Last November, multi-instrumentalist, David Pajo, released Highway Songs, his first full-length studio effort under the moniker of Papa M since 2001‘s Whatever, Mortal. In 2010, Papa M was invited to perform tracks from his debut LP, Live From A Shark Cage, at the All Tomorrow’s Parties event in NYC, which yielded a digital release, but that’s pretty much it. Prior to that, the last Papa M material came in 2004 with the double-LP, Hole Of Burning Palms, which compiled his previous singles, followed by Six, the 3-song final installment of his “audio tour diary” series. The compilation featured a solo-acoustic cover of The Misfits’ “Last Caress” and a full album’s worth of similar Misfits covers were recorded on a hand held cassette recorder in 2004, as well — these were later discovered and released as, Scream With Me, on limited edition vinyl / CDR format by Black Tent Press in 2009. Between that time, a couple of laptop aided efforts were also released, and like with the Misfits album that followed, they would also be simply credited to “Pajo.”
I’ve often considered David to be a musician’s musician, someone who seems to create from a place of integrity completely devoid of any focus on monetary success or widespread notoriety; someone much more concerned with the capabilities and power of sound. For most, he will never be a household name — the closest he may have gotten was as a member of Billy Corgan‘s short-lived Zwan, project, which imploded on itself — although, the marks that he’s left are immeasurable, even genre defining. Now in Los Angeles, he began his music career as a teenager, becoming an integral part of the Louisville music scene and forever embedded in its legacy. After playing in groups like Maurice and Solution Unknown, he became the founding guitarist for SLINT, who went on to release the game-changing Spiderland LP in 1991, shortly after disbanding. Prior to Papa M, Pajo released solo material as both M, and Aerial M, as well as with a number of outfits including King Kong (on drums) and Bush League. Generally considered to be one of the very first official post-rock albums ever created (if not the first), Spiderland‘s cover photo was actually shot by friend/fellow Louisville native, Will Oldham. When Oldham went on to pursue a musical career of his own, Pajo helped by contributing to his work, whether it was released under the pseudonyms Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Will Oldham, or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Pajo truly has been a member of an impressive number of varying projects, including Tortoise, for which his tenure involved what could be argued as their two most seminal and enduring albums, Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT. And if Slint and Tortoise tenures don’t solidify someone’s post-rock cred fully enough, it should be noted that he was also in The For Carnation with Slint bandmate, Brian McMahan; was temporarily in Stereolab (touring around 1995); and has contributed vocals on tracks to two separate Mogwai albums. Beyond all of that, he played bass for experimental noise-rockers, Royal Trux during their 3-Song EP , and Veterans Of Disorder  album; contributed guitar to both an LP and a split EP for electronic duo, Matmos; and has become a touring member of both Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol; among tons of other shit that I’ll never have time to get to.
It’s not only that Pajo‘s catalog is so vast, but also that the ground that he explores is so widespread and varied. He seems to adapt effortlessly to his collaborators, whatever the project, always focusing more on becoming part of the overall sound and supporting the compositions to his fullest ability, over personal recognition. That’s partially what makes his solo work so compelling; the opportunity to see him under the spotlight and recognize how essential he has been to the development of so much in the past, while appreciating the purity of that uncut skill, front and center.
Around May of 2014, David was approached by LEVI‘s to compose the soundtrack to Skateboarding In Pine Ridge, a mini-documentary about skateboarding with a focus on the Lakota tribe of South Dakota and highlighting how skateparks are being utilized as a healing tool for Native youth in the area, who are at a high-risk for suicide and drug abuse, providing them with a focus and outlet from their troubles. Pajo has said the following about scoring a documentary in a statement that accompanied the audio release:
“This was novel to me so I was stoked to give it a shot. It had been several years since I’d recorded a solo record- twas a good enough reason to get back in the gym.“
Perhaps it was that soundtrack that first planted the seed for him to embark on a new Papa M release, but he also referenced some personal turmoil and thanked those who supported him through it.
“A few months earlier, I was recovering from a heavy incident and was deeply moved by the deluge of love and support from family, friends, fans, and strangers. Without them I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be in the mighty fine place that I am today.”
“You didn’t have to reach out, didn’t have to prop me up, but ya did anyway. Selflessly, from a compassionate and human place in your heart.”
“Watch the film. With any luck the music will uplift you in some small way, the way you did me.”
