Quiet Company: The company you keep

By • Jun 1st, 2009 • Category: Features

quietcompanyLeah Muse is reclining in her Austin, Texas, home. The 23-year-old photographer is nine months’ pregnant with her first child, and her husband – Quiet Company front man, Taylor Muse – has just placed a pair of headphones on her stomach.

Ten days from the birth of their daughter, Harper Lennon Muse, the young couple has yet to experiment with the popular notion of funneling music directly to their child. There’s no doubt that Harper has heard her father’s tenor voice bellowing throughout the house as he has tinkered with his guitar. And she surely has been to her share of rock shows, picking up on Quiet Company’s buoyant power pop from within her mother’s womb.

But this is different, and the Muses are faced with choosing which song will be their baby’s first. Taylor Muse has begun writing a number of pieces inspired by his looming fatherhood, but they aren’t finished. And with Harper’s arrival only a week-and-a-half away, there’s no time to wait for the 27-year-old songwriter to finish the tunes. There is no clinical proof that Bach and Mozart raise a child’s IQ – even obstetricians are split on the merits of the symphonies – and the soon-to-be parents opt for classic over classical and settle on ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”.

As the opening piano notes give way to those unmistakable stomping drums, Harper kicks. That’s all the Muses need to know that they made the right choice.

That 1978 rock concerto was a fitting song for the newest member of the family. Its plush string arrangements aren’t completely disjointed from those classical composers, but it’s the lyrics such as, “Hey you with the pretty face / Welcome to the human race” that leave this tune booming with new-parent optimism. Taylor Muse’s own work comes steeped in this hopefulness. After all, he’s the bearded, wiry musician who roamed South by Southwest this year wearing a “Free Hugs” sandwich board. And it’s this lust for life – or rather, a love of love – that is funneled through Quiet Company’s pair of LPs.

“Family, community, those are the most important things,” Muse said, sitting in a rocking chair in the nursery that he painted for his daughter. “We all need a community of friends to encourage us, to keep us going, to hold us accountable, in a way. But really, we just need it for support, and so that we can be someone else’s support.”

Yet the choice of that decades-old ELO song draws another similarity to Muse’s music. It possesses the same jilted accusation of someone who has been let down by religion, asking, “Mr. Blue Sky / Please tell us why / You had to hide away for so long / Where did we go wrong?” It’s a song that finds the narrator discovering life’s beauty without divine intervention. Coming to grips with worldly pleasures not contingent on spirituality is a sentiment echoed in part on Quiet Company’s 2006 debut, Shine Honesty, and in full on this year’s stellar Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon. There’s a faith in humanity that runs through Taylor Muse’s work; on his newest album, it’s built on the idea that people are capable of finding the good in things if they just look hard enough. Without the dark days, the clear ones wouldn’t be as memorable, and mankind can recognize those sunny days without any celestial guidance. Or better yet, they can create their own.

Raised in a strict Southern Baptist family in East Texas, Muse was forbidden to listen to secular music as a teen. The songs of his youth were those of Christian radio stations and albums available at religious retailers. Artists from the late-1980s wave of spiritual heavy metal – Stryper, White Cross, Bride – were his guitar rock. It wasn’t until age 16 that the budding musician began sneaking into a local record shop. Armed with his purchases, Muse would return home much like William Miller in the film Almost Famous, concealing the albums before losing himself in them.

“Nirvana summed up everything my mom was worried about, when Kurt Cobain killed himself,” Muse said. “Killing himself meant that he was like the devil’s apprentice, and it represented everything [my parents] had feared about rock ‘n’ roll.”

His parents’ fears didn’t stop him from redirecting his teenage fandom from Star Wars and graphic novels to music. Those early guitar lessons and secret, after-school stops turned into an obsession that eventually sparked moves to Tennessee, then back to Texas in hopes of launching his career. Along the way, he developed a passion for Kurt Vonnegut stories, fell in love, and stumbled across multi-instrumentalist Tommy Blank. Although the romance with his bride-to-be, and the post-modern science fiction of Slaughterhouse-Five were turning points for Muse, it was his collaborations with Blank that has had the biggest effect on Quiet Company’s sound. Before Blank’s arrival in 2005, the moniker was a vanity title for Muse’s solo venture. But the addition of the keyboard/guitarist marked the first step toward a full roster. While the band – which now includes bassist Matt Parmenter and drummer Jeff Weathers – has undergone several lineup changes, Blank and Muse have remained constant. That stability has freed Muse to devote more time to his lyrics, writing with a confidence that comes with trusting a longtime bandmate to handle any musical arrangements thrown his way.

