When Pennyblackmusic first spoke to Arto Payaslian in one of our early interviews in 1999, his band Mishima, a Boston-based indie guitar duo, had just released their first single, ‘Stop Swerving’.
Mishima shortly afterwards changed their name to Mishima USA when Payaslian (vocals/guitar) and his band mate Sean O’ Brien (drums) discovered that another American group, a hardcore act, shared the same moniker ‘Stop Swerving’, a vinyl only release, came out on Dahlia Records, a small label owned by the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Robert Fisher who at that time lived in Boston. For their next release, their debut album, ‘Hold My Breath’, which came out in 2001, Mishima USA signed to Catapult Records, another local but larger label.
‘Hold My Breath’ won respectable reviews, including a 7.9 rating in ‘Pitchfork’. The duo played support slots for acts such as Rufus Wainwright, Ben Kweller, Kimya Dawson, Daniel Johnston, Wheat, Mark Eitzel and Scout. A second Mishima USA album, ‘The Truth Tonight’, was recorded in 2003, but Catapult had run into financial trouble and folded, and the album was never released. Although Mishima USA have never officially broken up, they stopped playing together when Sean O’ Brien started a family and became a psychologist.
An English lecturer and an American-Armenian, Payaslian spent three years off and on in Scotland between 2007 and 2010 studying and teaching at the Creative Writing department at the University of Glasgow. He also under the name of Arto Vaun published his first poetry book, ‘Capillarity’, in 2009. It spans three generations and ninety years between 1914 and 2004, and tells of one family’s experiences during the Armenian Genocide and their migration to the United States.
In between he has continued to work on music. For a while he played solo and also sometimes with a rotating line-up under the moniker of the Kent 100s, which took its title from the brand of cigarettes his late father used to smoke. More recently and since returning to Boston at the end of 2010, he has fronted an act which he has also christened Arto Vaun, and currently consists of three other local musicians.
Arto Vaun will be self-releasing their debut album, ‘The Cynthia Sessions’, in November. A lyrical and brooding seven song set of lo-fi alternative rock, it employs occasional cello and theremin as well as guitars, keyboards and drums, and picks over a brief, but intense romantic relationship.
Pennyblackmusic spoke to Arto Vaun about ‘The Cynthia Sessions’, and began by asking him about his choice of name.
PB: Is Arto Vaun a solo project or a band? You have used Arto Vaun as your name on your poetry collection as well.
AV: I guess that it is both really. I had a band name but when I ran it by a couple of people, including my friend Bob Logan with whom I recorded this record, they said, “You should just use your own name. Arto Vaun sounds like a band name.”
Bob said, “You’re a singer and a songwriter. It is your stuff. Just use it as a band name, and a lot of people won’t be really sure if it is a band name or just a solo thing, and it doesn’t really matter either way.”
The other guys in the group and I had spent a lot of time trying to think of some band names, but they all sounded a little bit contrived, and so I ran it past them and they all agreed. They were like, “Yeah, Arto Vaun sounds like a band name” (Laughs).
PB: When Pennyblackmusic last spoke to you, you were still Arto Payaslian.
AV: Yeah, that’s right. Vaun was my dad’s first name. He passed away when I was nineteen. When I got the publishing deal for the book, I just thought that it sounded right. I loved Payaslian. I was always having to correct people, however, about the pronunciation, or alternatively people would misspell it. Vaun is not really a name out of thin air, so it made sense to call myself that.
PB: Do you still use Payaslian?
AV: Right now in terms of my day job I use Payaslian, but because of my book I have had to add Vaun as a legal requirement. Slowly but surely, however, I am going to convert everything to Vaun.
PB: Who are the other members of the band?
AV: On guitar and backing there is John Coen. The bass player is Dan Maranci and the drummer is Luke Brandfon. We have been playing together for about a year now.
PB: This is your first album in over a decade and since ‘Hold Your Breath’. There was a second album with Mishima USA, ‘The Truth Tonight’, that wasn’t ever released.
AV: Yes, I am going to master that record as well, and release it next year. We worked hard on that record and there are a still a lot of people that like ‘Hold My Breath’.
Catapult was on its last legs, and there were a lot of missed opportunities with both those records. It would be really nice if people listened to this new record, and then went back and rediscovered those two old records.
