At one point in our conversation, Jess Scott describes herself as a Cheshire Cat. From that point on I can’t help but imagine the same floating grin, as she and Scott Moore laugh over the phone, talking about Flesh World, their dark update on C86 pop and first-wave punk music. Their music made together—Scott plays guitar and synthesizers, Jess also plays guitar and takes care of the singing—sounds icy, but their moods are playful. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the butt of a joke, but the pair is too exceedingly nice to make me feel unwelcome as we explore the long process leading up to their first full-length album, The Wild Animals In My Life.
Jess relates the story of her and Scott meeting at the Maximum Rocknroll compound in San Francisco, where Scott had just moved in. Though their bands had played together—Scott plays in Limp Wrist and Jess played in Brilliant Colors—the two had never formally met. Jess was reviewing records when Scott strolled out of his room, shirtless. “She told me she’d develop an entire lifestyle based around never having to see that,” Scott recalls. Jess is quick to add: “I don’t think we talked for about two months.”
The pair eventually later bonded over a shared love of the Jesus and Mary Chain during a haircut (Scott is a barber) and decided that, with Jess facing an impending move in six months, they ought to just write a batch of songs and see where it goes. “I had a song and Jess had a song and it came together really naturally,” Scott recalls. The two played together in Scott’s San Francisco loft, bringing in Jess’s old bandmate from Brilliant Colors, Diane Anastasio, to play a spare rhythm section of just floor tom and snare. When I ask if the minimal setup was indebted to the Jesus and Mary Chain, Jess laughs. “She had a broken foot and we were in a tiny room. I don’t know if that’s why they did it.”
Jess and Scott wrote and recorded just enough songs, with Diane on drums and Chris Hubbard on bass, to put an EP out before Jess’s move. Jess decamped from her home state of California to New York City, and then Los Angeles. The band had no plans for their future.
London hardcore imprint La Vida Es Un Mus Discos pressed the Flesh World EP in December of 2013, and Jess confides that, until she heard the songs together on record, she didn’t really have a strong idea of what the band was. “We realized how cohesive it sounded,” she says. Flesh World wasn’t just a set of six songs between Scott and Jess; now it was a band.
Scott met up with Jess in her new home of Los Angeles and, together, they wrote half of the songs that would form their newest LP, Wild Animals In My Life. “It became clear that I was going to have to spend time back up here to write and record and mix it, so I just decided to move back,” Jess explains. She figured, if she had to quit her job and go back to San Francisco to work on new songs, then why not just fully commit?
The move back to San Francisco reenergized Flesh World. “The two things that need to happen just happened,” Jess says. “You get just enough experience under your belt to know what to let slide and not to let slide, and you get given the person who actually wants to do that with you.” Together, Scott and Jess had a simple goal, and boundless energy to get things done.
Flesh World enlisted Brad Dermanouelian, the engineer of their self-titled, and Toronto punk veteran Don Pyle to assist in bringing Wild Animals to life, but Jess and Scott needed to up the ante and stick the landing: the band only had one shot at making the recordings, a one-week window before their studio would disappear and Don would fly back to Toronto. “Brad was moving three days after we were going to have to be done, and Don was in San Francisco for a week,” Jess details.
Jess is more likely to reference Russian author Vladimir Nabokov than punk bands when describing Flesh World. Not like we don’t talk about bands; over our two calls, we talk the Pastels, “Dark End of the Street,” going through the Maximum Rocknroll zine and record library, and running into the Donnas living in turn-of-the-century Berkeley. For Jess, however, the secret handshakes of punk symbolism serve as a barrier to entry. “That’s always been really important to me, to leave a great big open door to the experience,” she elucidates. “In any band I’ve been in, I’ve made it so that anyone can be hearing it, dreaming about anybody.”
The physical packaging of Flesh World’s records add as much to their self-made mythos as their records. Scott describes he and Jess as having a “pretty strong interest in queer history both in literature and art … Jess and I definitely have an aesthetic that relies heavily on imagery that is pulled from queer literature or art, or is influenced by [it.]” Jess places the “found or borrowed” pieces of their artwork—including video stills of the band and photos pulled from gay rights history books—in the “traceless history of queer culture.”
Flesh World wields ambiguity as a tool to invite listeners to construct their own meaning. “Two things I like to keep as lighthouses are: the Pastels [left] an ambiguity about the situation. It could be a friendship, it could be a girl or it could be a girl that is a friendship, it could be anything. Or right back to ‘Dark End of the Street,’ which is obviously about an interracial relationship in the 50s or 60s. And to this day, I think the songwriters wrote that it was about a poker game or some bullshit on Wikipedia.”
Flesh World begs the audience to play an active role in constructing meaning. I begin to see Jess’s world as a rich text, laden with symbolism. Any concrete ideas are meant to be picked apart, unpacked, and recontextualized. “‘Wild animals in my life’ is an article about a zookeeper. I’m really interested in reading things completely out of context, kind of involuntarily applying them, when your head is really somewhere else.” Flesh World revels in the moments when the listener finally draws the lines between ideas themselves, rather than waiting for the meaning to be explained. Like “when you’re reading about ‘lions and tigers and bears,’” Jess continues, “and you realize they’re all around you.”
These moments play out in small-scale many times throughout our interview. At one point in our conversation, I start to trail off midway through a question, asking “where do you find … ?” Jess snaps to life, finishing my thought: “a will to live?” For a moment, my recording of the interview is overtaken with laughter.
‘Wild animals in my life’ is an article about a zookeeper. I’m really interested in reading things completely out of context, kind of involuntarily applying them, when your head is really somewhere else.
Flesh World had one week to record Wild Animals In My Life. The band worked on the songs right up until the recording dates, with Jess even finishing some of the lyrics in the studio. “It made us take more risks,” Jess recalls, though the band was wary to not just throw in a bunch of ideas and see what people like. “The Sugar Ray complex,” as Jess puts it. Instead, with the guiding light of their first EP in mind, the full band, with Brad and Don behind the boards, decided to make a record that sounded “as Flesh World as possible.”
Wild Animals took a week to record, but the album took about another half year to finish. The band sat on the recordings while Don finished his obligations, and then the mixing “took over all three of our lives for maybe a month.” Jess, Scott and Don went back and forth, pushing more ‘psychedelic’ mixing along with the usual getting levels equal, sweetening instruments et cetera.
The growth between Flesh World and Wild Animals In My Life becomes clear on the first track, “To Lose Me.” Flesh World have upped the pop factor, recalling the sweeter moments of Brilliant Colors, Jess’s former band, and have constructed immensely powerful yet fragile recordings. They deconstruct goth’s icy sheen, toying with vulnerability and power with their sonic barrage.
And, in “Poolside Boys,” Flesh World have a pop gem. The B-side of their single for the album cleanses with chiming chords, and, for a brief moment, presents a moment of peace in a dark, brooding, defiantly hopeless album. Until I can get my hands on a lyric sheet, I can hear just enough of the lyrics to know the song could be about anything. So when I play it in my bedroom, I just make up words and sing along. I think Jess would be okay with that.