He’s a decade removed from the days of sneaking things like The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Weezer’s blue album into his bedroom, but the soft-spoken singer’s spiritual side still is displayed through music. Instead of breaking from the church by way of MTV Buzz Clips, today Muse’s skepticism manifests itself in his own lyrics. As a practicing Deist, he believes in a rational argument for a god, just not the supernatural tendency for miracles and the dogma of the God from his youth. And the 15 songs on Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon play like a quest to reconcile his faith. They tell of a songwriter sure of his disbelief but cautious of his loved one’s judgments.

“When I first heard Quiet Company, I noticed the religious angle,” said Louie Lino, who produced three songs on Quiet Company’s sophomore release. As the sought after audio tech responsible for much of Nada Surf’s studio production and live sounds, Lino knows a sentimental singer with a knack for gorgeous melodies when he hears one. “They’re not a Christian band. But it just seemed like those [references] came out of [Muse] so effortlessly.”

Throughout the hourlong LP, Muse delves deeply into stories of love, sin, and rediscovery, lacing his songs with frequent devout imagery. From tales of a pilgrimage through the desert (“A Nation of Two”) to comparisons between drowning and baptism (“Golden [Like the State]”), this 2009 offering is a record of removing holy blinders. Whether it’s Muse asking any God to bring home troops from the front line and then sarcastically quipping that there are 100 reasons that he’s destined for Heaven (“My New Year’s Resolution at the End of the World”), or vowing to send the devil away if it calls, (“It’s Better to Spend Money Like There’s No Tomorrow, Than Spend Tonight Like There’s No Money”), he rarely preaches. Rather, his Southern Baptist upbringing and subsequent abandonment are such a part of Taylor Muse, that separating who he has become from the path he took to become it would be a disservice to that evolution. So when he laments that the “flock does grow under these false pretences” (“The Beginning of Everything at the End of the World”), or when he claims to be “waiting for the flood to change us” and wishes that you’d “climb down off the cross”, burn it, and share the wood (“How to Fake Like You’re Nice & Caring”), he’s confident in his convictions.

No song in Quiet Company’s canon conveys the way Muse continually wrestles with what he was raised to believe, what he believes, and the way his family relates to them both more than “Congratulations Seth & Kara”. In this thank-you letter to his older brother – a youth minister near Dallas – Muse opines that they could read scripture together and deduce polar opposite meanings. Yet, the anecdote of contradiction is wrapped in a reflective, three-and-a-half minute ode to the seminal role that Seth Muse played in shaping his younger brother. It represents the correlation between Taylor Muse’s two biggest inspirations. As someone who shyly admits to pondering religion far more than he publicly lets on, the Quiet Company singer seems cautiously aware never to let his beliefs become alienating.

And with the arrival of Harper – to a formerly Christian father and a Jewish mother – the link between family and spiritually no longer is just a thing of his personal past. It’s a part of his family’s future.

“Harper has kind of brought religion back to the front. It’s a conversation I’ve been putting off for a while. I have to admit to [my parents] that I’m not really in the club any more,” Muse said of telling his family that his daughter won’t be raised with any church affiliation. “It’s going to bring about a confrontation that I’ve been dreading for years. The thing that worries me most is breaking my father’s heart. But I have my own family, and I have to make the same choice for her that my parents made for their kids. At some point, you have to just do what feels right and not worry about your parents’ approval.”

His voice trails off when discussing the inevitable conversation. It’s a talk that he danced around while leading up to his wedding 2006, when he and Leah held a secular ceremony. But this will be different. This could mean that the next generation of Muses has one less person whose decisions are based entirely on faith.

For Taylor Muse, it just means that his daughter will be free to make her own choices, much like he did when he opted to break from the church, or on that day in April when he settled on Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” instead of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

“Taylor is the sweetest guy,” Lino said. “He’s just a gentle, caring guy. You can tell by the way he treats people around him. He looks out for others.”

Because of that undeniable part of Muse’s demeanor, the title of Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon takes on greater significance. Instead of sounding like mere wishful reassurance, it’s as though the phrase comes with the singer’s personal guarantee. Not only will they be happy soon, he’ll make damn sure of it.

“When I started out writing the new record, I was thinking a lot about death. But when I would write, all the songs became about making my wife smile,” Muse said. “It pretty much is a record to make her happy, to cheer her up.”

And it’s a record that tries to do so by reveling in his mortality, drawing strength from his confessions of vulnerability. Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon might never answer all its own questions, but just asking could be what it takes for Muse to bring the people he loves most a little slice of blue sky.

That, and a pair of strategically placed headphones on his wife’s stomach.

Soundcheck Magazine, June 2009

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