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Some albums play out like intimate confessions, as though one musician was seated before you spilling their heart out. Others exist in a self-aware space that evokes the kind of room that can only exist in the recording studio — the “Fourth World” sound popularized by jazz musician Jon Hassell comes to mind. And still others use a recording to create a new space in the mind of the listener — somewhere that feels inherently built, like the Cowboy Junkies did with their 1987 album The Trinity Sessions, famously recorded in a church. For their new album Welcome to Bobby’s Motel, the Montreal band Pottery opted for something not far removed from that — though in this case, it’s a space far more secular than sacred, and it doesn’t actually exist in the concrete sense of the word.
The allure of the open road has served as a muse for many a rock band, and Pottery have taken that to one logical extension. “If we're at home, we're thinking, ‘We gotta be on the road soon,’” explains Pottery drummer Paul Jacobs. “When you're always thinking about that and you go to sleep and you dream of being somewhere else, you wake up inspired about being in a different place.” And thus, the touring band made an album that draws inspiration from the strangest of motels.
The cover art of Welcome to Bobby’s Motel neatly summarizes these two impulses. The imagery is all delirious Americana, while the color palette ventures into the surreal and somnambulistic. Musically, it’s less the soundtrack to a party than a party itself: the bass and drums sound massive, maintaining an unlikely post-punk swing with something sinister creeping in at the edges. Think James Chance & The Contortions; think the B-52s with Fred Schneider at his most manic. There’s a party here, to be sure, but there’s also a transgressive energy lurking just below the surface — a convergence of Davids Lynch and Byrne, perhaps.
Welcome to Bobby’s Motel is the group’s first full-length album, and it follows last year’s acclaimed EP No. 1. The group is a five-piece, with each member — Jacobs, Jacob Shepansky, Tom Gould, Austin Boylan, and Peter Baylis — bringing a slightly different sensibility to the table. Their areas of expertise as they relate to the band go beyond music: Jacobs, for instance, also handled illustration and direction for the video for “Take Your Time.”
As befits a member of a band whose album takes its cue from an archetypal motel, Jacobs has strong feelings on the subject. “Every motel is super weird, man,” he says. “Every time you go to a motel, you know you're just trying to make the most out of the shittiest place.”
That sense of contrast comes to the forefront in the expansive “Texas Drums Pt I & II,” which opens in a booming, anthemic vein — the lost soundtrack for an exploration of a small town’s seamy underbelly. From there, it shifts into a more frenetic, pulsing register, which suggests that Pottery is well acquainted with the motorik side of their record collections. Abstract vocals echo atop the now-propulsive melody, taking this particular song to a very different place than where it began.
As Jacobs describes it, “Texas Drums” represents a break from the band’s generally collaborative songwriting process. “I demoed that one at home, just before we went to the studio, because I thought we might need something else,” he says. The lyrics were less of a focus — that was something he thought would be changed when they recorded the song. As it turns out, Jacobs had another musical touchstone to riff on here, albeit an unexpected one.
According to Jacobs, “Texas Drums Pt I” began its life as a bizarre take on "All My Ex's Live In Texas." (Yes, the George Strait song and Drake lyrical touchstone.) “It was a mock lyric at first, and then I kind of switched it up,” Jacobs says, “and wrote it about a drum kit that I played in Texas.”
“I just put these lyrics on it because I figured we would probably end up changing it when we go to the studio, but they just stayed,” he adds. “It happens a lot, actually. It's like after you sing something for a bit, it's stuck in your head.”
That blend of studio preparedness with offhand spontaneity is but one of many paradoxes that come up when talking to Jacobs about the band. Here’s another: Jacobs mentions in passing that the production on Gene Clark’s No Other was, for him, an influence on Welcome to Bobby’s Motel.
Perhaps the biggest paradox here, though, is one the band had nothing to do with — and it’s one that stings a little, reading this in the middle of 2020. “I think that the whole thing with our band, the reason why we got recognition and the hype in the first place is because our live shows were really tight,” Jacobs says. “And we're all good friends, and that comes across on stage.”
Listening to Welcome to Bobby’s Motel makes one thing very clear: this is absolutely the sort of album that captures the energy of a top-notch live band. Listening to it, it’s not hard to imagine the band on stage, feeding on one another’s energy, and playing before a crowd that, in turn, absorbs and rejuvenates that selfsame energy. At the time that Pottery recorded this album, it served as a distillation of their live show; at the time that people will listen to it, it will exist as an alternative to it.
The sense of places that are both familiar and just out of reach permeates the conversation with Jacobs. At one point, he brings up a recurring dream he’s had for much of his life. “I always visit this farm, where it's like I know my whole way around this farm, but I've never lived there in real life,” he says. “It's like my other home, or something. Like a dream that I've had ever since I was a kid.”
So there you have it: a real band singing about an imagined motel; a great live act biding their time for the moment when they can take to the stage again. And if this album helps keep some of the stresses of the current at bay, Jacobs is fine with that.
“We still need music all the time,” Jacobs says. “And it makes you forget about that kind of stuff. So I guess it's a good thing, you know?”
Tobias Carroll's writing has been published by Pitchfork, Hazlitt, Dusted, and Literary Hub. He is the author of three books, including the forthcoming Political Sign. Find him on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.