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Taylor Muse of Quiet Company: On Divorcing from Religion, SXSW & More

Taylor Muse

Quiet Company are a wondrous, hardworking band from Austin, Texas who pack deep personal truths into magnificent arrangements with unshakable choruses, and they are riding a wave of praise thanks to the challenging revelations all over their latest, grandest record, We Are All Where We Belong. The album’s material could easily have befallen polemic suffocation (in lieu of widespread praise) in the hands of thousands of lesser bands or coming from a songwriter with half the heart or talent of frontman Taylor Muse. Instead, We Are All Where We Belong, Quiet Company’s third full-length album, finds Muse summoning the fortitude to grapple with an issue that served as his guiding foundation throughout his life: his faith. The result of all of Muse’s searching lead to the theme at the triumphantly beating heart of We Are All Where We Belong: his own breakup from religion.

Muse’s embrace of humanism and free thought isn’t a devastating breakup album in the classic sense (like, say, Blood on the Tracks), but it’s more of a first-person manifesto of an earnest, young man who feels he has been led astray for a lifetime and is just now discovering the joy of living. To say the dissolution of one’s faith is a tremendously heavy existential battle would be an understatement for the ages, but Muse and Quiet Company pull off a secular miracle over the fifteen songs of We Are All Where We Belong. They lay the theme right out in the title, and it’s a rallying cry for those looking for unabashed joy in their time on Earth. The album’s leadoff song, “The Confessor,” finds Muse singing, “I wanted to feel as saved as they do, but the more I live…I don’t want to waste my life, thinking about the afterlife.” By the time the album’s title makes its debut in “Preaching to the Choir Invisible, Part I,” his decision to live life to its fullest and enjoy his worldly days is naked for all to see. “Love leads me on, lets me say what I think: That we all belong to the earth and the sea.  You say the truth sets us free?  Well, it calls to me and it offers no empty promises, because there’s probably nothing more than this: ‘Just today.’ So can you see that we are all where we belong?”

Quiet Company – “The Confessor”

Quiet Company – “Preaching to the Invisible Choir, Part I”

Quiet Company have been a band I have cherished since I fortuitously heard them upon my first days living in Austin back in 2009. I caught their video for “On Modern Men” playing on ME TV, an independent music and entertainment channel in Austin, while I was camped up in a cheap hotel room as I settled into the city. I saw the video (which features friends and fans of the band rallying together around the city in communal rejoice) several more times in the few days that followed, and I was hooked. I bought their newest album at the time (the band’s second), Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon, soon after for a local artist discounted price at Waterloo Records. I was fortunate enough to see a Quiet Company show a few weeks later at The Parish in Austin, and I witnessed them playing an incredible, energetic set to an audience of maybe 30-plus, most of which were unmistakably friends or family of the band.

Quiet Company – “On Modern Men”

I was back living in Indianapolis by the holidays of 2010, but Quiet Company had been in heavy rotation for me all along. Out of the myriad bands I fell in love with in the music haven of Austin, Quiet Company was one that hit me hardest and most deeply. They’re the sort of local underdogs you root for to get huge, but it rarely happens for any of them. Such is the reason I’ve been thrilled to see Quiet Company find such deserving acclaim in the past few years. Watching from afar to see a worthy band turning heads on the strength of superior musicianship while handling urgent, personal songs with such class has been a treat. Thinking back to that show at The Parish three years ago to seeing the wave of accolades the band has received in 2012, I can’t help but love what has transpired for Muse and company.

Quiet Company

With so much excitement happening for Quiet Company, I truly appreciated Taylor Muse taking a few moments this week to talk to me about everything. However, as will occasionally happen with matters you care about most, something intercedes to make the journey a bit more challenging. The example in this scenario was my discovery that the audio file of my discussion with Muse didn’t properly record. As is recommended in such circumstances, you make the best use of what you have to share it with others. For that reason, I have abandoned a typical interview transcription to present my interview with Muse. I have used judicious discretion to paraphrase Muse’s responses to my questions in offering a glimpse into the thoughts and aspirations of the frontman and songwriter for one of today’s most talented bands, who just so happen to be increasing their following while not cowering from delicate subject matter.

