Anyone who has followed some facet of songwriter Tommy Siegel’s multi-faceted musical career with Jukebox the Ghost, Narc Twain or, more recently, his branching out to satirical socio-political cartoon comics, will find flashes of all that previous work in the confines of Siegel’s pivot to solo writing through new album, Another Century Wasted. But what makes Siegel’s decision to “go solo” in 2020 generate such fascination over so many other single songwriter ventures – especially when considering that solo work is a predominant necessity in a time of social distanced songwriting and recording?
Typically there’s an expectation that artists will deliver music different from their prior projects, thus allowing the public to see a side of their compositional style that didn’t quite fit other bands or, that they never had the chance to devote time to sooner. This is true to a point with Siegel as well but, more than a drastic emergence of totally unfamiliar stylization and composition, Another Century Wasted seems to be something of a natural point of coalescence for the many approaches to art and expression that Siegel has pursued and refined over the years, with the most unexpected angle of the album coming in the form of a self-declared songwriting requirements. Each song is required to have cowbell, congas, two guitars panned equally left and right in the mix, both must play conversing polyrhythmic patterns, and the bass line gets sole control over the music’s chord changes.
“(The strict requirements) just sort of developed organically. “Terrible News” was the first song––It’s funny; so I actually wrote a full album of stuff that was intended to be a Narc Twain follow up, that I kind of abandoned. It just didn’t feel right. Then I wrote “Terrible News,” also intending it as a Narc Twain thing and I just found that it was really working for me in terms of like, what I could do at home: To just start a song from a drum beat, a cowbell pattern, and then a bass line, then add guitars, and then just let the guitars kind of dance on top of the music,” says Siegel.
While songwriting from home
and taking precautions in the face of COVID-19, Siegel’s newest creative spark
worked in his favor. His decision to drastically change the compositional
foundations and the order of assembly for his songs originally initially came
about for much less unpleasant and ‘out of necessity’ reasons.
“Normal pop song topics weren’t doing it for me and I found myself drawn to a lot of South American and African music for years. Maybe it was just because a lot of that music (has) the intention of a steady groove and just sort of a place to hang out and feel good,” Siegel says.
“I just became totally enamored by the way polyrhythms work in non-Western music,” he continued. “It gave me a new gear because then I would come back to songs I writing and be like, ‘Well, that’s a nice melody but couldn’t you shake your butt to it? Can you find a way to make it a more full body listening experience?’ I started making all these intricate polyrhythmic loops and writing songs that way, as opposed to sitting down with a guitar and so it ended up being a very different way of writing for me because it’s more modal than it is chordal. Like, you can’t really sit down and play a lot of these songs on a guitar – or, I can’t anyway – because they’re too repetitive on just a guitar. But they just sort of fit in the mode and the layers kind of provide the movement, rather than the chords,” Siegel explained, as he proceeded to then put these decisions in context with how the shape the uniqueness of Another Century Wasted.
“I’m so used to letting the guitar drive the show and it almost feels like this is my first record as a bassist. The bass to me is kind of the center of (the composition). It tells you what the chord movement is, it tells you where you’re supposed to sit. And (as far as having) the guitars are always sort of panned right and left playing at opposite times, (that’s) a trick I actually picked up from XTC, who are one of my favorite bands,” Siegel says.
“They don’t do (the panning) all the time but there’s a handful of songs in their catalog where you can really hear the interaction between two guitars on the right and left. It’s something that I’ve just always enjoyed. So yeah, it was kind of my way of trying to distill the Afro-beat and South American influences that I was getting interested in, without being corny. Like, I’m not interested in trying to appropriate or make a white guy’s version of Afro-beat or something. To me, it was just me listening to a lot of that music and really admiring the depth of rhythm and wondering how I could do that in a kind of pop-rock setting,” he says.
Given that solo work usually leaves the door open for an artist do to anything and everything they desire, it’s interesting to see a musician willingly embrace such a specific and identifiable sets of limitations in the already severely restricted creative environment that’s formed the world over. This is particularly fascinating when one considers that Siegel’s choices of narrative concentration for the album – the addressing of political corruption, social friction, and the dangers of national instability – are no set of emotionally light, existentially enjoyable topics. Even taking the adventurous writing structure and unconventional timbres of Another Century Wasted into account, the dichotomy between relief and frustration was definitely present for Siegel throughout the album’s creation.
“I had plenty of existential panic before Trump got elected but I think there was something about Trump getting elected where, I was doing the protests, and trying to raise money, and doing the best that I could but, it was still just consuming my thoughts. I was just kind of worrying about the decline of civilization and trying to process that kind of chaos,” Siegel says.
“And so (Another Century Wasted) became kind of a byproduct of, not an intentionally all political record but, that it was kind of most of what I was thinking about you know, in a personal way. Still trying to process it in my own life and you know, move forward and (ask myself), ‘What can I learn from this moment?’ But, I don’t know. Hard not to read the headlines and try and spit something out from it. So yeah, the record was my way of coping with it; the cartoons (I draw) were my way of coping with it; they were both going hand in hand,” says Siegel.
Beyond the surface impressions presented by Another Century Wasted – the cartoonish but apocalyptic cover art, the foreboding song titles like “Terrible News,” “End Days,” and “Days Counted” – the sonic layer ofthe album that Siegel constructed serves as more than just a point of compositional intrigue. It’s also a bit of an emotional and mental buffer, as once one gets down to the lyrical content of the record, there is quite the outpouring of blunt referencing of the Old Testament and all the way at the other end, The Book of Revelations. “Starting Now” is prime example, with its opening line ushering in strong references to the story of creation in the Book of Genesis and the tribulations in the Book of Exodus. (At first there was nothing / the firmament was empty / there was no email or memory of what it was / I heard a voice say ‘Let there be some light and separation to keep us away from the night…No more beasts and locusts or first born slaughter / third world parents or first world daughters).
