The Scary Jokes are deadly serious about the radioactive toxicity of fame in their darkly dreamy, spiralling new synth-pop single Elephant Foot — premiering exclusively on Tinnitist.
Taken from The Scary Jokes’ upcoming fourth album Retinal Bloom (due May 26), Elephant Foot is a cleverly powerful lyrical metaphor voiced in hazy tones and wrapped in a gauzy, shape-shifting cloud of synthesized sound. In the song, the Elephant Foot — a mass of nuclear waste leftover from the meltdown at Chernobyl — stands in for Scary Jokes mastermind Liz Lehman’s complicated feelings about fame. As they gain notoriety, Lehman faces ever more vitriol from people treating them like some frightening, untouchable thing. In turn, their desire to be left alone grows, as do the parallels to the titular radioactive rubble.
That sort of multi-layered, multi-pronged approach is standard operating procedure for Lehman, the queer musician, activist and visual artist behind Pennsylvania’s Scary Jokes. Like their band name, Lehman’s music hits an oxymoronic tone, with ethereal synths innocently backing deeply personal, often dark lyrics. Scary Jokes explores the dark side of dreamy bedroom pop, with a sound more befitting descriptors like hallucinogenic, surrealist and nightmarish.
For their latest album Retinal Bloom, Lehman reinvents their sound while maintaining their idiosyncratic edge. Inspired by artists such as Kate Bush and Brian Eno, Lehman sought the warmth of equipment that was new to them — analog synths. “I really love the sound of vintage synthesizers,” Lehman says. “It’s hard to get that character if you’re not using hardware synths. I especially like ’80s art-pop albums, like Kate Bush, so I was interested in exploring sounds like that.”
In another departure, Lehman often chose to express the depths of their emotions via animal-like screams and wails, with the lyrics exploring themes like intrusive thoughts, human cruelty, cults (including the cult of personality), and a willingness to protect your loved ones at all costs. Fittingly, Lehman’s songwriting process is primal and instinctual. To create Retinal Bloom, they experimented with their Elektron Model:Cycles synth, drum machine and sequencer, sculpting sounds in their home studio, combining the best beats and improvising animalistic vocal sounds. “The Elektron Model:Cycles has this great kind of crushed sound,” Lehman says. “The synths on it — you can obviously use the presets or do your own thing, but they have a very spooky quality to them. So I really enjoyed playing with that.”
Once Lehman had established a sound for each song, they fleshed out the lyrics. In this case, the subject matter was largely influenced by the global effects of the pandemic, the oppression of LGBTQ+ people, women and people of color, and the protective rage that burns within as a response. “I would say that, personally — and also on a global scale — it’s been a rough few years. I had a lot of feelings that I felt like I needed to express about isolation — not just pandemic stuff, but frustration with how other people can be, both on a personal and a systemic level. In the past few years, I’ve become very defensive over people I care about, just because unfair things happen all the time. Sometimes things are so sad and frustrating, and all you want to do is protect the people around you. And that’s where I was coming from, big time, with this album — almost this feral protectiveness over people.”
While the analog synths allowed for a greater depth of control, and while their songwriting method is solitary, they didn’t make the album alone. Lehman worked with musician and producer Angel Marcloid (aka Fire-Toolz), who previously remixed and remastered The Scary Jokes’ 2016 debut April Fools. Marcloid polished Lehman’s material, artfully adding guitar, drums and distortion to fill in aural corners and redefine the sound of the album. Marcloid and Lehman’s common vision for Retinal Bloom led to a collaborative effort.
“When Angel came on, she came to me and said, ‘I really like this, and if I just mix and master it as-is, it would be great.’ But she’s so good, and I really wanted her to have a good amount of creative freedom on it too,” Lehman says. “So she contributed some guitar, some really cool drums and distortion. She filled in every bit of empty space in the album that existed — just filled up every single corner of it. And that was really, really cool. It defined the sound of the album in a really exciting way.
“It’s interesting because I think — even though we have a lot of the same influences — we make very different kinds of music. But with Retinal Bloom we were on the same page with every single decision. So it was really cool for it to be that easy and inspiring and fun to work with her. I thought it was cool that we had such a similar goal in mind for the album.”