It’s no small wonder that a recent live review of The Viking Progress (moniker of Athens GA based Patrick Morales) described the performer as “channeling shades of Jeff Mangum…”. The songs on Morales’ first album “Whistling While the End is Near”, like much of Mangum’s work, are heavily thematic, and still deeply personal. The story behind the songs only scratches the surface of what is most engaging about The Viking Progress, because it’s the music that draws you in. Orchestral, rootsy, indie, and infectiously melodic…the music is as adventurous and magnificent as the name of the project suggests. Included below the interview are two versions of the song The Captain, the first is a demo version recorded on an Alaskan commercial fishing vessel, the second is the more well polished version appearing on the forthcoming album “Whistling While the End is Near”.
The Viking Progress will be performing at The Earl, Friday March 30th with Oryx & Crake and Adron.
A-List: I understand you wrote a majority of the songs for this album while working on commercial fishing boats in Alaska. How did you come across that job? What specifically were you doing? What was that experience like?
Patrick Morales: It sort of all started with a really long chain of unfortunate circumstances that probably karmically started with me lying to my parents about when I was going to graduate. My parents were already disappointed that I wasn’t graduating in four years, so I decided to lie to them and say that I would graduate that fall but not walk till the spring. Over the Christmas holidays I let it slip that I had to get back to Milledgeville (where I was in school) by X date for class. My mom responded with “Class?” and the jig was up and my parents and I had a small falling out (rightfully so) and I was financially cut off from my folks.
I started looking for work on Craigslist when I found a job title that read “Adventurist Biologists Wanted” expecting a link to a scam, or more optimistically, porn, I clicked the link and found a URL for a company with a website that looked like it was coded in the early 90s.
After learning more about the company I found that they’re hired by commercial fishing vessels as a go between for the National Marine Fisheries Service and that the company hired individuals to live on fishing boats to collect data that they’d report to NMFS. The interview consisted of several intimidating questions like “Would you have issues with working in an environment where you would experience hostility from fisherman?” “Have you ever worked in high risk environments before?” “As an employee of this company how would it make you feel to know that we cannot guarantee your safety while on board fishing vessels?” The barrage of questions left me feeling sort of uneasy even though I was really excited about the prospect of a free trip to Alaska.
As a fisheries observer your job is primarily to come up with a detailed statistical method for accounting for the species, number and sex of all fish that are caught while on board. This means that every time fish are brought on deck you are also on deck and generally your entire time is spent counting fish, weighing fish, cutting into fish, while your being bombarded by wave after wave of salt water and on sometimes freezing spray. It can be a pretty intense environment and then on other days (typically in the summer) one of the most beautiful uplifting scenes you’ll experience.
The experience was amazing and a part of my life that I’ll never forget. On some level the most enriching aspect of it all was the sheer isolation that comes with living on a fishing boat for extended amounts of time.
A-List: Do you feel the songs which you wrote during that time were a product of that environment? Or do you think you probably would have written a similar set of songs had you locked yourself away in a small room for a few weeks at a time with a guitar and recording devise?
PM: I think about this question a lot and I think it’s undeniable the effect that the environment had on me but I don’t think it’s necessarily what everyone would assume given the subject matter. While a lot of what I wrote at sea had to do with the album I’m releasing now, which details the last remaining moments of people all experiencing the end of the world, a lot of the songs I wrote had nothing to do with the subject but the thing that they all shared is that they were pretty intensely introspective. And I feel that’s what any sort of isolation can lead you towards. Once you’ve removed, whether intentionally or it’s thrusted on you, a lot of the stimuli that we’re bombarded with in day to day life I think it becomes really easy to turn within. The difference between this isolation and just locking myself away somewhere on dry land I think comes in that a lot of my time thinking was spent staring at empty space. A lot of time while at sea, due to fog or just low lying cloud cover, it would feel like you were just stranded in some sort of existential white space. Time felt like it had no meaning there since your schedule didn’t revolve around days but the passing of fish or the closing of specific fishing zones. So after a while I could feel myself starting to dissociate from time which was a really neat experience.
A-List: Do you recall what you were listening to when you wrote these songs…what was influencing you musically at the time?
PM: My iPod quit working on the airplane ride to Anchorage and was without music for most of the trip. All through college (as I’m sure is obvious) I’d been a pretty big Elephant 6 fan but right before leaving for Alaska I’d just been reading a lot about space and string theory and listening to Nickel Creek and other folk instrument virtuosos. I don’t know if that comes through on the album in its current incarnation but there was definitely a lot of inspiration from that band.
