The past year has turned local multi-instrumentalist and visual artist Kevin Comarda’s longtime themes of anxiety and dissonance into something more universal than ever. These feelings form the foundation for ERIT LUX, the latest album from his project The Self-Help Tapes. “I used to live with fire ‘til somebody put me out,” sings Comarda on the closing track “Never Wrong.” Those final lines succinctly summarize the album’s emotive state. Still, ERIT LUX isn’t all downer vibes. The title translates to “There will be light,” a hopeful message of new beginnings after over a year of collective pandemic angst and isolation. This forward-looking message also applies to Comarda’s own work as The Self-Help Tapes. For over a decade, he has led multiple incarnations of the project through a mixture of solo soundscape instrumentals and full-band renditions of his sorrowful rock tunes. Now, he has found new ground in a creative partnership with drummer Rob Landry, a fellow veteran of the local underground rock scene (All People, BAD OPERATION). Comarda sat down to speak with us from a room plastered with numerous pieces of his signature collage art, a style born out of his own frustrations with an inflexible education system. He opened up about navigating the art world, pushing his boundaries to find his voice, and the broken bones (literally in one case, due to a work-related accident) behind making his latest album.
How has it been trying to navigate the art world through the past year?
Very difficult! [laughs] My main source [of income] was Jackson Square. That’s a public square. Immediately, we knew we were not coming back for a while. As soon as I saw things like South by Southwest getting canceled, that was huge. I was like, “Oh shit. Now what?” With all that taken away—no pop-ups, no markets, no Square, or public anything—it’s been real hard. I’ve been able to do some things online and it’s kind of worked. I still created throughout the whole year, so I have a bunch of stuff just stacked up in the studio, which I guess is a good problem because now I just have a bunch of inventory. It kept my head busy through the whole thing.
You have a really particular art style. I suppose you’d call it collage work. How did you land on that style?
It’s mixed media, but it’s mostly paper collage. I’ve always wanted to be an illustrator or painter but… I’m colorblind and so, when I went to school, that was a huge roadblock for me, and I didn’t necessarily have some of the best teachers at first. When I first attempted to go to school to do art and illustration, one of my teachers in particular just didn’t really want to deal with it. I feel like he was older and he was almost done. He was just like, “Whatever… I don’t know what to tell you about this.” And that was a huge disappointment so I was like, “Well, I guess this isn’t for me,” all that shit like paint and mixing and matching color. I stopped going to school after that semester and was like, “Maybe I need to redirect or pivot or something.” I reached back to when I was a kid and my sister and I would get my parents’ old magazines and cut them up into collage shit. I thought maybe I could do something like that. It’s still creative. It’s still artistic. It’s still storytelling. I really gravitated towards it for some of that. I also had all these old ‘50s and ‘60s magazines and wanted to do something to recycle those types of things. It’s tough taking those and chucking them in the garbage or the recycling, so I was like, “How can I make this something?” I lived by myself for a long time, so I would just do all the wallpaper, all collage in this house that I rented. That’s kind of how I started doing it and then I honed it in on some characters. I’ve hopefully created this little world of characters and this other universe. People seem to like them. I think they’re fun.
You do both music and visual art. Do you feel like they try to reflect the same things or are they different?
They are two sides of the same coin for sure. They’re definitely trying to echo some similar ideas. The image for the album cover just fit so perfectly. That’s just one that I made. It’s hanging in my studio. I don’t think I’ve ever put it in a show or shared it. It was sitting there in front of me and I was like, “Wow. This is just perfect.” It had all the same things and it would reinforce the idea that these are parallel universes, the songwriting and the visual. I’m doing something right, I think. [laughs]
In my opinion, the songs on ERIT LUX reflect a certain exhaustion with the world. Do you feel like that outlook was shaped by the pandemic?
No. I’ll say the pandemic certainly brought attention to all of that stuff, but these songs were written years ago. I’ve been trying to get this made for years. It’s crazy that it got made that year of all the years. I was finally like, “We’re making this and we’re gonna do it while the universe is kind of busy. We’re gonna sneak it in.” The first time I tried to make it, I had a studio engineer agree to do it and we recorded three songs, very different versions from what we’re hearing now on the album. [Those were] way more electro, synthy sort of programmed beats stuff. That exists. We just haven’t done anything with it yet. Life happens. That sort of dissolved and we were like, “OK. We need to regroup.” I tried to get a few different people to play with me, but it’s just schedules, life, people getting married, having kids, and stuff like that, so those times become a little more scarce. Then enter Rob [Landry]. He called me and said, “Let’s make this record!” He had heard versions of some of the songs. We got together and played them, practiced them, just me and him one-on-one, knowing that we would have another guitar player and bass player eventually. Good on him for seeing all of that vision without all of that—“Just trust me! Once it’s all filled in, it will be going great!” He really gave it the go. And then we go to make the record and I break my leg.
