On Housebroken

…and abuse and trauma and art and other stuff

“Every true novelist listens for a suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into a different line of work.” -Milan Kundera

The subtext of this short quote that my friend posted the other day provided a pretty neat angle for thinking about the job that artists do for society. While some of us are working, making dinner, following up with people, or addressing every little aspect of our lives that are slowly degrading, artists are creating the conditions for profound truths of the world to speak through their bodies for a brief moment and then document it. These moments of oneness with profound truths are not unique to artists or writers, but a good artist is one who can capture that moment and communicate it through their medium, in a way that allows us viewers to access by interacting with their work.

It explains a thought that I’ve had quite regularly about my own work. People say “hey I like this music you’ve made” and my first inclination is to respond with “yeah isn’t it great?!”. If I were to say this aloud, it would probably either confuse or upset the person who would expect an either humble or self-debasing acknowledgement. But my excitement about my work, and part of the reason I had listened to some of my own tracks non-stop, was because I didn’t feel like it was something I had created. I didn’t feel responsible for it existing insomuch as I feel responsible for regurgitating historical trivia or making box mac and cheese. It’s never felt like trying very hard, making music. Not that I’m an expert or anything (I’m a clunky writer and not particularly skilled with any instruments) it’s just that my process has never been about working hard, and has mostly been about creating a concoction of circumstance to allow magic to happen or god to speak through me. And when that happens I’m sort of like “lol cool.”

So to me, a non-god, my “work” is almost certainly smarter than I was when I wrote it. Once I had witnessed this process fruiting many tracks that made me look smart, I tried not to shortcut that process moving forward. However, I figured this out maybe midway through writing Home, Like Noplace Is There and there has always been one track that stood out as blocky because of this, and that’s Housebroken. Housebroken was the first track I wrote for that record and it got a fair bit of play time in the many acoustic sets I had played prior to releasing that record. It was well received then, but I had sort of always felt an inclination to have to tease out the conversation around it.

The song material attempts to unveil the cycle of abuse, trauma, and conditioning. It was inspired by the trap of entering into the public forum to discuss justification for accountability processes, a model that was ahead of its time and kind of still is. Too often call outs of terrible behavior would evoke normies to object with some version of “this person did something fucked up because fucked up things were done upon them.” It was a trap to engage with this logic but us punks and anarchists did anyway because we knew we were on the right path and truth would prevail. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough back-pocket rebuttals handy to truly win those arguments for our apolitical tumblr bystanders.

Housebroken, through an allegory of a naive utopian speaking to a domesticated dog, went on to say that empathy alone is not strong enough to dam the river of harm in which we swim. At least that’s my interpretation. My interpretation, however, has the privilege of being granted the benefit of the doubt by its intent. Some other interpretations were not as generous.

I remember stumbling across a podcast (a flock of men) who were in the business of bad faith critiques of scene music. Their interpretation of Housebroken likened domestication to abuse in the home and abuse in the home to abuse of women by men. Through this lens, the use of the dog as a literary device was describing women as dogs, which is of course not cool


The common interpretation by those who enjoy the song is actually not even that far off from the one above. The slight deviations come in the form of domestication not necessarily abuse in the home, or abuse in the home not necessarily being abuse of women by men. But even within these more favorable framings, there was still a path to an unfavorable interpretation which some had found in the moment where the narrator kills the dog. For me, this was actually a lazy way of saying “we can’t divert the flow, we can only break the cycle.” But it’s over dramatic, inconsistent, and a cop out. The dog probably should have eaten the naive utopian narrator, but then who sings the ending??

This was where my analysis ended when Hotelier decided to stop playing this song. I couldn’t really reconcile which interpretation should be given the most priority, mine or the fans. We had a couple of odd interactions with legitimate die-hards about this song at the time. I figured it would be a good faith gesture to let them be in the driver seat a bit for this one and we gave out some benefit of the doubt. To some, this might have seemed like an odd choice to give a few fans this much say over our artistic decisions. But I was 22, and truly trying to figure out the best way to navigate these fan artist relationships where the principles of consent do not map so cleanly. Looking back, I still think it was fairly wise to avoid intentionally grinding up against the edges of our fans who were so willingly giving us their vulnerability. And that’s how Housebroken got nixed.

Now admittedly, this is one of the Hotelier songs I felt like I had a hand in writing, that is to say that I wasn’t simply a conduit for messages containing more wisdom than I possessed. I remembered being inspired by an idea, but only having the distance from Akron to our recording session in Chicago to get down. We drove overnight in a short school bus with 7 people drunk asleep, and strewn about on the seats and carpet. I was on the couch in the back forcing that ditty out. Once it was recorded that acoustic version, we just built the album version around it and stuck it in the most likely place.

Every other song on that album was given time, was meditated on, was never written but allowed to write itself. The lyrics were many words I have never said before in any real order. Writing the rest of that record genuinely felt like many therapy sessions. I remember sensations in my body that I haven’t felt since, like being a moment from sleep and being suddenly massively awake and strangely cold, suddenly crying at phrases from a stream of consciousness, and what felt like a rattling marble at the top of my spinal cord. Writing Home was like simultaneously realizing trauma held in my body for the first time and quickly unknotting it. It was pretty absurd. I could have been possessed but it would have been by something pretty nice. I understand why people could believe in angels. Through your own actions, you induce some state of consciousness in which everything makes sense, and everything is okay, and its wise and kind and all of these things that might feel so unlike you. How can someone have experience and be expected to believe that that is just them. In a period of time when we still don’t understand consciousness. Could be angels, babe.

It Never Goes Out was an album that shouted “As long as we have each other, the world stands no chance.” Turns out, the real weight of that statement rests on “as long as”. It’s really amazing the amount of absurd scenarios a bunch of suburban beatnik cosplayers in early adulthood can find themselves in. One of us got kicked out of our home by our parents. I showed up in my underwear to lighten the mood not expecting her dad to come out and try to bust through my car window. I remember us trying to figure out how we were getting home from the mall because the only friend who could drive was having a personal moment in the back seat and not talking to us. Lots of “you don’t get me”. Lots of “I’m going to kms.” I’ll skip a lot of details that I can’t or don’t want to remember, but it was clear we were too big of a mess to change much.

And here we circle back to trauma not as a thing done to us by bad people, but now by people we love with every ounce of our being, people we wouldn’t throw out in front of a moving car. Many people will have their own interpretation of what that means to them, and I’ll let them have it. I’m just the messenger.

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