Endless, Not Empty. - An Interview with David Shay of Qajaq (pt. 1)

We’ve had a couple months to ruminate upon Qajaq’s sophomore full-length A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky. Today, I have the pleasure of sharing a conversation with the lead behind Qajaq, David Shay. We start off the interview with my awkwardly misspeaking the title of the album, which my dear friend Dave gracefully incorporates into his explanation of its meaning as a banner over this incredible collection of songs.

Dave: The point of the title is to pick at this concept of paradox; how can there be a canopy above something endless?

The word canopy stuck out to me in this song from a Bollywood movie. I don’t watch a lot of movies from India but there’s a couple songs that use this concept of “The sky is just a canopy; let’s lay and look at it together.” When I think of space I like to think there’s something warm beyond it. I think that’s why so many religions and people look forward to an afterlife or something beyond what is happening here on Earth. I like the idea of looking up and not just seeing an empty sky.

Fallon: Right, you use that word choice of “endless,” not “empty.” It calls to that primal feeling of looking up into the heavens.

Dave: Yeah, when I’m in a good place that’s how I think, though a lotta times I look and think, “Space is mostly nothing. At least it looks nice.” *laughter*

Fallon: So, that’s where the title came from. Do you think that it influenced the content of the songs, or did it act like a net to encompass the rest of the songs?

Dave: I think the latter. I practice Christianity and read about astronomy, so I’m always going back and forth between a redemptive narrative and a somewhat more bleak existentialism. There can be songs where I’m writing about a family member or old friends I grew up with in church who no longer believe in the same thing. I like the idea of the title having to do with all of that; no concept would be outside of the narrative. The next album I’m hoping to be less broad.

With Sun Kil Moon, he writes a song about his second cousin dying tragically and Neutral Milk Hotel writes a song about how strange it is to be anything at all. If I had those two songs on the same album I’d find them very connected even though one is about a broad pondering of the universe and the other a personal grief.

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Fallon: [On the tracklisting,] you have “What They Could Give You, I Could Not Give You Better” right next to “The Bad Year”; it’s really cool to hear how intentional you were in bringing them together. If you put “Sun & Rain” right next to “54” you wouldn’t think they’re from the same album, though you can tell both are Qajaq songs. What was going through your mind in regards to that?

Dave: I totally get that feeling of the songs not seeming similar. I felt that way trying to determine the track order. I usually gravitate toward artists because of their themes they use. The band Nile writes a lot about ancient Egypt mythology, which is interesting [and yet something] I can’t relate with; Decapitated, an older death metal band, has a lot of lyrics regarding nihilism and things I can relate with a bit more. The style of music is so different, but I appreciate their perspective.

With Boris, I think their subject matter really fits with huge drone-y guitars. Then there are folk artists like Gillian Welch who writes songs with similar subject matter to Boris, and to me that’s why it’s so easy to add different musical elements together into my music. As long as the concept is still presented in a way that makes sense to me, that’s all that matters.

Fallon: In my experience, bands often have their subject matter disregarded for the sake of pushing forth their genre, but here it sounds like we’re talking about music that leaves that place of genre and goes back to the core of “music.” It makes me think of how dynamic soundtracks can be in mood, tone, and style.

It’s interesting that you mention the influences of other artists directly. When you think of elements of your music do directly tie musical associations to your writing?

Dave: The only time I do that is when I’m trying to find a specific tone during recording, not so much with writing. I may notice it after the fact while I’m writing, (and I used to do that when I first started writing,) but I’ve started to learn to look at what I write after the fact and realize the influences it carries rather than actively utilize them.

Concepts I think of trying sometimes don’t come from listening to music as much as how sound and music are done in different mediums.

Fallon: I’ve encountered that a lot in game development!

Dave: That’s a great example.

Fallon: My friend and I were trying to make a game (back in 2013 or 2014) and through that process we found out the inspiration for the T-Rex sound in Jurassic Park came from rubbing something weird against a balloon. You can take that out-of-the-box thinking or mythology people have and use that in regards to music.

