When Scott Phillips and Chris Dalton lived together for a year on Carson Street in Raleigh, they called their place "The House of Bruce and Bruce."
Six years before, Phillips, the singer and keyboardist in the rock trio Goner, had given himself over entirely to Bruce Springsteen, consuming every record and song and idea The Boss had ever offered. But Dalton, Goner's drummer, had a different boss and a different Bruce—Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron Maiden. In fact, the release dates of each Maiden record form temporal mileposts in his mind; he tells me that he purchased their fourth album, 1983's Piece of Mind, around the day I was born.
Linked with bassist and singer Greg Eyman's love of dimly lit '90s indie rock, those influences have long provided the tension and frisson behind Goner's pop music. Their charging tunes hit hard and get grand, a crucible of disparate influences that never seems random. On the new Faking the Wisdom, their fourth LP, Goner delivers its best and widest set of songs yet, fueled by some of the bands we listened to in their Raleigh practice space.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, "ROSALITA (COME OUT TONIGHT)"
[From Bruce Springsteen's 1973 The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, "Rosalita" is the story of rock 'n' roll love, lit bright by the band's baroque arrangement.]
SCOTT PHILLIPS: How long do you have? My level of fandom is that there's music, and then there's Bruce. ... There are songs from our first band where I was so blatantly ripping off his imagery that it's embarrassing. But I was 18. I would like to think that I have influenced both of you into liking him more than whatever amount you liked him before.
GREG EYMAN: There was a certain point where I was just tolerating Bruce because I love you, Scott. But I have come to enjoy what you get out of it.
BEN FOLDS FIVE, "ONE ANGRY DWARF AND 200 SOLEMN FACES"
[The lead track on Ben Folds Five's hit 1997 record Whatever and Ever Amen, "One Angry Dwarf" showcases Folds' sass and his ace piano playing.]
CHRIS DALTON: It probably goes without saying—especially early on, with this lineup and in this locale—the beeline that everyone took in describing us was Ben Folds Five.
SP: Except this guy can play circles around me. I understood it at the time. I mean, if you've got to write something...
CD: I thought it was more inaccurate than the R.E.M. comparison. The R.E.M. one made the most sense because of Scott's vocals but also, from a romantic point, the three of us have discussed that Lifes Rich Pageant is our ground zero album. For all three of us, it's our favorite R.E.M. record, even though we come from these different places. If you want to pull back all the metal or the different flavors of this band, you go back to that record, and it's there.
TOMAHAWK, "SOUTH PAW"
[From Tomahawk's new Oddfellows, "South Paw" finds Mike Patton and the band walking the line between structure and strangeness.]
SP: All I recognize is that Chris drums like this sometimes.
CD: It's very garage-rocky, but I don't recognize it.
IW: It's Tomahawk, with Mike Patton, Duane Denison, Trevor Dunn and John Stanier.
CD: Mike Patton is one of the only American rock stars where we're the same age. All the English dudes, like Damon Albarn and Thom Yorke, are my age, but no Americans—except Mike Patton.
SP: Chris has an encyclopedic knowledge of how old every famous person is—and not-famous person, too. We call it The Time Telescope of Life: realizing how old someone is versus when an album came out versus whether or not someone could be your father or son.
GE: I would just feel really old.
CD: That's the point of it. It makes you feel old, but then you have to spiritually get to that place where you can say, "I'm good with that. It's awesome!"
FUGAZI, "EPIC PROBLEM"
[From 2001's final (for now) Fugazi album, "Epic Problem" finds the D.C. post-punks zigging and zagging, making complicated music with red-faced feeling.]
IW: What do you like about Fugazi so much, Greg?
GE: I don't know. [Long pause.] I can't...
CD: Let me explain: We were playing a show with Gerty!, and Dave [Koslowski, of late Durham band Gerty!] and Greg were talking music and what they'd been listening to. Greg said, "The Argument, I love that." And Dave threw down: "Oh, I'm so tired of that. All Dischord rock is the same and played out. Ian MacKaye should've packed it up a long time ago." But Greg's whole thing was that the songcraft and the subtleties that had been added—the littlest overdubs and how the harmonies had changed...
GE: I have no idea how you remember this.
CD: It was all these last little steps they had made from End Hits into this.