When did you make the record?
During the pandemic… It was in the fall like August, September. Even then, we were getting those crazy hurricanes, just pummeled with major storms every week and it was right through that recording. I can’t believe [it]. We had to keep postponing and keep postponing. I wasn’t sure this was going to happen until it was in my hands. Once I broke my leg, I was like, “That’s it. I don’t know if I can come back.” That was very disheartening. It took a lot of wind out of the sails. Rob insisted we keep it going. We booked to record and that’s when the pandemic happened so we had to cancel it again. That was about a year ago, so we waited it out until about that August when we felt like we could get a few people in the room and do it safely… Brian Pretus recorded it and we’re all really happy with it. It was not the way we intended it to happen (because we intended it to happen years ago), but we got it together and I’m so glad it came together the way it did. These songs were written a few years ago and they just kept becoming more and more relevant. After I broke my leg, I revisited these songs, played them again, and thought, Wow! These really take on a new meaning. After the pandemic, I was like, “Holy shit! Now it feels universal.” All those same things that I’ve been sort of mulling over for the past few years felt like Boom! Now it’s really out there! While it does speak a lot to isolation and exhaustion of the pandemic, I was originally just speaking to the underpinnings of life in general. We all feel that to some degree. The pandemic just amplified it a lot for everyone.
I noticed “These Bitter Bones” shares its name with an album you did eight years ago. Does that song date back to that era?
It does. There’s a version of that song on that record and it’s an acoustic version. I always had this bigger version in my head. We just didn’t do it back then for whatever reason. I think we tried to get it together and nobody was interested or whatever. I was just like, “Fuck it. I’ll do it acoustic.” Now, we finally got this opportunity to do it the way I’ve always wanted it. I’m speaking of a whole mood and aesthetic back then but, when I broke my leg, I was like, “This song makes more sense now more than ever. It has to go on the record so we’re going to do it full-on like we always intended to.” Luckily, it came out really well. Craig Oubre from HiGH played on that song and he killed it.
What a ripper.
Total shredder. He had no idea what he was going to do for it. I had full confidence in him [and directed him,] “Do whatever you’re feeling. I’m sure it’s going to be good.” And sure enough!
The album is split into three acts. Do you consider it to be a concept album?
Yes and no. I’m sort of reluctant to say that or call it that. It puts it in this other category. It also gets really stigmatized if you call it that, which is bizarre to me. People love to label and hate things. [laughs] I do feel that it plays in three acts. It didn’t really start out that way. I didn’t start out and say, “OK, I’m going to write this thing this way.” These songs have been following me around as this bubble of songs for three years. Some date back even further. I couldn’t write another song and fit it in that bubble. In that sense, they do all go together and create a mood. Those little interludes and instrumentals, I wrote those on the spot in the studio just to break up the album in that way and give it some more symmetry, round it out a lot more. It’s sort of a callback to what I was originally doing when I started the project. I do feel like it breaks it into a few palate cleansers, but not necessarily a whole concept album.
This isn’t your 2112.
No! But I could not take one of those songs out of that bubble or insert another one in. I keep calling it a rock opera as a joke, just to avoid the concept album stigma.
I love that you say a concept album is stigmatized and then call it a rock opera. I feel like that’s more stigmatized.
I overcorrect because that sounds so ridiculous. That’s when people go, “Wait. Is it a rock opera?” They might think it’s a little more interesting or something.
It’s a rock opera but it’s really only two guys and an extra guitar player on a few tracks. [laughs]
That’s what’s so funny about it. A rock opera is supposed to be Pet Sounds or something like Rock of Ages but it’s just this scrappy rock record, which I love.
I love how you credit yourself on this album. You play various instruments, but you also credit yourself with dissonance and anxiety.
I’m so glad that people are recognizing that. Nick Pope, who mixed the album, messaged me randomly one day as he was looking over the liner notes. He was like, “That’s so awesome. That’s so perfect.” I think I had done that before on a previous album. It’s just true. [laughs] I keep telling people anxiety is my muse and I keep writing her soundtrack. Dissonance is in there for sure. Anxiety is all over it. I’ve got to credit it somewhere. I’ll take the hit.
You did a sister album of soundscape pieces that is almost as long as the main album. What inspired a second, semi-secret album?
