Catching Up With Hiss Golden Messenger

“Words can mean different things, from day to day they change their meaning,” MC Taylor sings at the start of Jump For Joy, his latest under the reliable and stalwart Hiss Golden Messenger banner. Adopting a new character—named “Michael Crow,” with a subtle nod—allows Taylor a little space to move around. And tellingly, he uses much of that wiggle room to indulge in layers of funk (“I Saw the New Day in the World”), lithe soft-rock (“Shinbone”), and Dead-indebted shuffles (“California King”). Hiss Golden Messenger’s best records always balance honeyed charm with existential weight, but here the ratio feels exactly right: words change their meaning, after all, and though Taylor concludes the album confessing he “speaks a dead language,” it’s clear he’s got plenty of new things to say. Taylor joins us to discuss. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: Was Jump for Joy in part inspired by the feeling of getting out on the road? It feels a little leaner to my ears, if that tracks. 

MC Taylor: Yeah, it’s interesting. Everybody has a different take on what the record feels like and seemingly none of them are the same. 

AD: Maybe that’s a good sign.

MC Taylor: No, it’s pretty cool. It’s so, so subjective that I never correct anyone about it, because all interpretations are right, you know? I had a vision for myself in the composition of this record, but also you’re right in that I was wanting to make a record that sort of held the energy of what we’ve been doing live for the past couple of years. For a while there, there seems to have been a bit of disparity between what appears on a Hiss record and what we’re doing on a stage. There have been a lot of times where people have come up to me after a show and have been like, “Man, you guys should make a record like that!” and comments like that have driven, at least in some part, our putting out all the live records that we’ve been putting out. I had a concept for this new record, but also took the path of least resistance in terms of, “Let’s take this energy that we have going on stage into the studio and apply it to all this new material and see what happens.” So the making of the record was relatively painless because I kind of knew all the constituent parts. I knew what to expect from everybody, but also where to push them, and I left myself open, obviously, for surprises and encouraged the mystery of it all. 

AD: Something I’ve always admired about Hiss records and your songwriting is that you can hold space for thoughts and thematic territory that is heavy but also brings a sense of musical buoyancy to it. This record reflects a celebratory mode in some ways while still delving into a lot of the questions that sort of define our present moment. In “20 Years and a Nickel” you sing, “Words can mean different things…Change their meaning,” and I just thought picking the word “joy” in the title of a record felt a little audacious to me in a cool way. Joy can be a hard to thing to express these days.

MC Taylor: I’ve been trying to amplify the consideration of joy as an animating force that is something worth allowing into our lives, it’s been intentional with this record from the very beginning, from the start of when I was starting to compose these songs. I gave myself a sort of mission: I need to make a record that feels more outward facing, that feels more up, and really leans into the joy or hope. I don’t know that those two things are interchangeable, but they’re certainly connected. I wanted to make a record that leaned into the joy and the hope that has always hovered around the edges of my work, and I think part of the reason that I felt like I wanted to do that is because Quietly Blowing It, my previous record from 2021, in retrospect, kind of looking at it from a year’s vantage point, or so, is a very internal record that felt as inward-looking as I’ve gone on a Hiss record, and there are a lot of reasons for that, obvious and personal, but I just realized as I started to think about writing some more songs, it’s felt like it became clear to me that I’m not going to make another record like Quietly Blowing It.

[That album] seems like the end of something, like the culmination of some type of approach to making music that I felt like if I were to keep chasing the spirits that were guiding that particular record, it would be diminishing returns and probably some disillusionment. I don’t know, that record is a troubled record to me. I love that record, and there’s a lot of songs that get played from that record, but that is a troubled record. Quietly Blowing It and Jump for Joy are very related, but Jump for Joy is certainly reacting to Quietly Blowing It. 

AD: Do you often find that the records are in conversation like that, or in relation? Not oppositional, but you know what I mean? 

MC Taylor: The records are always in conversation with each other because thematically I’m working from a set of themes that feel like they appear on every record. But I’ve never had a situation before where in looking back at the previous record I felt like “I’m definitely not going to make a record like that again. That’s not something that I want to do again.” I’ve never had a situation quite like that, but it was good for me because it forced me to think about, if I’m going to keep making records, what type of record do I need to make right now to keep myself connected to the process of making music and to my creative spirit. 

AD: You have to keep finding new sparks. Some of the more ambient or noise-like segments that tie some of these songs together reminded me of the Revelators project, where obviously you’re working with loops and stuff and you indulged a side of yourself on that record that I know is a big part of your music listening, but maybe would’ve surprised some Hiss fans because you’re a little more out there with that in terms of playing around. Does this record feel at all like it has any relation to that project just in terms of you trying things that you hadn’t necessarily tried before as a songwriter? 