SP: These conversations happen more frequently the older we get. The rock 'n' roll lifestyle thing is completely gone. But then it becomes do you want to be a Cialis commercial, or do you want to be the guys who get together and drink beers and talk? We don't drink beers that much anymore. If it's something we do for pleasure, then part of the pleasure is working hard on the craft—adding flourishes, being better as players with the limited amount of time we have here, and still having truths in the songs. I've tried to write songs that don't mean a lot, and I fail terribly.
CD: At some point, we recognized what a vast pool of different music the three of us listened to. So you start hearing things on records, something buried in there that gives it personality, and instead of going, "Wow, that's neat," you say, "Why can't we do that?"
SP: We let some of the influences flourish and be more overt on this album. We tried to make a record as schizophrenic as our record collections are.
THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS, "LETTER FROM AN OCCUPANT"
[From The New Pornographers' 2000 debut Mass Romantic, "Letter From an Occupant" finds Neko Case soaring over a deceptively crafty pop trot.]
IW: Did you think you'd ever be in a pop band?
SP: When the three of us started playing together, there wasn't any grand thought about that stuff. Mostly, Greg's and my previous band had fallen apart, and we were trying to pick up the pieces. But in retrospect, in the breach of that falling apart and getting Chris as new blood, there was a clearing of the slate. The songs returned to the place where it started. That's why, on that first Goner record, there were a lot of R.E.M. comparisons. We gravitated toward our first things. It's R.E.M. and '80s Top 40, which I took seriously as a heart attack when I was 10 or 11. There's that train of thought that musicians go all kinds of places but, when they're up against the wall, they try and get to where they were when they were 11 and they first heard the radio.
When I realized that I don't have to be anybody else and that bands like Cut Copy and M83 were totally '80s-ing it up, I realized that the template can be reappropriated for a grander thing. It's a Time Telescope.
GE: Scott and I had written songs for our previous band, but we weren't singing them because we had a lead singer. I would do math-ier stuff before, but Goner was a huge simplification of the music for me, personally, because I had to simplify it to sing it.
M83, "MIDNIGHT CITY"
[The first single from the French band's 2011 neon pop opus of the same name, "Midnight City" weaves ribbons of keyboards (and a strand of saxophone) around an inescapable hook.]
IW: You've said this record was a template for the new Goner. Are touchstones always so obvious?
SP: It can be that overt. In the case of M83, it was that overt. That song "Graveyard Girl" hit such a sweet spot in 900 different ways, and I just wanted to do that song. We try not to rip things off, but Goner's "River Town" is hugely influenced by that. When we started in high school and in college, the fact that we didn't have a guitar player covered up a lot of things. "I wrote a song. It's ripping off the Afghan Whigs. But we don't have a guitar player, so by the time we're done with it, it's not going to sound like the Afghan Whigs." I think we're comfortable with that. Everybody steals. There's a place for innovation, but I don't know if we have it. [Laughs.]
ABSU, "ABRAXAS CONNEXUS"
[From the 2011 album Abzu by U.S. black metal veterans Absu, "Abrexas Connexus" is an exuberant race against some unseen clock.]
CD: This is Absu, currently one of my favorite bands. But I don't know what to say about it.
IW: This song was actually more for Scott and Greg. Goner isn't a "metal" band, but Chris does seem to add some of those drumming ideas to this pop music. How does that sit with you?
SP: Chris will do things, and he'll say, "This is Mercyful Fate." Like "Jessica's Song" off the second record, he said it's a Mercyful Fate part.
CD: The drum part is "Satan's Fall."
SP: When I was growing up, I was a nerd. And metal is what those people who did drugs listened to. But Chris made me understand what metal means to a grown person: When you listen to Maiden or classic NWOBHM stuff, and he's singing about wizards and demons and dragons and conquering them, people think those things are inherently adolescent. But the older you get, you understand that there is real evil in the world and real demons you gotta fight. You need that music more than you ever did when you were a kid because you didn't even know what the fuck you were dealing with. It's grown-up shit.
GE: What I love about Scott's enthusiasm for Bruce, and Chris' enthusiasm for music in general and how much energy comes off of him, it's completely inspiring. While I don't have a huge connection to metal, I have a huge appreciation for it. We can be playing this pop song, and Chris' energy does create this tension. It's amazing to be around both of these guys every time we come into this practice space. It's rock school. It's energy. It's fun. We're the band that never broke up because it's always new to come in here.