STORY BY DUTCH GODSHALK
About 70 miles north of his hometown, Portland, Ore., and deep in the woods of Washington State, Tim Perry of Ages and Ages found himself removed from the world, of his own volition. The songwriter had fully immersed himself in a 10-day, silent meditation retreat, where he wasn’t allowed to speak or write or play an instrument. Barred from even using a cell phone, his days were spent in simple and quiet contemplation.
For some, this would be maddening; for Perry, it was therapeutic.
Looking back on the ruminative getaway, Perry said many of the songs on Ages and Ages’ second album – “Divisionary,” released in March – came to him during the retreat, occurred to him as he walked the surrounding woods or sat unmoving in a nearby meditation hall. With his mind quieted and all competing worries wiped away, the songwriter’s head was a fertile space where melodies, harmonies and guitar riffs could swirl freely and slowly grow.
“Clearing my mind [on the retreat] sort of functioned as this clean canvas; songs started to filter in,” he said over the phone late Friday afternoon. “Not being able to write them down or record the songs was a challenge, but the benefit was that I was in silence for ten days and there was nothing competing with the melodies in my head to throw them off. I sat with these songs and just allowed them to become my soundtrack during that time. So, by the time [the retreat] was over, I basically had a handful of tunes written.”
Perry said he didn’t go on this retreat in search of any creative epiphanies or religious awakenings, though; the brief escape was simply something the songwriter needed during that period of his life. “People’s lives get kind of hectic,” he said, “and during that time, mine happened to be [hectic]. I just needed to kind of slow down and separate myself …”
In part, what he’s talking about here – the hectic nature of life – refers to the onslaught of tragedy and strife that plagued members of Ages and Ages since their first record, “Alright You Restless,” came out in 2011. During the years since, the band faced waves of hardships, among which were the many deaths of close friends and relatives.
“Basically, life is what it is, for all of us, for everybody, for every human,” he said. “Sometimes you have a series of months or years that are pretty cool, they go pretty smoothly, but other times, there’s just death and sickness and tragedy, and it just seemed for some reason like there were a couple years there – with all of us – that all of that stuff was grouped together in one clump of dark reality …”
If there’s a silver lining to be found amid so much grief and loss, Perry and the rest of the band found it in the blissful, baptismal, wall-shaking roots rock of “Divisionary,” a record comprising powerful, uplifting harmonies that overlay poignant, at times even morose lyrics. The songs aren’t just sunny and optimistic, they’re defiantly so.
The band, Perry said, was determined not “to let [tragedy] paint us or shape us in some negative way, and yet to also not ignore it, to process it, to deal with it, and to still be honest, good people that believe in spending our energy doing honest, good things.
“I mean, it’s tempting to just say ‘f**k it’ so often,” he continued. “People get cynical. I think the challenge is to take on these things, not ignore them, to acknowledge them – and not just death or your own personal strife but even just the overwhelming pile of s**t that this world is becoming right now – and to [figure out] how to deal with them constructively.”
But these hardships didn’t affect band members on a purely individual level; they practically destroyed Ages and Ages. “What it honestly did was kind of broke up the band,” Perry said. “There were people in that band that aren’t in there anymore – just because that’s the way it needed to happen.
“That’s partially where the word ‘divisionary’ came from for us,” he continued. “For me, the vision and the need and the will to move forward in the face of change creates division, creates somehow a breaking off, if not from your own old beliefs then maybe from your old relationships.”
So, moving beyond this nebulous period of dark reality, a new Ages and Ages emerged, a little bruised, battered and irreversibly altered, with some new members in tow and, at least for Perry, a head full of weathered thoughts in need of retreat. No wonder the bandleader found himself silent in the woods of Washington.
And what of the band now, with another album done, a tide of positive reviews in response to it, a recent performance at the Newport Folk Festival, and a tourniquet placed on whatever wounds they sustained over the years?
“It’s hard being in a band all the time,” Perry said, “trying to stay on one creative path when there’s so many egos. So there’s a little bit of everything: there’s tension and there’s love – which I think the music speaks to, too, that dichotomy – and I think that’s the mystery of life and art, those contradictions that exist, and trying to wrap your heads around contradictions, and to still somehow establish a cohesive vision, and be cohesive people.”
There seems to be an understanding in the lyrics of the songs on “Divisionary,” an acceptance that things can get pretty murky and lousy, and that most people – maybe all people – have a bit of dark reality awaiting them. Songs like “Our Demons,” “Ante Up” and the title track, “[Divisionary] Do the Right Thing” are about facing those dark realities and attempting to remain decent despite them.
“For me, [‘Do the Right Thing’] points to the message of the whole divisionary concept,” Perry said, “which is, when things get hard, you put ten people in a room and they’ll all think differently of what the right thing is and how to go about achieving it, and pretty soon there’s fights and there’s struggle and there’s confusion and there’s contradiction.”
The song, he said, is about defining for yourself what the “right” thing to do is, depending on the situation, and then simply trusting yourself to do that thing. Perhaps that’s the only real way to survive those dark realities.
Meditate on that.
Follow Dutch Godshalk on Twitter @DutchGodshalk.
IF YOU GO
Ages and Ages
will play MilkBoy,
1100 Chestnut St., Philadelphia,
Saturday, Oct. 25, at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $8 to $10.
More information: www.milkboyphilly.com.