The Agony of Love and the Album Title

The phrase “…and surrender my body to the flames” is Biblical, and I can’t say why it’s always stuck with me, but it has.  If you’ve been to a wedding, you’ve probably heard the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 that goes like this:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

That’s very pretty and poetic and you don’t have to really believe anything in particular to get behind the sentiment, hence its popularity at weddings of all stripes.  But the phrase that appears immediately before that one in the Bible is:

“If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

That’s the image that always stuck with me, more than the rest.  For me, that speaks to the idea that a “sacrifice” isn’t really a sacrifice if nothing is at stake.  That’s the thing about love that people leave out on wedding days — to love someone else requires sacrifice.  It isn’t all roses and good feelings and sex.  That kid in Love Actually had it about right when he said what could be “worse than the total agony of being in love?”

But we do make the sacrifices because, paradoxically, by giving ourselves up we gain something unfathomable.  I felt that sentiment captured a lot of what was going on through the ten songs on this album.  Lovestruck, for instance, takes three snapshots of people in love, and in all three of them, the people are hurting despite having love.  But I think despite the pain, their lives are the more beautiful for having that love in them.

On the other hand, the lovers in In the Dark Together don’t necessarily know where they’re going, but they know they’re going there together.  And at times, that’s really enough.

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Babies and Inspiration

After my daughter was born, I got it in my head that I would die before she got old enough to remember me.  I think this is a common-enough fear for parents.  But what stuck with me was the thought that she might not remember my voice.

As an infant, and with her older brother before her, I sang her to sleep at night.  There is something so fundamentally human about holding a child and singing it to sleep, and I thought that if there is any subconscious residue of our earliest lives, it must be bound up with the feeling of being held and sung to.  I wanted, no matter what might happen to me, for my children to always have access to that.

Normal people, when taken with the same idea, might simply record themselves telling their children that they love them or some such thing, but what I did was I made this album.

I started playing drums in 1993 and played in metal bands until about 2001.  I started moving around a lot then, from Austin to Houston to Los Angeles, and since I didn’t always have access to drums, I began playing guitar and messing around with electronic music, some of which I used to score films and recorded under the name Mission 13.  In playing more guitar, I started writing songs, and kept it up, especially when life got the most difficult.  When I write a song in darkness, it’s easier for me to embrace that and look ahead to a time when things will be better.  It forces me to imagine, and when left alone with my imagination, I think optimistic things are better company than the opposite.

So when I became taken with this notion of my pending mortality, I started culling through these songs, and tried to find the album that best told the story I wanted to tell my children, if it wound up being, God forbid, the only thing I got to tell them that they remembered.  The songs that found their way onto the record, then, revolve around this notion of darkness and light, and how in the darkness, we can also find ways to see light if we’re willing to look.  I don’t mean that in a hokey, silver-lining way, because it’s hard freaking work to imagine a time when everything will not be as unbearable as it might be now.  And it takes a lot of courage to stand on the threshold of something that could end in either tremendous success or calamitous failure, take a deep breath, and walk forward.

I think that’s what I wanted my children to know.  I think it’s what the album says.

About the Name – Sci-Fi Romance

When I decided that I was going to make this album and release it, I had to decide if I wanted to release it under my own name, or come up with a “band” name…even though it’s just me.  My last name, Kotrla, is Czech, and therefore lacks what most people would consider the actual vowels necessary to pronounce it correctly.  It is pronouced “Ka-troll-ah,” which isn’t so hard to say, but the pronunciation doesn’t immediately leap out at you.  My first name has been confused with Lance, Chance, Jance (really? Jance?), and, surprisingly, Matt.

A lifetime of this prompted me to go with a band name.  I also like that it leaves the door open for Sci-Fi Romance to not be just me one of these days (yes, I’m accepting applications…).  There’s certainly a precedent in the genre: Iron & Wine (Sam Beam), Bon Iver (Justin Vernon), and I guess even Five for Fighting (John Ondrasik).  I worry that it sounds pretentious, but at least people can pronounce it.

But why Sci-Fi Romance for acoustic guitar-based folk music?  When I was trying to decide on a name, I read a best-movies-of-the-decade list that referred to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a sci-fi romance.  I love the movie, and the phrase made sense.  I’d written a song based on one of the hallmarks of classic science fiction (“Gulliver Foyle,” named after the main character in Alfred Bester’s Stars My Destination), another about Mary Shelley’s much-harassed Doctor Victor Frankenstein, and I wove Surrealist imagery or phrases into the lyrics of several other songs.  I read the phrase, and it made sense as a name.

You should see my list of band names (which I still have somewhere) — it’s maybe a dozen and a half names that aren’t quite right, and then the last one is “Sci-Fi Romance.”  I wrote it down and immediately knew it would stick. No need to keep brainstorming further.

I didn’t know what to even call this music.  I picked up guitar gradually after playing extreme metal drums for years, and I know that certain aspects of my earlier musical journeys crept into the SFR songs, so to my ears it never felt like straightforward folk music.  I guess both my inclination and musical agnosticism have been validated, since the word that surfaces most often to describe the music is “steamfolk,” riffing on the sci-fi subgenre of steampunk.

I love this.  Steamfolk for life.

PS. A metal friend of mine described it half-jokingly as “folk-core,” which is also great, and I hope will land me a spot opening for the Dillinger Escape Plan.