Suicide, Wheelchairs and the Resurrection of David Pajo
Despite rising to indie prominence in the late '80s as a member of Slint and serving as a stage / studio utility player in more bands than any of us have fingers, David Pajo’s strongest music statements have been of the solo variety. Composing under a range of guises — Aerial M, Papa M and Pajo — this Louisville, Ky.-born musician has made breaking new solitudinal ground a mission.
Over the years, post-rock flickers gave way to electronic minimalism, which begat folk tradition variations, then straight-up rock 'n' roll; before you knew it, he’d cut an LP of acoustic Misfits covers. Highway Songs (Drag City), the first Papa M release since 2004’s Hole of Burning Alms compilation, seems to zip from one Pajo-esque iteration to another, lassoing together meditative drift, instrumental punk rock, demonic sample-juggling, aching folk and the thunderous pummeling of Dead Child, his short-lived metal outfit. Yet, somehow, it all feels cohesive and of a piece, even as the pathos of Pajo’s life circumstances over the past few years adds weight to every note played and lyric sung.
A few weeks prior to the release of Highway Songs, I interviewed Pajo via telephone.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Los Angeles. I have a little place in Echo Park. My kids are out here, so I got a place to be near them.
I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time, and years ago, I ordered a limited edition Aerial M CD / EP from you by mailing you a check ...
... and I think you were still in Kentucky at that point. It’s funny — I was just thinking when I was writing up questions for this that I haven’t really thought of you as being in any one fixed place since then. I’ve always thought of you as being sort of everywhere, in terms of the various different bands and projects. So, over time, I never thought, “I wonder where Dave Pajo lives now?” What’s it like to live in California? I’ve never gone out there.
Oh, man. You should do it. I’ve only been here a year and a half, maybe, so I haven’t really explored it that much. I really like it; it still feels really exotic. It feels like I’m on an island when I wake up, and it’s nice, you know? And I can see palm trees and stuff. It still feels like a vacation. Everyone knows about the kind of fakeness of the culture here, and there’s definitely fake people. But I have a circle of friends that aren’t like that. A lot of people from Louisville moved out here, a lot of people from New York. You just kind of surround yourself with good people. Those East Coast winters — and not even the winters themselves, but the before and after — were just so dead and gray. But when the sun did come out, you really appreciated it. Here, it’s just taken for granted.
Highway Songs, when I first heard it, sort of stood apart from the rest of your solo and group catalog because it feels like a compendium of various styles you’ve explored, with a couple of new approaches included. When did you record this, and how it come together?
Man, that’s a really good observation. To me, working on it, it was just a total mess. I didn’t know if I was making a record. I was just putting down ideas. I didn’t spend a lot of time arranging songs like I usually do. I just would let the songs go on tangents and run wherever they went. When I did put it all together, I had Brian McMahan from Slint help me. I needed an objective set of ears.
Did he play a producer role on this record?
Towards the very end, once I knew what songs were gonna be on the record. He helped me just put 'em in order, and he would tell me if he didn’t like a certain drum sound. My original sequence, I put all the heavier songs at the end of the record, for what would be “Side 2.” I just figured that anyone who liked my older stuff would say. “I love 'Side 1!'” [Laughs] I think I was sort of ashamed of the songs. Brian helped me put them in an order that made it more of a listenable experience; it made me want to hear it again. But it wasn’t until it was sequenced like that that I realized there was a thread of continuity to it. It does kinda span different things I’ve explored in the past — the more electronic stuff, the glitchy stuff, there’s one sort of traditional song I made my own, some of the heavier stuff.
Which one was the traditional?
The very last song, “Little Girl.” And I don’t even know what the original song sounds like; I just saw the lyrics in a song book, and came up with what I thought the music would be.
What drew you to “Little Girl,” or to the words? I hadn’t been aware that it was a traditional, but it definitely struck me as being the most affecting song that you’ve recorded.
The time I read them was a time when I was super depressed, and all I wanted was to be next to my kids again. Parenthood does that to you, where your kids become the most important thing. I felt really separated from them — I was going through a divorce — and so I really connected with those words. I feel like my kids are my teachers; I learn a lot from them. It’s my job to guide them, but it doesn’t mean I’m smarter than them just because I’m older and have more experience. Kids have a lot of pure wisdom, if you have the eyes to see it.
Over the years, you’ve had a lot of different solo project names. For Highway Songs, why did you return to Papa M?
I’d done some shows under that name in 2011 because I was playing songs off of Live From a Shark Cage. I just didn’t want to sing anymore, so I went back to my instrumental stuff, and really enjoyed it again. For me, Papa M and Aerial M, too, I always thought of them as my instrumental interests; it really evolved after Whatever, Mortal. I thought Highway Songs should really be a Papa M record because I was returning to that idea of focusing on the music itself.
Around the time Papa M Sings and Whatever, Mortal came out, I remember thinking, “Wow, he’s singing now?” And it took me a little while to get used to it, but then I did.
