Adam Mcllwee has spent the past decade, plus change, trafficking heart-songs—a job he’s damn well good at.
As the co-founder and co-frontman of beloved Pennsylvania emo outfit Tigers Jaw, the singer and guitarist played an instrumental role in garnering national interest in the late-aughts emo revival by galvanizing suburban ennui into catchy punk. Then, in 2013, he parted ways with the band and created Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, a mysterious “emotional trap” project formed on similarly sentimental but sonically dissimilar terms; to that end, he also founded Gothboiclique, the ragtag Los Angeles collective that fostered Lil Peep’s rise to fame. The meteoric success of the latter ensures that Mcllwee be wearing the “emo rap” label for years to come, for better or worse, but that doesn’t bother him: “People are gonna call it what they’re gonna call it,” he jokes over the phone.
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For Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s inaugural album, Suffer On, Mcllwee swaps the trunk-rattling arrangements of his past work in favor of a sparse, folk-tinged indie rock sound that recalls his Tiger Jaw days, by way of Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, and the Microphones. Its creation entailed a considerable deal of outside listening, or as Mcllwee puts it, “studying”—especially poring over Bandcamp. Here are some of his favorite releases on the site.
“Døves is in Gothboiclique and helped me produce my new record. I first crossed paths with him via email a few years ago; he emailed me these beats, and they were super good. When I did more research on him. At the time he only had one other song posted online which featured vocals, and it was one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. So I’ve been following him, and I’m pretty close friends with him now, but he’s also my favorite current musician by far. He’s so talented, and I think he’s really good at incorporating different sounds into his own music.
“Glass is his first release that he didn’t produce himself. It was produced by Fish Narc, who’s in Gothboiclique. For people who are looking for an entry point into Gothboiclique and that whole scene—’emo rap,’ or whatever you want to call it — it’s a great place to start. You’ve got great songwriting, great lyrics, a strong sense of song structure: nothing is thrown together. I think it incorporates all the different genres that came before this scene, from indie rock to hip-hop; on the last song, ‘Armor,’ he’s using multiple vocal layers in the same way you’d expect an early 2000s emo band doing, with all these complex melodies weaving in and out. My biggest problem with this scene is how a lot of people don’t spend time thinking about their songs, and trying to make them as good as possible, and I think Døves definitely accomplished that with this EP.”
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“The records I’ve picked are all serious; they’re not light-hearted, and there’s an emotional depth to all of them. I think Grouper is so good at evoking those feelings—even when in it’s an instrumental, or a song that uses vocals as an ambient texture. Ruins is a minimal album; you can tell by listening that she didn’t use a lot of multi-tracking, only piano, guitar, and one or two vocal tracks. She recorded this one just using an eight-track, and I think you would never get that impression from listening to it because the sounds are so heavy. The depressing, mysterious feelings that come with those songs are heavy, too.
“Ruins is not something I’d put on if I was with a friend; it lends itself well to a solo experience with headphones. But it speaks to just what music is capable of, and how people can be really honest and vulnerable and serious in their music without hitting you over the head with it—there’s nothing super obvious or literal about this album. As a songwriter, I feel like my two biggest weaknesses are that I’m too literal, and that my delivery is too subdued. I listen back to stuff that I’ve sung, and it was almost like I was shouting. This Grouper album is the exact opposite, which is one of the reasons I listen to her: just trying to teach myself to show restraint, and let the music breathe. Basically, I listen to Grouper the same way I’d study.”
“When I was a freshman in high school, I’d go to the library and pick out, say, 20 CDs that I knew nothing about—mostly just based off the artwork—and burn them to my computer. I don’t know how I had the time to do all that, but sometimes it paid off; it’s how I discovered the Microphones, which led me to Mount Eerie. I was drawn to how cerebral and introspective the music was, and the clear themes running through each album. When I first heard Pre-Human Ideas, I didn’t love it. I think it was more an experiment on his end to mess around with Auto-Tune and develop a digital medium, as opposed to an analog work. Apparently, he had a tour coming up at the time, and had to teach his band the harmonies, so he used Auto-Tune and pitched vocals in order to distinguish which parts everyone would have to sing.
