As someone who lives in the comfort of nostalgia, I am taken aback when people don’t relish in lengthy conversations about ‘90s Nickelodeon or Scholastic Book Fairs, but that’s okay. It’s the differences between people like me and people like Joe Michellini of American Trappist that make the world go round. On that note, our worlds crossed paths to talk about why Joe’s not one for the aforementioned past, personal sentiments in song, and more like American Trappists 2023 release, ‘Poison Reverse,’ which drops on June 9th. All of that and then some awaits below…
Kendra: Your June 2023 release, ‘Poison Reverse,’ deals a lot with dressing old wounds, but long before you started making your own music to do that – I’d love to know what albums helped you get over rough patches back when you were growing up?
Joe Michellini: The first albums that come to mind are ‘The Moon & Antarctica’ by Modest Mouse and ‘Midnight Organ Fight’ by Frightened Rabbit. Both of those albums were there for me during really difficult times, especially in high school.
‘Moon & Antarctica’ delivers as much grief as it does curiosity and at that age, the future felt like a massive weight with equal potential for joy and emptiness. I wouldn’t call it an encouraging album but I really felt seen when I listened to it, still do. I also think ‘Midnight Organ Fight’ is one of the best breakup albums out there, and that’s when I found it. I haven’t listened to it much since, maybe once since Scott passed.
Kendra: Back to the present while also looking ahead because I want to talk about “Seg Fault,’ the lead single off ‘Poison Reverse.’ It’s a song I think a lot of 20-30-somethings are currently having a crisis with and that’s identity in relation to aging. Do you think that the current generation’s obsession with nostalgia could be the reason they are having a hard time accepting the inevitable that is growing older?
Joe Michellini: I’ve always wanted to be a grown-up and have never really understood the obsession with nostalgia. Maybe someone somewhere is longing for a “simpler” time, but was it ever actually simple? We now know yesterday’s simplicity to be a fantasy built on oppression. I’ve also always felt like it’s easy to look back and say “Yeah, that’s great – we know this now, that record is great, that aesthetic is great.”
I guess that’s what critics have to risk if anything. They have to decide right now. There’s a lot to learn from all the art we’ve already made but I don’t know if that’s the same thing as nostalgia. I don’t judge anyone for being into what they’re into. I’ve actually always felt a little self-conscious about being so interested in the future, but I doubt Holly Herndon feels that way.
For me, “Seg Fault” is about keeping yourself down because it’s comfortable. Aging is inevitable but growth is not, it takes active engagement and it is rarely comfortable. I hope folks of all ages can relate to that.
Kendra: That’s more on a universal level, so I want to take it back down to the personal and talk about “Lamentations.” Joe, this one centered around telling your partner about identifying as non-binary. How long after that conversation did this song start to form in your mind?
Joe Michellini: “Lamentations” was written in a sitting, and now I use the original lyrics as a bookmark. We were both under a lot of stress, in our relationship and outside of it. It came really naturally, but it took me a while to show it to Hannah. I didn’t want to publicly expose something about our relationship that she wasn’t comfortable with. I’ve lost whatever raw abandon used to make that an afterthought. We’re both artists and working with the song and working on the music video together was actually really healing. We try not to prohibit each other artistically. We founded our union on it actually.
Kendra: And for as silly as ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ can be, there is a dance number where Mac performs this sort of coming out story via interpretive dance one season that’s really moving – and that’s what the video for “Lamentations” reminded me of. It captured an emotional moment very well. Where did the inspiration behind his visual piece spawn from though?
Joe Michellini: In part, the video is one of two ideas I had for a music video when I first wrote the song. We were approached by Megan Lynch about making a music video, who in turn brought on Jackie Papanier. The two of them worked very hard on a beautiful music video concept that we ultimately didn’t have the time or resources to execute. Dance was already part of the original plan and my partner Hannah has been dancing for a long time.
So we stripped the storyboard down to what we could afford and this was essentially it. I was happy though since it ended up including some of my very early ideas for the video, with gaps filled in and brought to life by inspired editing and cinematography, which I played no creative part in. Hannah choreographed her part and I ended up improvising. It’s exactly what we all hoped it would be, I think. I’m really interested in how practical limitations can help define a work of art. I know we all have to dream big or whatever but I’ve always liked collaborating with the present moment pragmatically.
I’ve actually never seen more than an episode of ‘It’s Always Sunny…’ and maybe not all the way through. It’s kind of a sin living in the Philly area, maybe.
Kendra: It was noted that movement is a big part of American Trappist’s live show. Were there any bands or artists you admired in that regard when you were starting out?
Joe Michellini: Aldous Harding is one of my favorite artists to see live. The way she uses her body onstage really inspires me. I like going to pop concerts and seeing the detailed choreography, and of course, the noise rock bands throwing their bodies around, or not – equally compelling. When I saw Aldous for the first time though it felt like a spiritual visitation. Not of this world and so incredibly natural and grounded at the same time. You can get some of that from her music videos. I also try to leave shame out of the equation. For this reason, I’m not a very good dancer but that’s not really a priority of mine either. I’m trying to tell the truth with my body onstage.
Kendra: Now it’s time for a side note – with it being May, I always think of the end of the school year and all those memories of field trips, parties, and yearbooks. With that, I’d love to know what your fondest end-of-the-school-year memory was?
Joe Michellini: Leaving! I had a hard time in public school. I very much believe in public school, but at that age, it wasn’t the right framework for me to learn. I wish I could go back as an adult. I am going back actually. I take a pre-algebra class once a week on Thursday mornings. I had some great teachers and I’ll always remember them, mostly as early mentors and emotional guides. That part of the experience is invaluable and I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life.
Kendra: Lastly, with ‘Poison Reverse’ out on June 9th, what else can fans expect as we get into the summer?
Joe Michellini: We’re excited to share these songs because at this point it’s been years since a lot of them were written. It’s tricky to build a set around a record that hasn’t been out for very long. We’re trying to include some new material but not an overwhelming amount, and making an effort to weave it into the previous live shows. I’m excited to play. We are a live band and the records will always be imperfect. I’m proud of it, but of course, we’ve been iterating on them as we have played them and now they feel more real than ever, but you can’t always wait this long to record. We’ve waited long enough. We’re excited to get back onstage together.