Track by Track: Safari Room – ‘Complex House Plants’
Posted: by The Editor
Safari Room’s chamber pop indie rock isn’t far off from String Machine or early Arcade Fire. The band’s second studio LP Complex House Plants has slightly more emphasis on structure and melody than those bands, perhaps–the groovy “Violet” has a hook that wouldn’t feel out of place on the radio following a Black Keys single, and “IKWYT” blends saxophone with slick, dancey post-punk. While much of the record might be fairly downbeat, there’s enough bombast for fans of all sorts of indie music. It’s a dense LP, to be sure, but not one as challenging as that word usually suggests; it all goes down very, very easily. Frontman Alec Koukol took the time to break down each song on Complex House Plants; read through his thoughts and be sure to stream the album while you do.
“Small Victories” was the very first song we recorded for Complex House Plants, and it has felt like the most refreshing expansion of Safari Room’s sound from previous releases.
The song is about picking yourself up and moving forward after being stuck in idle for too long. I felt a lot of stasis and indecision over the past two years, and I anguished over every little thing. I longed for the catharsis that this song brings in the final choruses, just hopping in the car and going. No more time to wallow, just throw caution to the wind and go. The instrumentation / arrangement we crafted feels so in sync with the message of the song, mirroring one another during the verses, pre-choruses and choruses. It shows the push and pull of dilemma and action and how every step we take forward is a small victory.
From the start, Chris took a strong interest in this song, but when it started it was just a short voice memo I had recorded and temporarily named “Waffles.” Chris took the skeleton of that voice memo and arranged most of what you now hear. The intro lick to the big, anthemic instrumental parts. It completely changed the landscape from where I’d originally thought the song would go, and it gave my songwriting even more fuel to press forward. We filled out the rest together in the same room, something we hadn’t done for almost a year. It was rejuvenating to say the least.
“Small Victories” has been one of the most fun songs to play live from the new record. Since we released it in October 2021, we’ve opened almost every set with this song, and when the first big instrumental section hits, it really shows an audience what’s up.
“BEST OF ME”
“Best of Me” is about imagination. And I have feared using that word because of my generation’s relationship with Spongebob… “immaaaaaginnnnaaaation” … But that’s what it’s about! Attributes can be a strength and a weakness when too developed or sharpened. My imagination feels incredibly powerful, but when it’s on overdrive it absolutely pushes me to overthink. I’ve defined Safari Room as “a coping method of imaginative recontextualizing,” and “Best of Me” delivers that message acutely.
“Best of Me” is about wearing your imagination-induced nerves or anxiety like a tin foil hat. Thinking everyone can see what you’re going through, even though you try your best to keep from broadcasting it. When I wrote the song in the Summer of 2020, I was worrying that Safari Room would no longer be a thing past the pandemic, thinking life would never go back to the way it was. Real fears calcified and manifested in negative ways, most to the point of distortion.
And two years later, this song feels relevant with everything in total flux. We’re still in this nebulous space of “will it, won’t it” in most parts of our daily lives. Collectively, we’re all trying to shed the past two years when they probably haven’t been adequately processed yet. There’s always something gnawing at us, and that’s what “Best of Me” is all about.
“IT JUST TAKES TIME”
This is probably some of my favorite lyricism to date. I especially had fun writing the pre-choruses, diving into the extended metaphor of landing planes and operating submarines. It feels incredibly biographical and personal, while still being light and hopeful. This was one of the tracks that, when sitting down as a band listening to about 50 demos, was a unanimous yes from everyone. It needed to be on this record.
Time may not be on our side, but we have to keep pushing as best as we can. Through difficult times, through adversity or through our own feelings of inadequacy. It feels like a spiritual sequel to “Young Water” from our first record, Look Me Up When You Get There. Things may not make sense right now, and there may be no light over the hill. But trust the process, trust yourself, and the path will make sense eventually. And get up and move! Nothing is gonna happen by waiting for life to come to you.
The artwork for this one is especially meaningful, as it features my dog, Special Agent Dale “Cooper.” I have the same photo of him taped on my wall in my room above his crate. And when being a dog parent is difficult and I’m upset, I look at that and am reminded of the goofy pup I love. I think this song represents a similar idea. There’s so much backwardness and confusion in life right now, and this song is that picture of Cooper embodied in a song, reminding me of the good times and that things will be okay.
