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“A snapshot in a series of would-be evolutions” – An Interview with American Trappist

One of our favorite discoveries this year has been local Philadelphia band American Trappist who have just released their incredible new album Poison Reverse. Across the eleven tracks on the record, singer and lyricist Joe Michelini explores the ways in which we might dress old wounds—of depression and heartbreak, the wounds that we accumulate as we age, stemming from moments of vulnerability and change—in new ways. Conceived during the isolation of the pandemic, following the cancellation of live music and a period in which depression felt almost like a friend and a comfort, Michelini works to understand what it means to make space for happiness in the face of loneliness.

Joe has said that I think Poison Reverse is the right place to start for anyone getting familiar with American Trappist for the first time” and we definitely agree. Although there are standout tracks like “Temple Song” and the confessional “Lamentations”, you really should be listening to the entire record.

We caught up with Joe as they prepared for the release of Poison Reverse to talk about their favorite music and the issues addressed on the record.

Hi Joe! How’s everything going right now?
Hey Paul, it’s been a busy year so far. Each time we release a record I make a list of things I could have done to make the process less chaotic. Somehow I convince myself the list is complete in-between releases, but 15 years later I’m still adding to it. If only it were a good time to start a label. The songs of course have felt a little distant for some time now, that’s just how it goes. But then there is a sort of second life as other people hear it for the first time, and best-case-scenario they are feeling what you were feeling when you first wrote it, or arranged it with the band, or played it live. I’m somewhere in the middle of all that right now.

What classic album cover is your current mood?
At the risk of sounding like I’m suggesting anything about our album is-or-will-be classic, I think for the first time in this whole process I have felt a really deep personal connection to the painting we commissioned for Poison Reverse, and the band has brought this up to me as well, unprompted, that more and more they feel recognized by the cover on a personal level. The artist, Josh Gilman, is a genius, and also the cover is not what any of us were expecting. I think we all thought it was beautiful and the band trusted me and I trusted Josh. We spoke for a while about the songs, Josh and I, and I shared some work with him that I really appreciate, but ultimately told him to “do his own thing,” and he did. For whatever reason when I look at it now, having some distance from the record as a whole, considering it in a more holistic context, I know that it couldn’t be anything else. I feel like it is speaking to me. When I see it, I want to say, “you too, huh?”.

Your new album “Poison Reverse” is out this week and is one of my favorite records of 2023 so far. Where/when did you write and record the songs?
That’s encouraging, thank you Paul. The songs were mostly written from 2021-2022, starting with Lamentations. I had that song and a few others around for a while. When we started playing together again after Covid, we learned a bunch of new songs that never made it onto the record. Looking back now I have mixed feelings about that, because in some cases the songs they were replaced with feel equally strong but not objectively stronger, and I’m afraid I had some sort of recency bias. But then when I go through my notes, journal entries and scrapped lyrics, it’s apparent that I really did have a specific idea of what the album should be and followed through on that in most ways, I think. Albums are always in motion. The final product is a snapshot in a series of would-be evolutions. In part that allows me to make my peace with all of our records.

The lyrics address some of the issues you’ve faced over the last few years such as depression and coming out to your partner as non-binary. Did you find it cathartic to be able to write about them?
I did, yeah. It was a complex process figuring out how to share some of that material with my partner. You wonder if you’re saying any of these things out loud for the first time ever. I think that was the case with some of the songs. I also think it was a really healing process for us, especially working on the music videos together, Lamentations in particular which is among the more vulnerable songs on the record and is a direct address to her and our relationship. Some songs we haven’t talked about, and that’s ok too. I appreciate that she allows me to have some privacy with the material, even it’s imaginary.

If you could only listen to one record, what would it be?
Lately I just cannot get enough of “Party” by Aldous Harding. I’ve taken to covering “Imagining My Man”. I’ve listened to the record before and I’m familiar with her entire catalog, but lately it is just speaking to me. Every time I listen a new layer is revealed. To me she is one of the greatest of all time, but even though I do share her work with others I don’t feel the need to convince anyone else. Something about my truth intersects with her truth. I can’t make that happen for anyone else and I can’t lie to myself in a way that makes it untrue. Sit down in a dark room with some headphones on and give it a listen, you might see what I mean.

