Rock sideman steals the show: Jason Narducy comes off the road and produces a second album as solo act Split Single

"Metal Frames" is rougher than "Fragmented World" and it's much darker, but it's a darker day in America

Published December 13, 2016 11:59PM (EST)

Split Single   (James Richards IV)
Split Single (James Richards IV)

You've likely seen Jason Narducy perform live and not even know it. For the last decade, he's been the touring bass player for punk legend Bob Mould. In addition, Narducy has assumed the same role in Superchunk, Telekinesis and one iteration of Robert Pollard's touring band.

When he's not working as an able sideman, however, the Evanston, Illinois-based musician focuses on his ever-evolving solo project, Split Single. That project's new album, "Metal Frames" — recorded with drummer Jon Wurster and Wilco's John Stirratt on bass — is full of compact, bristling and melodic rock songs indebted to snarling punk, noise-laced pop, muscular classic rock and Cheap Trick. (Really, check out the keyboard-swirled, "Dream Police"-reminiscent intro to "Untry Love.")

Thematically, Narducy said "Metal Frames" is darker than Split Single's first record, 2014's "Fragmented World." The opening song "Glori," for example, is about someone with a "scorch-the-earth-type personality" when it comes to relationships, he noted.

But since the election, many of Split Single's new songs have felt markedly different to him. "It's like 'Oh yeah, I can totally feel this song in a different way,'" he said. "It's taken on a new meaning, and resonates in this climate."

One tune that may have taken on new meaning for him is the tense "Blank Ribbons," a condemnation of entities that attract people with empty promises and deception. Its lyrics — "Uniforms of fake bravery/ Authority earned from nothing/ The threat of steel/ So you won’t feel" — are eerily prescient. The harmony-stacked '70s rocker "Tried Goodbye," meanwhile, speaks of divisiveness: "We tried goodbye/ We set fires/ Traded lies."

And the lyrics of the punk burst "White Smoke" — a song that Narducy said is "about my experience watching the Tamir Rice murder" — feel even more powerful now: "Your fears don’t trump what’s right/ Some blue laws don’t match what’s right."

Split Single has touring plans for the West Coast early next year, with Midwest and East Coast dates after that. Narducy also has more episodes coming of his humorous video series, "The Sexiest Elbows in Rock Music," which was described by Pitchfork as his "struggling to be taken seriously as a musician by an industry interested only in his elbows."

Salon spoke to Narducy via phone about the darkness of "Metal Frames," working with Wilco's John Stirratt, crowdfunding and the role of art and music in a postelection world.

"Metal Frames" feels like it's more aggressive and rawer than "Fragmented World." A little less power pop and a little more punk leaning. Is that a fair assessment? What were you going for this time?

Yeah. I think [the phrase] power pop is sort of a sensitive thing for me. [Laughs.] "Fragmented World" got that tag pretty much across the board. To a certain extent, I understand it. I mean, certainly a song like the title track or "My Heart Is Your Shadow" [or] "Never Look Back." There's definitely power pop songs on there. When I think of power pop that I like, I think of early Who or early Cheap Trick.

But some people think of power pop as like the Outfield. They're very different frames of reference for me. [There are also] so few bands that I think do [power pop] well. And then I listen to a song like "Monolith," from "Fragmented World," and I go, "I just don't hear how that could be power pop." [Laughs.]

So on ["Metal Frames"] I think I did react to that a little bit. I got out the electric guitars and turned on the distortion, and wrote songs like "White Smoke." But there's still power pop songs on this record. [Laughs.] "Evaline Make Believe" is like Teenage Fanclub, you know. It's in me, and I have to just not fight it too much.

With "Fragmented World," I did a lot of detail work. I really took my time recording that record and rolled up my sleeves and got inside every single note and beat and shot for precision. And with this record, it was more like "Let's just record and see how it sounds" and go from there. And it is more raw.

[There's] a song like "Silences Mercy," which is lyrically much more vulnerable than anything I've written before. Certainly there's an anger to it, but it's also the first drum and bass take. We had not rehearsed any of the songs, and we just kind of went for it on that, listened to it and said, "Let's go with that."

And you can hear John Stirratt's amp buzzing; you can hear him play a note in the beginning of the song. I think he just didn't know when we were starting. [Laughs.] We hadn't rehearsed it. And we left it. I like that feel, that it's a little bit more . . . I think you used the word raw and I would agree with that. And overall, I think it's a darker record than "Fragmented World."

How did the writing come together on these songs? What particular influences or inspirations were you drawing from?

Well, I started with the first song, "Glori." I actually wrote [that song] in 2009. It was the only song on the record that's an older composition. At the time I liked the music. I write the lyrics second; that's how I do my process. And it just sort of fell out that it was this person that had a hard time with relationships and, you know, [had a] scorch-the-earth-type personality. It didn't fit with "Fragmented World," so I just kept it off that record.