That theme, a sort of pseudo-nostalgia, was a big inspiration for the music video I made for the song as well. I acquired a digital camcorder from the early 2000s and took video on our tour in March 2022. The age of the camera made it look like videos we had of our childhood and instantly felt nostalgic. We even had someone take the camera at each of our shows and film us playing “It Just Takes Time” throughout the tour. Risky but I think it totally paid off, even for some outstanding bloopers! The music video became a little home movie/video documentary of touring, my favorite thing in the world to go do.
“ALL IS SAID AND DONE”
A ton of my lyricism feels directed at myself, notes I want to tell myself. I’ve found, throughout the last few years, that I’m sage when giving advice, but I can never turn it around and use it on myself. The medicine I give is the poison I receive. This song is a highlight of the themes of the record, I need to learn to love myself. Through the ebb and flow of life, trials and tribulations, there has to be a way to find center and know I’m doing the best I can with what’s being thrown my way.
“All Is Said and Done” was a song we jammed on for a while with no real end-point in mind, but once the lyrics started to shape around the skeleton we formed, things felt much more clear. I think it was even something we tossed around for Look Me Up When You Get There, but it didn’t land until well after that album was recorded. Safari Room’s writing/arranging process looks different from song to song, but this one is exciting for just how collaborative it became. Working in the room together, toying with the arrangement, was beautiful. We’re hoping what comes next will follow that trend even more.
Originally, the intro riff in “IKWYT” was played by a bouncy synth bass from a Logic sample library, but around the time we were recording in 2021, I got into this record For Evelyn by Hannah Gorgas. The opening track features ONLY saxophones and horns, acting as these lush and robust pads. It reminded me a ton of Love This Giant by St. Vincent and David Byrne, where a majority of their orchestrations were with heavy brass and woodwinds. I did some tinkering with midi instruments, and we felt it was worth an attempt, going a little out on a limb…
My friend, Jeff Coffin, was kind enough to record sax on this and work with me on the “saxophone choir” arrangement I wrote for about five overdubbed saxophone lines. It was fun to work with the different timbes of each kind of saxophone, much like a choir of voices. It was something he hadn’t done in that exact way before, so it was cool to embark on that journey in tandem. It was also fun to sit back and watch Jeff do a few takes of purely phenomenal solos. Grateful be in a world where incredible musicians like Jeff are some of the kindest and generous folks out there.
The lyrics of “IKWYT” come from a place of understanding and kindness. It’s about watching someone going through hell, a place you’ve been before. The song was written by me to me, but it’s become so much more than that. It’s a reassurance that no matter what gets muddled in the middle, things will be okay in the end. And above all, you are loved.
“The Historian” was one of the first songs we recorded for Complex House Plants. I think it embodies the lyrical content, instrumentation, composition and vibe-switching manner of the record. There are soothing moments juxtaposed with intense rock scenes, rife with distorted riff and pleading vocals.
To me, this song is about the loneliness of seeing everything and everyone around you swirl on without you, and then the intense emotion that suddenly comes with no real place to channel it. It’s why we arranged the song to kind of blitzkrieg into the final notes, just distressed energy needing an outlet. The up and down, swinging between sad and angry, or desperate and exasperated. This song was a big tone setter for my writing and composing on this record, and I’m excited to play it live.
“Violet” was hugely inspired by listening to Big Thief’s album, Two Hands. I admired the simplicity of the grungy guitar and vocals, and the ethos of the record paved the way to me finding the granules that became “Violet.” The song is about the mystique and baffling nature of death, how we truly have no idea what’s after this life. We can pontificate and theorize, but I don’t think we can truly ever know. Perhaps, it’s something glorious or perhaps it’s nothing at all. Or somewhere in the middle.
I’ve had a lot of death in my life over the past few years, and I think it has really affected me in a big way – whether I’m actively processing it or not. Whether it’s family or close friends, it’s been a handful of seasons marked with the passing of loved ones. I wanted to externally process through this song, and bring up questions that seemingly have no clear answers, all the while longing to have more time with those around me. In a stretch of time marked with so much death – everyone being touched in some way by the pandemic’s toll – it’s hard not to feel that the message of this song resonates with a huge population.
But we all carry on with those we’ve lost on our shoulders, pushing forward.
