ITEM, a Cleveland-based indie rock group, came into my life as a surprise discovery by a friend. I was immediately entranced by the sleepy absurdity of Sad Light, which ends up juxtaposing heavily with its most poignant moments — tales of environmental destruction and emotional dysfunction meeting with non-sequiturs and childlike playfulness. I spoke to Dylan Glover, the band’s vocalist and synth player, about the themes and basis of Sad Light, his take on composition, and the importance of humour in ITEM’s music.
This transcript has been condensed and edited.
It seems like there is a lot of absurdity, humour, and medical references in the lyrics. How did you come to settle on these particular themes for Sad Light?
I’m wondering how to even begin answering that, because one thing begets another thing begets another thing. How it began — I’m trying to think what the first song I wrote was on the record. Lyrically, I want to say it was “Horse Pill”, which is inherently medical — it is related to pharmaceutical drugs and my problem with them — so that opened the floodgates for the rest of the album to have a medicinal, medical theme; there’s a lot of mention of medical environments, hospitals. It was because that laid the groundwork for all of those themes that it just kept expanding on those basic ideas. And absurdist humour is just me coming out in full form — I feel like if I didn’t respect that part of me, it wouldn’t be true to myself, and the art would not be true to me.
You said that you had a specific problem with pharmaceutical drugs — was this in the sense that you were critiquing them?
“Horse Pill”, specifically, is a satire of the pharmaceutical drug industry being perceived as this helpful medicinal force in life, when in my experience, it’s been the direct opposite, and my psychiatrist was my biggest drug dealer. The chorus speaks to that — it’s like, here’s your medicine, plug it on in, hope you don’t drool on yourself, you should be fine, I’m sure this’ll make you better, and of course it doesn’t, you know? It just spoke to my experience and my disillusion with pharmaceutical companies.
It does seem like there’s a certain personal underlying experience to this album. Would you say that this album tends to cover more personal ground then?
I would. I would say that I try to steer away from making it too personal because I try to think of the audience, it’s not just a diary. How do I make this relatable yet also speak to me and make it gratifying for me to sing a hundred times over? But it definitely does veer on the more personal side.
What I find interesting is that ultimately, despite the issues that it addresses, the album has an optimistic feel to it — how did you plan that out?
It’s one of those things where one thing happens lyrically, or I write an idea in the moment, and then it creates this bigger theme that I can play on as I write more songs and lyrics. For me, the basis of the title Sad Light — it’s all in the name. It’s sad, it’s melancholic, but it’s ultimately optimistic — it’s light, it’s hopeful. That was kind of my whole idea, to make these songs that are shrouded in melancholy, but at the core of it, there’s youthful playfulness, experimentation and fun — a lot of it is fun in my opinion — and then some of them are bleak, and not fun. The song I wrote on guitar, “The Way It’s Going”, is horribly bleak — it’s extremely slow, it’s like a beat per second. That’s the idea though. And then that’s not the last song — the song after that is upbeat and optimistic, and it steers the album away from where it was going to go, which is the whole basis of the lyrical theme, the compositional theme. The whole idea behind the album was that it’s — it’s kind of like what the Smiths did, it’s all poppy and it’s all good-sounding, but if you really read into the lyrics, it’s terribly depressing. I decided to be less pessimistic than someone like Morrissey, because I ultimately believe in being optimistic and having hope in yourself and in your life.
Speaking of fun, I definitely noticed a couple of quirks in the lyrics — there seem to be intentionally ungrammatical moments.
That’s me playing — even in the band, almost everyone didn’t know what the lyrics were because they sounded ridiculous. And a lot of it is because I’m typically very grammatically aware — when I speak, when I type, when I write. So for me, I was kind of making fun of myself in a way by making these very blatant grammatical shifts and making nonsense, even words that just don’t make any sense where they are in the sentence. I thought that added a cool element — I wasn’t going to make up my own language, but I wanted it to be my version of English.
It’s super interesting when that juxtaposes with more serious elements — for example, in “Jeju Island”, “the sheeps are all dead” — it’s such a poignant, sad song, yet there’s this sudden comedic moment.
I’m not even sure [anyone in the band notices sometimes]. But for me, when I’m writing stuff like that, a lot of it is an avoidance of self-seriousness, or an excess of seriousness. This is four minutes of pure melancholy, it’s very serious and sad, it’s got broad environmental implications — how can I make all of this more relatable and easier to digest? And humour is almost always the answer, in my opinion. Because everyone can laugh and get down with something being humorous. Out of fear of being self-serious, I’ll throw in something like that. And in that particular song, I wanted the storyteller — me, in this case — to sound childish, to sound like this pure, innocent childishness. To throw in that seemingly random, but intentional misstep, made me look naive, or stupid, or young — which is the whole point.
Would you say that this specific approach carries across the message better?
I do. People that notice it — hopefully if you notice it, then it does — but if not, you might just be like “well, this guy’s dumb”. And that’s totally ok, because I know that I’m not, but I think if you’re really in tune with the music and you’re resonating with it already that you’ll notice that most of the songs are very grammatically sound and then there are these moments that experiment with non-sequiturs or intentional grammatical mistakes. And that makes it more effective.