Just to be clear: I have zero intention of misrepresenting Taylor Muse or Quiet Company. Whenever I refer to him from here on, it is my personal memory of my conversation with Taylor this time last week. Specific words may have been forgotten or tweaked, but I’m sharing the truth of our conversation (even if it’s not verbatim), because the information and opinions shared are meaningful…even if the ideal of documentation is not readily available. 

In 2010, Quiet Company recorded a Christmas EP, titled A Merry Little Christmas EP, which the band marketed as “Christmas music for people who hate Christmas music.” As anyone who has listened to Quiet Company realizes, religion, and, more recently, the lack thereof, plays an essential role in the band’s music. Muse doesn’t shy away from his experience playing in Christian bands growing up, nor does he dodge questions about the culmination of his dissolution of faith. A Christmas EP still seemed like an obvious choice for a band who wrote songs steeped in faith and Christianity even back in 2010.

The songs on the band’s other 2010 EP release, titled Songs for Staying In, was rooted in Muse’s trusted blend of songs about faith crossed with songs about romantic love, if skewing towards the latter. There were songs with titles like “Hold My Head Above Water” and “The Biblical Sense of the Word,” but they were more about seeking love in another rather than any digging straight into any sort of religious rift. The EP’s final line found Muse singing, “We make our lives worth living when we love each other.” That’s the sort of line that goes hand-in-hand with Muse’s humanistic worldview encompassed by We Are All Where We Belong, but he hadn’t vocally seceded from his beliefs at that point in time. Now, that he has publicly documented his divorce from religion and belief in the afterlife, it seemed pertinent time to ask Muse why the band is making a new Christmas EP.

Quiet Company – “Hold My Head Above Water”

Quiet Company – “The Biblical Sense of the Word”

Taylor admitted Quiet Company is recording a new collection of Christmas songs. In fact, he had just finished talking with the band about details of the EP before he answered my call. He acknowledged how it may be disconcerting for people that Quiet Company is singing Christmas songs and hymns given the subject matter of We Are All Where We Belong, but lack of belief in things others find sacred doesn’t take away from the celebrations of the season.

The brand new EP, titled Winter Is Coming, contains a rerecorded and updated version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (which they previously released in 2007), two more traditional hymns that have been remixed and remastered (“Angels We Have Heard on High” and “O Holy Night”), as well as to new and previously unreleased versions of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Winter Is Coming EP & Holiday House Show Extravaganza Promo

Quiet Company strikes me as a band who are thoroughly invested in their fans and relationships. I addressed such allegiances by mentioning that the Christmas season can have plenty of worth for nonbelievers in the sense that it’s still a time for communal celebrations, which make up an essential part of a Quiet Company live show. Such joyous energy and such dedication to fans brought me to another timely holiday question for Muse. The band recently announced a string of six Holiday House Shows all over Texas. The tour will be crowd-funded with free entrance to any of the shows with the purchase of a Winter Is Coming EP. Additional perks are available for those who make donations to the band with rewards that include riding on the Quiet Company “Christmas Party Bus” to the Trail of Lights at Zilker Park in Austin, having the band sing carols at your house or work, and even having Quiet Company set up Christmas decorations and wrap your presents.

When I asked Taylor about the Holiday House Show Extravaganza, he mentioned how all members of the band had just quit their day jobs within recent weeks. This is a first for the guys of Quiet Company, and it’s the kind of privilege few bands have the opportunity to do. Taylor told me that Quiet Company playing the house shows was the band’s means of making this month’s money. It was a telling admission: just because the guys in Quiet Company aren’t toiling at other jobs during the day (or night) for the first time in their careers doesn’t mean they have any illusions about taking it easy. They have to find a way to pay bills and make a living just like every other band (most have families, and Taylor has a wife and young daughter), and they’re not opposed to finding creative ways to make such a living by playing their music.