PB: Do you see writing poetry and rock lyrics as two different mediums? Do you start out sometimes by writing poetry and then using it as lyrics instead?
AV: Not really no. I think if I was one of those slam poets that there might be a connection because there is so much performance and theatre in what they do. For me, however, writing poetry is a very quiet and cerebral activity, while music for me is much more physical.
I sit down with the guitar, and there is something very immediate about it. I don’t think, however, that I have ever written a song by lyrics first. Usually I always have a melody and then only after I have written on that will I work on lyrics.
I won’t say that lyrics are the only commonality with the poetry, but I do stress a lot about the lyrics. It takes me a long time to write lyrics. I think because of my poetry background I just don’t cut myself a lot of slack even though they are pop songs. They don’t have to necessarily have deep meanings, but they have to be fresh, so I am very hard on myself when I come to lyrics.
Once in a while I have noticed that there might be an image or a word that I have used in the past in my poetry that appears in my lyrics, but that is about it. Usually it is pretty subconscious and it is not on a conscious level at all.
PB: ‘The Cynthia Sessions’ comes across as an immensely personal record. Was it based on a real life break-up?
AV: Yeah, it was. My aunt had passed away after a long illness, and my grandfather was very frail as well and dying of heart disease. It was a tough time in general, and then I just happened to meet someone that I fell madly in love with.
It wasn’t a very long relationship at all, but it involved a lot of intense feelings, and so when it ended and because of everything else that was going on it hit me very hard. I couldn’t believe how overcome I was that this relationship hadn’t worked out. Normally I walk away from things like that completely unscathed (Laughs), but this time it was really, really rough.
The first song that I wrote after that was ‘Heart Wrapped in Cellophane’, and which is the first song on ‘The Cynthia Sessions’. After that, it just hit me that I had never written an album about just one topic or one thing, and then things happened very quickly. Within a matter of a few months I had written all these songs.
I thought that I was just writing about my relationship, but now I realise that I was grieving and mourning for a lot of things. I was very sad about losing my aunt and my grandfather, and that made me think about my father. There was a lot of mourning going on.
PB: Do you see writing these songs as having been a form of therapy then?
AV: We all talk of art or whatever that way. I guess that it was, but you could say that about a lot of things. For example, if you are a carpenter and you work a lot of hours every day, then I could see how even that would be therapy. If you have family or money issues at home, and then you go to work and get lost in that, then that also could be therapy.
PB: How immediately after this break up were these songs written? Were they written weeks or months afterwards?
AV: I started writing them about two months afterwards, and then within a matter of four or five months I had over twenty songs. After that, Bob Logan, who also worked on the second Mishima USA record, and I sat down and recorded as many as them as we could, and then we started writing it down to the ones that we thought were the most cohesive.
PB: How long ago were these songs written?
AV: These songs were all written in 2004 and 2005. A while ago. But they still feel new and fresh. And I've already got another record's worth of songs ready to go.
PB: You have said that you don’t like the word “therapy”, but this girl obviously gave you a hard time and doesn’t come out of it particularly well. Were these songs then also written out of revenge?
AV: As they were written at the time that they had just happened, I wouldn’t say that they were written out of revenge. While I would say that the best form of revenge is to channel emotions into something productive, I wasn’t sitting around thinking of how I was going to get back at her with this record. As a matter of fact, I didn’t come up with the title until much later.
I guess that she does come across not so great, but one tactic that I have always taken lyrically is that if I am writing a song where I am using the second person and “You” quite a lot generally I will also switch to the first person and say “I”. If I say “You screwed up”, somewhere in the song I will also say that “I screwed up”.
PB: You spend a lot of time on the record as well looking for the reasons for your ex’s behaviour. There is a line, for example, on ‘Ghost in the Lawn’ in which you sing “I know that you are scared of feeling anything”, which in some ways makes her seem more rounded and sympathetic.
AV: We all like to talk tough, but the fact is that even after this awful break up those songs were also written out of love. For me anyway you can’t write vulnerable, naked songs honestly if they are only coming from a place of spite. I don’t think that it would come out in any way that would be worthwhile.
