"It's been a minute since we last spoke / And we both know, I held the idle until we choked."
Against a bed of crestfallen lyrics, the Paragraphs' brand-new self-titled album begins with a springy pop-rock tune titled "Hold My Eyes," one of the finest they've ever laid to tape. It also sets the stage for what is the band's most satisifying studio full-length effort yet.
The North County group (currently comprised of vocalist/guitarist Jesse Lee, drummer Mike Hunt, bassist Jason Areford and his guitarist brother Kyle) initially got off the ground as a two-piece more than a decade ago. After issuing two EPs of raw-energy rock n' roll in 2009 and 2010, the band's next nine years would consist of two quality studio albums (2012's "+/-" and 2017's "It's Always Never"), lineup shakeups, their fair share of San Diego Music Award nominations (including one win in 2014) and countless shows.
But whatever measure of success they have achieved over the years has felt overshadowed by a nagging sense of inner turmoil. The band has always seemed to play with a chip on its shoulder, and while that's made for more than a few fiery live shows, sure, it's left audiences feeling like every performance could possibly be their last. Maybe that's part of their enduring appeal.
In a recent press release for their new album, though, Lee was refreshingly honest: "For me, the process of writing and recording this record came at a very difficult time. My ongoing struggles with bipolar depression and my addictions had taken the best out of me physically, mentally and spiritually." With the assistance of his bandmates, the frontman poured his heart and soul into their music.
"Their help cleared a path for me to focus on the lyrical content for this record. It freed up my busy and troubled mind, allowing me to focus on myself and heal from within -- a process which continues to this very day. Without their help, this record would never have become a reality," Lee said.
A longtime cliche insists that tortured artists create their best work, and, of course, there's some truth in that. Just earlier this week, when explaining the lengthy wait between albums, Tame Impala's Kevin Parker told the New York Times: "Part of the thing about me starting an album is that I have to feel kind of worthless again to want to make music."
Whatever arduous process Lee and Co. had to go though to deliver this new 10-track affair, it pays dividends for listeners (and, yeah, it feels kind of crass to say that considering the circumstances). The Paragraphs have never sounded more committed or confident as they explore the various nooks and crannies of the rock & roll realm with (depending on the song) both the softest, and roughest, of touches.
"Friend of Mine" swaggers through some "Exile"-era Rolling Stones honky-tonk blues; "Sunburn" is nearly Cure-esque with its shimmering guitars (and the spoken-word breakdown is a particularly nice surprise); the laidback verses of "Simple Dreams" give way to cathartic sing-song choruses; and "Ring Names" -- a longtime set-list fave that finally gets the studio treatment -- is a true anthem that expands with each minute (and honestly should have closed the album).
Informed by the gravity of Lee's lyrics and anchored by vocals that widely swing from a sturdy Johnny Cash baritone to a delicate croon to a throat-shredding bellow, each song pops up like a just-discovered avenue on a still-loading road map. And the Paragraphs, to their credit, are mighty glad to barrel down 'em without hesitation.
To celebrate the release of the new album, Hunt and Lee took some time recently to reflect on the record, their 10-year-plus career, and the San Diego music scene.
Dustin Lothspeich: This new record comes less than two years after your last record, "It's Always Never." But before that, it took nearly five years to release a studio album. What has led to the increased output and the focus on writing and recording? Do you think that'll continue?
Mike Hunt: Five years passed because we went from a three-piece to a four-piece, lost and added new band members, wrote and scrapped three albums worth of material, all while touring around and playing local shows three times a month. After "It's Always Never" came out, we hit the studio and recorded the bones of this new album within a couple months. The rest of the time was spent tightening the screws to get something we are really proud of. I think that trend will continue.
DL: Ten years is an eternity for a band. How would you characterize what the band is like now vs. what it was five or 10 years ago? What makes it all worth continuing?
MH: The band has always evolved, which is the only reason we are still here. We are completely different today than we were as a two-piece band 10 years ago, or a four-piece five years ago. Same goes for the rest of the world -- nobody is the same person they were a year ago. Our sound has changed, our goals have changed, we are playing our best live shows and releasing our best music to date, which definitely makes it worth continuing.
DL: Jesse, in the band's recent press release, you mentioned your ongoing struggles with mental health and addiction -- how did you work through that to write these songs? Did making this record end up helping you with that?
Jesse Lee: I've reached a point in my life where I had two choices: be happy or die. I wasn't happy with some of the decisions I made in my past. I wasn't happy with the person I perceived myself to be. My struggles with mental health continue to this very day. I have come to grips with the fact that being bipolar is a part of me which requires much-needed attention and care in order to be the kind of person I want to be. In song, I've always worn my heart on my sleeve and before recently, it's been the only way I can express my thoughts and feelings honestly. Most of the lyrics for this record were written during times of extreme mania as well as depression. I think art in general is very cathartic, so, yeah, writing this record definitely helped my healing process along the way.
DL: Is there any advice you can give to other artists -- or people in general -- who might be struggling with their own mental health/addiction issues?
JL: I don't know if I'm one to give any advice to others yet, but this is what works for me:
Write down your goals daily. It's easier to achieve the small tasks when they are laid out in front of your eyes. When you achieve them, you feel better about yourself and it seriously does wonders for the mind.
Change what you're eating. High sugars and processed foods only make you weaker and lethargic. Changing a diet of fast food, cocaine and beer to a healthier (and more affordable) one gives positive results within a few days.
Excerise! Going for a run or taking a hike with a friend is just as fun as getting loaded at the Casbah on a Saturday night, and you're almost guaranteed to feel better the next morning. This ties into the next and most important one.
Change your habits. I'm sure other people who struggle with mental illness would agree: A sober mind is a lot sounder than one floating around in alcohol and drugs. I still struggle with alcohol at times, but I'm really looking forward to achieving full sobriety in the near future.
Be kind to yourself. I've always found things I didn't like about myself and would dwell on that only. I've learned that taking time to meditate about the good in me has done a great deal of good for my mental clarity.
I do not support conventional talk therapy, you should be able to get that from your friendships -- if you don't, then change your circle of friends. Instead, I've been going to cognitive behavioral therapy, which re-wires the brain and thought patterns. It's been quite beneficial for me and thousands of other people who struggle with mental illness.
DL: After 10 years, what are your thoughts on the San Diego scene now? Has it gotten better? Worse? Anything you'd like to see change?
MH: We are so thankful and proud of the recognition we have received for our hard work. All we have ever wanted is to connect with people, whether it's at a live show or in their bedroom with their headphones on. If we get frustrated, it's only because we want everyone to hear our music. There is so much great music in San Diego right now. The only thing I would like to see change is for more people to remember the joy of getting up, getting out and going to see a live rock & roll band, right in your town, right down the street.
JL: I'd like to see less segregation between club owners and artists. I've noticed that a lesser-known local band will not get the same amount of promotion from a club owner/promoter as a more well-known band would. Some of the best venues play favoritism with bands they like rather than bands that deserve the same break as anyone else.
DL: What's the band's focus for the foreseeable future?
MH: We're gonna promote this record, press it to vinyl, play some shows and go make another one. The rest is a surprise.
The Paragraphs headline Carlsbad Music Festival's Eclectic Lawn concert series on Sunday, May 19, at 4 p.m. Go here for more information. Be sure to follow the band on Facebook and Twitter, and buy their new album here.
Dustin Lothspeich is SoundDiego's senior associate editor, a San Diego Music Award-winning musician, and talent buyer for The Merrow. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.