I met Dylan Pyles at an artist’s book club. For ten weeks, our group talked about all the fears and joys of producing art. Dylan spent most of those weeks cross-legged, nibbling on his nails, and occasionally offering a word. But when he did, you listened. (Honestly, as we all should anytime someone talks, but still.) For someone pretty soft-spoken, I never expected this kind of music to come out of him. Dylan has all the credentials for high-minded lyricism, and many of his inspirations and lyrics are. But what I love about his music is how raw it is. I’d known Dylan as a friend before I saw him play his music live–which is a display of punk rock music so loud the beer in your hand will shake and you’ll wonder if the building is headbanging with you. So many times when we see artists perform, we’re seeing a version of them, but we don’t know what they’re like on an ordinary Monday night. That’s what I love about being friends with musicians and artists. You get to compare their busy weekday selves to their on-stage persona. It’s wild.
I knew Dylan and I would be friends when I found out one of his tattoos is a tribute to Daniel Johnston, one of Dylan’s major musical influences. Daniel Johnston, who recently died, was a famous alternative lo-fi singer-songwriter and artist. He produced thousands of songs and is most endeared for his approach to pure, almost childlike reactions to music, feelings, and art. He felt everything and poured himself obsessively, earnestly, and urgently into every project he did. Dylan met Daniel Johnston while on tour with his punk band years ago. You should read the article. It’s a lovely tribute to the reality of meeting your heroes—how they are everything you imagined and fall short all at once.
“I think Daniel Johnston came to embody this realm of possibility that I also feel is part of my love for hardcore and punk music,” Dylan said. “You can be a loser, freak, weird, untalented—but you can be any of those things and also make powerful and inexplicable and unimpeachable art.”
Dylan approached his latest album “Popular Songs for the Heart,” with the same amount of fervor of the moment as his hero, capturing all the pain and emotion of a season of life.
“This album was different,” Dylan said. “I was more confident in the songs and the stuff I was putting together because I felt more urgency in sharing them with people. I was going through personal things and needed to keep a record of it and show my friends what I was going through. It was easier to talk about those kinds of stories through songs.”
Dylan made tapes and gave them to friends like they were trading cards for the heart. Listen, he’d say, let me know what you think. “And they actually liked them,” Dylan said, still surprised.
“When I was recording the album, I was going through a relationship that I thought would last forever but did not,” Dylan said. “I’m plagued by communication issues. Music was a way to work those out. This record ponders the question of what if true facilitation of understanding between two people in a confined space is impossible? Sometimes it feels impossible. When it comes down to it, person-to-person, can we really facilitate understanding between each other?”
At this point in the conversation, we both took a sip of coffee as the baristas started stacking chairs on tables. I thought of my favorite line in Dylan’s song “If the Morning Fades to Dusk” – saying you want the same thing, doesn’t make you magically want the same thing.
I’m not sure that’s a question any of us can answer. But I did ask if it gets tiring playing songs about a hard season in life on repeat.
But Dylan said he likes playing and singing them and it doesn’t bother him much. “I like the way that they sound when the guys play them loud,” he said. “I don’t think about the real-life occurrences that inspired them while I’m playing. I’ve been able to take these sad songs that came from a desperate, emotional place and get loud and rowdy with my friends. That’s what it’s been, and it’s great. Every once in a while, it’s a sobering reminder of things in my life and why they’re different. But ultimately, it’s just fun to play rock music with my friends.”
This rings pretty true. Since it took me about three songs into the first time, I heard Dylan and his friends play that I realized these lyrics are kind of sad. But the way that they play them, I’m not sure you’d notice. That’s the magical dichotomy of folk-punk music; it’s the fun of a mosh pit or intense jam sessions where the distorted bass takes over, combined with the poetry of folk storytelling.
Trading Cards for the Heart
Dylan has been in the KC music scene for years touring with punk bands and starting many of his own. But more recently, he’s been showcasing “Popular Songs for the Heart” with a group of friends he refers to as “The Commercial Underground.”
“I’ve dabbled in solo projects, and mostly, it’s just for the sake of being able to create something totally on my own,” he said.
Dylan wrote and recorded demo versions of most of the songs in about two weeks at the end of the fall last year. “I felt particularly energized creatively,” he said. “I would write little snippets and record them on my phone.”
In true lo-fi fashion, he started piecing those together cassette, phone, or computer recordings into little compositions.