During these past years, while we were trying to get the album made, I had been writing other instrumental and ambient soundscapey things. I had done a little soundtrack project… Some of that stuff is on this secret double album. Like I said, it was hard for me to write things and insert them into the rock opera bubble so I just started to make another bubble. Just because we had all this time, we really had almost three albums to release by the time it was time to release. I talked to Pat [Bailey] at Strange Daisy and he said let’s do just a cassette of it and we’ll eventually release it digitally. I thought that was a really cool idea. It’s kind of an album unto itself. It just kind of got lost in the shuffle. Those exist as their own bubble. I really love that stuff and it’s sort of a callback to what I originally started doing as this project: the kind of loopy, soundtracky stuff. I just wanted the whole project to be able to adapt to many different spaces and venues. I can do a house show and play these ambient things and loopy things. I can also do the full band, which we’re putting together right now, and play at Broadside or Tips or whatever venues are going to be doing full band shows. I love that soundscapey stuff. It’s so relaxing… Going back to plays in three acts, I consider that to be sort of the fourth act—like the credits. It’s definitely the comedown.
You’ve been doing The Self-Help Tapes for over a decade. When did you start this project and what did you see the vision of this project as at that time?
I’m going to guess 2008. Then I probably put out the first album in ‘09. I had been in bands and I just wanted to do a solo thing. I was getting frustrated with some of the band stuff and wanted to do my own thing, but really just see if I could do my own thing. Is that possible? Can I play shows? I really just wanted to start out as loops, some songwriting, some storytelling and things, just to see if I could do it. Could I pull it off playing a show? And I did! But the intention was to always grow it. The next thing was supposed to be a little bigger, so it was supposed to get to where we are right now. I’ve been able to accomplish a lot of that. It’s taken a little longer with broken legs, storms, and pandemics, but we’re here now. Luckily, Rob was there to help me with this next step. I almost said final step and I’m not going to say that because I’m already thinking about the next record.
You’re still a growing boy.
Yes. I like it. Change it up again. Some of my favorite musicians and artists growing up always did that. They changed it up a little bit every album and that’s what made me love them. I love PJ Harvey. Every record was different and challenged me. I didn’t like every record when I first heard it, but I’d listen to it again and be like, “I get it! You’re sly!” I love Radiohead reinventing every time. They create arguments among their own fans because they change it up so much. That’s what I love, watching people discuss albums within one band and why they’re so passionate about one and maybe not so much another. Something about that is energetic to me.
You talked a bit about how you used to play in other bands. What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from playing in other people’s groups before getting to do your own thing with this?
There’s been a few different dynamics, such as participating songwriter; and I’ve been in other bands where they were the songwriter and I played whatever they wanted me to play, mostly when I would play bass, which is fine. For example, Testaverde. Some people want one dynamic or the other. I know what I’m getting into. Testaverde was a band before I joined them and they had songs so I was like, “Yeah. Show me the songs. I’ll play them. Show me what you want me to play. No big deal.” But I also did groups where you’re creating a band with people and it’s sort of understood [to be] shared songwriting. That’s fun and you can get amazing results, but it also can be testy, especially when you get to recording and things like that. What did I learn? I think I learned compromise. I know it’s an old cliché, but it’s like being in a marriage or relationship of some kind. There’s compromises and peaks and pitfalls and all that shit and messiness… With other bands, there became trust issues. Showing up to shows prepared, stuff like that, was not some people’s forte. That kind of shit would really irritate me. I’m working hard and putting my name on this. I would hope that they would do the same. Sometimes, it didn’t happen. Without sounding like a control freak, I did want more control. I had to start my own project to do that. I wasn’t going to go to one of the other projects and be like, “Now I’m running this!” I reached out to some of the people I was playing in bands with at the time and said, “I’m starting this other band and you are welcome to play in that band, but this is the framework of it.”
You’re definitely a veteran of the local underground scene. When did you start playing in bands?
I was probably 15 or 16, which is insane when I think about that now. I played bass in a friend’s garage rock band. My buddy across the street played drums, and our other buddy played guitar. We were a three piece for most of the time. Vertical Snowmen played songs like any kids getting instruments do, writing some songs. Luckily, our guitar player wrote songs already so he was kind of doing some things. We just had to keep up. We saved up some money to record a demo. At 16 years-old or maybe 17, I had a little cassette demo tape. It felt really cool. People wanted to listen, which was a cool feeling at that time. From there, it was just in my blood. [laughs] It’s in my blood! My family has a lot of musicians and songwriters. But, after that, I felt like I got the taste. I was like, “OK! I can reach people this way.” Then it became about connection. That was my main aesthetic or goal.
