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Two weeks ago, we had the pleasure of premiering “Sense Of Self,” the last single off of the final album from prog-punks Sister Helen. Since then, the band played a farewell show at Shea Stadium and dropped Sister Helen IV leaving us all to unravel the concepts and larger themes at play.
To go along with a stream of the album, we had the band’s Eva Lawitts and Nathan J. Campbell break it down in their own words, revealing years of context and emotional connections. GroundSounds is really pleased to present their conversation below as it really rounds out the narratives surrounding this special release.
Eva: I guess for the sake of us actually enjoying this conversation, maybe we can just talk about the album the way we would talk to each other. I’d rather not spend my last night with you using our “serious” voices while we “discuss our art” or whatever
Nathan J: Yeah, I hear ya. I’ve been trying to remember when we decided that this was a concept album about all the shit we say it’s about. Do you remember at what point?
Eva: Well, I remember being in Harlem, when I had my old Harlem apartment and working on “Finest Mind” and wanting that and “Sense of Self” to be bookends to, like a concept album. That’s the only real memory I have of saying it should be a concept album, although you and I must have talked about it later.
Nathan J: Yeah, “Sense of Self” was, when you asked me to do that write-up of it, it made me realize it was sort of the song that was the one that I got the concept from. When I noticed that other songs were similar to “Sense of Self” was when I realized we had a concept. And I remember “Sense of Self,” the whole storm thing was from our, well, we don’t have to talk about that
Eva: Yeah, in “Conjunction,” Sandy, all that. Back in 2012 when we thought we were gonna do a [hurricane] Sandy concept album.
Nathan: The thing about “Smoke,” the intro, is that it comes back as like- the most direct plea for help on the album. Just before “Forest Fire.” But I always thought that it was a good way to get people into the mood of our serious, sad set. You and me harmonizing on this soft, sad theme.
Eva: Yeah, that’s why I pushed to start the set with it live, initially. It always set the tone that this is a thing explicitly about two people
Nathan: Yeah, exactly. And that it was a show. Y’know, a conceived set.
Eva: When I think about what’s going on in this album, I do think about it being autobiographical. Maybe not so much that we wrote these songs about ourselves, but that performing every night on tour- we sort of started to become those miserable characters we were singing about, performing as them every night. So it became autobiographical in reverse in a way.
Eva: Embracing that subject matter every night, playing that character, the anger, the sadness, the screaming. It became so much easier to access anger and access hopelessness every second of the day. It spiraled on tour.
Nathan: “Spark,” because it’s a prelude, has no real chorus or verse, it all just builds to the word spark. The idea is someone who is easily set off, a ticking time-bomb.
Eva: And that harkens back to “Friend.”
Nathan: Yes, and the word friend shows up in it: “Friend, only you can prevent me”. And then later on with “Smoke Rises,” obviously those ideas combine- you wrote in those lyrics that incorporate that.
Eva: And “Spark” being a prelude, that was all Chris. He wrote that in his big Mars Volta phase and really wanted there to be something at the beginning of the live set and the album that would get everyone in the mood. The whole Omar thing.
Nathan J: That was part of the whole “Practice” demo.
Eva: I think everything on this album from Chris was from “Practice.”
Nathan J: “Spark,” Sense of Self, “The Blending of Blue and Green”, “Kaross Music”, “Commonplace.” Yeah. That was all on that one set of demos that was sent to us and that I started working my way through writing in, I guess- junior year of college?
Eva: Hm. Yeah it’s 2017 and we still haven’t finished those songs from 2011. No wonder it seemed like we stagnated. So, “Sense of Self”…
Nathan: Yeah in a way “Sense of Self” doesn’t so much relate to the concept as all the other songs relate to what is in “Sense of Self.” “I want to help you, but I can’t”. That guilty place “I can see that you’re suffering, but the way that you are when you’re suffering is something that I can’t deal with”. There’s also that futility “we could rebuild, but it would just be destroyed again.”
Eva: That’s the one that really builds the whole world that the album is in. The visual metaphors, and the introduction of the second character.
Nathan: I worried that “Sense of Self” might be interpreted as ableist. That it might sound like an anti-depression-meds song
Eva: Really? I never understood it like that
Nathan: “For your Mental Health; Exchange your sense of self.”
Eva: I guess. I always thought it was that character speaking to themselves. Saying something like “if you’re gonna pull yourself out of this, you have to stop believing in all the shit you believe in, and try to work with reality, with what’s in front of you.” I guess that’s what I was going through during our touring years so I injected that meaning into it
Nathan: It seemed obvious to me when I wrote it that the “Sense of Self” was the thing that was valuable. Now, I guess I swing towards mental health.
