Crouching deep inside Jim Phillips' cerebrum is a kid with his hands between knees. Let's call him Ned. Ned is busy counting the number of syllables you've just said to Jim. Now he's making a rule about it. It's called “The Disguise of Changing Scenery,” or something equally splendiferous and literary. Now he's humming the idea back to Jim in musical Morse code, which is being broadcast onto the back of Jim's skull like a home movie. The colors bleed onto everything. And now Ned's resetting the whole thing back to zero, like winding a clock.
Since Jim Phillips is the songwriting guts of Lousy Robot, at the core of the band are the unquestioning rituals of an obsessive-compulsive child. It's simultaneously confining and overflowing with limitless possibility. (As in, I must to sing to the cat or the universe will turn into scrambled eggs.) And, somehow, it just works.
Jim writes his songs not just in complete reverse, but from the inside out. “Actually, I don't really like to write songs,” he says. “I like vocabulary and the rhythm of language. It's weird.”
He usually comes up with the title of the record first. “I can't work on anything without a title,” he admits. This time around, it's Smile Like You Are Somewhere Else. Next he comes up with 20 or 30 song titles. He write lyrics to about half them, then scoops up a handful of those and places them on his coffee table with a tape recorder and a guitar.
“Then I kind of unleash it to the band, without any instructions. It's really very juvenile,” he says. “And it can get a little intense at rehearsals. Like, 'Well, what are you looking for? What do you want?' I don't know. I'm not going to say. We just keep plugging away at it to see what we come up with.” What they've come up with on Smile Like You Are Somewhere Else is their most accomplished album yet. It's a progression of the many strange and lovely moods of pop-influenced indie--sometimes rocking, sometimes contemplative, sometimes a little spacey or nerdy—fused together like a puzzle that tumbles into alignment right out of the box.
Jim talks about an idea the band borrows from Andy Warhol. “He said he only liked people to work for him if they misunderstood him slightly, because if people don't misunderstand you, then what you end up with is just a bad carbon copy of what you had in mind.” Jim says bassist Dandy, drummer Mike and keyboardist Jack constantly misunderstand him. “And it's not purposeful! They're trying really hard. But the misunderstanding always comes through beautifully in the end.” It's an odd experiment, but so far, it really does seem to work.
Lousy Robot will release Smile Like You Are Somewhere Else on Saturday, July 29, at Atomic Cantina. They'll be joined by The Hollis Wake, Feels Like Sunday and Colourmusic. Lousy Robot will also premiere their Spinning Hat Productions music video, "The Mile Low Club.” The show is free.