“I didn’t expect to be putting out a guitar record in 2020,” says Mobley of his latest work, Young & Dying in the Occident Supreme. “For a while, I was writing songs using the whole studio as my inspiration. Oddly enough, it was coming home to the confines of the guitar that opened everything up for me.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that he had to go to the other side of the world to “come home.” The singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist hangs his hat in Austin, TX, but after an itinerant childhood spent in more than a dozen cities across the globe, a guitar is as much a home as any spot on the map.
The shift came toward the end of 2018, when Mobley was finishing up a few shows in Australia. He was coming off a whirlwind stretch that included festival plays at Lollapalooza and ACL, plaudits from Billboard, Noisey, and Consequence of Sound, placements on HBO and Fox, and opening slots for the likes of Cold War Kids, Phantogram, and Bishop Briggs.
On a whim, he booked a trip to Thailand with the express purpose of taking a long-overdue break. Of course, that’s a bit challenging when you produce your own records, create your own visuals (from cover art to music videos), and spend months at a time on the road, building a reputation as a charismatic frontman with kinetic live shows. Indeed, Mobley’s “break” didn’t even last a day.
“I passed a music shop when I first got to Bangkok and there was this knockoff Telecaster in the window,” Mobley recalls. “It was like $100, and I’d never played a Tele before, so I thought, I’ll just grab it to play around with while I’m here.”
And thus, Young & Dying in the Occident Supreme was born. Mobley wrote the record as a sonic critique of Western supremacy, a theme he felt even more urgently while not in the United States. He recorded the majority of the guitar lines in an apartment on a remote island in the Gulf of Thailand, then, in one last moment of inspiration, gifted the instrument to a local cab driver he’d befriended.
“We had awkwardly bonded over our shared love of music,” says Mobley. “We barely spoke each other’s language, but I could tell he was excited to take that guitar off my hands.”
Back in the US, a whole arsenal of instruments awaited Mobley, so much that the credits for Young & Dying read like a cashier taking late-night inventory at a music store: piano, bass, drums, percussion, trumpet, violin, autoharp, mandolin, melodica, tin whistle, vibraphone, glockenspiel, the list goes on and on and on. By contrast, the more modern touches of field recordings, crystalline synths, and jagged edits accent instruments that have been around for centuries.
The record glides between musical idioms with all the ease you’d expect from someone who grew up a perennial new kid. Whether he’s cribbing Ennio Morricone, keening over a psychedelic gallop, or indulging in a futuristic art rock strut, Mobley cuts the figure of an artist in command of his powers.
The lyrics place a similar emphasis on the clashing of past and future. For instance, on the spaghetti western overture, “You Are Not the Hero of this Story” (which cleverly teases both the musical and lyrical themes of the record), the Sarlacc Pit from Return of the Jedi becomes a metaphor for political indifference.
“Indifference often gets framed as being a relatively neutral thing, so I wanted to evoke this idea of it being a monster,” Mobley says. “When it yawns, that’s when you see its teeth. That’s when you see how rapacious and violent it actually is.” The cinematic sweep continues in “James Crow,” a heart-pounding, spy-movie of a song that examines, among other things, the concept of double-consciousness.
“The first line is, ‘I’ve been seeing the world through a dead man’s eyes,’” Mobley explains. “The song is about how you can feel alienated from yourself when you realize that many of the ideas you have about the world aren’t yours, they’re bad ideas that someone else came up with. You spend the rest of your life absurdly trying to kill that dead man.”
A more obvious enemy takes center stage on lead single “Nobody’s Favourite,” which Mobley wrote as “the internal monologue of a powerful scumbag. The speaker spends the whole song vacillating between utter egomania and abject self-loathing. He’s losing it, progressively, as the song goes on.”
Despite the grim subject matter, it’s also the most propulsive song on the record, pushed forward by bioorganic interplay between synthesizer and guitar. To put it bluntly, it’s a hard-hitting character study that’s also a lot of fun.
And why shouldn’t it be? Maybe protest music is most effective when you can dance to it.
Young & Dying in the Occident Supreme will be released via Last Gang Records in Spring 2020.