I did have a lot of mixed volatile emotions, but really the two inner main emotions were sadness and confusion. I couldn’t just shut off the valve, and not have feelings for someone that I once had feelings for. Emotions are messy. One minute you might feel indignant and then another baffled.
PB: One of things that you also capture on this album is that feeling of being in a state of complete mental desperation and totally locked in your own mindset because something has upset you so much, and then suddenly realising that the rest of the world is going about its normal business without you. ‘Was a Lie’ in particular does that really well with its lyric of “The kids outside I hear then play/I want to beg them to stay.”
AV: There was a lot of that as well. You have this bittersweet feeling on one hand that you are part of the world, which is very comforting, but on the other hand we all often feel that we are not, and that somehow people are going about their normal business while we are struggling to connect. I think that it is a conundrum that we all battle with at some point.
PB: ‘Are You Kidding Me?’ tells about meeting your girlfriend’s former boyfriend and this guy who she has really hyped up, but it turns out isn’t really what she has made him out to be. Was that based on a real incident?
AV: It was (Laughs). That was an awful night. In retrospect I can laugh about it but at the time I was mortified. One of the awful things about dating is that dating is like a river where there is a level of sediment that just keeps building and building. I remember thinking that it was strange to meet this person, and to be honest it just seemed like he was a total wanker (Laughs). But it was more than that. At one level, dating is a wonderful thing, but at another if you are not settled down with anyone it is just this accumulation of memories and intimacies, not just your own but other people’s as well. Then suddenly they are gone, and you are moving onto some other intimacy and getting to know someone else.
PB: Last question about the album. ‘The Moon and Us’, the final track, concludes with the line “At the end of the day it's us and the moon.” What did you mean by that?
AV: I was trying to evoke the feeling that we are really pretty insignificant. Each day comes, each day goes and, whatever our little soap operas and frustrations and our egotistical little problems are, on the one hand all of those things are very real, but on the other hand in the overall picture of things they are pretty small.
That is something that more and more in my music I have been trying to evoke, even more so on the next album and the songs I am writing now, and also in my poetry as well. Life is so much bigger than us, and our little problems may feel significant and are significant in the moment, but that moment comes and goes, and then life goes on. I have been trying to tap more and more into that idea that there is a lot of comfort and consolation in knowing that it is an unending universe, and that we are a very small part of it.
PB: You said that you had written over twenty songs. Seven of them have appeared on this record. What do you plan to do with the other songs?
AV: I don’t know. I have been writing a lot of new songs as well. I have written another forty songs since the band got together last year. I feel that I am really evolving as a songwriter at the moment. I am not sure exactly what I am going to do with them, but I feel that I might whittle some them down onto an EP.
PB: You mentioned a second album. Have you been begun recording it yet?
AV: We are demoing some songs now, getting an idea of how things sound, sitting down and working out parts and harmonies and things like that, and, are hoping to begin recording it around the New Year.
PB: Will there be a second book of poetry?
AV: Yes, I am hoping to finish a second collection, which will be called ‘Isinglass’ by the end of the year. Hopefully Carcanet, which released ‘Capillarity’, will be publishing that one as well.
PB: ‘Capillarity’ was partially autobiographical, but about the Armenian experience. Is this one going to be similarly themed?
AV: This one is very different. ‘Capillarity’ was a full-length poem. These are all individual poems and for this one I am writing a lot of the poems in syllabics. I am using a very specific form for the poems just to challenge myself. I have been reading a lot of Melville, Whitman, and Fernando Pessoa, and especially in Melville there is the idea that things are not what they appear to be. I have sort of latched onto that in these poems. I don’t want to say that they are more abstract, but they are more challenging in that they are not really stories. They are more evocations of a feeling, and not as family-orientated or from my own history.
PB: And this forthcoming second album as well? Will it themed in the same way ‘The Cynthia Sessions’ was or will it be a loose collection of songs?
AV: It is a little too early to say, but I think that it will be a loose collection of songs.
PB: Are you going to be touring ‘The Cynthia Sessions’?
AV: We have already played shows in New York City, and regionally in the East Coast. Ideally next summer I would like to come to the UK and do some stuff in Europe. I would almost rather come to the UK rather than tour California. I feel like we would go down well over there. It would be a great experience and I hope that we can do that, but in the mean time we will be playing a lot more shows over here.
PB: Thank you.