And then the crazy thing for me is that I was feeling all of this turmoil last year and this year in our country, and I wrote a lot about it. You know, "White Smoke" is about my experience watching the Tamir Rice murder in Cleveland. And then ["Metal Frames"] was released nine days after that catastrophe of an election. It's weird to make an album that you think is this one thing and then have it be released in a time in our history when it becomes about something completely off.

Now I look at the lyrics of "Glori," and it just feels like America. It feels like America leans towards the violence; it leans towards confrontation. And people have to work really hard to keep it from spinning out of control. There's just so many songs on the record where lyrically it's taken on a completely new meaning. I'm still trying to get my head around that and physically learn the songs, too, because we haven't played that many shows. [Laughs.] So it's like emotionally and physically, I'm still learning this record that's already been out for a couple of weeks.

That's exhausting.

Well, and we're already exhausted just emotionally, from this . . . which is so much more important than this rock record that I made. But since we're here to talk about the rock record . . . [Laughs.]

I interviewed another musician last week and [he] also wrote a record that was sort of speaking of the times. He said that ever since the election, the songs have changed; his live shows have changed. They've been more cathartic.  So I think there is something to that.

We had our record release party on the 19th, just 10 days after the election. I'm looking at the set list and, honestly, it just felt so unimportant compared to what we're about to face. And so backstage I wrote a song called "Good Riddance '16 (And Additionally, Fuck You)." I wrote this, like, five- or six-verse, simple song about how this year is taking so many great artists from us and the highs and lows. Certainly being a Chicagoan with the Cubs and then, of course, the Cubs won the World Series and they can only celebrate for six days because then the election happened.

It turned into a very cathartic sing-along with the crowd, where the whole crowd is singing, "Good riddance, '16 and, additionally, fuck you." We sort of all needed that in a way. I needed to address what we were all thinking instead of going, "Hey, I have a new record" for an hour.

I agree with that artist that you mentioned It's much bigger than, you know, how we recorded the drums on Track 5. [Laughs.] I'm also happy to talk about that. But, you know, I'm glad we're getting this out of the way.

I know what you mean, though. As a journalist, I primarily write about culture. It's sort of feels like "Boy, what I do feels completely meaningless." I know a lot of people who are struggling with, like, What is our role? What do we need to do? And I don't know.

Because we want to do more, and we feel like now we need to do more. But actually what we're doing is very, very important. I just saw a Twitter thread from a woman who works at a Fort Wayne, Indiana, comic book store [who helped a teen struggling with her sexuality find appropriate comic books]. It's so touching. People sort of scoff at comic books and different forms of art; sometimes they don't see it as high art or whatever. But this series of comic books allowed a teenage girl to find safety and comfort. And that's what art can do.

I'm not trying to sound self-important, but rock music — or all forms of music — can actually save lives. I'm not trying to sound like Bono. I'm just saying that from the heart. I'm saying that [as] someone who had a very unbalanced childhood and needed to find something. And I'm not alone. A lot of people found that, and it helped them get through.

And so you, as a journalist, it's super important to keep doing what you're doing. And I think all artists . . . it just doesn't feel like enough right now because we're all scratching our heads going, "How did people fall for this con man?" You know? But here we are, and it is really important to keep on doing what we're doing and to speak up.

And that's it: It's speaking up because you can provide solace for people. And it almost feels like it's more personal — a one-to-one thing, like you mentioned with the comic book clerk and person. It might only be a couple of people, but you can make a difference. I guess that's what I'm trying to keep in mind.

Yeah, I think that's very healthy. And it's also healthy to remember that it feels like this huge movement that's happening, but it's actually a very small movement that has a large voice. Unfortunately, the Democrats had a candidate that didn't inspire people. We can talk about how qualified she was and how she's really done a lot of good in this world. But I think more people on both sides would agree that they needed more from the government.

And unfortunately, you know something like 80,000 people total in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan went the wrong way with it, and that decided the whole thing. The sad thing is they're going to find out very quickly that that was the wrong decision. And unfortunately, we all have to pay for it. That's the really tough thing. But I believe that most Americans are good and have an outlook that does not discriminate or want to hurt people. This will be a test of that for sure.

You used PledgeMusic to facilitate the release of "Metal Frames." What were the advantages of doing that?

It's new territory for me. It's not a natural thing for me to ask people for money. It was not an easy decision. The things that really pushed me towards doing it: No. 1, it does help promote the record. No. 2, it goes directly to the people who appreciate what you do. No. 3, you can pay for that record.

It's so hard because so few people actually buy records now compared to years ago. It's difficult to put together a budget without maxing out the credit cards, which is what I did on the first record. Fortunately, it got paid back, but it's daunting. And I'm talking about making records on the cheap. This is not some extravagant budget. It costs a lot of money even to have a thousand vinyl records manufactured. That's an expensive endeavor.