“I didn’t really give it much thought at first, but as I listened to it, I realized that the instrumental side of the album is really thoughtful. It has all the simple minor chord progressions that I love—just two or three chord progressions every song—which is how I’ve always written my songs (maybe due in part to Phil Elverum’s influence).
“When I was recording my new album, I wanted that emotional depth to it, but I also knew that, the way the songs were coming out as I was writing them, the sound would land somewhere between acoustic and digitally-programmed. One day I put on this Pre-Human Ideas album and I was like, ‘Oh, this is an example of how a record can fit in the middle of that spectrum without sounding disjointed.’ This is an album you can show to someone in the rap world, or the pop world, and they’d see merit in it. It’s also a good entry point into Mount Eerie, because you get more straightforward delivery.”
“My interests in Adrian Orange and his band Thanksgiving are an extension of listening to Mount Eerie; Phil Elverum produced several of their records, including this one. Not that there’s less thought put into the music, but it sounds more spontaneous. I don’t know how many of these songs were written before he pressed ‘record’; I think some of the chord progressions were penned in advance, but otherwise Orange is just going off the strength of his voice and the guitar tones, which are really pleasant.
“The guitar parts on it are similar to the guitar parts I try to write. Usually I stick to two or three strings and figure out how many chord combinations I can come up with just those strings; on this record, he finds a way to create 10-15 totally different-sounding songs with only three or four strings. He makes the most of what little he’s using of the guitar, while still keeping things unpredictable; you’re expecting one note or key change, and he plays another.”
“Sickboyrari comes from a label called Goth Money Records, who predate (and are sometimes mistaken for) Gothboiclique. (I don’t think we, or anyone else, sounds anything like him, but our shared use of ‘goth,’ and lyrical emphases on depression and emotional struggle make us thematically linked to a degree.) This album, Working Out Da Mud, has really fast beats, which is essential: If I’m listening to rap, it has to be fast, because I’m listening to it almost as a replacement for punk music. I grew up listening to punk, and I got tired of it at some point; I felt like I’d explored every avenue I could to find bands that I like, and just got away from it. And then I heard this record, and I was like, ‘This is what punk music is.’ Especially with the delivery: his raps are intentionally off-beat in a Blueface sort of way, where he’s just doing what he needs to do to get his point across without being confined to a BPM. I think this whole scene, myself included, owes Sickboyrari a lot.”
“A very underrated album: it sounds like someone who’s been writing songs for 30 years. She’s got everything that appeals to me in the singer-songwriting genre—especially those airy atmospheric instrumentals! I always think of her as a slightly more accessible Grouper. Her lyrics are really provocative, which adds an element of shock value in the best way possible; it’s not a Howard Stern let’s-be-shocking-for-the-sake-of-it thing. It’s a very honest record, so much so that there are a few lines that made me literally blush—like, she went there! I don’t know what scene Nicole fits into, really, but the people I know who are into her are also into bands like Modern Baseball or Title Fight; she’s the one subdued, soft artist the hardcore kids listen to, and yet her lyrics go where other bands don’t. And that’s a great thing. There aren’t enough disruptors in the scene”
“Going back to what I said about Døves, there aren’t a ton of artists in this scene who I’ll actively listen to, but Bladee is one of them. He’s from Sweden, has been writing these weird songs for years now, and has never compromised once. Like Sickboyrari, he throws conventions aside willingly; when I first listened to it, and I wasn’t paying attention to the sequencing, I thought the first two tracks were a singular piece. I found myself wondering how much of that was by design, and how much of it was just off-the-cuff improvisation. There are parts of this album where it seems so obvious that there should be another chorus, or a shift in direction—but there isn’t.
“We’re programmed to expect certain things out of music (especially hip-hop) and everything has become so easy to predict. Not to sound cocky or anything, but there are artists who I could write a song for that would sound like all of their other songs, because it all follows a formula. But not for Bladee. I’m not sure of how much mainstream appeal is there—my first guess would be little, given how unconventional he is—but he’s someone I really root for. If he posts something, I’m going to listen to it immediately, and there’s few artists I for whom I could say the same.”