Crowdsourcing and the Holiday House Show Extravaganza both fall in line with emerging trends for bands in today’s music industry. Quiet Company have a fan club, which I joined on Patronism on the morning of the interview, where the band offers a wealth of otherwise unreleased material for the modest pledge of a few dollars. I discussed both trends with Taylor by mentioning the band’s involvement with the site.

In late 2011, Quiet Company recorded a string of covers of some of their favorite songs, which were narrowed down by their fans’ requests. The band’s choices shine a light on the versatility and excellence of the music that they count as influences. Quiet Company’s six choices include covers of “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run” by Pedro the Lion, “In Between Days” by The Cure, “Holland 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel, “What the Water Gave Me” by Florence + the Machine, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” by Arcade Fire, and “She’s Not There” by The Zombies. That these are unreleased, professional-grade recordings offered to fans of the band is a generous gift for any listener; That Quiet Company knocks every take into straight into the upper deck makes procuring these recordings an absolute must for any fan of the band. The guys don’t just merely honor the originals; they bring their unique talents to beloved favorites, and the outcomes are flat-out stunning. For my money, Quiet Company’s takes on “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” and “She’s Not There” are two of the greatest covers in recent memory. If you’re a Quiet Company fan, all six covers are worth owning and cherishing.

Quiet Company – “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains” (Arcade Fire cover)

Quiet Company – “Holland 1945″ (Neutral Milk Hotel cover)

I mentioned the choice to cover “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run” (which was designated as a full band choice, while the others were selected by individual members) to Taylor, and I addressed the obvious parallel in Taylor’s battles with his faith to those of Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan. I’ve been fortunate to attend Bazan house show performances on two occasions (once in 2009 in Bloomington, IN and once this summer in Indianapolis at a friend’s house), and the effect of the intimacy of such performances is exhilarating.

Quiet Company – “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run” (Pedro the Lion cover)

Taylor told me Bazan is (unsurprisingly) one of his favorite artists, and he has caught Bazan by himself or as Pedro the Lion on seven or eight occasions. Taylor seemed overly enthusiastic at the prospect of seing Bazan playing Pedro the Lion’s Control in its entirety on his current tour, which landed in Austin on Friday night (four days after my interview with Taylor). Muse spoke of being eager to play the house shows, even while expressing his love for bigger rock shows. Finding the joys at hand within such different environments is a point of obvious pride for Taylor. In further discussion of Quiet Company’s covers, Taylor touched on the cover of “She’s Not There” and said he hoped the video for their cover would be available soon. He has never been quiet about the influence The Beatles have had upon his songwriting, but he took joy in pointing out that bands like The Zombies and The Kinks prove The Beatles and The Stones weren’t the only ones capable of writing great songs that had the power to stand the test of time. In wholehearted agreement, I spoke of one of my highlights of the year being the opportunity to see Ray Davies deliver an incredible live set in Indianapolis over the summer.

It strikes me that Taylor, like his aforementioned influences, is a rare songwriter in today’s scene who is able to write such meaningful verses and melodies with the power to outlast the trends of the moment – not that he only listens to critically acclaimed heavyweights like Jeff Mangum, Dave Bazan, and The Beatles. Taylor asked me if I listen to much Switchfoot. He proceeded to dispense his admiration for Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman’s songwriting, even though he admitted to categorically disagreeing with the guy’s philosophy on just about everything. Even though Switchfoot is a multi-million selling band unafraid to be a Christian rock band that has won sustained pop radio success and earned a Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” in 2011, Muse spoke generously of his love of Foreman’s songs.

