Four years ago, Casey Virock called up his longtime friend Jason Knox and asked him if he wanted to record some acoustic songs together.
No big deal, right? Just a few songs, just for grins.
It’s funny how things can get out of hand. What started as a simple solo Virock project called Dolly Rocker turned into a full-blown musical partnership like Tears for Fears. They call it Carousel Swan.
On Oct. 3, Virock and Knox officially released “The Wilderness Below,” a seven-song collection they describe as “shiny dark indie pop.” It’s a project in which they invested at least 1,000 hours, collaborating by phone or Skype for much of it. Knox made several weeklong trips to La Crosse from his home in Chicago and then Portland, Ore., to record Virock’s vocal and guitar parts, with Knox fleshing out the rest (with contributions from a few other people).
“At the end of this whole project, we both kind of sat back and were surprised at what it became,” Knox said.
What it became is an album of finely honed, rhythmically and melodically complex, hook-laden, multi-layered songs that all reward repeat listenings with new discoveries and shine a light on themes of love, loss, relationships and nostalgia. There’s a dreaminess to the project, a reverberant sheen that evokes the new wave era of the 1980s.
“I’m happy with it. … I like the lushness and the grand kind of bigness about it,” Virock said. “I’ve been listening to it and thinking about it so much. It’s been a process to get it done. … Once Jason gets going, the train’s not stopping.”
The two have been friends for at least 25 years. A mid-1980s cassette tape by Disorient Express, Virock’s first band, is largely responsible for Knox’s interest in creating and recording music, and Knox has worked on musical projects before for Casey’s bands (and numerous other local bands).
But this album was a close collaboration between just the two of them. Knox recalled the songs on that Disorient Express tape and wanted to mine that side of Virock’s music. “There was a sweetness and simplicity and directness to those songs that I wanted to explore again,” Knox said. “I wanted us to strip back to something that was a little more emotionally vulnerable.”
They also wanted to see if they could make records as good as the ones they adored growing up, including songs by The Beatles, XTC and Echo and the Bunnymen.
“We basically are living our rock star dreams, trying to be the bands we grew up loving,” Knox said. “There’s something about pop songs. It’s probably my first love. … I’m such a child of the ‘80s.”
The partnership between Knox and Virock worked so well because of a shared aesthetic and personalities that meshed well. “Casey knows what he wants, but he’s eager to get input, and I’m eager to give input,” Knox said.
Knox encouraged Virock to be more direct in his lyrics — many of them deal with personal turmoil he endured over the past four years. And he pushed Virock to take risks in his singing style, dialing back the full-throated roar he uses for most Porcupine songs to a croon, at times practically a whisper.
Between the more open and transparent lyrics and Knox putting Virock’s vocals more prominently in the mix than Virock is used to, the songs on “The Wilderness Below” are Virock at his most personal and vulnerable. It wasn’t something Virock was entirely comfortable with, especially the volume of his vocals.
“Jason was probably waiting for me to call him and say, ‘Hey, can you turn the vocals down on every song,’” Virock said with a laugh. “There was a little more risk taking in this for me personally, and I still have doubts about it. But at the same time, I’m proud of it.”