Dave: Even as someone who doesn’t hate adaptation, I appreciate Alan Moore’s disdain for adaptation when he sees it, not as a bad thing of itself, but as something separate from the original work. I appreciate that distinction; it’s way more interesting to hear about the T-Rex sound than about Dr. Manhattan sharing an apartment with someone. *laughter*

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We took a breath here and chatted a bit about how many projects Dave has his hands in, from a new Families album to the upcoming Dead Birds debut to TWO prospective Qajaq albums being written. It was here we jumped back into the flow of things, digging deeper into Dave’s creative process.

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Dave: I’m confident that I’ll have the new Qajaq album done in 2019, it’s getting a lot of influence from being in this house that I grew up in and it being autumn time and all that.

I’ve also been thinking about how growing up as a suburban white kid I didn’t really develop a sense of identity out of my upbringing. But now that we’re here and Erica is finding out all these things about my childhood and how they’ve shaped me, it’s all getting me to acknowledge the environment I grew up in that shaped my current mind. Some people grow up and don’t really consider that.

Fallon: This is the cheat sheet for the new album’s lyrical content. *laughter* This reminds me of a conversation I had in a literary class about journals and what they reflect. Sure, journals share a point in someone’s life, but is it a concrete example of who they are or just of their mindset at the time? There was a memoir I read where the author acknowledged in looking back on old journal entries they recognized that they fabricated some of their content when it was originally written.

Dave: That’s comforting to me, though it might be discomforting to others. In one sense you can determine what the entry was and in another you can look and say, “Yeah, I was lying.”

Fallon: It further illustrates the purpose of journaling or writing can be to see how far you have come since then. Art seems to illustrate how we’re totally different people at different points of time.

Dave: Part of the human illusion of time is that there are things changing.

Woah, we’re getting space-y now. *laughter*

Fallon: Well I want to stay there for just a bit longer and ask a question that’s been lingering on my mind for a while now. You have some songs that are not trying to give much to the listener to deconstruct, like the song about Wendy [“What They Could Give You, I Could Not Give You Better”]. Then you have songs that are very esoteric and filled with mysterious poetry. When you have these elaborate ideas that have no literal sense about them, like in “Arrow in Flight”, we have to deconstruct them to understand where you’re coming from. How do you go about writing like that?

Dave: When writing there are times I like to give things for the listener to interpret, but I also like to write in a way that encourages the listener to have a certain feeling. In The Light of Everything I have a bunch of cryptic songs that actually have backstories to them, but the backstories don’t really help explain what the song is about. For “Arrow in Flight”, the general subject I was going for was unjustly hating others. This is something society has done for so long through oppression and war; it seems like an endless cycle humans are on and we shouldn’t be surprised when someone we’re holding down retaliates against us. So when I’m presenting that idea and the lyrics I’m putting down give me that feeling, which feels more complete for me than if I were being more straightforward.

Another example: “What I Gave You I Could Not Give You Better” had a lot more lyrics that told a more specific story that I decided not to use. When my niece Wendy was born my sister had a lot of complications and got very sick and it was scary, but Wendy’s birth brought a lot of joy and I think that’s part of what helped my sister survive. That’s a great story to tell, but I wasn’t doing a good job at it so I pulled those lyrics. I like writing songs in that style, but I think what I like more is to have lyrics that start to evoke the emotions and deep feelings of a problem that might be more cryptic but bring about the feelings more.

If you listen to Sigur Ros, it’s funny how often people are enamored by the music they’ve made and are so concerned with learning what it’s about. I’m paraphrasing here, but they don’t want to tell people the meaning because they just say, “Well didn’t it make you feel good?” There’s value to all the different processes, and I’ll toot your horn regarding the song you wrote “There Will Be a Point”: it’s very direct in its meaning and there’s something powerful in that straightforward delivery that allows people to attach themselves and the people in their lives to it.

I haven’t nailed down a method for writing my lyrics, but I love a lot of post-rock and ambient music that doesn’t us a lot of words but conveys an idea without much explanation. If people can walk away from “Arrow in Flight” and walk away thinking, “oppressing people is wrong” I think that would be great.

Fallon: Without telling you exactly how I’ve experienced that song your goals are definitely being achieved in at least one listener! *laughter*

That’s not all for this interview, folks! Stay tuned Monday for part 2, where Dave and I talk more about tour, Chroma, and ethics of mass trash disposal.