Eva: That was always what I took from the song. That who you are is not as important as, y’know, “you have to stay alive right now.”
Nathan J: Right…So, “The Blending of Blue and Green,” like you said, was the first song that we wrote after it was clear that we were gonna break up.
Eva: We learned it right after you told Chris we were breaking up, and then the day we learned it, that was the day we told Clint. You called Clint later that day. Because, haha, we got together to write “The Blending of Blue and Green” and realized that no one had told Clint that we were breaking up!
And we had all known for at least 72 hours! Everyone thought everyone else was gonna call Clint! Hahahaha! No one called him!
*both laughing so hard that all you can hear on the tape is gasping*
Eva: He didn’t know!
*both laugh until Nathan erupts into a coughing fit*
Nathan: Yes, wow. OK, so that song started off super Nu-Metal, but then Chris did that very Tame Impala-y re-write. Meaning in that sense, it’s sort of the most modern-sounding in that it sounds like something Chris might write now.
Nathan: Fuck, we were supposed to talk about what the song is about.
Eva: I have a pretty good grasp on it, I think.
Eva: Jealousy: “green when I look at you.” Depression: “Blue is me.” Not being able to see yourself as being as good as anyone around you. Wanting to shut yourself off from the world because you don’t want to know anyone that hurts your ego. “Sense of Self” wants to help, here we are in this song being self-destructive again.
Nathan: OK, Good. Yeah, we don’t need to talk about it.
Eva: “Fictive Kin” is from that batch of songs I was writing after our first big tour when I was really depressed. “Draw Near” and the “Smoke” interludes were from that same batch. I had the middle part written first.
The “I think you came here to hide; I think you came here to get away,” I guess I was thinking about how, before we did that month, I felt like everything had gone wrong in my life. I guess I was using booking and then going on that tour as sort of an escape, kind of hiding from my real life, or maybe thinking that the tour would make my life better. But when I came home I was just back to being mired in trash, and I was even more depressed.
Eva: And of course, it was titled after some dumb 101 class term, and you didn’t know that.
Nathan: Yes, I wasn’t aware of that sociology term. I just thought “fictive kin, made-up family.”
Eva: You remember, when I showed it to you, you asked me if it was about [your uncle] Rob? I said “no, Jesus, it’s about me!” ha.
Eva: Yeah “Fictive Kin” always felt to me like, in regards to the album, it was just about madness, about mania and then about isolation. As it reflects our tour-life, I always felt that those two polar opposites became normal for us.
That tour was just these euphoric, elated periods where I was so ecstatic I couldn’t control myself, followed immediately by absolute dejected misery. That whole “I’m a king, I’m a shogun, don’t mess with me, don’t mess with mine for I am all-powerful” then on the flip side there’s, y’know, looking in the mirror and saying “you talk like you still got pride, you talk like your words still mean anything/But I think you came here to hide. I think you came here to get away.”
Nathan: I just remember thinking it was a grunge type of song. I sang along with the guitar riff. I think you told me to. Not something that I’d really done before in Sister Helen.
Eva: Absolutely. That song and “Friend” were definitely very grunge. Guess that brings us to “Friend.” Most recent song from me.
Nathan: It was called “Tear Yourself Apart” when you wrote it. How did you realize that “Friend” would go over it?
Eva: I think you did.
Nathan: Oh, I did? Maybe we wanted to do “Friend” independently because it worked with the concept?
Eva: I think by that time we were already writing to the concept.
Nathan: We were definitely writing to the concept at that point
Eva: And I had my hook for that song, already.
Nathan: “Friend” was also really one of my last like, solo songs. One of the last things I recorded in the basement of this house. On my Dad’s like, non-midi digital keyboard. When I got to fuck with the 8-track and shit.
Eva: Yeah man, that’s so weird to think about. That time. But, for the song, I mean, what I brought to you was the hook that I had written. But for me, it was just a reflection of what was happening with a lot of people I was close with at the time.
I guess I was trying to make good on all my guilt, survivor’s guilt, by bringing people who were killing themselves closer to me, but then realizing that “oh wait, this isn’t what helping is. You’re gonna destroy yourself no matter what I do.”
Nathan: That’s funny. That kinda contradicts my part in the chorus. My part says “you might not be able to help, but you still have to be there for people.” You have to be their friend even if you can’t be the one who saves them.
