be agnostic, but I feel like a lot of people say agnostic and they really mean atheist. I really do partially believe in God bless and stuff, but I also have a lot of doubt and bitterness towards the subject. Not being able to make up my mind about religion is a big part of who I am and it feeds into the lyrics I write a lot.” The intrigue only continued to build from there, and flow mutually from both sides. “I can definitely sense the vacillation in your writing,” I said. “Even just from the tone and choice of words in one song to the next. I processed it quite a bit like seeing ‘you’ going through a kind of faith crisis and examining your feelings at various emotional stages of reception toward religion and God.”
Much the way a good tennis match develops its own organic momentum and can sometimes stretch for long periods with a smooth back and forth, it was as if Pow and I both had thoughts worth pondering at the ready, and they just kept spilling out one after another in perfect balance. “I was raised Catholic and grew up very religious,” he said. “I lost my faith at the end of high school and was totally atheistic for a while. Now I feel like I’m in the middle. Which is kind of a new thing for me too. I’ve been dabbling in religion a lot lately.”
As fate would have it, I came into this conversation intrigued as a writer but also now all the more interested to hear about Pow’s inner journey with faith, as our childhood relationships with the Catholic church rang all too similar but still retained moments of defining individuality. “Funny enough, I was raised Catholic too,” I said in agreement. “Though I didn’t reach a point of feeling inclined to reject the notion of God altogether. Still, there were certainly points later in life I had as well, that included a lot of severe doubt, anger, lack of understanding; all of which persisted for several years.” Fully aware that my motivations for asking the questions I did were not solely journalistic but also close to my own heart, I went a bit off the typical script and offered some explanation for my reasoning. “It’s not often that I feel motivated to just go straight digging for individual, detailed motivations behind songs or specific lyrics but your themes were so deeply personal and emotive it was hard not to feel compelled to know where your head and heart were at in the past and are at now in the present.”
“M” is for Motivation
Though not my typical routine, Pow barely skipped a beat and somehow we found ourselves right in the middle of discussing motivation – not just for the themes of Hollows but for the way Pow relates to music in general.
“I was super interested that you took that away from our EP because I felt the same way about one of my favorite albums of all time, “Lucy Gray” by Envy On The Coast. It could be a religious album or an anti-religious album, depending on how you look at it. And in the end it’s probably neither.” Pow continued, “I like that songs take on different meanings for different people. [“Lucy Gray” is] an album that I fell in love with because of how well the whole thing flows together.” When I took a moment to note Pow’s apparent appreciation of the concept album, he left me pleasantly surprised. “It’s funny you should say [you think I love concept albums.] Because I don’t generally like concept albums.”
Straight wonder over what exactly steered Pow to move away from religion returning, I shifted back to his revelation of temporary atheism. “Was there a pivotal experience or point of view you encountered in high school that opened your thinking to living life without acknowledging God for a time?” I elaborated, “Being raised with religion as such a big part of everyday life, I know I used to think the idea of living without it, and even without God, sounded downright nonsensical or, to put it more practically, just impossible. How would you make decisions? Where would the direction of your motivations for things come from?” The weight of the topics we were discussing so dense, Pow momentarily reverted to flesh out his own thought on Lucy Gray.
“One more thing about concept albums: I wouldn’t consider “Lucy Gray” to be a concept album. [Envy On The Coast] did say that they wanted to make it feel like a concept album with the way that they put the songs together though.” Jumping immediately back to the track on which my question of the moment ran, Pow went right into a quick summarizing anecdote. “So as a kid my faith was very based in ‘the feeling’ of spirituality. The butterflies in my stomach that I would feel in that community while having a ‘connection with God’ sometimes just having this strong feeling of ‘this just feels right’. Eventually that feeling faded and I couldn’t feel it anymore. And that was really devastating and heartbreaking to me.”
Despite being so brief, Pow’s mini anecdote simultaneously exuded such openness and intimacy – especially at his reaction to the loss of personal spiritual connection. Knowing this isn’t just a fun loving or trendy topic he chose for the core of Hollows, but is a reflection of this real life inner struggle, made the EP seem suddenly all the more significant in a first hand way.
Pow continued, only further keeping the illumination on his past spiritual transitions.
“But yeah there was never a point where I decided to live without faith entirely on my own. The rush of endorphins just wasn’t there anymore. And it took a long time to come to terms with. I was in a choir run by my friend Phil and it had a pretty huge impact on me at the time. Being in a community of people the same age as me [and] that had a passion for it definitely made a difference I think. I stayed involved in my church communities for like a year after I felt the absence of faith in that way, just totally in denial. Praying to God to just give me faith. (The irony of praying for faith is still insane to me.) I think it was a combination of depression and just that things aren’t always gonna make you feel the same way that they initially do. But it was such a huge part of my identity and it just disappeared and it was pretty hurtful. Turning optimistic at the completion of his thought, Pow said, “But I learned from it, ya know? I feel like if I hadn’t gone through that I wouldn’t have fully become myself.”
