How do you define a good "bummer jam?"
It's a tough call. Break down the term, and you've got two distinct goals: The song has to convey some serious sadness (the bummer) but it also has to jam (the, uh, jam). Many songs are bummers (see much of the Red House Painters discography) and many songs jam (see much of the CCR discography), but so few achieve the elegant balance that makes a real "bummer jam" tick.
I suggest that "Erica Western Teleport," the (sort of) title track from Western Teleport, the 2011 release by Emperor X — known to his mom as C. R. Matheny — might serve as a model example of the bummer jam template. It's short — with a running length of 3:34 — and peppy, with an insistent ear-worm of a beat, and a chorus crafted of pure, lo-fi indie-pop gold. "Don't think of her swimming sideways," Matheny sings. "Don't think of her kicking at the top soil / Don't think of her fists in the face mask / Don't think of her; never think of her."
He goes on to describe all the things you should think about: studying for the LSAT and getting some exercise. Then, in a subtle and perfect display of bummer jam form, Matheny seals the whole deal with a flip-flop couplet: "Don't think of her. Always think of her."
"It's the classic command: Don't smile," Matheny says, laughing. "No, seriously, don't smile. And you start smiling. Right now, don't think about a dancing elephant in purple polka dots. What's the first thing in your head?
"A lot of people have talked me about that song and said things like, 'That relates back to what's going on in my life right now,'" Matheny says. "I'm always shocked when people tell me that about a completely different situation, but [they] identify with that song for whatever reason.
The song, with its scientific approach, is indicative of the rest of the record, which boasts songs like "A Violent Translation of the Concordia Headscarp" and "The Magnetic Media Storage Practices of Rural Pakistan." It's simply an outgrowth of Matheny's other disciplines. Before setting off on a DIY life of tiny income and creative pop, Matheny studied physics.
"Well, unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your perspective — I'm one of those people who reads about economics and foreign policy," Matheny says. "I was a physics major in college. So I taught science for a while . . . That's the explanation for it. I wouldn't say it's 'intentional' because that's just the way I write."
The approach translates to another unique hobby of Matheny's: geocaching. In advance of Western Teleport, the songwriter buried some 41 "translucent purple audiotape cassettes" copies of the album all across North America and blasted out GPS coordinates via his website. It wasn't the first time, either. He's buried all sorts of Emperor X ephemera: CD-Rs with demo versions of songs and B-sides, complete with unique artwork.
"Some people love hearing that stuff, and some people are like, 'Oh, my God, dude, that doesn't sound very good.' But it's part of taking the album experience. Before the '60s, artists didn't care about what was on the album cover of their records. That wasn't for them; that was for the advertising department of the record label. Nowadays, people will spend more time on the cover then they will the record," Matheny says. "Now we're involved in taking every aspect of how the album is disseminated, so audio art has turned into media art, and now performance art as well via the marketing."
As for writing such classic-sounding bummer jams?
"[That song] is about how if anything is really bothering you, it's impossible not to think of it."
And clearly Matheny does a lot of thinking.