John Penola is as dedicated to his high school English students as he is to his art, a formidable electronic rock project called Maybe Bomb, and that’s good news for everyone.
Penola came of age as the dreadlocked lead singer/keyboardist for heavy progressive rockers Roots Of Rebellion. By the time Roots dissolved in 2006, John had already begun writing songs by himself and honing his vision for what would become the first Maybe Bomb release, Dotted Lines And Whispers, due out Dec. 1, 2012.
Working day, night or whenever he had a few moments free from school work or grading papers, Penola fell in and out of love with new songs, he chipped away at writer’s block and relished in the volatility of his newfound creative sovereignty.
In the summer of 2011, Penola began recording at Architekt Studios in Butler, NJ—just a few blocks from the one-bedroom apartment in which most of the material was conceived. After a few weeks, Dotted Lines And Whispers was a fully realized album, a deep, cathartic and imaginative enterprise into the subconscious of a thoughtful man.
With a few weeks to go before setting Maybe Bomb off on stage and finally releasing the album, John invited me to his place for an interview. There, over slices of Ferati’s pizza and a growler from nearby High Point Brewing Company, among walls adorned with artwork and a floor beset by keyboards and stacks of DVDs, we discussed John’s teaching career, his music and his poetry. Below are some of the more interesting bits from our conversation.
Like many people, when I hear the term “electronic music,” I think of a rave environment. But you’re not coming from that sort of creative space, are you?
No, absolutely not. I have no interest in it. I come from a rock background. I come from a rock band. In spite of a lack of guitars on the album, everything was built up around these rock drums. Kurt [Wubbenhorst, who played drums for Roots and is now a member of the Maybe Bomb live band] basically taught me how to play music. Those parts were written with me thinking, “How would Kurt be playing this?” They’ve all got those rock fundamentals, even though they’re not traditional rock instruments.
For the most part, all the songs have rock song structures, rock feels; it’s just with electronic instruments and lots of production.
Had you done another band since Roots Of Rebellion?
No. Towards the end of Roots, this is what I started doing.
I graduated high school in 2003, Roots ended in 2006. Once that was over, that was the kick in the pants for me to focus on my own stuff.
It was tough, though, finishing that first song completely by myself. Because I was used to going to band practice and coming up with a cool hook and then having other people flesh it out or having [the other guys] just play some basic chords and I’d come up with a lead over that, so it was a lot less pressure.
Now it’s like, I have to come up with that cool bottom, I need a cool synth hook over it and then I need to do the vocals. Creating the whole song was ridiculously daunting at first and it’s something that I don’t really think about any more, which is very good. Getting that first song done—that ended up being “Five Minutes” actually, which ended up making the record—but that was huge, getting to that point.
So in the years since the last band, how much were you working on your own stuff?
I wish I had the computer hooked up. I can’t even tell you how many hundreds of files I have on there. That is what I did. From when Roots ended to when I got my job as a teacher—between one and two years—if I was not doing school work, that’s what I was doing. I was just writing.
That’s definitely part of my philosophy as a musician. You sit there, hacking away at it and you get better and you get better and you’ll get some good stuff eventually. I very well may go back to those tracks and say, “Well, everything sucks except for this and I can use that later.” It was a very conscious effort.
There were the times where, like “Fingerprints In Sand”—it’s funny, the songs that ended up making the record, those were the songs that I sat down and within a day or two the whole sum was done. All the lyrics and the vocals just kind of flew out. Those weren’t really the ones that I had to really work at and chisel over. So that’s interesting.
Did you write the album with lyrical themes in mind or are the songs more separate thoughts?
When I was writing it, I was off in an on-again off-again relationship. A lot of the lyrics are, “Should I get back together or shouldn’t I?” We ultimately did, but now that that relationship is over, what I’ve figured out—and I always do this with my lyrics and my poetry—is that I was saying something in the words that I didn’t realize.
So what the album means to me now—or what it seems to be saying—in the beginning, I’m going to sleep and a lot of it is dreams and trying to figure out, “Is this right? What should I do?” Towards the end of the album is the realization that this isn’t working out. With the last three or so tracks, that’s when it transitions from sleeping to waking, with the idea that, “Okay, this isn’t working, let’s do something about it.”