That an admitted atheist and humanist willing to go on record to tell of his admiration of the songs of Switchfoot should tell you something about the kind of free-thinking man Taylor Muse is. What Taylor honed in on was how obvious it is that Foreman has put a hell of a lot of thought into everything he believes. Upon listening to a Quiet Company record, you become acutely aware Taylor Muse has invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, faith and heartache into thinking about his life, God, the afterlife, and his faith. That he chooses not to believe but can appreciate the work of someone else who invested comparable time and energy in his pursuit of faith speaks volumes about Muse. Taylor noted that Foreman is obviously not a man that was fed something at an early age and just went about his life blindly following a moral compass without investing thought into why he believes such a thing.

Shouldn’t have the knowledge that Muse investigated his faith for so long and came to conclusions that directly opposed so many believers signaled the demise of Quiet Company’s popularity with so much of the band’s original fan base?

Muse acknowledged the trepidation of running with the unifying theme of We Are All Where We Belong once it was obvious every song would be about his disbelief in God and the afterlife. So, why are so many vocal Christians as willing to support Quiet Company as secular nonbelievers and freethinkers? Taylor told me that the reception of the album has been overwhelmingly positive, even from Christians. Part of this may be due to We Are All Where We Belong being an album chronicling a breakup with religion without the breakup being a particularly callous or hateful divorce. There is anger on the album: “The Easy Confidence” finds Muse singing, “I want something better.  I want something real. And this is the part where my exit starts, because I caught a glimpse of the father’s heart. Do we want something we can’t have? So come on, friends, count up your sins: one for being human, two for being born like this. This isn’t love. We’re not in love,” before screaming, “If you wanted love, you just should’ve spoken up!” Of course there are moments in a breakup that are going to be painful and deserve righteous anger. Such a lyric brings that’s realization to life, but most of Muse’s scorned lover lyrics on We Are All Where We Belong take the form of aching disappointment rather than rage. Presumably, even believers have grappled with the disappointment of not seeing tangible proof. That’s essentially the basis of faith. Hearing an earnest man dealing with such heartfelt issues may hold as much water for the sacred as the secular.

Quiet Company – “The Easy Confidence”

Muse found a fork in the road after years of searching, and he followed his heart. On the album’s climax, “At Last! The Celestial Being Speaks,” Muse summons God looking down and saying, “I didn’t mean to be so abstract, so elusive, you see.  But I don’t see why you should believe that you needed me, because you all belong to the earth that I placed you on.” It’s my opinion that people have reacted so positively to We Are All Where We Belong (and Quiet Company’s previous, non-breakup-with-religion albums), because the band’s melodies crossed with Muse’s earnest (if philosophically challenging) lyrics give the gifts of transcendence and triumph. Muse runs with his imagination of God’s words by singing, “We all belong to the earth that we sprang up from. So lift up your heads, don’t worry about death, we’re all gonna be just fine.” It’s hard not to see how such a realization can be as triumphant for some as it would be trying for others. When it’s taken to heart, as it is when Muse sings it, the notion is a thing of beauty.

Quiet Company – “At Last! The Celestial Being Speaks”

In multiple instances on We Are All Where We Belong, Muse brings his young daughter into the conversation. On “Set Your Monster Free,” he sings, “Daughter, I once knew that everything that I believed was good, and fair, and true, and consistent with my needs.  But daughter, I am wrong almost as often as I’m right.  So daughter, just be strong enough to make up your own mind, because you don’t have to waste your time, holding on to beautiful lies.” I asked him about the role becoming a new father played in his decision to directly deal with the subject matter of We Are All Where We Belong at the time of the album’s recording.

