In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
Since its inception five years ago, Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Pity Sex has been lumped in with two distinctly different revivals. At times called emo, and other times shoegaze, Pity Sex has never completely fit into one or the other. Instead, it’s taken parts of both and crafted its own dreamy take on indie-rock. For its second full-length on Run For Cover Records, White Hot Moon, the band offered up its most refined album to date. The A.V. Club spoke to Pity Sex guitarist-vocalist Britty Drake, as well as drummer-songwriter Sean St. Charles, about the different pieces of pop culture that inspired the record’s creation.
Song: “September” (White Hot Moon, 2016)
Influence: The TV show Fringe
Britty Drake: That song is inspired by a TV show called Fringe. Are you familiar with it?
AVC: I’ve heard of it but I don’t really know it.
BD: Well, it’s a really good show. It’s a combination of… let’s say The X-Files, Lost, and Law & Order: SVU. If you put all of those shows together, then you would get Fringe. It’s basically about a scientist named Walter Bishop and his son, and he manipulates time, and it’s about exactly what it sounds like—it’s about fringe science. There’s an alternate dimension. There’s a lot of wonderful things that happen in the show. It’s really beautiful. And I got immersed in it. I was kind of obsessed with it for awhile. It was my real life.
In the show, there’s something called an Observer, which is this type of person that’s not really a person. They’re kind of an alien, but they don’t really know that until the end. His name is September and they’re not supposed to feel emotion, but he does. This isn’t super important to the storyline or anything, this is just small details about him. He intervenes at some point, which they’re not supposed to do. They’re just supposed to observe, as their name would suggest. He saves somebody’s life, a child actually. And he cared for her. So he saves her life, and has a fatherly view of her throughout the show. She’s not an important character, like a very one-episode side-story that’s going on, but basically he just has emotions and isn’t supposed to, and then throughout the entire show, he becomes more and more important to the story. I just really like his character, and I really like what Fringe does as a series, just the idea behind it. I don’t want to pinpoint it down to one simple sentence that summarizes the entire series as “this is what it’s about,” but it’s just a really wonderful show.
The thing that the Observers are basically known for—and the thing that I could say influenced almost every song that I wrote on the record—is that they are really affected by time and they have different perceptions of time as compared to the everyday person, because they’re not influenced by it in the same way. There’s multiple dimensions, so there’s alternate timelines and they don’t age. It’s just a different idea of time, and that influenced most of my songs on the record. But particularly “September,” just the idea of seasons and things happening and wanting them to stay, but they’re over, and you have to look forward to it again. And that’s kind of a good thing, because you cherish them. But, at the same time, it’s like you’re always waiting for it to leave. That type of thing. Which also reflects what happens with Observers in the show. Does that make sense? I know it’s very vague if you’re not familiar with the show, so I’m trying to be as descriptive as possible without also describing the entire plot.
AVC: I feel like I’m picking it up. Did you watch the show when it was originally on, or is it something that you guys discovered while you were working on the record?
BD: It was actually as we were working on the record. I didn’t watch it while it was on. I watched it on Netflix, and I just binge-watched it, basically. I think that’s kind of great, because I became completely immersed, like I said. I was just watching that instead of doing my real life. Which is kind of a bad thing, but…
AVC: Eh, we all do that though.
BD: Exactly. At the time of the record, it was really nice, because it gave me a lot of different ways to think about what I was writing about.
AVC: Was this type of thing unique to this record, or had other things in pop culture become big influences on previous records?
BD: I would say it’s a little bit more rare, just because usually I don’t have time to get sucked into a show. A lot of times in the past I’ve just been influenced by whatever I’m reading about. I was in school when we wrote Feast Of Love. I was more influenced by the things I was having to read about because I had to read them. I was still in school when we wrote this record, just not as busy with it. I had a little bit more time to become immersed. So yes and no. It kind of depends on what’s going on.
AVC: This one seems pretty dense, with a lot of quoted passages running through the lyrics.
Sean St. Charles: I’m a big Murakami fan. And I think a lot of his books do a lot of the same thing, but 1Q84 is the one that really feels most related to what we’re doing here. He’s all about this line between what is realistic—I think a lot of his books are characters doing really boring things. Like, there’s something fantastical going on so they have to sit in a room and exercise for two months or whatever. I think that really resonated with me. It felt very real to me, because it’s this juxtaposition of “life is crazy and strange, but also so boring all the time.” Those mundanes moments are what actually build up into this overall strange environment. And that’s exactly at the heart of that song and also what the record is for me.
I was approaching this song, and I was thinking, “How do I make a song that tells the conceit of the record?” I had the “White Hot Moon” thing in mind already—that was just from a moment kind of like in a Murakami novel—I was sitting in my room, and the wall is window, floor-to-ceiling, which is really nice, and at night, you can see the sky shining through, and there’s venetian blinds, so even if it’s closed, you can catch the light. I remember I was writing, and I looked up, and the sun was burning so bright, and that sentence just came into my mind, and I wrote it down, and that felt like a real idiomatic way of talking about what I was looking at. It was in that moment that I was like, “Oh, this is what I’m doing, it’s about building a world that’s sort of surreal, and sort of boring.”