I'm very happy with the PledgeMusic thing, and it helped that I was able to think of a way to phrase it that was more fun. You know, the whole pizza thing [with the campaign playfully framed around the rhythm section needing money to buy more pizza]. Instead of saying, "We need your money to make a record," which feels so insignificant — like there's much more important things to spend money on these days — we turned it into this fun, you know, "Buy pizza for John and Jon." That helped me move forward with it.

I forgot the last point that someone brought up [about crowdfunding]: Many, many young bands do this. I think older bands, middle-aged bands like [mine] — it's not what we grew up with. We grew up with [the idea that] you make some music and you find somebody to put it out and they pay for it and then you move forward. And young bands who have record deals are doing [crowdfunding]. That kind of made me feel like "OK, this is just what's happening."

For me, I just release these records out of my basement. So any kind of help with getting the word out that there's a record and any kind of help from fans who want to help out on the financial side, it goes a long way. And when I talked to the PledgeMusic people, these are all musicians and people who worked at record labels. They had great creative ideas. And they were really good about asking me what I was comfortable with. They weren't pushing anything on me. I've heard nightmare stories about crowdsourcing from artists who ended up writing the lyrics to the record 500 times and then really hating their job. [Laughs.]

You've collaborated and played with so many people over the years. Is there anyone you haven't jammed or collaborated with that you'd still like to?

Not that I can think of, but I mean there's obviously a ton of artists I respect. I've been really fortunate and maybe that's why I don't have a list like that. I really do like the way that Split Single exists in that it really is about a constant collaboration. I mean Split Single as a power trio [recently] played in Milwaukee. It was Tim Remus on drums; he's on both records, and he's played with me a ton. And then on bass, Liam Cunningham from Tweedy, who I've never played with.

He's actually not even really a bassist in any of his bands, but I knew how talented he was [because] we did a show with them in Germany a couple of years ago. It's this thing where it's like "I wonder if he could . . . oh yeah, do you want to do this? Yeah. Cool." Every time I play with somebody new, I learn something from them. I learn about how they prepare or the way they approach different songs. And I really enjoy that quite a bit.

A lot of artists like me — that I guess you could call us a band person, who play in bands that are bigger than their own band, if that makes any sense? — we do a lot of shows. And at festivals you run into each other in catering and you catch up. There's just so many people that are really fun to be around, really smart people and great musicians. And Split Single is one of those weird things where you can actually hopefully find time to do something together. It's a nice vehicle for that friendship and companionship and musical exploration.

I was actually going to ask, because you do have a revolving lineup, what are the advantages of that?

It's just necessary. I don't know. I could never ask somebody to commit to this band fully, to always be ready for this band because I can't even do that. It's constantly changing the lineup, except it's always me. [Laughs.] It's always my songs. I mean really it's a solo project with a band name. I guess I could just call it Jason Narducy, and we wouldn't even be talking about this. I chose a band name because it looks better on the album cover honestly.

And you know how many of these classic rock bands, they start replacing members. If need be, you could franchise it out when you're, like, I'm done touring. You could have the Split Single franchise go out.

[Laughs.] Totally.

You had to have known John Stirratt for years, just living in the Chicago area, right? What was the best part about having him on the record?

I met John around '99 and a couple of times after that, but we weren't, like, buddies or anything. It wasn't until probably five years ago or so when I really started running into him a lot. As a Chicagoan, when Wilco's not working and the Autumn Defense isn't doing something, he's got quite a bit of time. He ended up playing guitar on a bunch of Split Single shows. We just really enjoyed each other's company and hanging out, and it worked for him to make this record. I've actually known him longer than Jon Wurster, even though I've done so much more work with Jon Wurster, with Bob Mould and Superchunk and Bob Pollard. It felt very comfortable right away.

He's just a pleasure to work with. He's such a fantastic person and an amazing musician. He brought so much to this record. I still have fun listening to just his parts. [Laughs.] I'll listen to a song and just listen to the bass.

A funny thing that happened while making this record: I had worked with Matt Allison on the last record, the engineer. And so once Jon Wurster and John Stirratt got to the studio, I just had that moment when you get a little bit nervous when friends from other parts of your world are going to come together and meet each other. I mean I knew it would be fine, but you're just sort of like, "Well, I wonder how this is going to go?"

And the first day somebody asked John Stirratt how he heard about Jeff Tweedy, and he mentioned this EP [1989's "Not Forever, Just For Now"] that Uncle Tupelo had made.

Matt Allison just goes, "I recorded that." And it was like the ice was broken. Basically, the most important recording that John Stirratt has ever heard in his life — it changed his life — was recorded by Matt Allison. It was a pretty incredible moment. And needless to say, for the next three days, it was very easy working together.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Bob Mould Jason Narducy John Stirratt Jon Wurster Split Single Superchunk Telekinesis Wilco