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Nothing unsettles Louis Weeks more than the thought of wasted time.
It’s a mindset well-suited for the local musician’s career as a staff composer for Clean Cuts and Cerebral Lounge, a sound production company that scores television ads, video games, and mobile apps. Assignments are short—he often has just 10 to 20 seconds to get his point across.
But while crafting one of this year’s more expansive and experimental local rock records, haha, concision was no longer a business requirement. Weeks, 26, found himself considering anew the repercussions of every moment filled with sound.
“My relationship to recording and making music is ‘how do you make something great and meaningful in the time that you have?’” he says.
On the surface, haha seems to defy that mission statement. It’s full of meandering melodic outros and skronking sax jams that sometimes reveal themselves out of nowhere. Its lyrics register more as a tapestry of semi-related images than a graspable narrative. Its centerpiece, the jazzy, occasionally cacophonous “Mighty Lonesome,” is nearly eight minutes long.
The record was always meant to overstay its welcome at times. Weeks wanted haha—which he recorded with bandmates Noah Berman on guitar, Ethan Helm on woodwinds, and Matt Honor on drums—to be a pop album with the fat still intact, an exercise in both honoring and subverting the 21st-century obsession with short, simple forms of communication.
“I have an anxiety about mimetic culture,” Weeks says. “I think memes and GIFs are an incredibly useful vehicle for communicating an idea. It’s a very postmodern idea, being able to take a big idea and then take a symbol of that and use the symbol. But I wonder what gets lost.”
Weeks approaches music the same way you’d assume pop-song surgeons like Dr. Luke or Pharrell Williams might. There’s a strict method to creating every track, centered specifically around an emphasis on what he calls the “turn”: the climax of a song, where something key is revealed. It can be a drastic melodic shift, a feeling of clarity, or complete chaos. It’s the spot that often validates the entire listening experience.
“The messaging turns from ‘if this, then that.’ There’s a pivotal moment where the music needs to reflect some sort of decision that’s been made, a turning point,” Weeks says.
His belief in this critical moment comes directly from his day job. Take the soundtrack for a recent anti-smoking ad he just scored: Over the course of 30 seconds, there are two “turns.” The first one signals a transition from the dark, minor chords that play through the beginning—a harrowing opening statement about child smokers—to a more neutral melodic sequence, when the ad tasks the general public with preventing kids from starting the habit in the first place. That gives way to a big, hopeful, upbeat ending, the point in the commercial that envisions a cigarette-free future for adolescents. Each shift is an emotional point of access for the viewer.
It’s no surprise, then, that haha is built around a few important “turns”: the sprawling horn sequence that pops up at the end of “Fire” and halfway through “Mighty Lonesome”; the uplifting final bars of “White Moth” that resolve the prior tension; the lush ending to “Antelope,” where saxophones and percussion are added to a bare, guitar-buoyed melody.
haha, like today’s most effective pop songs (e.g. “Uptown Funk” and “Shake It Off”) is often an exercise in maximalism. Most of its songs never
sit still, packed to the brim with hook after hook, layer after layer. “I’d start thinking about, like, ‘what if there are 12 flutes on this chord?’ or ‘what if a crazy saxophone solo happened?’” Helm says.
It was all part of Weeks’ additive approach to songwriting on haha, which meant pushing every track to the threshold of oversaturation. “There’s a very compressed amount of time in pop songs,” Weeks says. “I wanted to take some of the language of fast changes, hard shifts, and turns, and put it into this record.”
Weeks created haha in reaction to the vibe of his last album, shift/away (which Washington City Paper named one of the best local releases of 2014), a record of glitchy, airy tunes that feels like it was recorded on a laptop. The insular, introverted essence conjured up by that album’s bedroom pop is apt—Weeks wrote much of shift/away in his head while driving alone in a car.
By contrast, he wanted haha to sound full, like an album that came to life in the studio rather than his own mind. To achieve this, Weeks needed a crack team of meticulous musicians. “Compared to shift/away, Louis’ haha demos would strike you as being pretty similar in sound,” says Berman, who worked on both records. “The difference would be from us recording more acoustic instruments—woodwinds and drums—in the recording studio.”
