- Courtesy Of Kayhl Cooper
- Paper Castles
The idea of American exceptionalism has held a prominent place in public discourse recently. Singer-songwriter Paddy Reagan, front man and creative force behind Burlington indie-rock band Paper Castles, tweaks that nebulous concept for the title of his group's third full-length album: Acceptionalism. The affable, blue-eyed 34-year-old describes the pun — in stark contrast to the self-congratulatory nature of exceptionalism — as "the ability to accept the grandiosity of existence, the good and the bad that come together, and the acceptance and celebration of it."
Along with self-acceptance, themes of insecurity and the loss of innocence feature heavily in the new album, which is the group's strongest effort to date.
However, calling Paper Castles a "group" requires an asterisk. Reagan founded it nearly a decade ago, and he's the only member who's remained constant. Many players have come and gone over the years. For certain outfits, the dissolution of its original lineup could mean the end. And after a certain point of turnover, some artists may choose to rebrand with a new name — or bag it completely and go solo.
Yet Reagan has always kept Paper Castles alive as a band, which is a testament to his resilience and commitment to his vision. The release of Acceptionalism feels simultaneously like a culmination of a decade-long journey and also the start of a new age. The group celebrates the new record on Thursday, April 19, at ArtsRiot in Burlington.
Paper Castles first emerged in the late 2000s while Reagan was working as the talent buyer at the Monkey House in Winooski. As a former music student at the University of Vermont, he wanted to combine his background in jazz with the modern aesthetics of the indie-rock bands passing through the Onion City club.
"I didn't even write songs until I started working at the Monkey House," Reagan tells Seven Days.
In its first form, Paper Castles was a trio of Reagan, Peter Negroponte and Ian Kovac. The latter two would later perform in Boston experimental group Guerilla Toss.
"I felt like I wanted to do something different," says Reagan. "Noise and freak-folk music was the stuff that really hit me the most [at the time]. So, that's kind of what the first iteration of Paper Castles was: free-jazz musicians [playing] over these sad-bastard, quiet-ish songs."
You can hear some of those inclinations on the 2009 Paper Castles EP and subsequent 2011 full-length Bleating Heart. A foundation of lethargic, dejected indie rock, ambient textures and compositional experimentation lands the earlier works to the left of standard indie fare.
"We were pretty open to do our own thing underneath the songs," Negroponte says. "If there was anything that was ever too far out, [Reagan] was vocal about it in a kind, constructive way."
After Kovac and Negroponte left the band, Paper Castles went through something of a structural overhaul, with John Rogone and Brennan Mangan taking over bass and drumming duties, respectively. Wren Kitz and Jake Brennan would join soon after.
Reagan breaks in his new recruits with one-on-one sessions before throwing them in with the other members, keying them in to the kinds of tones and mechanics he likes.
"It was really the first time that I'd played drums in a legitimate rock band," says Mangan of joining Paper Castles. "I had to learn how to play a lot less."
"Playing with Paper Castles and learning how to play parts that Paddy would like — that's the stuff that stuck with me after leaving the band," says Brennan, who appears on Acceptionalism but is no longer a member. The band's current lineup includes Kitz, Mangan and bassist Liz Stafford, all of whom are also involved in other projects.
"The fact that these three people show up at my house to play songs that I wrote is pretty fucking incredible," says Reagan.
As the band's membership has changed, so has its sound.
Nearly five years ago, Paper Castles released Vague Era, which centers on jangly, slacker-rock aesthetics while relegating the more ambient inclinations of previous efforts to the fringes. Though scraggly, the album foreshadowed the sharply defined pop rock of Acceptionalism.
"I wanted to present the songs as they were," Reagan says of the new LP. "I love texture, and I think it is present in the record. But I just felt like the songs I had written were presentable enough on their own."
That's not to say the new album is a complete departure.
Citing the album's sharp breaks and "weird clouds of noise," Rogone says Acceptionalism "retains that weirdness" from the earliest incarnations of Paper Castles.
Indeed, the song "Daily Mail" begins with reversed screeching guitar samples before kicking into its dueling lead guitar lines and herky-jerky drumbeat. "Honest Little Me" drowns in extended, swirling piano and acoustic guitar riffs. But punchy, hook-driven rock drives the record.
Acceptionalism's recording process was different from that of past releases. Largely tracked with Ryan Power at his Stu Stu Studio, Reagan sat on the partially finished recordings for almost a year before finalizing them in 2017.
"I didn't feel great about the songs in their four-part existence," he says, explaining why the record took so long to complete. "I gave myself an opportunity to get them to a place where I felt good presenting them."
He spent the better part of a year recording overdubs at home, including all of the synth lines. The arrangements are thus fuller, more dynamic and more interesting.
"Every [musical] part should sound good on its own," says Reagan, noting that any one instrumental line in a given song should sound interesting if isolated.
As the album's title hints, Reagan loves wordplay. That's evident in the closing lines of the weepy, downtrodden "The Inbetweens" when he sings, "And everyone else is hanging out / And I'm just hanging in."
Throughout Acceptionalism, Reagan returns to adolescent feelings of isolation, of being on the outside.
"When you have a loss of innocence, like getting your heart broken for the first time or kissing someone for the first time, there's a real flag that's planted," he says.
While teenage growing pains provided Reagan with fertile songwriting fodder, he says he doesn't want listeners to get the wrong idea.
"I don't want [people] to think I'm obsessed with my time in high school, because I'm not like, 'Those were the best years of my life,'" he explains. Instead, reconciling the awkwardness and angst of adolescence form the core of Acceptionalism, both the album and the mantra. "More so," Reagan says, "I'm like, 'Those were the hardest years that I've experienced for so many different reasons.'"