On a frigid November afternoon, I stroll up North Avenue toward Sultan’s Market. Chicago pop’s enigmatic prom king, Richard Album, is leaning against the wall, sporting a dark track-suit, an upside-down Chicago Bulls pin, and a smug half-smile. It’s been dark for hours, but he’s still wearing sunshades. “Lot of lights in this city,” he murmurs, not even looking in my general direction.
The market is cash only; I have to go back down the street to an ATM, and Album accompanies me. Towering over six-foot, he cuts blithely through the stream of bodies crossing the street in the other direction. I struggle to keep up. Along the way (about a 500-yard trip to the ATM and back), he encounters five or six acquaintances. They wave and stop; he smiles warmly and keeps walking.
We return to Sultan’s and sit down together with two spicy falafel sandwiches and two cups of ice-water. Album is confident and cerebral as we begin to discuss synth funk, Bandcamp analytics, and the Chicago underground. He speaks deliberately, even irritably at times. The tape recorder goes live. The sunglasses stay on.
Ghost Track: Saturday Night Album was just released by Athletic Tapes. It sounds quite different from your previous releases. What do you feel it shares with your past work, and where do you think it diverges?
Richard Album: The lead-off single of Saturday Night Album is a song called “Crawling Back,” which has been kicking around the Internet for a couple of years now, and it’s a narrative tale about a pompous man who has blown it in a romantic relationship. He’s done too much, and is crawling back. But in the song, he loses, you know; he’s laughed at. So that song, obviously, as the readers of this website know, was a huge smash hit, and a big runaway single. My producers and I thought, “How can we take this classic Richard Album narrative, this jackass who we’re learning a moral lesson from, and turn it into this dance hit?” As stubborn as I am––singer-songwriter, I’ve been around the block, I have all the answers by now––I stuck with the rock n’ roll thing for a while and basically wrote the material for another album with The Singles, but we kept getting those hits on “Crawling Back,” and the music video, directed by Sally Lawton, which was very well-received on the Internet, so I decided to write an album around that song because people at shows and people on the Internet really liked it. And why not make music that people have fun listening to? It’s easy to swallow, easy to digest.
GT: That section where the protagonist of “Crawling Back” is derided––“you’re standing there laughing your head off”––stood out to me as an important moment on the record. Do you think that this idea of “getting laughed at” runs through your work?
Album: I guess I want to clarify that the protagonist in the song is not a dork or someone that’s been bullied. This is someone that has been unfair or abusive to people that he knows, so it’s sort of poetic justice that it doesn’t work out for him in the end. But that moment of failure is something that inspires me in a lot of songs. The first song on the album is about seeing someone you know and having them not remember who you are, so that’s a heartbreaking moment. There are other songs about having a casual crush on someone and having them really not like you. These facepalm moments, you know? I totally blew it, I’m a failure. To turn around and make it into a catchy pop song is a nice juxtaposition of moods. Whether it’s being laughed at or being forgotten or taking up too much space and annoying everybody, those are themes I keep coming back to.
GT: It’s interesting to pair that with a pop album: the idea of failure, these situations that are less than glorious, which as you say, sit well, in a sort of uncomfortable way, inside the flashy vehicle of a pop song.
Album: I’m definitely not the first singer to sing about things like that, and people who have been a big influence to me, like Elvis Costello, are always trudging through that muck and pulling things out of it. [Costello’s] songs are wonderful and catchy and solid, very well-written; they’re about those dark moments that don’t even happen in real life, but that happen deep inside this very neurotic person’s brain. It’s the kind of music I like, more or less. It seems like the only thing that makes sense to write about for me.
GT: What does the phrase “Saturday Night Album” mean to you, then?
Album: It’s a double entendre, or a triple entendre, as my album titles stretch themselves out to be. When you listen to Saturday Night Album, you’re hearing Richard on a Saturday. But it’s also an album you can listen to on Saturday, when you’re powdering your nose and wrapping up your scarf and getting ready to go out. And I was also thinking about Saturday Night Fever, the movie, a classic dance icon in history. Saturday is almost like the battlefield where these relationships play out. Not to cast it in violent light, but in a purely figurative sense, we’ve put ourselves on the line, and a lot of the time we get totally killed on Saturday nights.
GT: Even syntactically, it’s Album bumping up against Saturday night.
Album: Yeah, and if this interview were different, and you had been asking me different questions, this piece could very well be explaining all the puns in the album titles, and in the song titles, and in the lyrics. But I don’t need to do that.
GT: Where does this playfulness come in with your music––how you approach a live show, for instance?
Album: If you can make people laugh, if you can hook them in that way, then you can get them to listen. So a lot of the time I’ll go up and make fun of myself and make fun of the band––in a playful way––to get people to lower their guard a little bit, to engage them a little bit. Then I can totally knock them over with songs about my feelings, once their hearts are open. It’s another classic trope in pop music: you look at an album cover and you see this bright, colorful package. People at home: my lips are not this big in real life. There’s a little airbrushing that goes on. You hook people with this fun thing. Especially in the age of the Internet, if you just have a picture, it almost means more to people than actually listening to the music. I don’t want to lay out the statistics here, but something tells me that a lot of people loved the cover of Saturday Night Album and maybe didn’t have the time to form an opinion about the music. But who knows?
GT: You chose to conclude the record with a Luther Vandross tune, “I Wanted Your Love.” What drew you to this track in particular?
Album: I have a good friend––“23,” I call him––who played in a previous Richard Album backing band called The Lifestyles, who played on Sophomore Album. He’s a synth funk mastermind. He made me a mixtape, Summer of Synth Funk. One of the first songs on it, I noticed said the word “love” so many times. I got to listen to it a little more, and the melodrama of the narrator is almost to a Morrissey level. “I’m the most famous man in the world, but no one understands the pain!” I really identify with that. You can laugh at the chorus, and the fact that the word love is in it about 50 times every time it comes around. And once you’re laughing, you notice a tear rolling down your cheek in the second verse. Nothing can mend this broken heart. If you get a worm in your ear for synth funk music, and you have a record player, it’s bargain, it’s a bargain hunter’s delight. I’m talking 25 cent records. Go down to Logan Hardware, or any of those record stores that have ‘the bottom shelf’: it’s full of synth funk records, and they’re really good records. There’s always one song, at least, that’s a mixtape cut, you know, where it’s like, “this song is a masterpiece.” And Luther Vandross, of course, is all hits on the early albums. But I digress. Synth funk: highly recommended, and it was a big influence on me and on Saturday Night Album.
GT: I know our readers are wondering, so I have to ask: what’s going on in Richard Album’s love life nowadays?
Album: [sighs] It’s glorious, but always going up in flames. Kind of like reverse phoenix: this amazing mythical bird crashing and burning into the ashes. I can’t say too much. I don’t want to reopen any old wounds or re-break any hearts. Music is my love… is my only love. And I don’t know why fools rush in. But here we are again.