It’s a preface to a thought built on possibilities of an infinite nature. Such a small phrase serves as the ultimate open ended starter for any situation in life. Still, though it can be applied to any moment, and at any time, for some reason people often place “what if” in a position of revisionist hindsight, rather than an optimistic future oriented view. For alternative indie pop artist Aaron Taos, his latest album, Birthday Boy (Party Favors), tackles “what if” as well but, manages to do so from a vantage point that simultaneously considers the past and the present, a vantage point that seems built into the very process of how “Party Favors” came about.
“There’s like two points a year where I kind of like check in and like (ask myself), ‘Okay what’s going on?’ like, ‘Did you the things you said those times?’ Like, ‘Did you actually act on them or did you kind of like screw around and not do it?’” Taos says.
“I was working on a new album,” he continues. “(Birthday Boy) was an older project and because of the success of (the song) “Control” earlier this year, it allowed me to then revisit that album, that song, and some other songs. I did a remix for “Control” and then that did well, and then another one (too), and so (I was) like, ‘Okay let’s make this into a bigger project.’ And the only way it really made sense to me to do that would be to add songs that were to me clearly different, and revisiting them in a way that I was adding more people on. I’m in a much like, happier, sort of more creative, collaborative mindset now so, it felt right to include a handful of songs that took maybe the more isolationist approach of (Birthday Boy) and then added new perspectives and new people onto them to give them new life.”
All this being said, as the follow up to Taos’ debut, Birthday Boy (Party Favors) understandably appears from a distance, like much more of a re-do than an all-new. Promoted as a re-release of the breakout record Taos made just one year ago, his decision to return to existing songs initially seems odd at such an early stage, especially given Taos’ own admission that the music from the original Birthday Boy was born out of a personal tipping point with depression, frustration, and anxiety.
“To be honest, we wouldn’t be having this conversation eight months ago,” says Taos.
Beyond the spin off album title, there is far more to this pursuit than its pre-assembled nature might lead one to believe.
“Coming into this new year, I was rolling out already my next project, because Birthday Boy came out you know, a year and a half ago almost. (The re-issue) wasn’t strategically like what I was thinking to do. It was sort of like this outside forces thing that brought more renewed attention to (the album), which led it to (the single “Control,”) and then album being signed to a distribution deal. So that’s kind of like what spurred the whole thing about this, sort of the unintended success of “Control” at a later date brought renewed attention to this project that I had always loved.” says Taos.
The inclusion of eight added tracks – three new and five remixes of original Birthday Boy repertoire – places “Party Favors” in an interesting creative middle ground. Taos’ intention to embrace more collaboration and a widened palette of perspectives via the interpretations brought in through other artists, certainly aligns with his objective of giving new vibrance to these previously somber songs. That said, the remixes themselves provide subtle sonic shifts, as opposed to drastic instrumental or effectual pivots. This decision doesn’t make for the most dramatic redux but the artistic approach fits well in the face of how much patience and an acceptance of gradual change is necessary when working through struggles like self-doubt and depression. Interestingly however, that aura wasn’t so much a product of Taos specifically chasing his older emotions as it was just the assortment of artistic approaches his many collaborators came into on their own, due to Taos’ very straightforward but also trusting relationship with these remixes.
“I think in some ways it’s maybe easier to collaborate because I don’t really have to give (everyone else) too much direction. I think people actually understand what the song’s about and sort of, write towards it – especially if I send (them) the lyrics. So with these (songs) I didn’t really give too much guidance.” Taos says.
“I would give feedback like,” he continues, “You know, ‘Would you mind changing this melody here a little bit more?’ or, ‘Would you mind singing longer into the hook?’ or, maybe you know, ‘Could you do some ad libs or some screaming here, to make it more energetic?’ Like, I would give more producer feedback than content. I pretty much let (others) sing what they’d like to sing about.”