Eva: Yes, that’s what I always liked about that song. In that song you’re you and I’m me! You’re the ever-altruist and I’m just muttering “Jesus, I can’t do this shit anymore.” But I think your statement comes across as the correct one.
Nathan: I’m glad to hear it. And so “Kaross Music,” I wrote that partly about how I feel at shows. My ethic is that, in theory, people need to be together. The more you can be in someone’s life, the more you can protect them from the demons inside themselves. That’s been true for me a lot.
When I’m alone, I work myself into self-destructive, self-loathing spiral and then I see someone I know and think, “Oh! Well, none of that was apropos to anything.” But even knowing that, I self-isolate.
I had that image of the Kaross to work with. A bunch of skins sewn together, that part is obvious. We have these personalities, they’re not fake they’re just taken from all these confusing disparate parts of our lives.
Eva: That’s why “Kaross Music” felt so autobiographical to me. I started to realize that, on tour, the reason we were all not getting along is because we had nowhere to hide from each other.
We were all being the person that we are when we’re alone, except we were with each other. Truly being ourselves, the people who we are when we’re not trying to convince anyone that we’re likable.
I don’t think that you can do that with another person unless you intend to have a very intimate relationship where you have actually consented to trying to accept the entirety of their personality.
Nathan: That’s a really good point.
Eva: And we didn’t consent, and we were all just there, with our most hideous authentic selves.
Nathan: That’s kind of what the bridge of “Kaross Music” is- consenting. That clarifies that for me, thank you.
Eva: Wow, it’s good to actually talk about these together. Makes more sense.
Nathan: It really does. So, “Draw Near”? “Draw Near” is at least in part a song about suicide. That’s the whole part about signals, making sure you’re picking up on what people are saying. “If my signal’s faint, then it’s something dumb, an annoying hum, a complaint. If my signal dies, then unless you’ve guessed it’s an S.O.S. it’s goodbye.”
That’s pretty straightforward. You don’t want to impose on people or manipulate people, but you somehow have to make it clear that you need. Because of that, you have to watch people. On tour, we got somewhat better at picking up on each other’s signals.
Eva: Kind of. Although, that would just lead to us antagonizing each other when we decided we wanted to.
Nathan: Remember all the good times we had on tour?
Eva: I do!
Nathan: I would like to add that in as an addendum.
Eva: We had so much fun on tour!
Nathan: We really did.
Eva: Met a lot of people who are now our close friends! And there were a lot of actually, very validating things that happened in those two years. It was just all highs and lows, that’s all. Nothing in the middle, really.
Nathan: That’s exactly right. I never thought of it like that, but yes- expectations of highs and lows.
Eva: I don’t know if you remember getting the demo for “Draw Near,” but in the demo I sent you, the song was finished, all the vocal parts had been written.
Nathan: Oh, word?
Eva: The lyrics, it was all stuff that was taken from the end of The Brothers Karamazov.
Nathan: Oh, interesting. You were reading that on the Jasmine tour, I remember.
Eva: The whole last verse was taken, not directly, some paraphrasing I guess, but from the last appearance Ivan makes in that book.
Nathan: What? Man, I gotta hear that again.
Eva: The translation that I had, I must’ve only changed a couple words so that it would rhyme but it was like “as if I dream reality/I walk, I talk, I think I see/The world unfolds in front of me/but I’m asleep/Like the sun in a drop of rain/I was reflected in your pain/I looked at you but all I saw was myself.”
Eva: Yeah, I only changed like five words in there haha. The bridge of that song…I kind of wrote it about how I would always blame you for how I would never sleep on tour.
Nathan: Oh, yeah?!
Eva: But then I got back home and I was like, “wait, I don’t sleep here, either!” I was just less irritated cuz no one was poking me. But, it was never your fault. I just don’t ever sleep. heh.
Yeah, go back and listen to it if you want. That’s what those lyrics were about
Nathan: That’s amazing.
Eva: Guess that brings us to “Commonplace.” That’s easy. Sort of the only political song on the album
Nathan: True. It’s also about helping and helplessness. It externalizes what is internal in the rest of the album. Saying “you’re living in a kind of different world from me and I want to…even though this world doesn’t seem real to me, I want to be there with you.”
Eva: I always wondered if that was a song that you had written in response to something specific.
Nathan: I think, probably so. I forget what.
Eva: It has all the elements of that classic Nathan J. guilt trip. That signature self-loathing that you’ve branded so well.
Nathan: Yes. Wait, did you say, “that I’ve branded so well”?!
Eva (giggling): Yes.
Nathan (giggling): That’s very good. Glad we’re on the same page.
Nathan: “Commonplace,” the performance I’ll always remember was Chicago.
