Music

The Scary Jokes, a queer / non-binary synthpop project, has announced a new Fire-toolz produced LP

today08/03/2023 12

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Liz Lehman / The Scary Jokes. Photo By Noelle Steele.

The Scary Jokes—the solo synthpop project of Pennsylvania-based queer / nonbinary musician, activist, and visual artist Liz Lehman has announced a new Fire-Toolz produced LP, «Retinal Bloom», out May 26 on Needlejuice Records.

Lehman’s music, like their band name, has an oxymoronic tone, with ethereal synths innocently backing deeply personal, often dark lyrics. Scary Jokes delves into the darker side of dreamy bedroom pop, with a sound that evokes descriptors such as hallucinogenic, surrealist, and nightmare pop.

Scary Jokes‘ latest album, «Retinal Bloom», sees Lehman reinvent their sound while keeping their distinct edge. Inspired by artists such as Kate Bush and Brian Eno, Lehman sought the warmth of unfamiliar equipment—analog synthesisers. «I adore the sound of vintage synthesisers» says Lehman. «It’s difficult to get that character if you’re not using hardware synths. I was particularly interested in exploring sounds reminiscent of Kate Bush’s ’80s art-pop albums».

In a departure from their previous work, Lehman frequently chose to express the depths of their emotions through animal-like screams and wails, with lyrics exploring themes such as intrusive thoughts, human cruelty, cults (including the cult of personality), and a willingness to protect your loved ones at any cost.

Lehman’s songwriting process is instinctive and primal.They experimented with their Elektron Model:Cycles synth, drum machine, and sequencer to create «Retinal Bloom», sculpting sounds in their home studio and eventually combining the best beats and improvising animalistic vocal sounds over them.

«The Elektron Model:Cycles has this great crushed sound», says Lehman. «The synths on it— you can obviously use the presets or do your own thing, but they have a very spooky quality to them. So I had a lot of fun with that».

They fleshed out the lyrics after Lehman had established a sound for each song. The overwhelming global effects of the pandemic, oppression of LGBTQ+ people, women, and people of color, and the protective rage that burns within as a response all influenced the subject matter in this case.

«I would say that the last few years have been difficult for me personally, as well as globally. I had a lot of feelings about isolation that I felt I needed to express—not just pandemic stuff, but frustration with how other people can be, both personally and systemically. Because unfair things happen all the time, I’ve become very defensive about people I care about in recent years. When things are sad and frustrating, all you want to do is protect those around you. And that’s exactly where I was coming from with this album—almost a feral protectiveness over people».

The terrifying awe Lehman felt in the presence of a massive, powerful waterfall inspired Retinal Bloom’s opening track «Our Murderous Descent», which became a metaphor for living in a hostile environment and forming a community in the face of crushing oppression.

«There’s this big waterfall where I live now that’s kind of a tourist attraction», they explain, «and I started off that song with the idea of writing about the intrusive thought you have when you’re standing by a huge waterfall and you’re like, ‘What if I stood under that?'” It’s extremely effective. So I was writing about it based on that idea. But then I started working in the feelings I mentioned earlier, about feeling like you’re in a hostile environment with a bunch of people who are clearly all in the same situation, and all you can do is be there for each other».

«Uzumaki» delves into having recurring, nostalgic dreams about people with whom you’ve had a falling out, desperately wanting things to be okay as they are in the dream (and have been in the past), but then waking up to the bleak realisation that the friendship is gone. «When I have dreams like that», Lehman says, «all the context for why we’re no longer friends is inaccessible». However, as soon as you wake up and gain some clarity, everything rushes to the forefront of your mind. I am frequently frustrated by the senselessness of creating an enemy. I don’t want enemies; I want everyone to be my friend. «’Uzumaki’ is about those feelings clashing with one another».

The song «Riptide» is inspired by the story of Diablo Cody’s film Jennifer’s Body, as well as the exploitation Megan Fox endured throughout her career. «I thought it would be fun to write a song about Jennifer’s Body», Lehman explains. «So I included some references to the movie, but I also got caught up in how frustrated I was for Megan Fox during the release of that movie, and also in her entire career, just how much abuse she’s faced, and how she’s been taken advantage of», she says.

«Elephant Foot» offers yet another clever metaphor. The Elephant Foot—a mass of nuclear waste left over from the Chernobyl meltdown—stands in for Lehman’s complicated feelings about fame in the song. As The Scary Jokes gain popularity, Lehman faces increasing skepticism from people who regard them as some terrifying, untouchable thing. As a result, their desire to be alone grows, as do the similarities to the song’s titular radioactive formation.

While the analog synths Lehman used for «Retinal Bloom» provided more control than the sonic tools they used on previous albums, and while their songwriting method is solitary, they did not create the album alone. Angel Marcloid (aka Fire-Toolz), a musician and producer, remixed and remastered The Scary Jokes’ 2016 debut, «April Fools». Marcloid refined Lehman’s existing material, artfully incorporating guitar, drums, and distortion to fill in every aural corner and redefine the album’s sound. The shared vision of Marcloid and Lehman for Retinal Bloom resulted in a truly collaborative effort.

«When Angel came on, she approached me and said, ‘I really like this, and if I just mix and master it as-is, it’d be great’». But she’s so talented, and I really wanted her to have creative freedom on it as well. So she brought some guitar, some really cool drums, and some distortion. She filled in every bit of empty space in the album—literally every single corner of it. And that was extremely cool. It defined the album’s sound in an exciting way.

«It’s interesting because I think—even though we have a lot of the same influences—we make very different kinds of music. With Retinal Bloom, however, we were all on the same page with every decision. So it was really cool that working with her was so simple, inspiring, and enjoyable. I thought it was cool that we both had similar goals for the album».

«Retinal Bloom», Out on 26 May 2023. 

Written by: News Room


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