‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’ is a song that’s taken the form of many renditions. It was written by Jimmy Webb, first recorded by Johnny Rivers in 1965, made famous by Glenn Campbell in 1967, and elevated by Isaac Hayes in 1977. The content of the track is something we can all relate to; leaving. Each artist who has tackled the protagonist detailing their journey through Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Oklahoma has projected the themes with personalised passion, relating it to their own quest through life. Hayes went even more in-depth, beginning his version narrating his take on the story, before enhancing the source material with the warm sonics of soul.
Now, the title is being reframed to represent Injury Reserve’s sophomore album. Announced on the 11th of August, the catalyst of this 11-song project came from a 2019 show in Stockholm, booked in the back of an Italian restaurant. The peculiar setting inspired the trio to turn the show into an improvised hybrid of a live concert and DJ set, resulting in the performance of songs that did not yet exist, until the moment they began.
The boundary-pushing sounds of By The Time I Get To Phoenix can be summarised by IJ member Stepa J. Groggs’ insistence to “make some weird shit’, who also fell in love with the idea of repurposing Isaac Hayes for the album title. Groggs, unfortunately, passed away in June last year, putting the album on hold amidst a grief-filled 2020. After a much-needed time, Parker Corey and Ritchie with a T reunited to complete the project, keeping the emphasis on making weird shit clear in their minds. By The Time I Get To Phoenix isn’t another reprise of the infamous song or a response to the grief they’ve trudged through. Instead, it’s that weird shit, and the hidden beauty in the stream of consciousness spawning the start of a new journey.
Character Building, Building Character
Johnny Rivers, Glenn Campbell, and Isaac Hayes all had their trips through Oklahoma, telling the stories of a past loved one’s heartbreak. But, that isn’t the case throughout the gritty, atmospheric, and off-kilter musician terrains Injury Reserve trudges on this collection of tracks.
So what does that journey look like? Who is the silhouette on the front cover, trudging through the fiery red of a vibrant sun? Is it a representation of feelings, or an experiment in fiction? These are the thoughts that filled my mind as Ritchie and Parker joined me on Zoom.
Off the rip, this feels like one of your most ambitious and personal. Ritchie, you’ve mentioned in the past that you take a lot of inspiration from film and TV when it comes to your songwriting. Was it a different process having to look inwards for that muse?
R: I would say this record is both my most personal and impersonal record. Most of it is like character building, which I’ve never done before, and then there are 3 other songs that are from my own perspective. It was really about finding that spark to write again. After the last record, we were doing a lot of remixes, and I had a lot of fun doing things that are doing things lighter in tone. It can be hard to write about things from within when you’re gassed out, or when you don’t want to search for things to exploit. So, sometimes it’s kind of fun to just kick shit with your own imagination. I think though, it’s very personal to us in the sense that these songs come from stuff we do just fucking around.
Do you think building an impersonal character in music can be a device for more freedom in expression? If you look at MF DOOM with Viktor Vaughn, it felt like that alter-ego allowed him to unlock a new side of his creative consciousness.
R: I feel like it brightens things a bit, and the interesting part of this record is there’s not really anything that communicates that, which I really like. There’s only one character introduction throughout the album. Other than that, it’s kind of just people coming and going. I never really gave any type of perspective too much attention to the point where I would think, “Oh, this person wouldn’t say that shit.”
Superman in the Storm
Much like the unnamed traveler of the famous song, or the on-the-spot soundscapes of Parker in Stockholm, By The Time I Get To Phoenix is cryptic enough to where you make your own meaning, and you fit into the silhouette on the album cover. But like any journey, there are roadblocks.
Isaac Hayes tossed and turned over his conflicted feelings of leaving through his croons, and this project reaches a place of nihilism on the second track ‘Superman That’. In-your-face blasts of heavy sub-bass and noisy guitars courtesy of a Black Country, New Road sample flicker like the embers of a flame thrower blocking your path. On the hook, Ritchie croons “Ain’t no savin’ me, ain’t no savin me or you,” like it’s a public service announcement for you to stop in your tracks. For the first time on the way to Phoenix, you don’t know where to turn, and you don’t know what superpowers you have at play to cast.
‘Superman That’ climaxes in the acceptance that we can’t be saved. Once you reach that realisation, does that clarity allow you to move forward?
R: I think it’s more about defeat, to be honest with you. It’s like a sense of being terrified, and the realisation of all our shit, and that there’s more to come. At the same time, it’s like you’re running. I remember when I made the reference for the song, I was running through Christchurch a lot, and it gave me this sense of running away, but also just running for the sake of running, which is really weird.
P: We had been sitting on this song for like two years, and over the course of that you go through different feelings with it. I understood the running thing after the fact. For me, the nihilistic response of it is like a coping, “fuck it” approach to a certain material reality and likelihood. I think there’s something really powerful in detaching from the mindset of being saved. I think everybody running in the storm is a slightly better approach to the world we have now. I think there’s power in the possibility of coping.
The Turmoil of Terrains
Running away, but also just running. Accepting the fact that the storm is going to be there either way. You may be defeated, out of breath, and burnt out, but you still move. That’s a part of all journeys and a part of why you embark in the first place. The song that is ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ mirrors that, as each version articulates the adversity in which the love interest faces. Yet, the protagonist continues on, city to city.
What Injury Reserve adds to that is the scenery you see along the way and the changing terrain below you. The unexpected occurs, and thus appears a struggle in which you cannot control. In the tracklist, we are aboard the ‘SS San Francisco’, a song that shares its name with a ship that promised state-of-the-art features before its disastrous wreck in 1854. This cut is shrouded in an eeriness, with Ritchie’s whispery vocals drifting upon the desolate sounds of guitar and bass. Zelooperz is also featured here, delivering a multi-layered soliloquy in the form of bars. The vibe is suspenseful as if it’s foreshadowing a crash. But that’s the thing about terrains; the turmoil of uneven ground and weather is never predetermined.
The SS San Francisco was supposed to be this great leap in naval technology but ultimately was a disaster. To me, it feels like this song referencing the technological advancements you find in places like Silicon Valley can often hinder us, instead of helping us.
P: While I don’t know all the specifics of that certain ship, I think it sets up really nicely. Things like ships have been seen as a sign of progress, but the work that goes into the way these things are developed often result in tragedy. And then, of course, you can connect that to the development of starships, and the ridiculous repetition of a colonial fantasy with new worlds and planets. I think that’s where the song idea started.
R: Definitely. Parker had the idea for a song about, like, the colonial fetishisation of going to mars and shit. He brought it up, and we were in the studio with Zelooperz, who is an alien when it comes to productivity. He had a very descriptive verse off the cuff, which is just fucking insane.
The album feels like a constant battle in travel. ‘First the SS San Francisco’, then there’s ‘Footwork in a Forest Fire’, before you carefully trudge on ‘Ground Zero’, and make your way through the ‘Wild Wild West’. It feels like a representation of life’s journey, both on a personal and creative level. In that, how do you navigate these changing terrains?
P: I honestly never thought about it like that.
R: I’ve definitely thought about this, and wondered if we accidentally did this, and whether it was cool, or if it was going to bite us in the ass [Laughs].
P: I like it. I think in a way, it’s a personal reaction to the world at the moment as well. Even ‘SS San Francisco’ is based around speculative shit of what could be happening in five years. ‘Wild Wild West’ is very much about the metaphorical junction between the aridness of the desert and the prevalence of minerals, as well as how tech shit is really just as arid as the desert. It’s all really about stuff you have to comprehend on a daily basis, because of how fucked things tend to be.
Knees, and Their Nonlinear Sprains
We’re at a point of the journey where fatigue starts to kick in. The ship has wrecked, you’ve danced in a forest fire, you’ve made it through ground zero, and survived the wild, wild west. You’ve seen the world for its least beautiful; politics and environmental issues lay heavy on your mind. You a seat to reflect, and begin to feel the strain.
This is where ‘Knees’ comes in. The chorus finds Ritchie singing “Knees hurt me when I grow, and that’s a tough pill to swallow, because I’m not getting taller.” Groggs is on the second verse, sharing his struggles with growing vertically, and referring to excerpts from conversations with his auntie. This is backed by the explosive sounds of a Black Midi sample, that Parker pairs with a jarring bounce of bellowing kicks, and sharp snares. It feels like the comprehension that you may have reached the end of learning and that your current self is the summit.
‘Knees’ specifically hits for me on the album, with this idea of growing and not getting taller, with the branches moving horizontally. I feel like I can relate it to struggles I’ve faced, and how they sit next to each other, opposed to being a staircase for moving on.
R: It makes me happy that you can take that from this song because I can break down the writing so simply. It’s not growing, to the point where you feel behind. You know, the whole idea of being a kid, and like, helping your grandma out with the TV, and you need to look at the instructions. To me, that’s what this song is about. It’s that realisation of “Wow, I really don’t get this shit anymore.” The first verse quite literally starts with me on our first tour of Europe, where I’m in a little convenient store that only takes contactless payment. In the US at the time, contactless payment wasn’t really poppin’ off like that yet. This idea of being in a place that doesn’t even take a card that was regular where I was, is about being past the stage where I’m at the edge of something. And then there’s the thing of growing horizontally, which is something Groggs says about himself in the song.
It really made me analyse what growth actually is, and the forms it can take. If a tree were to grow horizontally, it would still reflect the presence of water and soil. Growth can become the mould on cheese that makes it unsafe to eat, or it can become blue cheese. Even acknowledging that you’re not growing anymore is a sign of growth; there’s always a silver lining. Is this something you’ve felt in your personal and artistic lives on this Injury Reserve journey?