A-List: The character vignettes are interesting, but I find myself draw more towards the 3 tracks in the middle of the album which sort of break that mold…La Divine, Moral Animal, and God Says. Those songs don’t necessarily fit the “characters experiencing the end times” formula, can you explain why you chose to include those tracks, and how, if at all, you see them fitting with the bigger “Whistling….” theme?
PM: Those songs were definitely more add-ons but I think they fit the motif as a whole because they’re all songs that are heavily introspective which I feel like is more of the central theme of the album. The end of the world part of the album is really just a vehicle for introspection. In some ways I just wanted to try to understand why it is we have a compulsion to have bucket lists and why we feel a level of guilt when those things aren’t accomplished. The “big” moments that we think about in our lives occupy such a small fraction of the time we actually spend on this planet. Originally when I set out to write these songs I had intended to write more about the minutia of everyday life and have the focus be on accepting the trivialities of life as their own glorious ceremonies. I think in some ways that point gets made somewhat here and there but the album seems to revolve more around the choices these characters are having to make in regards to the end of the world. How will they spend their last moments and how will they behave? I think that’s where the three tracks you mentioned share similarities. They’re all songs in some way about choice and acceptance whether it be a disappointed creator distraught over how to end the story he’s written or two celestial minions who must keep their love a secret or face retribution from a jealous god.
A-List: I’ve seen you bow a banjo. The sound might not be so self evident on the album, but once I have the concept in mind…I sort of find myself listening for that distinctive sound on the album. Do you use the bowed banjo in your live show? How did the idea to play the instrument that way come about? Any technique tips for aspiring banjo bowers?
PM: It mainly came out of being jealous of string players and wanting to come up with some sort of sustained sound. I had a violin bow and I knew how to play banjo. It got easier the more I tried and practiced it and I feel like now I’ve reached a level of proficiency at it where it almost sounds like a violin at times or at least I like to delude myself into thinking that. Even when it misses it still sounds kind of cool. I use the bow a fair amount live when playing solo to mimic some of the string parts on “La Divine” which i wrote on banjo. As far as tips go I’m still learning myself. Read up on right hand technique and use lots of rosin!
A-List: Do you relate to any of the “characters” on the album more than others? Which ones, and how?
PM: I definitely relate the most to “The Student” and feel in a lot of ways that it’s largely autobiographical. After graduating college and sort of in the last year of it I felt a lot like my degree didn’t matter and that it was basically this era’s high school diploma. With that same sentiment I wished that I would have just spent the time traveling and going on adventures. There’s also a line that I wrote that I feel sums up myself in a lot of ways where the character daydreams about selling his books and doing drugs and just generally engaging in carnal pleasures but at the end sort of realizes that that’s ultimately not him regardless of how much he wants that to be the case.
A-List: How do you think you would spend your last moments on earth?
PM: Such a good question. I’ve often wondered if it would matter how my world was ending whether it was cancer or some major catastrophic extinction event if my last moments would be spent differently. I think when you know that no one else is going to be living after you’re gone then you might do things differently if you knew that people would be living afterwards. I would imagine I’d just spend my last moments with friends and family hopefully doing something really cute and nice like singing songs together. You know something sappy and idealistic.
A-List: Ever thought about making an album about the beginning of time and/or creation? You know…big bangs, amorphous energy, primordial ooze, Eden, snakes and apples, that kind of stuff?
PM: I feel like that album is definitely on the way or is already incorporated a lot in songs I’ve already written. I really like writing about science since that’s what interests me both personally and professionally. In particular it seems like my writing focus lately has been sort of about where we as individuals and as a species see ourselves as highly evolved and consciously making decisions but can’t always rationalize the woes of our animal past. The song “Moral Animal” is sort of about that idea of reconciling our instincts with the constructs that society has sort of built. I think a lot of that came from the year I spent playing poker professionally. I would see so many unconscious behaviors affecting how people would make decisions or I’d see my own evolution in understanding frequency and watch myself react to the swings of the game that I just realized on some level we’re not built for a lot of what the world is throwing at us right now. We like to think that we’re highly rational and that every person is actively seeking to expand their own utility but I feel like the more I reflect on my own nature and that of others that so much of our decision making is sort of random and the justifications are come up with after the fact. But to be honest I think the next album I make is gonna be a lot less weighty. I feel an era of heavily distorted guitar and drone coming on but with the same sort of melody that I seem to gravitate to. Should be fun.