“YOUR CITY DOESN’T LOVE YOU”
When this track was initially released in March, I had a lot of people reach out to me wondering why I thought “my city hated me, more specifically Nashville.” And I felt like the point was being misunderstood in the emphasis of the lyrics. It wasn’t that my place of residence hated me – it was more that I just haven’t totally felt the love. The song is about moving away from a comfortable existence into a new world that I had to completely build from the bottom up. Relationships, career, self-identity, community, passion, etc. There were few safety nets being hundreds of miles and two oddly timed plane rides home. But the thesis is that, no matter how lonely or disenfranchised I feel by the community around, my best shot at comfort and a way to persevere forward was to love myself. Or at least have trust and faith in myself that I’m on the right path, no matter how nebulous it may seem.
It’s not a song about hate or ostracization. It’s about an absence of and search for love.
“Your City Doesn’t Love You” was brought to life by a beautiful guitar part Chris wrote in 2020. I had stewed on it for a while and finally took it to the piano, an upright parlor piano that I had acquired mid-2020, where a lot of the record was actually written. I then flipped through a printed and bound notebook I had made of about 5 years worth of phone notes. It was one of the first I tried, and it felt so right. That melancholy yet hopeful sound and feel. I originally tried to fit “four score and seven years ago” but then I had to realize that a score was a lot longer than I’d thought and scrapped that.
All lyric sheets I wrote had the subtitle “An Ode to Social Anxiety,” and I think it sums up “Speak Slower” pretty succinctly. I wrote most of the song sitting on my floor with my KORG Minilogue on arpeggiator mode, just riffing lyrically. It was fun to hit record and see what came out, what I was having an internal argument about. It ended up being about how I felt in social exchanges, whether it be talking too much, not knowing what to say, overthinking situations, or just feeling like people would see right through any attempt I made.
Playing this one live has felt cooler than I had initially expected. During the beginning, Chris and Cole/Hunter have been playing shaker while Austin/Cole rock that intensely intricate, funky beat. It’s oddly entrancing and eerie and people have been stoked on it. Especially when we divebomb into the outro… That section is probably the heaviest Safari Room has gotten, and it’s a place I never thought would be attainable with this music. However, I’m excited to continue pushing in that direction on future music as it meshes well with music I grew up on but never modeled after. It’s cathartic as hell.
From the get-go, Chris and Austin told me that “Garden Talker” felt like a huge step forward and maturation of my songwriting (thanks guys). And further and further we dug into this song, the more it became a huge milestone in my writing for myself. It’s a different approach than before, but I think the message is still clear.
I truly did see someone in their garden on my way home from work one day, appearing to speak to their plants. I was in a really heavy place, but I knew from speaking to friends and peers that everyone was going through hell at the same time. And perhaps this gardener was feeling the same.
“Garden Talker” has felt important in its message, that we all need help sometimes, whether we like to admit it or not. We have people around us that are willing to lend an ear or a word of advice during our toughest times. And sometimes we find ourselves being that sounding board or affirming word. That love between one another is how we persevere through life dolling out its worst storms, and “Garden Talker” is an anthemic reminder to look out for each other and speak up.
Tracking this song was an emotional process but also one of euphoria. One of the most special parts was adding strings to the final chorus. Getting Natalie Mays to play cello (like… 32+ times?) was incredible. She was a damn trooper, and that addition was so exquisite. I think Steven Tyler was once quoted saying, “if it’s gonna be a hit, you have to put strings on it” or something to that effect. Just waiting for a CBS drama to put it as their end credit song…
“Myths” is an epilogue to Complex House Plants and my most concise note to self. This song truly flowed out of me, tapping into what I’ve been needing to absorb and internalize for years. I know that there are people around that care even when I can convince myself they don’t, or when I can’t see them. Our mind plays tricks on us, constantly muddying the waters and distorting the truth. Knowing what’s real is imperative, and the journey to that acceptance is important but grueling
In a world where everyone is constantly trying to figure out what the heck we’re doing, the line “no one is thinking about you quite as much as you think they are” became perhaps my most important lyric to hear myself sing on the entire record. While it feels dismissive at first, it’s liberating to know that each of us are working on ourselves and sometimes not being constantly thought of or considered is a good thing. It gives freedom to find yourself and find that love within.
Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison
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