The Monologue Bombs’ Scott Phillips, who plays Hugger Mugger August 2, navigates the challenges of autobiographical songwriting on upcoming album Orchard & Reaves
By Corbie Hill
Scott Phillips remembers the last party he threw.
He means a specific type of party — the kind that keeps raging until some unholy hour and is fueled by prodigious amounts of alcohol. This years-ago throwdown, when Phillips was in his early 30s, was a coming-of-age moment. He woke up the next day and realized that phase of his life was over. Not everyone, Phillips says, but most people, can answer the question “what was the night you realized ‘I’m too old to be like this anymore?’” For him, that night in Raleigh was it.
“I remember two days later I called [Wake County Public Schools] to ask about being a substitute teacher,” Phillips says.
As the songwriter behind solo project the Monologue Bombs, this is the exact kind of experience Phillips explores — coming-of-age moments that are equal parts personal and universal.
Accordingly, his upcoming album Orchard & Reaves is named for two streets: the former, Orchard, was the site of his childhood home in Fairview Park, Ohio; the latter, Reaves, was the location of Phillips’ last party. On Friday, August 2, the Monologue Bombs play Hugger Mugger, with the multi-instrumentalist’s accordion (one of his preferred instruments) and Michael Stipe-like voice creating a distinctive backdrop for story-driven songwriting that owes as much to Springsteenian heartland rock as it does to quirky power pop.
For the upcoming Orchard & Reaves, Phillips’ plan is to launch a Kickstarter campaign in August, start recording in October and release the album early next year. And though he has played music in Raleigh and elsewhere in the Triangle since moving from a Cleveland suburb in fall 1994, Phillips is trying several new approaches for Orchard & Reaves. For one, he’s working with a slew of guest musicians (though he doubts this’ll turn the Monologue Bombs into a full band permanently); for another, this autobiographical album is split in two halves. Each half of the album will be recorded in a different studio with different collaborators, Phillips says. Five songs deal with his teenage years in Fairview Park, while the other five address his 20s in Raleigh.
“I have done a lot of character writing, and you try to put yourself into the characters,” he says. “For whatever reason I felt emboldened to be more autobiographical about it.”
Indeed, the autobiographical part of this kind of songwriting comes easily, Phillips says. The right details — a street name, the brand of cigarettes someone smoked, bands that were active at the time — place a song squarely within his life. Yet get too specific to the songwriter’s life, and you don’t leave much of a foothold for listeners. Phillips remembers listening to Sun Kil Moon and noting with fascination that songwriter Mark Kozelek’s lyrics address real life events with incredible specificity, but in an almost artless way — or at least in a fashion that Phillips works to avoid.
“It’s tricky to write that way because you don’t want to be so specific that you’re basically excluding the listener in a way,” he says.
Making even an autobiographical song approachable to audiences requires dollying the camera back, Phillips says, borrowing cinematic terminology. In a lot of songs, the idea is to express some kind of wider truth — something connected to the songwriter’s specific experiences, sure, but universal enough to resonate.
“In a way, the specificity of most of the song earns you the right to get broader at the chorus or at the last verse or whatever it is,” Phillips says.
One example, “Best Mistakes,” is very specifically about Phillips as a Midwestern teenager riding his bike around Fairview Park, listening to the radio station and stopping for ice cream. Phillips addresses his younger self, telling him that things he thinks are wonderful or tragic will change as he grows up and eventually leaves town.
“The chorus … basically says, ‘you think you know what regret is, but your best mistakes are in front of you,’” Phillips says “If you opened with that, it would be a problem, because it’s very broad.”
But by being specific and honest in the verse of the song, he continues, he almost earns the right to speak more universally in the chorus.
Beyond that, Phillips took his time writing the upcoming Monologue Bombs album. A few years back, he made a deal with himself: each time he played a show, he would write a song. Ten gigs later and he had ten songs. To be clear, though, the Monologue Bombs isn’t Phillips’ only musical project. Starting in 1999, he played in rock trio Goner, which morphed into an electronica act and changed its name to GNØER in 2015. This was a healthy move, Phillips says, in that GNØER is more democratic and collaborative than Goner was. GNØER ‘s a lot of fun, but Phillips still needs his time in the songwriter sandbox. He needs solo time spent going from zero to full song, which is what the Monologue Bombs affords. And soon, with the ambitious Orchard & Reaves, a musician who has been immersed in the Triangle’s music scene since 1994 will once again try something new.
“I get to be a solitary songwriting and solitary gigging [musician] and I’m coming up on being able to work with some of my favorite people, some very talented people who can add different colorings to these songs I’ve been doing by myself for awhile,” Phillips says. “It’s exciting.”
Corbie Hill is a journalist and editor who lives on three wooded acres in Pittsboro with his wife and daughters. His work has appeared in the News & Observer, No Depression, StarTrek.com, Bandcamp Daily and a host of other outlets. Follow him at Twitter.com/afraidofthebear.