When I graduated college, I had to write a poetry thesis. My thesis was based on very surreal themes like dreams and dreaming, so it was kind of natural that when I started writing lyrics, a lot of those same dream elements were present.
It came together for me when I was writing the lyrics for “Tongue-Tied.” The idea for that song was the words coming from someone in a coma, trying to communicate outside. “Can you hear in your sleep what I’m dreaming?” From that song, as I was writing, the idea came for a concept album where the singer goes to sleep and wakes up years later and the world has changed.
What did the lyrics for the album mean to you when you were writing them and in that relationship?
It was a lot of figuring it out. What I thought [the lyrics] meant at the time was, “Stick it out.” As part of my process with writing, a lot of times I’ll write down words that sound and feel right. With these lyrics, I’ve kind of figured it out at this point, but some of the stuff I’m writing now, still, I don’t know exactly know what I mean but that it feels appropriate and that’s why it’s in there.
Basically, the process was the same: it was trying to figure out what to do. I was just interpreting it as “hold on,” instead of “let go.”
That’s cool. The dream perspective is something I hadn’t really considered before. I’m going to look at it through a new lens now. Your lyrics leap from subject to subject, metaphor to metaphor, which is very dream-like, now that I think about it.
Here’s my philosophy: All of these songs—this album—is a diary. It’s a place where I was, a journey I was taking over the past five years. It is my journey. So they are things that mean something to me. Clarity to the listener was really secondary. Going back with some of the songs, I tried to clarify to make it more coherent, with some of the pronouns and whatnot to make it somewhat more of a clear story. It was meant for me and it seemed right and it was more about a feeling.
I think you’re right, with the dream idea, it can jump around. There’s kind of this free-association going on. There are very few songs where I would necessarily say I’m trying to tell a story. It’s a lot that there’s some sort of vibe going on. Each verse might be kind of disconnected from the next, in regards to telling a story, but they’re developing this emotion or this mood. Even though we’re changing images and metaphors from one line to the next, it’s all within that same kind of dome. Does that make sense? (Laughs)
I don’t know (laughs). But it’s cool because everyone has dreams that, only when they think about them the next day, do they realize the absurdity of what was happening.
Yes! I’ve been trying to keep a journal of dreams. There’s one where I was in the room with the copy machine at school and then I started climbing it and it turned into a mountain! It was awesome (laughs).
You mentioned earlier that it was very daunting writing music on your own, but it still must be important that you don’t have to answer to anyone else creatively.
It’s really interesting. That was one of the most daunting things in the world when I started: The fact that I had to do everything, that no one could come to me with an idea that I could build off of, the fact that I couldn’t really… It’s not that I couldn’t bounce ideas off of other people, but ultimately, [other people] had nothing invested in it.
It’s gotten to the point where it’s very freeing. I’ve been writing, like, seven-and-a-half-minute songs now. There’s one track where there’s no vocals on the chorus, but it seems right to me. But I could see that being a problem in a band situation. It’s definitely frustrating at times because if I’m stuck, there’s nobody I can go to; it’s up to me to get out of that hole.
I’m happy with what I’m coming up with. It goes back to something I always said when I was in Roots. Kurt would never listen to our tracks in the car; I would always listen to our tracks in the car. He’d ask, “What are you doing?” I’d look at him and say, “I’m in my favorite band.”
I’m writing the music that I want to hear. I’m writing the music that nobody else is making. If I’m making the music that other people are making, why am I bothering? Why don’t I just listen to that? It’s something that I still do. I’m constantly listening to my own stuff in the car. Now, that’s largely to critique and edit it. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m fucking grand!” Not at all.
I use it as a time of critical analysis, especially with the stuff that hasn’t been released. But since there’s been such a huge gap since I recorded Dotted Lines and now just recently—since I’ve been getting psyched about the release—I put it back in the car. I’m realizing, “Holy shit, I wrote the whole album.”
This is the kind of music that I want to listen to. This is the kind of music that I wish there was more of. But it’s a lot of responsibility.
Maybe Bomb will release Dotted Lines And Whispers with a performance at Architekt Music on Dec. 1. For more information, go to facebook.com/maybebomb.