PLGRMS: In Contrast [Interview]

Updated: Sep 24, 2019

Interview with PLGRMS

photos by Meadowlark Studio

When we ask Jacob Pearson what PLGRMS’ music sounds like, he surprises us. He wants to ask you. “Sometimes I kind of want to say, ‘just listen to it and you tell me’. I really enjoy people telling me what they think it sounds like. I mean, because you're not really thinking about that when you're writing it. It just happens.”

The Australian duo, consisting of singer Jacob and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan “Jono” Bowden, is a meeting of the minds. Crossing distance both literally and figuratively, the two first came together in 2015 to give us the experimental “Pieces”, and haven’t disappointed with their five singles since, the most recent of which was “Daylight”. The name PLGRMS, inspired by the two hour journey one band member has to embark on to meet up with the other, makes just as bold of a statement as their music, with the vowels eliminated for individuality.

Jacob attributes the success of this unlikely pairing to their ability to establish balance. “Jono and I are quite different in regards to the way we approach music, and even personality-wise we're pretty different,” he explains. “I have a totally different influence on the way the songs come out - I came from a singer-songwriter type of background. And Jono's played in different bands before, but we just have different tastes.”

Jacob’s solo music pre-PLGRMS explored a more stripped-back sound. “I mean, it was just me and a guitar. And nothing about [our music now] is totally acoustic. It is weird because I've often described my solo music as music that you can't actually dance to; like it's too slow, and it’s always, I guess, kind of like ballads. PLGRMS music…you can't even compare them. I think what ties it in is my voice. It’s the only thing that you could take from PLGRMS versus me.” And his voice, like velvet and distinctively dreamy, soars over every track, branding the duo’s sound.

Could he ever see himself going back to his acoustic-leaning roots, or integrating them somehow? “I do really have plans on going back,” he says. “I really miss what I was doing before [we started the band]. I kind of put it on the back-burner and I want to get back into it, but I don't think I'd want to blend the two. I could be wrong, like maybe that's where this is heading. We haven't written anything for a while, so we'll be doing that soon. And you never know what could happen.”

With Jono writing the main chord progressions, and Jacob singing aching, but complementary melodies on the surface, you’d never expect these songs to be created by opposites. “We are very contrasting types of people,” Jacob continues. “Jono's a very straightforward kind of guy; he’ll say it like it is. I’m much more shy and quiet. We get along still, which is kind of cool. He’s very easygoing, you know, what you see is what you get. I think I’m a bit harder to figure out, as people might tell you that have met me before.” He observes that this introversion is infused into every note that he sings, making for a unique dynamic. “It would be a totally different thing, had I been maybe a more outgoing personality. I think it might sound completely different…[and] the lyrics would be different…”

Working with Jono helps him be more conscious of the meaning of the music in a broader context. “When I write for PLGRMS, it’s actually a lot easier for me because I can feel like I can detach myself a little bit. The difference to me is that we're writing songs together, so it's not like a solo project where you're just sitting alone. You really think more about the words you're writing, and how they might sound to someone else, because someone else is actually sitting there with you writing them sometimes.” The finished tracks resonate powerfully, maintaining a certain abstract quality that allows them to be molded to anyone’s story.

We then raise the question that all PLGRMS fans are wondering: why has it been such a slow trickle of music into the world, with only one or two singles per year? “We really were just trying to, at the time, build a fan base and momentum releasing one song at a time,” he answers. “That was kind of the mindset. And then I think it was 2017, our last release before ‘Daylight’, we had to stop doing everything because I injured my back. So everything kind of stopped for probably about a year. I just couldn't travel or do anything.”

“It was probably the hardest thing I've ever gone through,” Jacob continues softly. “And I'm still kind of going through it. I’m not 100 percent, but I’m so much better than I was. Like, I can actually hold a guitar again, you know, strap a guitar to me and stand up and practice. But it was a year of not being able to do anything really. It was very incapacitating. I wasn't sure if I was ever going to be myself again. I’m slowly trying to get there.”

It’s clear that this life-changing injury will end up having some sort of effect on his art, but maybe not immediately. “I’m not the type of guy to write a song in that place; I wait until I can look back at it,” he says. “I think a lot will come from that. Because it really was the worst thing that's ever happened to me. More mentally than physically, like I wasn't like in agony every day because I was taking a lot of stuff, but mentally just the thought of feeling like I'm trapped and not being able to do the things I want to do. I feel like I was taking things for granted [before]. And then when it was all stripped away, [it was] a big eye-opener. My personality has definitely changed since it happened, and my outlook on life is a bit different, so I'm sure it'll have a big influence when the time comes.”

As a result of his experience, he’s a strong believer in the mind-body connection. “I was so negative when it was happening; I was such a downer and I hated everything. [When I got] past that point where [I was] getting better, I just realized, if you think negatively and you're always upset, your body just doesn't heal the same. And then when you switch that around and you try to just be more positive, your body responds a lot better.” After such separation from what he loves doing the most, he’s ready to make new music with a new attitude.