I’d been touring a lot with Will Oldham, and he was really encouraging me to sing. I was always wanting to challenge the listeners, or challenge myself. “Wouldn’t it be funny if this instrumental band started playing folk songs?” Plus, I was only listening to that sort of music around that time; I wasn’t as interested in instrumental music.
One of the tracks on Highway Songs that really jumped out at me was “Walking on Coronado,” which has an integration of two different elements — it has the languid guitar, and it also has this very staccato pulse. That’s an interesting idea, because you’re trying to balance two things that aren’t necessarily alien to one another, but maybe shouldn’t work well together. What were you going for there?
“Balance” is the right word. I think with that song, especially, it felt too staccato and I wanted to round it off. Sometimes combining and contrasting things will help balance a song. That’s another one I didn’t spend any time arranging. It kind of fit on the record because everything else wasn’t really like that; it was more odd time signatures or extended riffs. I like its place with the rest of the songs around it — something to contrast with everything else. And it’s weird that I still think of albums as “Side 1” or “Side 2,” since it really is an “iPod on shuffle” culture where you listen to one song at a time and not context. I’m an album guy.
Seventeen years ago, on Life From a Shark Cage, you had “Pink Hollers,” which was this plucked, drone-y piece. Now, on Highway Songs, there’s “Green Hollers,” which is more metal. Is there any thematic connection?
Actually, I’ve always called songs “[something] Hollers” with a color in front of it. [Laughs] Sometimes that’ll just be a working title. I don’t think I’m one of those guys who sees colors in music, but songs definitely invoke a mood and a hue, a color tone — that one just happened to be green.
Is there a lot of music that you write that remains on the cutting room floor? Is there a 96-disc Pajo rarities box set hidden in a hard drive somewhere?
There’s a ton of stuff that will never come out, and it’s mostly just me trying out ideas, whatever mood I’m in that day. And I’ll work and work on it, then say, “Yeah, that sucks.” I’d rather have a ton of stuff to choose from than a couple things I’m precious about. If I sit with a song for a while, I can usually tell if it’s just bullshit.
How did you get involved with skateboarding in Pine Ridge? Are you a skater yourself?
I skated a little bit when I was younger, but I was never great at it. A friend asked me if I wanted to do the soundtrack he was working on about skateboarding, and I told him I would do it, but I hadn’t recorded my own stuff in years. I’d just relocated to California; all my nice recording equipment was in storage in New Jersey. So, I just quickly did it, and made do with what I had. I got so into it, because it’d been such a long time since I’d done solo recording — and I haven’t stopped. Even though Highway Songs is finished, I’m still recording as soon as I wake up. I forgot how much my identity is wrapped up in that process. To not do it for years? I didn’t realize there was a void before I started doing that.
Without getting too personal here, how are you feeling these days? How are you doing?
Man, I’m doing a lot better. I’m still wheelchair-bound; I had a motorcycle accident in March. I’d only been in L.A. for a few months before I found out how L.A. traffic is way worse than back east. It’s how I kind of had the time to work on Highway Songs and record so much. I’m basically indoors all the time. For a while, it was physically painful to record those things, just to hold a guitar on my lap where I had all these surgeries. But it was the one activity where I could totally lose myself. It’s been a long time since the accident, and I probably have a couple more months before I’m walking again, but everything’s healing. It’s been a good excuse to be a shut-in.
I don’t know if you know, but I had a suicide attempt last year.
I did know. That’s why my last question was framed the way it was. I didn’t know how much you’d want to talk about that.
Oh, I like to talk about it, actually. Afterwards, I felt like it was such a taboo subject that it should be openly discussed. Certain words come up in our culture, and people immediately think “morbid” or “things are gonna get weird when we talk about this depressing stuff,” you know? I think there’s a real fear of the subject because people don’t want to imagine that kind of hopelessness and despair.
Ninety-five percent of people were super positive, encouraging and supportive. People kind of swarmed around me — my family and all my friends. All these feelings of worthlessness [dissipated] — like, “Man, all these people love me; there must be something lovable about me.” Everybody is lovable. Even fuckin’ Donald Trump. [Laughs] He loves himself too much.
There were some hater types that thought I did it with the intention of being rescued, that I did it for attention, like it was a cry for help; like they think suicide is for cowards. I really think it comes down to that fear — they don’t want to imagine what drives a human to do something like that, so they come up with other reasons. I think I felt like that for a while; I felt like suicide was a selfish act, but some of those ideas should be cleared up. It’s a real problem — yet, socially, we still suppress a lot of talk about it.
I feel a lot better now, and in a way it’s because I thought I wasn’t gonna see another sunrise. Now I kind of appreciate the moment a lot more; I have a second chance to see my kids grow up. Even though I was in a painful, shitty accident, I would still rather be alive and have that type of pain than not, you know? It’s really put a lot of things in perspective.