Entertaining Possibilities and Possible Entertainment
Seizing the opportunity to run with the now lighter tone of our conversation, we shifted to talk of the artistic choices for City Mouth’s music video for the EP single, “Curse My Name.”
“I have to know.” I said with enthusiastic urgency. “Please share with me, your thought process behind the astronaut with the balloon.”
Not leaving me a moment too long in suspense, Pow responded, “The astronaut thing with the balloons is like a very vague metaphor in my mind. I like the interplay between religious and space imagery. It’s almost like two competing ideas of what’s up there,” he said. “So, putting them together kind of speaks to that religious conflict in my head. In the video, the balloon is supposed to represent guilt. On the album cover, it’s just a ridiculous way of attempting to get to the moon.”
Recalling the video in my mind and knowing definitively now what the very unusual imagery pairing represented, there was still the quandary of ‘guilty about what?’ that floated in my head and it was almost like Pow could read my thoughts as he continued his explanation. “But in the video, the astronaut is carrying around this balloon everywhere he goes. He feels guilty about being a part of the fake moon landing.” Pow then interjected upon his own thought, incidentally to correct himself before I might jump to some kind of internal conclusion. “For the record, City Mouth believes that the moon landing was real.”
Even after clarifying himself however, Pow reverted again, as if he was trying to show me a sense of friendly duality in his own thinking. “But I love entertaining every possibility. Like everything could be fake and I would absolutely be ready for it. Because I don’t believe in anything that strongly. I’m just pretty sure about certain things. And I’m pretty sure the moon landing was real.”
Getting Good Reception
Now, whether or not a person subscribes exclusively to the impact of genre labels, the fact is that certain lyrics, with their defined associations, and regardless of whether those are positive or negative, can influence how widely or narrowly a song, album, or band itself, is received. Keeping this in mind, there’s no denying that style label or not, City Mouth’s embrace of religious contemplation is going to act like a kind of filter for some listeners.
“I understand City Mouth not calling itself a Christian band.” I said. “But how do you feel knowing you all are putting out music that reads and sounds to the contrary? Outside even just genre labels, I take it you’re not afraid of your audience being one of a very selective group of listeners who are receptive to this kind of subject matter? Especially since nowadays it seems like there is a fixation on a specific kind of progress – typically upward – for, no pun intended, up-and-comng bands.” However Pow doesn’t seem to be concerned about any kind of self-limitation, nor does the band believe any incidental acquisition of a niche following will stunt City Mouth’s ability to expand its fanbase and take its music new places. In fact, the frontman even appears to embrace the irony of his musings with an easygoing glee.
“[Religion] was such a huge part of my identity and it just disappeared and it was pretty hurtful. But I learned from it, ya know? I feel like if I hadn’t gone through that I wouldn’t have fully become myself.”
– Matt Pow
“I honestly love the idea of being the most sacrilegious Christian band of all time,” he says through a laugh. “I feel like music is in a really good place right now where people want to hear things that feel a little bit different from what they might normally hear. I listen to pop music mostly [and] when I say ‘pop music,’ I mean stuff like Lorde, Bleachers, The 1975, etc. But, a lot of the pop artists I love are doing really interesting things that pop artists wouldn’t normally do. So, I’m not worried about our subject matter affecting our progress. [City Mouth] definitely want[s] to be huge and what not like everyone else but, we want to do it on our own terms.
The logical next thought to have would be to wonder just exactly what City Mouth’s own terms are. Again, as if predicting a step into the future, Pow goes on to define this thought, with a response that feels all too fitting for the ‘arts shouldn’t be define by stereotypes’ philosophy of Throw the Dice and Play Nice. “The whole reason City Mouth became a pop punk band was that I felt like pop punk could be so much more than it is. It’s always in this little box of ‘sounds like this, talks about this’ And I feel like there’s no reason it has to stay in that box.”
Creativity at the End
Climbing out of such deep and thought provoking conversation, I decided now was a the perfect moment for the lighter, free thinking end question that tends to catch artists happily off guard. And considering that Hollows was loaded with plenty sounds and compositional choices that defy pop punk foundational expectations, it was an exciting few moments waiting to hear what Pow would reveal as his answer.
“What piece of gear would you love to have,” I asked. “and why?”
“Hmmm…okay.” he contemplated out loud and then silently for a few seconds, before bursting forth with a fervor not unlike someone who has remembered a song lyric they had intended to but had initially forgotten to write down.
“OH WAIT!” he exclaims. “Perfect timing. I just found out about Imogen Heap’s Mi.Mu gloves last night. And I wish I had those. But also, someone to set [them] up for me, because it looks really complicated.”
Just like our conversation, both City Mouth’s EP and Matt Pow’s entire song conception process have proven to be full of surprises and considerations for perspective that make any assumption of gimmick grabbing or lazy musicianship based on genre, are entirely off-base. And as for whether these kinds of questions, musings, and uncertainties with regard to religion will continue to color City Mouth’s musical stories, that remains to be seen. Yet, if they do, that’s one thing that wouldn’t be entirely surprising to hear.
Hollows is out now via Take This to Heart Records.
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