Jacob has another outlet in visual art as well, having designed the majority of PLGRMS’ stunning single covers. “Basically, it all started when we needed artwork for one of our older songs,” he explains. “And Jono was a photographer and could Photoshop, so he asked me to try it, and I said, ‘I probably won't be able to do it’. I gave it my best shot, but it turned out pretty cool. So I thought, ‘I could do that again’. The more I did it, the better I got at it, and it just kept happening. Although it took a long time for me to do the artwork, I feel like it was worth it. I've learned a lot actually for photography and stuff, because that’s another source of income for me at the moment…photography and doing little things like that, like creating artwork for other musicians.” However, he left the artwork for “Daylight" to another artist, wanting it to be special and establish a new aesthetic. Shooting and editing photos of other musicians, according to Jacob, is more his forté.

Has a photo ever inspired a song, or a song ever inspired a photo? “It’s more likely that a photo would inspire a song. I haven't set out to take photos for a particular reason, like [for] a song…I’m thinking of a bunch of photos that I've got that could definitely inspire songs. But it hasn't happened yet.” If he did ever write a visual-inspired song, he imagines it would probably be based on a double exposure. “I think they're probably the best because they're kind of like the songwriting process: there's two contrasting parts and you can figure out a story based on the two layers or the three layers, if there's three exposures, and bring it all together. Usually, I use a person, and then obviously nature's a very easy other subject to use.”

He then takes us chronologically through PLGRMS’ releases up until now. Their 2015 debut, “Pieces”, was a pretty heavy track lyrically. As far as whether he’s “picked up” the pieces since then, though, it’s a simple “yeah, I reckon”.

Next, in early 2016, was “Fools and Their Gold”. Who are the fools, and what is their gold? “The fools are two people, and I think the gold is a relationship that’s just not working out,” Jacob says. “I think that one’s about someone who feels like they're not ready to let go of something that's not quite, you know, it's not really real.”

The same year, we got “Gemini”, a darker, textured track based on the third astrological sign. “It started with knowing someone's sign and thinking, ‘that's a way to put them into the song’. But that sign, to me, is also kind of cool because it's the split personality type. Gemini is the twins. So I thought that was a cool thing - the contrasting of two people in one.”

2017 brought the rhythmic “Dream You Up”. Does he have vivid dreams, or is he more of a daydreamer? “I would say a daydreamer. A lot of overthinking and stuff like that.”

“Crawling Back”, from later that year, is potentially their most upbeat release - maybe even dance-able - but it still has that sense of melancholy in the lyrics. “I don't think it was intentional to to have contrasting lyrics like that,” he reflects. “We don't really overthink things when we're writing, it's a natural thing…that’s food for thought. I've always kind of wanted to write happy lyrics under a sad melody, and that hasn't happened yet. But I think it's more common to sing more emotional lyrics to a more upbeat song. As I said before, I can't really write when I'm in the moment of feeling something. When you're happy, I guess generally you're in it. That’s why I don’t always write happy lyrics, because I'm always looking back on how I felt when I write.”

Their latest single, “Daylight”, starting out gently with an explosive chorus, plays with imagery of light and shadow. What’s the best time of day to write a song? “My body clock is pretty wacked compared to most people’s, like I don’t get up very early or go to sleep probably at appropriate times,” he laughs. “So the worst time to write a song is in the morning…working into the evening is good. I mean, I've written songs at like ridiculous hours, but I think if you wanted to say the best time it would be as the sun's going down and then into the night kind of vibe.” However, the song aims to be more metaphorical than that. “The word ‘daylight’ doesn't necessarily mean daylight for me. I love a song like that with a word that can literally mean one thing and not the other. I don't want to tell someone, ‘no, that's not what it's about, it’s about this’. I much prefer people to interpret lyrics for themselves and relate to them, because I feel like the whole point of sharing music is for people to relate to it. [But] it wasn't inspired by surroundings - it came from my head for sure.”

The song has a mesmerizing video, too, maintaining the same enigmatic air as the music. Jacob’s hint: “We didn't want to make it too obvious, [but] I think of the female character as representing the daylight, and the male character is the one searching for it.”

With such consistently strong tracks thus far, it would seem like a natural progression to release a larger collection. Jacob agrees, but there’s some more careful thought required first. “We have a body of work,” he reveals. “And it’s imminently going to get out there. We just don't know exactly how we'll be releasing [it], if that's all together, or maybe a few songs or all of it separately. It’s good enough to be out there; we want people to hear it. But we're just trying to figure out if an album or an EP or something else is better suited to, I guess, what people want. It does feel like a body of work, what we've got; it feels like a collection. It's just figuring out how we're going to do it.” For the time being, there are six captivating singles. So let them know: what does PLGRMS sound like to you?

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