MC Taylor: I’d say that in a lot of ways, Jump for Joy has a deeper, more simpatico musical kinship with the Revelators record than it does with Quietly Blowing It; it certainly would not exist, would not sound and feel the way it does, without that Revelators record. That Revelators record was a really big unlocking for me and made me realize the ways in which I had imposed these boundaries on myself musically that were unnecessary, just in terms of what seemed like it would be allowed to exist on a Hiss Golden Messenger record, and for me it took something like making that Revelators record and going way out with that record to realize the only way forward is to be making records that sound exactly the way that I want them to sound.

There’s no reason to leave something off a record because I think that someone might think it was somehow inappropriate or ill-fitting. I don’t know that I ever articulated it exactly like that to myself, but it was some part of that there that was maybe inhibiting me in some way, and that Revelators record was just really huge for me in terms of chasing down something really personal, indulging certain musical idea that are really compelling to me, and just opening a bunch of musical doors, and I feel like I brought that kind of energy and spirit into Jump for Joy. Whether the Revelators record and Jump for Joy sound similar, my mindset in making them feels like it was really similar. 

AD: I was listening to “Shinbone” and found myself thinking “almost disco,” or “almost ’80s Fleetwood Mac.”

MC Taylor: Yeah, I love it all. As you know, all that stuff is in my DNA. I was doing an interview earlier today with a German journalist and was telling him that pretty much anything you hear a four-on-the-floor groove which there are a few of on Jump for Joy, including “Shinbone.” My first reference for my drummer is always Neu! and Klaus Dinger. That’s always my jumping-off point. It always morphs into something else because Klaus Dinger’s sense of swing is very German, it’s very different from the way that I think about how four-on-the-floor grooves should sound, but his sense of drive, there’s nobody that can drive a four-on-the-floor rhythm quite like Klaus Dinger, but then at the same time it’s also like, my son is learning to play drums right now and he was asking me, “What are some good grooves to play to?” and I was like, “You really should listen to some Fleetwood Mac records,” because Fleetwood is the master, and he’s just a rhythmic genius. All that stuff is in there. 

AD: I really loved the video for “Nu-Grape” which again is another thing where it’s fun to see you trying these different things and kind of embracing a more humorous approach which, I mean, I know you’re a funny dude and a lighthearted guy and I don’t think the Hiss records are without humor, but at the same time, cool to see you embrace that. Were you thinking about ideas for that video or was that pitched to you? How did that come together? 

MC Taylor: There was talk about, you know, okay we gotta make a video, we gotta make a video for “Nu-Grape” and I said, “I don’t care what this video is, but it’s gotta be funny. It’s gotta be something that makes people laugh.” One, because I really was interested in sort of diffusing or at least complicating this notion of Hiss Golden Messenger as this sort of brooding quasi-spiritual [project] which is something that I‘ve cultivated, no doubt about it, but at the same time, I need things to feel a little bit lighter at this moment in time and I was trying to imagine, OK, this world that we are living in right now feels like… there is so much chaos in this world. I’m trying to imagine asking people to sit and watch a video like “Sanctuary.” Again, in this particular moment in time, does that sound fun to anybody? Doesn’t sound fun to me. But I was like, man it would be really fun to make something super silly because if anyone is craving any heaviness it’s there for them in the song. I mean, the song itself, it’s got plenty of heavy thematic content. The video was just kind of like candy to bring you in, and if you’re compelled by the imagery, it’s all so silly and has so little to do with, almost nothing to do with the song itself. 

AD: You’re someone who is pretty intentional about the things you do, you’re intentional about the art, the album art, specifically, you’re intentional about the production stuff. Did you have any doubts about whether or not you wanted to be funny? How long did it take you, basically, to get comfortable with the idea? 

MC Taylor: I was comfortable right away. I loved it right away, and once we had cast Jonny Fritz in it, who plays the manager… 

AD: Really good. 

MC Taylor: He’s a star. How he’s not a comedic household name is sort of confusing to me. So there’s just so much that Jonny does that I think is so funny, and I just knew that if we had these elements the whole thing would be compelling. That whole thing where I was up on the stage in front of the crowd that’s booing me, that whole thing was such a weird and fun challenge to my ego, even though it’s something that we asked everybody to do, and the whole crowd showed up to this club not understanding what was about to happen because we just put out this little call that said, “if you live in Denver and you want to be in a Hiss Golden Messenger video, come to this venue.” And then they showed up and we said, “Okay it’s this big room full of people. The idea here is that I have just sold out to a grape soda company, and you all are pissed, and you need to boo like you’ve never booed anything before,” so even though all of us understood what we were about to do, it was still so weird. It was so weird for me and so weird for the people in the crowd, too, because if you think about it, the people who showed up for that video shoot are the most hardcore Hiss fans in Denver. They’re not just people who showed up at the show because their friend was going to it. These are people that want to be in a Hiss Golden Messenger video. And we’re like, “okay now you need to act angry.” The whole thing was just flipping the emotion, changing the paradigm for myself in a way that felt super healthy, actually.

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