The soundtrack wasn’t released until January of 2016, but the turmoil that he spoke of, most likely, related to his own suicide attempt by hanging, which he survived in February of 2015 — he now has a massive neck tattoo covering the scar. The day after the attempt, he posted an image of himself in a hospital bed giving a thumbs up, and over the next year many of us watched as he steadily moved forward and beyond the tragedy. Pajo was very open about his experience, and you could see his progress in real time. If I remember correctly, being separated from his children was a primary factor in his negative mental state and, to this day, his instagram feed is dominated by joy-filled images and video clips of him spending time with them. Then, in March of 2016, after dressing up sharp and hopping on his motorcycle to head to “a friend’s movie premier,” excited to make a rare trip back out in the world, a woman ran a red light, striking him head on. The collision was severe and it even looked as if he would have to have one of his feet amputated. Fortunately, after “a few surgeries, blood transfusions, physical therapy, yadda yadda” he was told that his legs would be okay, although he remained confined to a wheel chair, as he would require a hefty amount of additional physical therapy as part of his continuing recovery.
It was between those two near death experiences that Highway Songs was recorded, with some additional post-accident sessions thrown in to finish it up. It’s a fascinating context to consider and one that seems to have, undeniably, affected the final product; especially, if you consider the title of the swirling doom-laden beast of an opening track, “Flatliners.” For those unfamiliar with the 90s film of the same name, it was about a group of young med students who would intentionally “flatline” and revive each other to experience what momentary death and resurrection was like. For those unfamiliar with surviving a suicide attempt, it also changes you in a way that’s difficult to express. It’s a heavy topic to explore, especially now so shortly after the passing of Chris Cornell, but it’s one that I did ask Pajo‘s Drag City label-mate David Berman about back in 2009, right after he ended Silver Jews.
“I think suicide worked for me.” Berman said. “Whether I died or not, I can’t say for sure. I do know that on the other side of the experience I feel a clear purpose where I lacked any before. I also have no problem talking about it but it really seems to make “the neighbors” nervous.“
Pajo is a survivor, one who came out the other side and, on HIghway Songs, he often does feel like a man with a new purpose. Even if the process has been touched by death, the result is one that feels very much alive. And that’s not to say that it consists entirely of radiant numbers that are glowing and upbeat, but neither is everything about this existence of ours. Perhaps, at its best, it operates more as a response to mortality. The first single, “Walking On Coronado” reflects moments of clear optimism, mirroring a steady trudge through the woods toward clearings where the sun hits your face and breaks up the monotony. Meanwhile, “Bloom” puts Pajo‘s heavier side on display with it’s sludgy chugging guitar riff that sounds as if he’s knocking away at the chords with a hatchet, but even with the stark black and white footage in the video, with imagery of the artist restricted to his wheelchair, it switches to color at the halfway point and features his son and daughter joyously attacking him with flower petals. But, it’s his latest Arturo Bastón-directed video for the song “DLVD” that is the most affecting.
“DLVD” is the beautiful, hovering sonic equivalent of a drop of ink penetrating a small pool of water, and it’s slow-motion explosion into wispy ghost-like tendrils; it’s the soundtrack to a seedling unfurling into a majestic swan in time-lapse. The song breathes and expands, stretches and grows, yet moves uninhibited. Pajo‘s ability to harness and condense the essence of a single emotion and sustain that moment in all its potency, allowing the density and layers to expose themselves, feels both fresh and nostalgic. Bastón‘s video provides the ideal visual compliment, based around a pair of abstract lovers locked in each others presence, existing in a space where time has simply stalled or evaporated.
One of our biggest challenges as humans is to fully exist in the present. For the most part, we allow ourselves to be continuously affected and defined by events of the past and/or focus endlessly about what we need to prepare for… what’s on it’s way. Meanwhile, it’s all of the spaces between these events where our actual life truly takes place. This sort of preoccupation is also the common root of anxiety. For me, this is why “DLVD,” with it’s lack of urgency and almost meditative progression, takes on a larger importance. It was written by a man who has stepped through the tunnel and whose head has stopped spinning long enough to lay in the cool grass as the sun warms his face. I’d like to believe that it is the best representation of where Pajo might be at this point in his journey and, if nothing else, it’s a good feeling to know that he may have been able to touch that place, even for a moment. And if that isn’t the case, at least he recorded something that will allow us to visit it.