Quiet Company – “Set Your Monster Free”

Muse told me his daughter is three years old, so she was at the forefront of his mind when writing the 2011 album. He addressed the contrarian nature of making such a change in his life without bringing it to light for his daughter in her formative years. Muse couldn’t break away from such “beautiful lies” if it meant she would be under the weight of those very lies for years to come. Again, Muse successfully makes this a love story on record instead of the hateful annulment it would be in less tender hands. Muse’s narrative is bitter in his dissolution with belief, but his heart is pure in his love for his baby girl. On “The Black Sheep & The Shepherd,” he sings, “Hey god! Now I’ve got a baby girl.  What am I supposed to tell her about you?  Because her life shouldn’t have to be like mine.  She shouldn’t have to waste her time on waiting on you, because you never do come through.”

Quiet Company – “The Black Sheep & The Shepherd”

If you’re still getting acquainted with Quiet Company and are curious as to why a band writing songs about religion, God, lack of faith, prodigal sons, and walking on water is getting profiled here, consider this: Quiet Company swept the 2012 Austin Music Awards back in March. The band took home the most wins for an artist in a single year in the history of the awards. Among their wins, Quiet Company was honored as “Band of the Year,” “Best Indie Band,” and “Best Rock Band,” while We Are All Where We Belong was honored as “Album of the Year,” “You, Me & The Boatman” earned “Song of the Year,” Jeff Weathers earned “Best Drums,” Matt Parmenter won “Best Producer” for the album, and Taylor Muse was hailed as “Best Male Vocals” and “Best Songwriter.”

I asked Muse of the mountain of accolades bestowed upon Quiet Company at the Austin Music Awards and how much of a confidence-booster it must be as a songwriter and as band to be so highly regarded in a city as regarded for its music scene as Austin is. Taylor told me of the surreal nature of sweeping the awards, but he also noted how – like most award ceremonies – it can get to be a bit of a popularity contest. He made it a point to say that such acclaim does carry more weight in a city as musically gifted and diverse as Austin, Texas. Wins like “Album of the Year” and “Band of the Year” carried great magnitude for Quiet Company, but Muse was quick to humbly point out that he is nowhere near the best male vocalist in Austin. Winning that award, in particular, gave him the motivation to focus even harder on his voice, so he has taken it upon himself to take vocal lessons now that the band has quit their jobs and committed to their music as their sole incomes. One Austin Music Award that does carry significant weight for Muse and he feels was earned is the honor of “Songwriter of the Year.” I mentioned to Muse that I was hard-pressed to think of another current songwriter or band addressing the weighty issues he does in his songs, especially with such heart and grace, and he laughed and said he hoped not. He pointed out that an abundance of bands playing music like Quiet Company and writing songs like his would oversaturate the market and get stale in a hurry.

Taylor Muse and Quiet Company

As for what’s ahead for Quiet Company, the future is both bright and daunting. Once again, they have been invited to play South by Southwest this spring in their hometown of Austin, and Muse is eager for the opportunity. This time around could get to be a bit disorienting though; they may not yet be heavy favorites, but Quiet Company don’t necessarily seem like the unheralded underdogs they were when I caught them at The Parish in 2009. Muse also says this is the first time he has been uncertain how the material will take shape going into an album’s recording. He can’t say for sure whether he exhausted the rich material he mined on We Are All Where We Belong, and he’s not even willing to guess what the compositions may sound like.

For the time being, Quiet Company are a secular band of hungry, deeply likeable guys going house-to-house and town-to-town singing Christmas songs and trying to make a living. They will rerelease their debut album, their distinctly Christian-leaning Shine Honesty from 2006, in the coming months (Muse joked about the possibility of such a move further confusing Quiet Company’s fan base), and they’ll set their sights on recording a highly anticipated We Are All Where We Belong follow-up. SXSW could find Quiet Company making a major statement on a grand scale, but Muse and his bandmates seem thrilled enough to be playing their songs with choruses about not worrying about death and being where they belong without tormenting themselves while deferring to the afterlife or grueling away at their day jobs.

We Are All Where We Belong is out now on Quiet Company’s own, independent Quiet Company label. Find all of their music at quietcompany.bandcamp.com or quietcompanymusic.com.

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