Meanwhile songs like “Summer’s Gone,” one of the prominent new singles from “Party Favors,” manages to crash Taos’ familiar party with seamless panache. Sonically, the song blends among all the others with ease. Its clean and brightly toned lead guitar in the opening hook; uptempo, snappy drum machine beats propelling the music; and delicate vinyl crackling effect work together to usher in a crisp indie pop melody along with a touch of power pop tonality – a style that’s come to be appreciated by Taos. Furthermore, the lyrics of this track make for the strongest display of balanced coexistence on the dichotomous project – both in regards to looking at the past and future, as well as Taos’ mutual acknowledgement of struggle and more hopeful perseverance.
But September’s rollin’ on the horizon
and the days will fade
even though all the leaves are dyin’
it ain’t too late
it ain’t too late
– Lyrics from “Summer’s Gone”
“I wrote this song back in May and I was really looking forward to summer.” Taos explains.
“But, you know, there were things that I was depressed about (too) because, you know personally, my dad was sick, it was around the same time as the George Floyd (protests), and we were going back into a lockdown and I had maybe, along with other people, sort of been really looking forward to summer (and) maybe that the virus would be gone, or that things would be lifted, or just that it would be a different sort of place.”
Considering how emotionally taxing and how uncompromising some of the events Taos endured over the summer were, it would be understandable to wonder or perhaps even feel a little concern over whether negativity and a depressively-leaning slope might take over or become the emotional fuel behind some of the newer songs – particularly since Taos had fundamentally aimed for the fresh material to still “fit the mold” of the music from the original Birthday Boy. Still, that stylistic objective didn’t mean Taos sought to slip back into the character of his past struggling self or deliberately think of something to channel his prior emotions the way one might in theater or other kinds of acting.
“I was back home in my hometown and I was sort of a reimagining what it was like to have a carefree summer: coming back from college, you know, having like a summer fling. (In the case of “Summer’s Gone”) it was sort of a memory, rather than what was actually happening or probably going to transpire, this 2020.”
Neither built on negative feelings nor requiring a revisiting of past hardships, that didn’t mean songs like “Summer’s Gone” were written to be more fictional than not. Memories served Taos just as much as new collaborations did. But, how he found himself reconnecting with those older experiences isn’t in the traditional way most might presume, like pictures or a rehashed story in a conversation with someone familiar.
“I came home after a quarantining in LA for a while (and) I was moving back in with my family. I was in a Red Roof Inn in my hometown and sort of a similar isolation (from) when I was recording “Control” and (the song) “Loneliness,” and the songs on the first album.” Taos explains.
“I had my gear (and) I was stuck in this hotel room for like seven…12 days. So, I was by myself (and) I was just kind of like, in my head and I was producing myself with no collaborators around. So (that setting) had some of the ingredients of the of the setting of the first album. And summer. So like, just the setting of writing (“Summer’s Gone”) and where I was physically, I think lended it to feeling like it belonged on this project.”
It’s somewhat ironic that, when forced into a setting of incredibly restrictive proportions, more rather than less ideas and natural inspiration came to Taos, and not just for specific songs but even when considering the impact of isolation as a whole. Not to mention that while social distance has proven a severe trial for so many, to see it bring creative fire rather than stifling struggle to someone familiar with the latter, is something in which Taos and his fans can delight.
“In some ways, I feel like I’ve been more productive,” he says. “Just having less distraction. Keeping the good parts, keeping collaborating with people. But not going out and drinking and, you know, doing that whole thing (all the time). It’s another, another moment to reflect (on), perhaps.”
Collectively, Birthday Boy (Party Favors) provides a fascinating demonstration of the power in asking “what if?,” beyond the past-focused angle it initially appears to sustain. The limited amount of new material might make Taos seem mostly hung up on the past but in truth, by viewing older work through a brighter lens, Taos is still looking ahead to limitless potential. After all, while events of the past cannot be changed, anytime they are reflected upon with new insight gained in the present, any number of novel thoughts, considerations, and actionable options can arise in days yet to come.
“You know I was emotionally invested in Birthday Boy Party Favors a year ago, when a lot of this stuff was happening. And now, you know, it’s not going to be released until a year and a half later when I’m (now) in a very different place. (But) I’m excited to finish it,” Taos says. “I put myself in a position finally where I have a lot of stuff that I’m happy with that’s pretty much ready to go. And I think that’s a great position to be in because I’m not worried about what’s going to come next.”