“My goal in making this record was to take what I’d done with shift/away, which was a very sample-based and repetitive album, and give it a kind of grounding in the performances that Noah, Ethan, and Matt brought to it,” says Weeks, who recorded the album with his bandmates over the course of one marathon weekend at Clean Cuts and Cerebral Lounge’s Baltimore studio. “It lives in a place, acoustically and arrangement-wise.”
For as long as he can remember, Weeks’ greatest interest in music has been in the physical repercussions of this idea of place, a mindset fostered by his mother, a visual artist, and his father, an architecture aficionado. “I think about music visually as much as I do acoustically or auditorily,” says Weeks, who grew up in Baltimore. He went on to study music composition and English at Maine’s small, rural Bowdoin College, where he wrote a 27-minute chamber opera for his senior thesis. Since the fall after his graduation, he’s worked at Clean Cuts and Cerebral Lounge creating commercial pieces for networks like STARZ, the Golf Channel, National Geographic, and TLC.
It’s a job that allows him to regularly consider the physicalities of music, given the digital equipment he uses. “Working at a computer with music really satisfies a lot of the visual [elements],” Weeks says. “It helps me contextualize the shape of a piece or the contour of a piece, because I can look at it and think about it visually.”
Weeks’ lyrics on haha center around how difficult it is to accurately and succinctly convey through words what’s on his mind. This places it in a dialogue with albums like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and St. Vincent’s Actor, two brilliant, landmark indie rock records similarly voiced through characters stuck in their own brains. Like the others, Weeks’ record is emotionally distant but deeply personal. It’s full of lyrics that can feel cold and ironic at times, sincere and sentimental at others—like the multifaceted nature of the interjection “haha.”
“‘Haha’ is an acknowledgement,” Weeks says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m laughing; it means I hear you, I acknowledge you, which is just as meaningful, frankly. It very much is about this way of communicating and not communicating at the same time.”
The best example of haha’s loaded imagery comes during the dreamy “Do No Harm”: “I’m sucking on your fingers begging please/This is more than my mid-sized American heart can take.” At first, it registers as a sly, self-deprecating lament about how normal and obvious the narrator’s wants and needs are: to feel loved, experience happiness, and be surrounded by others who understand him.
But on second thought, it becomes a line of pure romantic intent. “Mid-sized American” or otherwise, his heart needs satisfying. Verbalizing that idea can be a challenge. “[The record] is about intimacy and closeness,” Weeks says. “But it’s also about the clunky language of life that gets in the way of that.”
This is where the album’s two biggest points of interest—mimetic culture and pop music—converge. A word like “haha” is simple, endlessly applicable. But its adaptability makes it easily misconstrued. From Weeks’ perspective, modern pop songs exist in the same realm: Americans turn to them for strength and solace because they can be used as tools for rationalizing complex feelings. Still, that’s often just a response to the straightforward, relatable language of these songs, which makes the listener feel like the tunes were written about their unique situations.
In other words—as Weeks sings on the track “Fire”—“I burn for you/In the way that songs could never do.”
“[Pop music is] the imagery we rely on to bring us closer together, but oftentimes it means totally different things to different people,” Weeks says. “There are things I really need to say, and sometimes a song is just not the medium to say it.”
Tacked to the wall in Weeks’ small, cream-colored office is a wrinkled printout of writer Henry Miller’s self-inspiring commandments, “Work Schedule 1932-1933.” It contains such motivational nuggets as “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever in hand” and “Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.”
The line Weeks always finds himself always going back to is the most proverbial of them all: “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.” It’s a piece of wisdom that keeps Weeks focused at his deadline-intensive job as a composer. More importantly, it underscores one of the recurring themes in his life and career: concision.
At his day job, concision is a mantra, an enduring goal. As a rock musician, concision can be too easy. Weeks may shudder at the thought of a song wasting time, but that’s how he knows it’s poignant. There’s real art and emotion in the excess fat.
“I think music’s relationship with time makes it a unique art form,” he says. “There’s something really upsetting about that too. You can’t make a song go faster than it is. Music is you reckoning with yourself. It’s you being there while time passes.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery