The Stranger once said he was “blessing Seattle with his presence before catapulting to mega-fame.” Seattle Sound Magazine declared him “possibly Seattle’s least apathetic songwriter.” Despite these and other accolades, Aaron Semer’s obscurity felt cemented. Perhaps it was an unwillingness to play the game. Perhaps just dumb luck. But since arriving in Seattle almost two decades ago, Semer has plied his lonely craft in the dirty backrooms, dingy bars, and basements of the Pacific Northwest, both solo and in a host of bands you’ve probably never heard of. His voice and worldview have weathered – fractured in some places, hardened in others – but the timeless, genre-defying quality of his songwriting remains.
Aaron Semer was raised in a farm town called Fremont in rural Ohio. He spent as much time running amok on small town streets as he did on his German Lutheran Grandparents’ farm, a beautiful plot of land complete with an apple orchard, woods, and a crooked old cemetery bearing the family name. In this world, Semer encountered hymns, old timey songs, Hee-haw country, blues, 60s rock, 80s glam, and eventually 90s underground music and punk. About a mile down the road from the farm, Semer fell-in with a group of slightly older Hesher musicians who had built a stage in an old barn and threw parties that threatened to bring the whole structure down. These formative experiences forever fortified his love of the rural Midwest but also made him long for more.
After two years of college in the mid-90s, Aaron dropped out, moved into a van with a friend, and set about chasing Kerouac fantasies. This eventually led to him falling in love with the Pacific Northwest and moving to Seattle, where he’s since worked with homeless populations, runaway teens, and arts nonprofits, all while playing, recording, and producing music. It’s here that his style began to take form. The songs you grew up with on the radio. The dusty back roads. The grimy alleys. Hobos. Hipsters. Intellectuals. Farmers. Your mulleted cousin. These characters, melodies, and stories effortlessly infuse themselves into Semer’s songs. It’s America itself, in all its glory and horror. Or as The Stranger put it, “A listener feels as if these songs have always been there, waiting for someone to discover them.”
On his new album, “Love Amidst Collapse,” Semer strips his music down to the bare essentials – acoustic guitars, voice, some basic percussion, and a few shredding solos for good measure. This is a concept album loosely based around the collapse of society as we know it, and how we would go about moving forward after the fall. On a personal basis, it is a reset button – an attempt for Semer to get back to basics as a songwriter, and to address his own fears about the decline and possible collapse of America. “Songs are stories, stories are life,” he says. “When you give up on the failing stories you have been telling yourselves as a society, what replaces them?”
Hopefully, songs like these.
(Aaron Semer also plays bass and sings backup in country/rock/soul band Coyote, and plays guitar in post-hardcore/punk band Marmot vs. Mammoth.)
Artist’s Statement for “Love Amidst Collapse”
A campfire at the end of the world.
I kept that image in my head while conceptualizing and making this album: Society as we know it has utterly collapsed, and a few buddies and me are sitting around a campfire under the stars surrounded by the rubble of what was. We are tranced-out, playing some heavy tunes. It is cathartic. Beautiful. Necessary. We are creating the stories and music that will be handed down to whomever, whatever, comes next. Shakers, handclaps, tambourines, acoustic guitars, and voices cry out to the deadened world around us. Also, there is this one guy who has rigged up a car battery to an old guitar amp, and he shreds a mean solo every once in awhile.
I thought about this both literally and figuratively. In a roundabout way, the constant interconnectivity and unlimited access of our time has driven us back to the days before recorded music, when anyone who wanted to could simply go out and write a song, with virtually no barrier to entry and little concern for marketability. Now, rather than sitting around the campfire listening to Peepaw pluck his banjo, we’ve made our own little virtual campfires. If everything is a niche market, and no artist can be universally popular any more, is that really a bad thing? Everyone is invited to create and participate, and that’s what art and music should be. Art is for all of us. By tying art to commerce, we had lost much of that spirit. But this is all the result of modern technology, and that could go away in a flash…
The songs and concepts on this album were heavily influenced by the Dark Mountain Project’s manifesto, Uncivilization. Uncivilization proposes that the way of life we all know is dying, soon to be history, and that we should embrace the collapse rather than attempt to save what will inevitably fail. The overwhelming and multiple crises of our day are not a set of “problems” that can be “solved.” Uncivilization is against the myth of progress and the myth of human centrality, and proposes we create new art and storytelling rooted in the elemental rather than in theory and ideology. The primary question being, when you give up on the failing stories you have been telling yourselves as a society, what replaces them?
Now that’s some heavy shit. I don’t know that I fully buy into the Dark Mountain manifesto, but I will say that nothing I’ve read in recent memory has gotten my attention quite like Uncivilization. I see evidence of what it is saying all around me, every day. I will also say that as a concept on which to base my album, it is wonderful. A lot of similar ideas had been swimming around in my head and in my songs for years, and this provided the missing framework I needed. In my song The End of the World Dance, I sing, “We’ve got to learn how to find love amidst collapse.” Regardless of what our future truly holds, I am confident that is the only thing that matters.
This album is dedicated to the First People.
– Aaron Semer, 2015