“I had a pretty good idea narratively of what I wanted to do with the album musically as far as the sonic structure,” Dylan said. “I realized once I woke up from this writing/recording binge that I had a mix of folk songs, punk songs, and longer meditative spacey ethereal things. I decided to order the tracklist based on that so you would get three different chunks on their own. I thought, let’s just put all the things that are alike together. I wanted the whole thing to sound like one continuous mix of stuff. It sort of sounds like I just spent an afternoon recording you a mixtape—which is what I wanted.”
And what he did. Dylan intentionally chose to hand out his music on cassettes. He produced his work with his friend Shaun Crowley of Manor Records to distribute the album via cassette tape (yes, it comes with a digital download).
“I like handing them to people,” Dylan said. “All the songs have been done since last December. It was just a matter of turning those into a full, holistic piece. I’m thankful for friends that helped me put it together in an accessible way.’
The Urgency of Folk Punk
For Dylan, the combination of folk and punk was a coming of age. In his early years of playing music, he was mostly in the punk scene. “I still love that sound,” Dylan said, “and that’s how I still start writing a piece. The music comes first with a riff, and then the lyrics come after.”
“What I love about lo-fi albums is the constraints,” Dylan said. Often, for low fidelity (lo-fi) albums, artists are recording music without access to a traditional studio, so the result is a sound that seems grungy or authentic, depending on how you look at it. There’s almost no polishing.
“Lo-fi sounds have this urgency as if they could only be recorded at the moment that they were experienced,” Dylan said. “Like the early Daniel Johnston stuff—what’s great about that is that it’s an early piece of art. It can’t wait for a backup band. It will self detonate if it doesn’t get captured. That’s how I feel about any art that I made on my own—it’s a ticking time bomb.”
That same drive for self-expression helped Dylan learn how to play acoustic fingerstyle guitar. “I started learning to respect artists in the folk genre,” Dylan recalled.
“I’ll start writing a melody on guitar first, and then come back later and try to vocalize what I was expressing that on the guitar,” he said. “ It’s intuitive for me to bang out riffs on guitar and shout lyrics. Now I feel like I can write a melody and teach myself how to write lyrics with it.”
Like any art, our abilities adapt with us. “I’m becoming more comfortable with creative writing endeavors,” Dylan said. “I’m a fiction writer. I actually went to grad school to learn how to write better fiction. I think doing one and a half grad degrees will definitely do the trick as far as making some mature creative decisions. I learned more about how to play with the fun of language. That was still evident in my earlier stuff, but it wasn’t paired with actual chops and technique that I learned in school.”
“Even then, writing lyrics is way different than writing fiction,” Dylan added. “Lyrics often start out with a phrase for me and then move into something else.”
Building an Album
The album itself is 20 songs, which range anywhere from 14 seconds to over 5 minutes. “I love the idea of these little musical interludes and the time it takes to listen to it,” Dylan said of the variety of songs, especially the instrumental ones.
Between themes of communication, disappointment, and changing relationships are also a few songs that mention God. I pointed out to Dylan that both of his songs that reference God are short (less than 30 seconds) and instrumental. They almost seem like a blip. The album opens with “The People of God Have a Reason to Sing” and ends (second to last) with “The House of the Most High was Not Built by Hands.” It seemed to me like an ode to the poetry of song titles, which often is reserved for the niche genre of alternative punk music.
“The song titles are poetic,” Dylan agreed, “but also frame the album front and back — with what I was feeling at the time that God feels like a flickering presence that washes over you in short bursts until he vanishes or appears again. There are moments where I’ve felt that. But I don’t feel that all the time or that that’s who God is. I think we all feel that sometimes, so, yes, it’s intentional.”
The Case for Punk
If anything, those flickering bursts of overwhelming presence may be one of the best descriptions of punk music I’ve heard. It’s a genre that often gets dismissed as aggressively against the machine, but it may be one of the healthiest types of music for processing emotion. It times where I feel overwhelmed, I find myself not listening to calming instrumentals, but more often to my favorite punk bands. Punk music is like sitting with a friend who will just let you punch something for however long you need. And they’ll stay for the cool down too. It was born out of a response to inaction, and it begs us to act, to feel, to respond, however much we need to in the moment.
On the Horizon
Dylan is already hard at work on new stuff. He’ll be dropping an album with 12 songs on it in December. This time he’s going for a less experimental sound and more of a rock album, with tributes to artists he loves like Nico and Jackson C Frank. “I think I’ll call it ‘Evil Music for an Ugly World,” he said with a laugh. “And I’ll have a beautiful picture of flowers on the front.”
“It feels right for me,” Dylan said of the new album. “The challenging thing is always stopping to go to work or eat. I just get so caught up in it.”