⇒ Watch The Guggenheim Grotto's "Her Beautiful Ideas" video on YouTube
After meeting in a mutual friend's band, Kevin May and Mick Lynch formed The Guggenheim Grotto when the previous group dissolved. Together since 2005, the Irish duo released its sophomore album, Happy the Man, last October. Recently, YouTube featured one of its tracks, "Her Beautiful Ideas," on its main page: Sonically, that song is upbeat in the way that could inspire a person to pick up their life and drive across the country looking for adventure. A light percussion groove backs building layers of harmonium, bells, chimes and strings. Tentative vocals grow stronger throughout the song as delicate harmonies join for the chorus.
Juxtaposed with this strong sound is the forlorn lyrical imagery, which focuses on a past relationship. There's a sense of longing for the beautiful ideas of a lost lover, but a recognition that, with those ideas, "She'd cut me in half clean as a broad sword." The relationship was beautiful but hurtful. "She once let is slip that I was the best of the beautiful ideas," the band admits
The revealed secret invigorates the narrator, but if "she" is gone, are her beautiful ideas gone, too? Is it possible to be the same person after a relationship ends? The somewhat depressing answer seems to be no. But the ideas and feelings from the relationship strengthen the narrator, shown by the weight he gives them here.
Having completed The Guggenheim Grotto's official showcase and participated in a collaboration of 43 songs for 43 Presidents (May and Lynch sang about Truman), May took some time during SXSW to talk about the band, the song and playing live.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What do you and Mick each contribute to The Guggenheim Grotto?
KEVIN MAY: I do all of the lyric writing, but Mick is a very good melody writer, and we co-songwrite the songs on the new album. Especially the new album—the first album, not as much—but the new album, it's co-songwritten. But I think our vocals together, as well, is kind of our signature. We sang together for so long, just without thinking, we know where the other person is going to go, and our voices fit together very well.
You mentioned the new album—how is Happy the Man different from your previous work?
It's a bit more pop-y, and I mean that in a good way, because sometimes pop-y, they say, is a bad word. Our first album was more contemplative and a bit more singer-songwriter style album, whereas this one, it's much more pop-y. And immediate, I think, is a good word to describe this. A bit more up-tempo as well.
"Her Beautiful Ideas" is a song about a past relationship. The lyrics are melancholic and very contemplative, but the music is upbeat. Why did you construct the song in such a conflicting way?
You know, even though we wanted to make the music more upbeat, I'm actually drawn to melancholic lyrics, so it's hard to stay away from it. But I also love a song that seems to be, at first listening, upbeat and, at the same time, has a terrible sadness to it. "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" is a very good example. [Laughs.] But I like songs that aren't just straight-up—"This is a happy, happy, joy, joy song," or an, "I love you, baby,"—but something that has a bit more depth to it. More layers in the onion. And I like trying to walk that knife edge between something that's upbeat, but when they dig away at it, there's something a bit deeper there.
As the lyricist, were you inspired by a specific person, or is it just a general idea?
It's probably a mixture of those things: It's not one particular person, one particular situation, but it's a number of my own experiences, and things different people have said, and some that's made up as well. So, it's drawn on personal experiences but imagination as well. It's not one particular thing. And sometimes I don't like saying that because it's nice sometimes to have the mystery because, I know as a listener myself, I like to think that is was about one person's experience. It's nice to think that, but, I'm afraid, not in this particular case.
What does it mean to "wear the lips of a saint and the hips of a whore?"
I don't generally like to try to explain my lyrics, but what I was trying to do there with that particular idea... I guess it's everything in moderation [Laughs.] and getting that balance again. It's that knife edge where, it kind of sounds paradoxical, but... Oh, I can't explain it anymore. It's in that lyric, and I'm sorry, I can't.
You can pass on this question, then, but is there a relationship between the repeated lines "I can't get out of bed anymore" in the chorus and "Let's get naked and get under the sheets" in the bridge?
Yeah, yeah. Well, I kind of like wordplay and idea play, and ... You know, there were two things there. One was—this is really getting into where the song came from, all right? One of them was when I wrote this song I was living in a very small cottage bedfast in Dublin, and my brother came up to stay with me for a while. And, at the time, he hadn't a job or anything, and he was sleeping in all day. [Laughs.] And it was the kind of a thing where, you know when you get down, it's hard to get out of bed? So, I was using that imagery as being depressed. And then I was also using being in bed as a joy thing and buried in the person's relationship with this woman where he loves being in bed with her. So I was jumping those two ideas off of the depression and the place that he loves to be with her. That's kind of where that idea of the bed imagery came from. I don't know. I've never been asked to explain a song before.
Stepping away from lyrics, then, "Her Beautiful Ideas" starts off with cajón and sampled harmonium, which is kind of unusual. A lot of your songs combine organic aesthetics with technological pop sounds. How did you come up with the overall sound of The Guggenheim Grotto?
Well, it's very much an experimental approach that we take, and we usually just follow the song. Rather than sitting down and going and saying, "We want the song to sound like 'this' or 'that,'" and that would be The Guggenheim Grotto sound, we generally sit down and go, "What does this song want?" or "What do you hear when you listen to this song?" We like, when we start off, to just listen to an acoustic guitar and my vocal over it. And then we take it apart and go, "What would work for you?" or "What do you hear?" And we literally will look at a huge, broad spectrum of instruments and go, "You know, a banjo might be nice in this part." We really have fun with it, and we never limit ourselves as to what might go on in a song, or how we might produce a song or arrange it. And I think as a result, you get a nice mix of different styled instruments, ethnic instruments and acoustic instruments, and all within a rock band. Of course, there's electronic stuff as well.
Does the decision to keep things so open limit you at all when you're playing live?
It does. The pros of it are that, in studio, it's a lot of fun, and the sky's the limit. But the con of it is that, playing live, we cannot reproduce it exactly the way it is on the record—unless we're bringing a lot of musicians out on the road with us. So it means that, when we came to touring again, we have to sit down all over again, and rearrange the songs all over again with a smaller amount of instruments... which was fun because it took us a year and a bit to record the album, so we were very smooth on the songs. When we did rearrange, it kind of breathes a new life into them for us.
With "Her Beautiful Ideas," tracks build on top of each other with the addition of chimes and drums and strings, but you've got an outro with strings and piano that's just really peaceful. Why did you decide to switch gears at the end of the song?
That was something that happened, literally, at the end of recording. The song was done, and we were listening to it, and I just went, "You know, I have this piano thing that I'd just like to throw down and see what it sounds like." And we thought it would seep well into the next song and wind down for the next song, which is "Everyman." And it does, but we kind of just went for it, and I really, really like it... It was just kind of a happy accident.
Is performing the song cathartic for you? Does it make you think about your past relationships and provide you with a release?
I think writing it does. I think live, it's less cathartic and more energizing. I get a real sense of being energized when I sing our songs live. When I'm writing them, the new album, had a cathartic effect, a therapeutic effect. But definitely live, and especially "Her Beautiful Ideas," I really get, I dont know, pumped, [Laughs.] for lack of a better word. A real sense of joy singing it, you know?
Do you prefer writing or performing?
I love performing. I think I'm a performer. Well, they're kind of equal, but I really, really enjoy performing.
Like two sides to a coin, to reference to a line in the song?
Yeah, exactly. Got to keep them spinning. [Laughs.]
The Guggenheim Grotto plays Berkeley Cafe on Tuesday, March 31. Catch the 8 p.m. show for $8.