Knowing that a giant point of contention in today’s socio-political landscape includes tensions around the Evangelical Christian demographic, it would be understandable to perhaps take away from lyric writing such as this, that Siegel is commentating in some way with his microphone pivoted to this segment of the population. Yet, despite the softball assumption of explanation, the religious frame of reference wasn’t chosen as a method of cheap or uninformed mockery – particularly not the latter, given that Siegel was raised around religion and despite having a now more distanced relationship, he is more than familiar with the fundamental structure of Judaism, as well as the Old and New Testaments.
“I think for me,” Siegel starts, “I’ve always enjoyed apocalyptic imagery, especially with the first two Jukebox the Ghost records. I got really into using the Book of Revelations as kind of a launch pad for images and inspiration. That was almost 15 years ago now but for this record, I kept finding myself drawn to this idea of coming full circle. Rather than imagining the apocalypse, I was stuck with this idea of the Old Testament in reverse. So for me, “Starting Now” is playing with the idea of just going backwards through Exodus and back to Genesis. So it’s a lot of references to the story of Passover. So I was really enjoying playing with that imagery in a modern context. In the idea of going back to where we began. It was kind of coming back to a source of inspiration for me from the past.”
“You know,” he continues, “I was raised Jewish but I have not been a particularly devout practicing person as an adult. But I just find the imagery to be really strange and timeless and evocative. And since I had already kind of gone with this apocalypse imagery in the past, I thought it was interesting in this scenario, which I think today, it’s almost like referring to the Book of Revelations almost feel ham-handed. It’s like, obviously we’re there. We’re living that allegory. But to me it was more interesting to play with that idea of, ‘What if there’s a new beginning that can come from this kind of era?’,” Siegel says.
All this being said, a sense of humor and evaluative perspective coated with some sarcasm isn’t completely separated from Siegel’s musings and observations. Still, even with a bit more of a direct crowd in mind on a song like “End Days,” the objective isn’t so much rooted in a place of mean-spiritedness so much as it’s a mildly uncomfortable laughter occurring atop legitimate contemplation about the contradictory nature of some folks’ day-to-day philosophies.
“’End Days,’ for me, is just a meditation on – because I find the idea so fascinating – the idea of people who would pray for the pain of others so that they can reap rewards from God. I kind of have always seen that as (Vice President) Mike Pence’s world view in particular. Also the popularity of Trump in the American Evangelical communities these days is pretty fascinating because I think they know he’s kind of a wicked, unholy man but, he’s almost like the battering ram for the end days, is how they (seem to) sort of view him,” says Siegel, as he sums up his biggest disconnect and source of anxiety built into the messaging of Another Century Wasted.
“In the Trump era I don’t even feel like I’m talking about politics anymore. I feel like I’m talking about a true difference in the way we see the future of humanity,” he says.
Ultimately, due to the straightforward and conceptually vivid nature of both the album’s content and its styles of delivery, by the final moments of “Another Century Wasted, there’s liable to be a potpourri of interpretations, internalizations, reactions, and judgements – both on the music and Siegel himself. Those who have kept an ear to the ground for the plethora of comics, as well as Siegel’s individual commentary on the state of the U.S., are likely to have a vastly contrasting listening experience than those with differing perceptions and socio-political views. However, as much as the album seems poised and ready to be the cheeky poster-child for outward political expression and accruing social resonance through the public, Another Century Wasted doesn’t hold the primary purpose of socio-political soapbox soundtrack – despite how well it appears to dress the part.
I feel like I’ve always made music with an audience in mind, whether it was for Jukebox the Ghost or Drunken Sufis, and in that case I guess it was an audience of one, and then there’s Narc Twain. But with this record, usually, I step away from a record after I finish it and six months later, I hate it. And I’ve been really refreshed that this time I don’t feel that way. You know, some of these songs have been sitting around for four years now and I still feel connected to them. So as far as who (Another Century Wasted) is for, not to be selfish or anything but, I think it’s a record for me. It was kind of my only musical way of expressing myself in this moment,” says Siegel.
It’s hard to deny of course, or even look away from, the overt political references on the record and wonder what kind of ripple effect the music could have on people’s emotions, especially given the importance of the topics at hand. Still, Siegel doubles down on why this isn’t truly the poppy political driver people might see it as and there’s one clear cut anecdote of his personal experience as a musician with a wide fanbase, that really clarifies the matter well.
“I think music is super cathartic but it’s maybe––(but) I haven’t heard of anybody whose politics changed from hearing an album. Let’s put it that way,” he says.
“If we’re thinking of (Another Century Wasted) as a political record, (we’re likely asking) ‘How effective of a megaphone is it?’ right? Because it’s probably just going to reach my echo chamber,” he continues. “But I guess to me, music isn’t maybe the best vehicle for that kind of ideological evangelism. So to me, comics are just an incredibly more effective tool for disseminating an idea quickly on the internet. Even though it’s a (politically themed) record, I’m not thinking of it as a political act to put it out. To me, if my goal was propaganda, an album wouldn’t be the way to do it.”
At the end of the day, Another Century Wasted is an artistic hybrid of Siegel’s talents, artistic interests, political concerns, and creative range, with little concern for stringency around how all of those things look once brought together. That might not make the album the most simple or straightforward to market. However, for Siegel, knowing how personal the album is, fitting right into an excessively used mold isn’t the objective or the point here and now, nor will it likely be for the next solo endeavor.