Eva: Oooff, god.
Eva: That’s definitely on my list of greatest shows of all time.
Nathan: I mean I feel like with “Commonplace,” the easy press thing to say is that it was a song where you’d make your merch speech/don’t harass me speech.
Eva (laughing): I sure got a lot of traction off that speech.
Nathan: You really did.
Eva: That was probably my best merch speech
Nathan: I feel like if we have advice to offer other bands, that’s a pretty concrete piece of advice.
Eva: Develop your merch speech?
Nathan: Or rather, if you tell people not to sexually harass you…
Eva (laughing): I can’t believe it worked!
Nathan (laughing): Yeah!
Eva: Why did I not think of it sooner? I don’t know. There were only two responses I would get from making that speech, either icy silence or all the femmes in the audiences applauding. I have to admit I liked that part of it, getting to think “Oh, I guess I’m doing something for those people too.”
Nathan: Making it somewhat clearer that they’re supposed to be there.
Eva: If only by highlighting the reasons they considered not coming.
Nathan J: “Smoke Rises” goes here, but I just consider it to be part of “Forest Fire.”
Eva: It has an independent origin story.
Nathan J: Tell me the origin story! So, yeah, these are the interludes. That’s what the album starts on. Tell me that!
Eva: That was written during the same period as “Fictive” and “Draw Near.”
Eva: Basically, after we got back from the Jasmine tour, for weeks I would just stay up until 3, 4am every day and record these little tidbits of songs on my laptop. And I was just really, really depressed for weeks and months. All the songs that were coming out were just like, these weepy, pitiful, sort of “ugh…FUCK!!!” songs. That was one of them. I didn’t think it would be a Sister Helen song.
Nathan: You wrote lyrics to the interlude. Those are pretty similar to what made the final cut
Eva: The first set, the first stanza, is the same.
Nathan: The second half, I guess I changed them but they’re still patterned on what you wrote.
Eva: I don’t even remember what I wrote. I don’t think it was important to me. I think they were basically syllabic place-holders. You remember?
Nathan: Something like “Friend…” uhhhhh.
Nathan: It starts “friend, defend me” right?
Eva: “Friend defend me”, yeah. “Friend, defend me; I’ll come down gently”…I can’t remember.
Nathan: Yeah, “Forest Fire” is a little patched together. I was thinking about it when I was singing it at that last show. “If they treat this like you treat me/I can beat this easily” was originally written like, completely passive aggressively: you’re killing me, so maybe they can kill this. It could go the other way “if they care for this like you care for me”.
I mean, it’s a song that completely contradicts itself all the time. The push and pull of wanting people’s attention and not wanting people to feel superior to you, basically.
Eva: Pretty similar to “Kaross Music.”
Nathan: It is! At least we’re consistently inconsistent.
Eva: “Forest Fire” is, lyrically, at least, the most re-written song on the album.
Nathan: Yes. Well, originally it was “Drunk in the Mental Hospital.” And you were like “oh, that title is stupid and hyperbolic” and then it was “Finest Mind,” and we were both like “ah, well, frankly, this is all kind of ableist”, using mental illness as a metaphor for pain or heartbreak of whatever the fuck we were doing.
Eva: I don’t remember who initiated that conversation, but I remember whoever did, the other one of us was so relieved like “oh my god, thank god you said it. Cuz if you didn’t say it, I was gonna have to”
Nathan: In any case, at some point later on it became clear that mental illness was something the album was actually gonna be about. And we couldn’t have had a song that uses it as some lazy metaphor.
Eva: Definitely would have ruined anything actual meaningful we had to say, sure. That was another song you finished really early on.
Nathan: I was really proud of that song when it was first finished.
Eva: That bridge was amazing. That first demo I sent to you, I think, was very musically different than what it ended up being.
Nathan: It was really…
Nathan: Yes, and very quiet. There weren’t really any loud parts.
Eva: And then it turned into this Mastodon-ish song somehow.
Nathan: Yeah, right. That one went from being a ballad to being our end-of-show-everything-against-the-wall-banger
Eva: Do you see “Forest Fire”…I mean, it’s sort of the actual end of the album. At least the way that I see it
Nathan: I just remember we had a conversation about not wanting it to end there.
Eva: Right. Yeah, I said I wanted it to have a happy ending. That this album about isolation and depression, it can maybe be viewed as a section of time, that these two characters at the end…they part ways and they find a way to be happy. I remember it being important to me that we not fetishize sadness too much.
Nathan: Our world view isn’t actually this hopeless.