What type of music do other members of your family play?
I have some aunts, uncles, cousins, that live most of their life up on the Northeast Coast in the Connecticut area. They’re very folky. They’ve been playing folk music forever, traditionals. Every time we have a family reunion, they definitely bring their guitars and one of my cousins plays banjo. They just go through the playlist and we know the list. It’s old traditionals. It’s like a campfire jam. They’ve been doing that for a long time. My aunt and uncle were playing folk songs on the commune back in the day and just sort of passed it down to their kids, who now play guitar, banjo, piano, and violin. They’re super talented. I always felt like I was missing out on something at these gatherings because they were like, “You’re a musician. Why don’t you play something?” At the time, I was a bass player going, “Uhhh. I don’t have a bass.” When I got into more synthy and loopy stuff, I got a Moog and some loop shit. The next reunion, they’re doing their thing and they’re like, “You’re a musician, right? Why don’t you play something?” I’m like, “I don’t have all the dumb gear shit” and they’re like, “Are you a musician?”
You need some knobs to twist. [laughs]
Exactly! Can we plug anything in out here? Then it became “Are you a musician? What are you?” So then I was determined to focus more on my songwriting than just parts writing and soundscaping. I started to pivot there because I wanted that connection. Fast forward a few years later and I was able to bring a guitar to one of the gatherings and played. It was really awesome. It was a really cool moment that was long overdue.
Did you play in legendary local ska band the Supaflies?
I did. Yes. It was right on the tail end of it, after the Rambarded CD. They were looking to shift up the lineup a little bit. Travis [Thompson] played bass and, when we made the transition, he moved from bass to guitar. Their other guitar player was out at that point and I played bass. Travis was like, “I want to play guitar. Do you want to play bass?” I was like, “Hell yeah!” We played a bunch of shows. I went on some tours with them and had to do that on the fly. Tours were booked and shows were booked and then this transition happened. I had maybe two weeks to learn a bunch of songs and practice with them and then we were out. We were gone! We were doing that and recorded some things, but the things we were writing at that point just felt different. We ran into this problem of “Is this this or are we calling it something else now?” That’s when we agreed maybe we’re calling it something else and pivoting hard on what we’re writing—less scrappy, punky ska stuff and I don’t even know what we pivoted to. I’m not even going to attempt to call it something because I don’t know if I’ve heard it in a long time. That was when we shifted and called it Community. We recorded a couple of albums as Community.
Was it still a ska band when you joined?
Kind of. They were shifting out of that realm a little bit which was a little more attractive to me. I saw them taking that cue and shifting so, when they asked me, I wanted to catch it on the uptick for something else. Not that I had anything against it. I played in ska bands or punk bands or whatever. I was just looking for something else at the time and they were too. We were just on the same page. We were all hanging out through all that stuff. I was in the Vendors. They were in the Supaflies. We were all hanging out and having cookouts and barbeques and shit, so we were all on the same page and turning each other onto a new variety of things.
How do you feel that New Orleans has shaped you as a musician and as an artist?
I think there are certain freedoms here that we take for granted as musicians and artists. That’s built in to me without even knowing it, until you go somewhere else and go, “OK. We are special over here.” I would say less of the heavy-handed New Orleans caricature shit. I’m obviously not in a brass band or whatever, which is fine. It’s all relevant and necessary. It’s just that that was never my thing. I enjoy it, but the people I grew up around, we went to the Faubourg Center and played scrappy rock shows, shit like that. All of that is very New Orleans… That aspect of New Orleans influenced me a lot: rock‘n’roll, underground and DIY, Bryan Funck. I’m always playing his shows. He was always finding a new scrappy venue when we were coming up and I was always more than happy to play.
A new hole in the wall to overheat yourself in.
Totally! The A.R.K.! All those scrappy spots. Just being able to go downtown in New Orleans and walk around. It’s very different now, but when we were very young, we would walk around the Faubourg Center, Decatur Street, Frenchmen Street, and kind of run in the streets a little bit, like, “Yeah! We’re on top of the world!” I wouldn’t even think of doing that now. [laughs] I think a lot of the freedoms that we have as artists, like me being able to work Jackson Square, is huge and very freeing. I don’t have a boss. I get to make my own hours, my own rules. That’s not a freedom you get everywhere, to be as weird as you want on your own terms and have people pay attention.
The Self-Help Tapes’ new album ERIT LUX is out now on Strange Daisy Records. For more information, check out theselfhelptapes.bandcamp.com.
Top photo by Adrienne Battistellla