The character [of Jeju Island] takes on this childishness — I’m referring to someone’s father, so for me in that moment, I’m like a son or a child. So I need to emphasize that point — not only in my words, but in the way I’m writing my words, or singing my words; there are all these different tools you can use as a vocalist to emphasize the character and to make the people listening to the song feel like they are the character.
Was Jeju Island based on a real scenario?
It’s actually a real scenario — my ex-girlfriend’s father is a developer of large casinos, big resorts and hotels, he’s like a project manager. And his company was developing one of these resorts on Jeju Island in South Korea, which is largely untapped in this way — it has resorts but nothing to the scale that they were going to be building. The song straddles the line between environmental awareness and the relationship between him and his daughter. It’s an interesting perspective to have on the situation as an outsider, because I was witnessing the dissolution of their relationship before my very eyes, but also watching him be too busy to talk to [his daughter], and, on the side, building this enormous casino that might potentially ruin a beautiful place.
The line “I showed up in the striped shirt that I own” — it really struck a chord with me. I guess it comes back to your point about innocence?
The line that follows it — “it’s the one good thing I have in my home” — it creates this image of me as a poor young boy, and then him, this character of greed and excess and hedonism. And that was the whole idea — what’s cool is, the first time I met him, I was wearing a striped shirt, the only striped shirt that I own. I was playing on that, but more so, the shirt is a metaphor for having — because he has all this money and these things, but he can’t even keep his relationship with his daughter intact. I might only have this one thing, but at least I have love and the things that actually matter in this life, and that was what I was trying to harp on.
In terms of production choices, how would you describe the way you made the production cohere with the themes? For instance, there are guitar tones that feel cool to the touch, there’s a vibrancy to a synth part — what were the specific production choices that you made?
A cool example is “Magnesium.” “Magnesium” is a song that is reflecting in a very melancholic fashion, about feeling lost, having these physical sensations, and talking about heavy — it’s very open, spacious. And so the guitar reflects that perfectly. It’s not busy — the rest of the album is a lot busier, chordally speaking — but that song is so open that it can just be one or two notes and it opens up perfectly.
The synth part at the end of it — I find it remarkably striking.
Thanks! I took influence from [Jon Hopkins’ “Light Through the Veins”] — it starts with a synth line that’s very simple, very flat and almost sterile, but it builds into this remarkable piece of music.
How would you describe any changes or evolutions that have happened since the first album?
Less prog in every right way possible. My relationship with my first album is — I was so young, and it was so ambitious that I can’t help but appreciate it now for what it was. But I never felt as though it was a viable commercial product, or a breakthrough album if you will. What we did, most importantly, was trimming the fat — we went on fewer experimental dirges, we made everything tighter, and we stuck to our pop sensibilities more.
I noticed that the first album was considerably more subdued — it doesn’t have the oddities that we’ve grown to love with Sad Light.
I think music is a reflection of the artist at that time — you can feel and hear elements of Sad Light in Every Fruit in the World. I can totally see how this became the second album, but it’s missing a lot of the idiosyncrasies of Sad Light. I consider Sad Light to be my first true statement to the world, artistically.
Speaking of what you said about music as a reflection of the artist, do you have any take on the debate on the separation of the art from the artist?
As a huge Kanye West fan I struggle tremendously with it. I think it’s circumstantial — sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t, sometimes you should and sometimes you shouldn’t. I used to love R. Kelly, now you couldn’t pay me to listen to him. After all the stuff came out about his horrible, horrible behaviours — I don’t listen to him anymore. His art is a reflection of his sexual self — his music is extremely sexual — so I can’t separate the two. In the case of Kanye West, his recent behaviours have been pretty atrocious, and I’ve struggled to give him the time of day. So I don’t believe in separating them necessarily. I’m sure Charles Manson had a couple good songs, I’m never going to know — dude’s an asshole.
Do you happen to know any other artists that make good use of absurdity in their music?
Bradford Cox from Deerhunter uses a lot of humour, absurd lyrical tendencies, to describe very serious issues, and I’ve always appreciated that about him. Especially his mental and physical health issues — he almost makes fun of himself, which I do a lot. And Captain Beefheart is another person I like a lot, lyrically.
I wanted to ask about influences, but I fear that I’ll paint the band as derivative if I ask the question —
Oh, no, it’s an interesting one for us, I think, because certain bands — if you ask Greta van Fleet, what’s the point of asking, you know? But with certain bands, I don’t even know what the hell I’m listening to — it’s like eight records in one, which is what I wanted [Sad Light] to be. I want it to be everything I like.
How do you feel about the reception that Sad Light has received so far, then?
I’m really pleased about anyone that has anything kind to say about it. Admittedly, I’ve been frustrated with the industry at large and trying to understand how to navigate that world. You don’t sell records anymore, it’s not the thing you do. Getting people to listen to your music is by far the hardest part of making yourself successful. Finding Sputnik was really cool — we’re just people from Cleveland, we do mini-tours, it’s a humble operation. To see people discussing it at length — it’s so cool that I can’t but feel gratified.