Eva: Not now, anyway. In 2015 mine might have been.
Nathan: I think it’s very apropos that you literally said, “try to make it a happy ending” when we did the re-writes. “Last Man Standing” is pretty third-wall-breaky.
Eva: In the context of the album, do you see “Finest Mind” as having a conclusion?
Nathan: It moves from “don’t look at me now” to “don’t look away now.” I don’t think it concludes in a satisfying way, though. Musically it concludes in a very satisfying way.
Eva: Thank you.
Nathan: Lyrically it doesn’t, and I was always a little disappointed in that.
Eva: So we get to “Last Man Standing.”
Nathan: That one is super old!
Eva: Really old!
Nathan: I always wanted to do it.
Eva: Do you see that as having any relevance in the context of what we say the theme of the album is?
Nathan: That’s a kinda good question. I mean being on tour and in the van was definitely a situation where we could all see that each other was suffering. We were all dealing with our own shit, and angry at each other, and hedgehog’s dilemma-ing the shit out of each other, and partly because it was clear that all of our problems were- not even problems but- the things that were making us miserable were inherent to our personalities and none of us was gonna correct that.
Eva: Well, it wouldn’t be possible to correct that. In order for us to get along on tour, I think it became clear that more than one of us would have had to fundamentally change how we interact with the world.
Nathan: So in that sense- yes. But I don’t think any of it’s really autobiographical except for that last verse. The two lines about leaving. And it was also like, I had a more than usual starting point with that song because of all those lyrics that you wrote. “There’s no one left to wave goodbye to.” I mean I always heard that as a song about survivor’s guilt. I don’t know if you intended it that way.
Eva: I remember what I was writing about at the time. That was right when- there were three people who died in that short span of time. First [anne] and then [bill] and I honestly don’t even remember who that third person was- who died of a heroin overdose that year that I was close to. I guess it was sort of a survivor’s guilt thing.
I just felt like whenever I closed my eyes I saw bodies and eyes with nothing in them. “You are the last man standing, take your prize/look all around in their unblinking eyes.”
Nathan: That was a period of time that changed everything, I remember. 2012.
Eva: I just felt like there was no real reason for me to be alive and to be pursuing things I enjoy, when these people who were my age and who I cared about were dead and I felt like there was no way I was blameless. For a long time.
Eva: I mean we start with “Spark,” with someone being “set off”, and then “Sense of Self,” we know that there’s someone who cares for them but can’t really help. So there’s the beginning, and there’s all this exploration in the middle. What do you think the end is?
Nathan: I think, actually, there is a question mark there. Not to say “I don’t know”. An intentional question mark. I guess the narrative has no ending but I see “Last Man Standing” as saying “whatever choice you’ve made, you have to live with it”. There’s no obvious right thing.
I don’t know that there’s an idea on the album that gets defeated…or an antithesis and synthesis kind of thing. There is definitely a sense that the two friends split up, separate, the story becomes something that we’re dealing with in the past.
Eva: “Last Man Standing” is definitely an epilogue, yes.
Nathan: It does contradict “Friend,” “now that the hour of need has come, it’s never going to end.”
Eva: It seems like we usually feel that way in a crisis. “This is the way it is and this is the way it’s going to be forever and we have to deal with it.” That’s how we think when things are bad but…it’s rarely true. That anything lasts forever is…
Nathan: It’s not that it doesn’t end, it’s that the cup passes, right?
Eva: I see, yeah.
Nathan: The people I knew who needed other people close to them, they’re either dead or they’re close to other people now.
Eva: That’s always a hard thing to accept. When you’re someone’s rock, but you don’t want to be. Then they go and get a new rock and you’re left there saying “but what about me?! Wasn’t I good enough?!”
Nathan: “Did I work? was I good rock?”
Eva: “Tell me I’m good!”
Nathan: Oh yeah! Sorry, guess I’m slow with Bojack season one references.
Eva: It’s a Simpsons reference.
Nathan: Oh, what?
Eva: Bart gets caught shoplifting.
Nathan: *exhales deeply*
Eva: And goes to Mrs. Van Houten’s. “Can I hang out with you while you do mom stuff?”. She’s telling him about who she’s sending Christmas cards to and he says “tell me I’m good.”
Nathan: I have trouble dealing with that episode.
Eva: Me too, that one hurts.
Nathan: The perpetually guilty kid.
Eva: Feeling like your family’s done with you. Or rather, that you’ve reached a point in your relationship with your family that you can’t come back from.
Nathan: Right, yes, of course.
Eva: Should I turn off this voice memo?