I think another thing Murakami does a ton of is he really leans into pop culture, which I think is fascinating. He was into classic cool—his characters are into jazz. And I like how that works. Because I think there’s something really powerful about pop culture. I think there’s a reason that everyone gravitates toward it. There’s something that’s really human about it. I was thinking about all of that when I was writing this song. So that’s the thematic idea that I’m getting from Murakami.
SS: I probably started reading [Hopscotch] in January. I read quite a bit, maybe a couple books a month, and I always take notes about what I’m reading, and hope that sentences or fragments will inspire what I’m doing musically. The book is, I believe, about 70 chapters, one through 70, and you can read the novel as one to 70, and it will be a totally coherent story. Granted, it’s weird and wacky, and a bunch of strange, interesting things happen. But it’s at least concise. And there’s also a prescription where, if you want, you can also read this extra hundred-chapter appendix that influences how the chapters go. So the first page of the book, Cortázar is saying, you can do it that way, or you can follow this hopscotch method, where at the end of every chapter, it will tell you where to go next. And that’s how I read it the first time.
What I really loved about it is that it’s so self-aware—it’s over-indulgent and it’s over the top, and I think a lot of that is what Pity Sex is all about. Just with the name and the records and everything, it’s always been about leaning into what feels good, either via tropes or cliché or overwrought emotion, and I think that resonates with a lot of people. And that’s totally cool. But I think there’s also this aspect of being really self-aware of that, and as such, doing things that seem funny or interesting—there’s some thought behind it at the very least. And I think this book is really nailing that. It’s about bougie, over-the-top intellectuals talking about art in a way that doesn’t really matter, but they’re self-aware.
AVC: Britty, your influence on this one had nothing to do with Hopscotch, right?
BD: I worked in a psychology lab at the University Of Michigan, and one of the things that we researched is the way that people conceptualize the economics of time. So how people value their time, how people make decisions regarding their time, and other peoples’ time as well, and how you can alter that perception, given different linguistic cues, or different values that you attach to that time, if you give them ultimatums, stuff like that. So that was one of the things that influenced that song. Again, kind of familiar because that was just what everything on the record that I wrote kind of had in it—it’s one of my research interests, so it’s something that I think about often. So that is very vaguely what made that song come together in my mind.
AVC: You’ve mentioned that you two don’t normally collaborate on songs but both of your inspirations were kind of exploring the same topics. How did this all come together?
BD: Basically, I procrastinated and wrote it in the studio. Maybe because I was too busy watching Fringe, I don’t know. So I got there, and I actually had to fly in because I was in school, and everyone else was already there. Actually, Brandan [Pierce] and I, the bassist, were never there at the same exact time. We wrote everything together outside of the studio, and then had to fly in separately to do our parts. So it was a little strange. But Sean and I were there at the same time. I was working on this song while other things were happening, and I was just talking about what I wanted it to be about, and he mentioned a book he was reading. He really wanted to make the first part of it reference that.
So the first part, basically what he wanted it to say was “pin a star.” Because in the story, somebody is talking, and they’re doing this long rant, and they say something about pinning a star on their forehead, and he just really liked that. And I was talking about what I wanted the song to be about, and we were just kind of like, well, let’s make it go together, because why not? Because he had already finished his stuff, so we were like, why not? We’ll just put that in there. So like I said, it’s pretty rare for us to collaborate, he’ll just do songs and I’ll do songs, and we don’t really put things together. But in this case, we did. So his part was definitely influenced by that author, and my part was influenced by the work that we’re doing.
AVC: It kind of plays with these two different ideas but still makes sense when it’s put together.
SS: That’s another thing that we think a lot about when we’re writing music. We’re never really ones to tell explicit narratives. I think Britty does that sometimes—I think the song “Plum” is a coherent story. I think we both push away from that for different reasons. At least for me, I’m not the player, I’m not the singer, I’m just the writer—it’s hard to really get into a singer-songwriter style of vocals. It’s about mood or environment, or cultivating the way people feel. Through a song you get all these little twinges all over, and at the end, I think you have a sense of mood. I think if you’re too specific in a way that seems inaccessible, people can’t really get that. So I think that’s definitely part of what Pity Sex is all about. It’s about jumping around between things, and genre, or whatever, styles in a song, tempos, and cultivating moods.
BD: Like I said, it’s not completely like I did the research and then I wrote a song about it, it’s not like one-to-one. But because that is something that we talk about in our lab meetings and something that we are constantly trying to come up with—different questions about time and about how people conceptualize time and what they value. That’s the main thing that influenced not just that song but a lot of songs on the record is the fact that time can be a healer but it can also be really damaging in a lot of ways. It can pass really quickly. That line in particular, “steal my youth”—sometimes you just feel like you wasted your whole life working toward something, and then you get it, and you feel like this really isn’t that great and I wish I hadn’t spent my time immersed in books or schoolwork and I wish that I had spent more time with people that I love.