Trevor Powers has been hanging out at home in Boise, ID, since around Thanksgiving. He’s enjoying the calm before the storm, a chance to relax before Wondrous Bughouse, his sophomore album as Youth Lagoon, comes out March 5 on Fat Possum and sends him off on tour. “It’s always nice to unwind, but at the same time, you know it’s getting busy soon,” he says to me on the phone. “It’ll be nice to start traveling again.”
Wondrous Bughouse arrives about a year and a half after his debut, The Year Of Hibernation, a collection of psychedelic pop songs with delicate openings that built to sprawling climaxes. Like he did on his first album, Powers wrote Wondrous Bughouse at home, only this time, he journeyed to Atlanta, GA, to record the album with producer Ben Allen. Allen has worked with bands like Deerhunter and Animal Collective, but Powers was more drawn to Allen for the producer’s rhythmic work with artists like Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy rather than his credit on Merriweather Post Pavilion. “I became interested a lot in working with Ben mainly because of his background with percussion,” Powers says. “And I knew he had a background with engineering old hip-hop records and stuff in the ’90s and how percussion was very, very vital.”
The two singles released from Wondrous Bughouse so far—“Dropla” and “Mute”—have more upfront drumming. There’s an attack on these songs that didn’t exist on The Year Of Hibernation, a confident stride that Powers walks right from the start rather than building to it. During our talk, I asked Powers about that bolder sound, the “bedroom music” label and how he’s still inspired by his own dark thoughts.
You’ve toured a lot in the last couple of years. Did you write most of the Wondrous Bughouse songs on the road?
Actually no, not at all. I can’t write on the road because I need to be alone. I basically put myself in solitary confinement ’cause I have these ideas I want to express and I can’t really do it if I have much else going on. On the road I can never write, so I always write when I’m at home. With Wondrous Bughouse, there were a few different spurts where there’d be breaks in between tours, and so I’d come home and write pieces of the record. I did a majority of the writing after touring for The Year Of Hibernation finished for good.
Do you have a set work time when you’re at home, or is it kind of all over the place?
Most of the time I write at night. I usually come up with my best ideas really late at night. Sometimes I start writing at 1 in the morning and then just go until I’m out of ideas. It’s always interesting because I’ll have different things where in the moment, it’s like, “OK, this is cool,” and then when I wake up at noon, I go back and listen to it and it’s not good at all.
A lot of people called your music on the last album bedroom songs. Would you qualify these new ones in the same way?
That whole bedroom thing, I’ve never understood at all because I feel like…it doesn’t make sense, does it? I write in my house just like most artists. I don’t even write in my bedroom. [Laughs] I have this back room in my house that is just dedicated to all my music gear. So it’s cool ’cause it’s kind of isolated, and it’s in the back corner of the house, and I just shut the door and zone out.
Does it have windows?
It has one window, but the blinds are closed. [Laughs]
One lone window.
Back in 2011, you mentioned how anxiety fueled a lot of the songs on that last LP. Does that emotion still inspire your songwriting?
For sure. I think it always influences everything I create because it’s such a struggle for me. Everyone has different types of quirks that they have to deal with, and that’s mine. I kind of have this back corner of my brain that I just dedicate towards putting intrusive thoughts in. It’s like this whole mental thing of just moving thoughts over into that corner. I think that’s why it influences so much of what I create. It’s kind of like getting things out of my system in a way and just exploring. For me, the things I’m most inspired by are the things that haunt me or things I can’t get off my mind.
The new album’s press materials have called out a fear of mortality as part of the inspiration behind the new album. Where did that curiosity come from?
The whole mortality thing was one of those intrusive thoughts that kept bugging me for a long period of time. Kind of for no reason, it just kept coming up. When I was writing this record, my goal was to always try to take out all my filters as far as not over-thinking and letting songs guide themselves. So usually the way songs start off is kind of like a stream of conscious type thing, where I’ll start with a foundation of a song and see what kind of themes that I have in my subconscious. And there’ll be different things that come out, and then I’ll be like, “Oh wow, I didn’t know I was thinking about that that much, but it keeps coming out when I’m singing.” And then I take that idea and work on crafting it.
The first song you released from this album was “Dropla,” and I noticed that, unlike songs from your previous album that began quietly and grew into these grand climaxes, “Dropla” just jumps right in. Did you notice that change with your songwriting?
Most of it wasn’t conscious. If I feel like I’m writing in a certain type of formula—like when I first write a song, and it’s like, “OK, I want this song to be structured like this”—and having the idea from the very beginning, I feel like it really holds a song back, if you have an agenda. I tried with this record to write without an agenda and just write whatever comes to mind and let those ideas be. And so that’s just the way a lot of the songs came out, not starting so quiet, so I kind of just went with it.
That album art is pretty tripped out. Where did it come from?
I got into researching a lot of old psychedelic art from the late ’70s. And there was this book that was released just in West Germany, and it was basically a book by this researcher who was studying teenage patients who were being hospitalized for heavy drug use. They contributed pictures to it and all kinds of stuff like that. And there was this woman back in the ’70s—her name was Marcia Blaessle—and she contributed to it, and she’s a total no-name artist. She was young when she did it. And I stumbled on it, and there was something about it that just really connected with what I was really feeling in this record.
It was the biggest journey to try to track down the rights to use that. It was crazy ’cause the publishing company that released it back in the ’70s folded a long time ago, and then they passed the rights to another publishing company. And everything is in Germany too, so my manager had to contact people, and there was a translator he was trying to contact. It was insane. I ended up getting a hold of the people that have the rights to it, and it worked out pretty awesome.
Do you know anything about Marcia Blaessle?
I researched her as far as trying to even find out if she was still alive, and I couldn’t find anything. A lot her family has passed away. I even did research on Ancestry.com and stuff, and you can’t find any traces of her. I honestly don’t know.
Where did the album title come from?
I struggled with the title for a long time because I wanted something that really summarized the record in just its vibe and the feeling that it gives across. Bughouse is an old name for an insane asylum. And I started having these thoughts about how sometimes people who are deemed crazy by society have this kind of in-tune-ness to their subconscious, and that’s kind of why they are crazy, because their mind doesn’t turn off and it’s always speaking to them. Even though it can be a curse for a lot of those people, it’s kind of a beautiful thing at the same time that people can be that in tune with themselves even though it’s like living in a nightmare. It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain, but it kind of made sense in my mind. I’m one of those people that my mind can’t turn off, but then you think about people who have that problem even more so and the things they experience and the things they see.
So you would say you relate to that sentiment a little bit as a songwriter, just that constant influx but not to that extreme.
That’s exactly it. It’s not nearly as extreme; just that whole mentality to a very tame degree of your mind not turning off.
Back when your first album came out, a lot of people were making a big fuss over the fact that you were 22. How old are you now?
I’m 23. I turn 24 in March.
Will you be 24 by the time the album comes out?
No, my birthday’s is the 18th, so it’ll be a couple weeks after.
Were you curious as to why people were making a big deal about your age?
I was always curious about it. I think the biggest reason is, my age was in the very first press release, and I think it just lingered around for a long time. So it’s basically like I’m eternally 22 years old.