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Goner's "Hella Jean"

Scott Phillips on drunks, caretakers and becoming an elementary school teacher

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Scott Phillips and the power of cheese - PHOTO COURTESY OF GONER
  • Photo courtesy of Goner
  • Scott Phillips and the power of cheese

Goner is a without-guitar indie rock trio from Raleigh. Instead of strings, they're led by Scott Phillips' keyboard, either clanking in piano mode or lighting up the room in synthetic tones, as it does during "Hella Jean." Splitting the difference between The Hold Steady's Craig Finn and The Weakerthans' John Samson, Phillips paints tavern dramatics with melodic excellence. The hook here—"Hella Jean/ Laying to waste/ Every class of '77 dream/ Hella Jean/ I've tripped the same wires and seen the same bruises you've seen," and a variation of that structure and sentiment in the song's second half—is about inexorable disappointment and the need to get out of a dead-end lifestyle. It shouldn't be so goddamn addictive, then.

INDEPENDENT: Jean in the song is 30, or at least from the "Class of '77," and she's going out every night with these interesting intentions. Do you see people like this a lot?

SCOTT PHILLIPS: Oh yeah, I see it a lot. I guess it's a little more specific than that because I guess this is a topic or milieu that Goner covers a lot—a kind of bar politics. You see certain people in the scene who kind of take on kind of a parental role with other people, and I think that's the kind of character we're dealing with in "Hella Jean." We have someone who likes taking care of other people—gives them rides, gets them their drinks, stuff like that. It's a big fish-little pond kind of deal. I'm guilty of this, too. I surround myself with people who might have problems that I don't have. It's a cheap way to make yourself feel better about yourself, you know. I guess the narrator in the song is kind of calling her on it, but there's self-effacement, too: "I'm not saying I'm better than you, but I see what you're doing and I think we're both sad, aren't we?"

So the narrator with the specific chemical problems is telling Jean what he thinks?

They both have problems. You're probably right, though, that the narrator has more problems than Jean.

Or what are seen as problems?

Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.]

You said you behave like Jean sometimes. Have you ever been called out on it, which is what happens to her here?

It's open-ended, and the whole thing is, "How long can you keep doing this?" How long can I do it? How long can Jean do it? I think it's interesting because in songs it's always presented as an absolute, all-at-once—like with the train imagery. It's always presented as an absolute, but real life is much more nebulous. I don't trust people who cut off one era of their life and go, "OK, well, that era is done. I'm off to this other era." I think it's always by degrees, and I've been getting out of the bar scene—slowly. [Laughs.] I think it's not a matter of just waking up one day. I don't think anybody can do that.

So, if you're leaving the bars, what are you going to write about?

That's the big question, right? That's hard. I look to writers who go on and write about things, the broader spectrum of adulthood—people like Jeff Tweedy or Bruce Springsteen. I find it a daunting task, but I don't see much more of a choice than to explore that. I think Greg [Eyman, Goner bassist] has been doing it a little more than I have, but I don't think I'll be able to write much more about ... I don't know, but I guess I don't want to predict about what I will or will not write about. I've been in this area of subject matter for a while, with occasional detours. I'm just going to have to follow the muse wherever it takes me. I'm sure if the well is completely dry, then it will be obvious to me. I'll figure something out.

Well, it's not worth sacrificing your health or happiness for the sake of having more barroom material to write, is it?

Yeah, man. [Laughs.] I have had that thought, and I don't know how realistic it is to think that way. I'm going to school again to become an elementary school teacher. I will be one in two years, and it's just not realistic to think I could have both in a full-time way. But I don't believe in clean breaks when it comes to eras of your life. I'm still a social creature, and I don't mind having my thumbs in both pies, if you will.

When will you become a teacher?

It's a very new thing. I've been a teacher's assistant for four years now, and just this year I started looking into it. I got accepted into Peace College. They have a program where you can get your licensure in about two years, so that's very new. I start class tomorrow, and in the fall I will be taking classes two nights a week. That's a new thing, and it's scary. But I am excited. It makes sense to me. I'm pretty good at it, and it makes me feel like I am contributing to society—but I get paid for it.

Back to "Hella Jean"—did a very specific instance spur the song, or is this more of a slow distillation?

Well, I should say that I wrote it very quickly. Basically, I wrote it right around the same time I had just finished writing this really heavy Monologue Bombs song called "No Holy Night." I wanted to write something lighter and quickly just to wash the taste out of my mouth. It was an attempt to write something quick. Every time I do that, I kind of can't. So the music will be festive—I think "Hella Jean" is probably our most obvious stab at straight-up New Wave classicism—but I just can't write lyrics that are total fun, or whatever.

Anyway, there are specific instances, but it's a distillation. I see it happen a lot, this kind of matronly thing. My friend called it "the mama bird feeding the baby birds with a beak full of bourbon." Nobody wins, you know. The guy is pathetic, and the girl isn't facing up to her potential. I do see it a lot. I try to be even-handed about it, though, because no one is rendered as white as snow.

Goner plays Tir Na Nog Thursday, Jan. 10, with The T's at 9 p.m. Admission is free.

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