As a long-time fixture of the Atlanta music scene, Jonathan Merenivitch has played the part of the enigmatic frontman (in soul-punks Tendaberry), as well as lending instrumental support to the likes of avant pop act Del Venicci and future-pop giant-in-waiting Janelle Monáe. But of his many projects, Merenivitch seems to have reserved the most time and creative energy for Shepherds, his collaboration with bassist Peter Cauthorn (Mood Rings) and drummer Adrian Switon (Bataille). Although the trio have been offering up their twisted amalgam of post-punk and soul music since 2010, conceptually the band has remained, by and large, Merenivitch’s vision. And nowhere is this more evident and true than on the group’s latest LP, Exit Youth.
Written and recorded over the course of three years, the album traces a dark path, examining the inner turbulence of Merenivitch’s life during a period when he was questioning his decision to devote his life to art and music. Over the course of a dozen sprawling, wide-ranging songs, the band chronicles the small triumphs and bitter defeats, the crappy day jobs and fleeting moments of inspiration, that define the life of a young, aspiring artist.
As a working musician serving under the tutelage of the then blossoming Monáe, Merenivitch had managed to reach a career apex that most artists only dream of obtaining: opening for the legendary Prince at Madison Square Garden. But what should have been a day of triumph crashed to sobering reality when he learned that his car had been repossessed the same evening. Merenivitch calls it a revelatory moment, and it’s just one of the many experiences that’s wound into the DNA of the sweeping Exit Youth.
Looked at as work of art, the record lacks a defining aesthetic; instead, it careens through an ever-shifting landscape of post-punk, shoegaze, soul, synthpop, R&B and noise-rock, all housed under a format that Merenivitch calls “increasingly irrelevant” — the rock album. Whether or not you agree with his assessment of rock and roll’s place in current culture, it’s hard to deny that Exit Youth is a bold statement, both personally and artistically. It’s a rich, contemplative work, and one of the best local records of the year.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Merenivitch about the album and the experiences that helped formulate its construction. Along the way we discussed the current state of music, his songwriting process and the death of the album format.
You talk about the many doubts you experienced as a young artist. Was there a “fuck it” moment when you decided you were going to toss those doubts aside and continue to pursue music?
There wasn’t any singular moment that made me say “fuck it.” It was more like a series of things over the course of a few years. Meeting Andre 3000 at Star Bar and trying to convince him that Yeezus was a great record, playing an amazing house show after playing with Janelle Monáe opening for Prince at Madison Square Garden, someone telling me that I inspired them to play music, someone telling me to keep trying. All these moments are dotted through the years of making this record, and they pushed me to continue.
I get the sense that the day you both opened for Prince and had your car repossessed was a really formative one for you. A turning point perhaps. Talk a little more about that day and the effect, long or short term, it’s had on you.
I just remember waking up on the tour bus to a frantic phone call from my girlfriend the morning after the Prince show saying the car was gone. I was little hungover, too, which added a cherry on top of the shit sundae of the experience. Basically, the car was gone and it was all my fault because I was not paying any attention to my responsibilities. That moment was the genesis for one of the major themes of the record — growing up. All over the record I’m acknowledging my laziness, entitlement, bitterness, irresponsibility and attempting to not be so shitty. I just want to be a better person.
You call the rock album format increasingly irrelevant. Is that in comparison to the social media-driven pop landscape or are you speaking in general?
More in comparison to the pop landscape. We seem to be reverting back to a pre-’60s/’70s music industry where an album was something you threw together to back a single or two rather than a complete statement. It’s heartbreaking to experience this in real time, because so many of my musical memories have to do with listening to records over and over again and immersing myself into the world created by that record. It’s not over quite yet, but in 20 or 30 years I can easily see the album completely becoming a thing of the past.
Why do you believe that? Do you think it’s a temporary lull or will the irrelevancy become permanent?
With the advent of file sharing, it’s become so easy to chop albums up or create your own playlist or just hear songs mostly in a vacuum. People will take that kind of convenience over anything to do with art. I remember having a conversation with someone younger than me who described listening to snippets of a record on iTunes and then buying only four or five songs, which just seems crazy to me. I always listened to the entirety of a record, even the songs I hated. Also, guitar music or the idea of “rock” is speedily becoming another culturally irrelevant genre. The domination of hip-hop and the ease with which you can make electronic music seem to have pushed rock into the margins. I can’t imagine things reversing at all, the technology is there and the major record labels did nothing to work with file sharing services.
Given that it’s a very conceptual record, what was the songwriting process like for Exit Youth? Were you consciously trying to build connections between songs?
In terms of melody and arrangement, it was very easy. We worked together collectively and effortlessly and wrote most of the songs within the span of six months or so. Peter’s basslines formed a great foundation for me and Adrian to splatter with noise. Lyrically, it took some time because I didn’t really have a concrete idea of the concept until about a year into it. When I got the concept, I spent a summer writing the lyrics. Then I spent about another year recording vocals and fiddling with the album, asking “what does this song need?” or “what kind of song does the record need?” That’s where the connections between songs come in. Me bringing in a cellphone recording and overdubbing some lyric or motif that should remind you of something else on the record, or the concept. With our producer Chris Brooker’s help, we were able to make something that’s all over the place but also strangely cohesive.
There’s such a melange of styles on the record. Was it important to you to show that level of range and versatility as a songwriter?
The stylistic variety comes from two things: going in the other direction in response to how monotonous and same-y our first record was, and trying to be as unpretentious and natural as possible about the songwriting process. In the past, I’ve definitely given myself and the bands I’m in stylistic restrictions. With this record I was concerned with making the songs as great as possible. I didn’t care whether they fit into any genre; I just wanted them to be great.
How did making this record shape your attitudes about art? What’s different now then when you first started three year ago?
I became aware of the importance of process in making art. Everything I had done previously was completed very quickly with no thought given to process. With Exit Youth I had a chance to step back from it and examine some of the decisions we’d made with a clear head. It was intoxicating to actually have time to make a record the best it could be. I now understand that the process is a big part of why a record is good.
Knowing what you do now, if you could, what would you go back and tell your younger self?
Shit. I’d say, “You already know what you gotta do, just do it.” And, “Be careful who you give your heart to.”
Shepherds will celebrate the release of Exit Youth tomorrow night, December 12, at the Drunken Unicorn. Supporting them will be Coma Girls and Slang. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission is $5.