“Poison Reverse” is your fourth album. How do you feel you’ve changed as an artist since 2016’s self-titled debut?
The band calls it “a different band,” and it’s true, we did have one member change between the first and second records, but I don’t think that’s what they mean. I have always tried to tell the truth and the truth is that I am amenable to change. At the same time with every new record we are trying to find a way to fold in previous material to the live show. I think there are a few songs from every record that could have ended up on a record with a few songs from this record. That’s reassuring. I think the next album will be different from this one, and so on. If I had to name one big difference between this record and the first record it is the contributions of the band. The first record was me writing a record alone in my apartment in Philly. With this record and “The Gate”, I wrote the songs and then we spent about a year rehearsing them as a band before going into the studio. We end up arranging a lot of the material together. If it doesn’t feel good, we change it. If we perform it and it still doesn’t feel good, we cut it. I think they would let me put my foot down but I try not to. I really trust them, and they trust me.

Where did the name American Trappist come from?
Believe it or not it’s printed on the Spencer Brewing beer bottles. I don’t drink anymore but when I did I really enjoyed Belgian beer. Spencer is in fact an American trappist brewery. I spent a little time in The Netherlands and Belgium in my twenties. When I was over there, visiting the monasteries and breweries, I was transitioning from an agnostic to an atheist but also I thought, I could do this, I could live here in silence. The monastic lifestyle felt very valid to me, it still does. Now when I tell people the name I say, “you know, like the monks!”. Some people get it, most people smile and nod. I don’t mind if they make up their own meaning. I have been afraid it sounds like it has something to do with trapping wildlife. It does not.

You have an album launch show at Johnny Brenda’s on June 10th with a couple of other great local bands. Are you planning to tour the record further afield?
We won’t be touring nationally on the record no, just regionally. We’re lucky to be in the Philadelphia area where so many major cities are within a day’s drive. I do understand why bands feel the need to get out there, but developing the record in this area, to and with communities of bands and artists that we know, sharing work with each other and inspiring each other, has been really rewarding. I just want to feel like what’s happening onstage is real. I’ve been on tour long enough to know that tour can make you an enemy of yourself and of people you love and care deeply about and work you set out to defend when you left. As of recently I also don’t know if it’s safe for queer artists to be touring America. That makes me sad for so many reasons, but one is that I think anyone who wants to go should be able to go. I don’t think that’s the case right now. It’s not the reason we’re not out there, but it’s one of them. 

What would go on your signature pizza and what would it be called?
My favorite pie will always be white with broccoli and ricotta. My mom used to order it growing up. I still order it today. There isn’t really a pizza I don’t like, until you start to cross over into “would you call that pizza” territory. All that is ok too, I just mean as far as what you can get at a pizzeria in New Jersey that’s been around since the 80’s and hasn’t changed the menu since. I don’t know what I’d call it, since it’s a somewhat common pizza, some places even have it on the menu as a selection, but I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried. They aren’t all created equal either. People think white pie is simple but it isn’t. It’s easy to do poorly and harder to pass off as excellent, in my opinion. 

What do you have planned for the rest of 2023 and the future?
As far as the band goes, you and I are chatting a week before our record comes out. As you noted we’ll be celebrating with a show in Philly, and after that we’ll be playing regionally for the rest of the summer, including Sweet Juice Fest which I’m really looking forward to. I think the energy surrounding that festival and what I said about trying to be in a band that tells the truth intersect in a lot of ways. After this summer I’ll start writing again and we’ll all go back to our lives for a bit. The band has talked about wanting to record a few of the songs we scrapped for the record, so that’s a possibility too. As for me I am just trying to get a good night’s rest when I can, and trying to seek peace in my own heart and in the hearts of others, and inspire peace where and when I can. People sometimes tell me I am soft. I’m so grateful for that. I also hope when folks come to see us live they are reminded of the violent pursuit of tenderness, when I am screaming or crying or laying my head on my guitar, when I am laying my guitar on the floor. I have always felt like I was clawing my way to the surface, when it comes to my mental health specifically. I want to let my body express that when we perform, and I want others who are pursuing the truth in themselves to feel recognized. I find some comfort in that and I hope they do as well.

American Trappist was formed in 2015 in Philadelphia and has released three full-length albums, including their self-titled debut; Tentanda Via; and The Gate, which American Songwriter called a “welcomed escape, rampant with charismatic post-punk stylings.” Poison Reverse, recorded mostly live with engineer Matt Poirier (The War On Drugs, The National) at Miner St. studios in Philadelphia and mastered by Alan Douches (Angel Olsen, Ratboys) at West West Side in NY, also features Lewie II on bass, Shane Luckenbaugh on drums, and Max Kulicke on guitar.

You can find out more about the band at their website and follow them on Instagram and Twitter for all the latest news.

Feature Photo : Megan Lynch

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