R: Sometimes I get worried about that spark to just fucking rap, and whether it’s gone. I think when you start turning into mould, and especially when you have other cheese curls around you, you start to find new ways to get excited, and you become more confident with the things you’re not comfortable with.
P: I do feel like we hit a certain point where we had to make the decision of whether we do it more for the money or not. You know, where you do certain songs, get certain features, and conduct yourself in a certain way. The other option was whatever art actually is, and I think we tried to lean a little more in that direction.
R: I think it’s easy to fall into the habit of doing what people expect from you, or what is easy to you; it seems more comforting. But there’s something special about being anxious about a record, and not knowing what people are going to think. If our music doesn’t do that, there’s no real point in making music for us.
P: There are some things I hear that feel like they’re just about money, but at the same time could be things that are really important to people. Then there’s stuff that I think is definitely just about the money. If we did that, I don’t think we could put it out, especially given the context.
R: For real, that’s a good segue. If we had a record like that, it wouldn’t be something you can just put out after what’s happened to us. We were 90 percent done with this record, literally one verse away from completion before what happened. We could have had a different type of record that straight up wasn’t appropriate to release. Like, we couldn’t just do another Floss. We were already tapping into these themes, so having a record like this made it feel ok to put out. And while there are some tones of foreshadowing on the project, it’s not a reaction to what happened with Groggs at all. It’s about other stuff we were experiencing before that.
Artist Phil Elverum, also known as Mount Eerie, questioned the utility of art as a response to loss on A Crow Looked At Me, an album in which he wrote about the passing of his wife. There are moments where he emphasises the fact that he doesn’t want to learn anything from this experience. While this album isn’t reactionary, is this something you can relate to in the aftermath of everything that’s happened?
P: Anything regarding what happened that we’re approaching, specifically with the music videos, I don’t think we’re going in looking to learn anything. However, I do think there is a lot to learn about death culturally, in the world of fame and the public eye, where it’s often handled in an odd way. I think with music videos, there are two standard options. The first one is where you try to work around the problem like those Juice WRLD videos, where it’s like a 3D version of him doing tropes and shit. I’m sure the people close to him signed off on that, but to me, it’s violent. Then there’s the other side where we could try and memorialise him, which I dunno, just feels weird. For us, the most honest thing to do was to just be very forward with the material absence, and that being something that’s very much there. Like, Groggs not being there is what’s there. That’s what the video for ‘Knees’ approaches. I think that fits into the idea that there’s nothing to be learned from this because, at the end of the day, this is what we’re experiencing. I do think you look at things differently based on the past as you’re working through it, but I don’t think you’re learning from it directly.
When in Phoenix
So, on the 11th track, we reach our destination with ‘Bye Storm’. The instrumental is vibrant as if you just climbed the final hill in your journey before the finish line. In the song, Ritchie repeats the phrase “When it rains, it pours,” like he’s looking back on the adversity he faced, as he says his final farewell. Now that you’re here, soaking in the final showers of the sky, did you find what you were looking for on your quest?
Well, only you know the answer because By The Time I Get To Phoenix provides a different path for everyone to traverse. Johnny Rivers, Glenn Campbell, and Isaac Hayes all found themselves on different routes with the same song, much like we are taking different meanings from this one album. Injury Reserve’s expedition was about voyaging into a new form of artistry, where they built a character, explores new sonic terrains, overcame adversity, and found what excites them about music, all while keeping the late, great Groggs’ mantra of making weird shit at the forefront of their minds. And now that the runtime has run its course, what’s left is what’s next, and the emotions that follow.
What happens when you get to Phoenix, and how does it feel?
P: I think part of it is approaching that state of traveling, and where you’re traveling towards, as the state of being here in the world. I’d say all the Phoenixes that exist in the context of that title are possibilities, opposed to any concrete building you can inhabit.
R: To be honest with you, I really don’t know, because even by the time you get through the last song, it doesn’t even feel like you’re even there. It feels like there may be a flat surface ahead, opposed to it being a finish line.
P: The only semi-marked place I think you can get to, even still as a blur, is perhaps the conceptual Phoenix in a mythological sense, with the ashes and stuff like that. Maybe that could be seen as centuries of a depraved approach to being in the world, and that there’s a Phoenix we can get to that starts more reconciliation.
R: That makes sense, in the regard of arriving at the ashes, with this idea of opportunity. You’re looking at this new landscape and new canvas, that while still has the ash on it, can be wiped completely clean, for you to start a new painting.
P: I think the last song on the album is the sense of positively approaching those ashes, whereas a lot of the album before was entering spaces that, to a degree, need to be burnt to the ground.